Ask McGehee

Has Mobile ever suffered a disaster similar to the recent multi-acre fire in Theodore?

Scorched trees and chimneys were all that remained following the 1919 blaze in Mobile. Photo courtesy the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Mobile has had some memorable fires over the course of its existence. In 1839, two different arson-related blazes did immense damage Downtown, and in the 1880s, a fire devastated many of the offices and warehouses along the riverfront.

But in the early 20th century, weather conditions were nearly identical to that which caused the recent damage in the southern portion of the county. On May 21, 1919, a trash pile behind a neighborhood market caught fire, and a brisk wind turned it into the worst inferno of the century for Mobile. Whether the fire was set intention- ally or started by the careless toss of a cigarette has gone unrecorded.

The small market stood at the intersection of South Hamilton and Madison streets, four blocks south of Government Street, and was owned by Horace T. Cunningham. The homes in the vicinity of Cunning- ham’s store were occupied by working-class Mobilians and were relatively modest. The city directory identifies his neighbors as having occupations ranging from a plumber to a laborer to a stone cutter.

A Wall of Fire

The fire started on a Wednesday afternoon, a little after 3:30 p.m. Winds were brisk, and the fire increased as the fire department arrived. Water pressure in the southern part of the city was weak, and the firemen quickly realized the fire was growing at a very fast pace. What was described as a wall of fire devoured block after block as residents ran out with just the clothes on their backs.

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The fire swiftly moved toward Canal Street and then on to Claiborne, where flying embers spread it toward the riverfront.

In a little over two hours, several thousand volunteers were on the fire-fighting line. When the fire reached Royal Street, Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Co. sent their full force of 1,000 men to help. Their actions prevented the fire from reaching the riverfront, which was lined with docks, warehouses and oil plants.

Miraculously, as the sun began to set, the wind died and the raging fire burned itself out as it came to open land. Although the blaze had wiped out 40 blocks of one of Mobile’s most populous districts, there was not a single death.

Mobilians to the Rescue

Nearly 1,500 people were left homeless, and several square miles of Mobile had been turned into a wasteland marked only by a forest of brick chimneys. The local Red Cross opened the German Relief Hall and

the City Armory on Church Street to house the homeless. Members of the Knights of Columbus and numerous fraternal organi- zations also worked quickly to arrange clothing and meals. Countless Mobilians generously opened their homes to the victims as well. Insurance executives later estimated the losses at $500,000, or about $7.5 million in 2020.

Cunningham, whose trash pile began the whole thing, started over again. The 1922 city directory lists him as running another grocery store at 210 Selma Street.

The burned-out blocks were rebuilt relatively quickly, but by the 1960s, the bulldozers of urban renewal, rather than a fire, destroyed much of this area. Today, the site where that fire began is somewhere under the asphalt behind the Civic Center while much of the remainder is under the concrete and relentless traffic of Interstate 10.

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