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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Disasters: Fires, Floods & Twisters

SOURCE: Disaster: Fires, Floods, and Twisters Have Taken Their Toll by Kaffie Sledge. Special Sesquicentennial Supplement, Ledger-Enquirer, April 16, 1978.


Columbus has experienced its share of disasters in its 150-year existence - some were natural, others caused by man.

The first in a series of river misfortunes involved the steamer Van Buren (built 1833). In December (of 1834), the steamer which was going south inexplicably exploded and burst into flames. All the passengers safely reached the shore, but the boat and its cargo sank to the bottom of the Chattahoochee River. The total loss was said to be $45,000.

The George W. Wylly sank, killing 18 persons, in 1884 when it struck the pier at Fort Gaines, Georgia. Also, that year the plush Rebecca Everingham, a 290-tonner, owned by the president of the Central Railroad of Georgia, caught fire in the early morning hours and sank, killing eight persons.

It was early on October 30, 1895, when a fire started in the kitchen of a home in the 1100 block of Fifth Avenue. In a matter of a few hours, almost 20 other homes were ablaze - destroying most of them. No one was killed but the damage was estimated to be $45,000.

Seventeen years later, another kitchen fire was the beginning of a major disaster. On April 25, 1912, at 1112 Fifth Avenue, the J. R. Page's cook was preparing dinner when a fire started. Mrs. Page called her husband, who called the fire department from his office. A general alarm was sounded, and all the city's firefighting equipment was rushed to the scene.

Perhaps the delay in calling the fire department gave the blaze a head start, but by the time the fire truck reached Fifth Avenue, the Page house was engulfed in flames and the adjoining properties were in danger. The wind and inadequate water pressure prevented the firemen from overtaking the flames. The flames continued, eventually reaching the three-story brick home of Rhodes Brown. Fortunately, some of the neighbors had carried many of the valuables out before the flames reached the house.

The next morning 42 of the city's finest homes had been reduced to piles of ashes and debris. There were no deaths and only a few firemen were injured - but the loss in houses alone was said to be about $200,000.

Only the "cotton compress" fires of 1920 and 1933 equaled those losses. Fire chief T.C. Turner called both flames infernos and he said they could have been started by a coal-burning steam engine.

On May 25, 1957, the 1200 block of Broadway and First Avenue was endangered by a blaze that started in the United Oil Building. It was Saturday afternoon and shoppers watched as 12 fire trucks fought the fire. It took several hours to extinguish the flames but when the fire was finally out although the United Oil Building was gutted, the nearby buildings were only damaged slightly. A few firemen were injured but no one was killed.

It was about 3 p.m. on October 7, 1959, when Ivan B. Garrett drove his tanker into the yard of the Gulf Oil bulk depot on Sixth Avenue. Garrett parked his truck and watched as a work crew repaired a leak in an 18,000-gallon high test gasoline tank. In another part of the yard Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Harper operated a tire store. Suddenly the leaking gas exploded into flames. Most of the crew were burned. The flaming gasoline flooded the yard, and the tire store was hidden behind a wall of fire.

The wind shifted and Garrett caught a glimpse of Mrs. Harper standing in the window of the tire store. Garrett trudged through the burning gasoline and rescued the woman from the window ledge. He carried her back through the flames and collapsed in the arms of some firemen.

The ambulances which had carried the burned crew to the Medical Center now took Mrs. Harper and Garrett. Garrett, whose entire body was badly burned, died a few days later, and shortly after then Mrs. Harper died also. The Gulf fire is thought of as one of the city's most disastrous fires.

The Chattahoochee River, swollen by rain, overflowed its banks on several occasions - bringing destruction to the residents. The custom in Columbus was to name floods after the famous men of the day. And so, the flood of 1841 was called the Harrison Freshet. The water rose until the stone piers supporting the Dillingham Street Bridge were covered. The water continued to rise and washed the bridge away.

The Pershing Flood, December 10, 1919 - the Chattahoochee River rose to 51 feet 2 inches flooding Columbus and leaving Fort Benning underwater and without any type of power supply. During the Second Pershing Flood, the waters rose to 46 feet.

Some people whose houses were in low-lying areas evacuated out of fear during the first Hoover Flood. During this March 4, 1929, catastrophe, the river rose to 48 feet. This proved to be a wise move because, on March 15, the waters surged to a record 53 feet 3 inches.

The engineer of a passenger train misunderstood his orders. He didn't wait at Muscogee Junction siding until the train carrying the C. T. Kennedy Circus had passed. The collision occurred on a bend north of Columbus. Ten of the circus train cars derailed and burst into flames. Efforts to put the fires out were in vain. When the heat died down rescuers sifted through the ashes and recovered the charred remains of eight people.

The City Hospital treated some 50 persons. The dead and most of the injured in that November 22, 1915, accident were circus people. Funerals were at the First Baptist Church after the wreckage was cleared away and the dead were accounted. As the circus band played "Rock of Ages," the funeral procession moved along Third Avenue to the church, then on to Riverdale Cemetery.

For many years, when circuses visited Columbus, delegations visited the circus tent-shaped monument erected at their grave site. The loss of circus equipment was estimated to be more than $100,000.

The Columbus Airport officials were expecting eight high-ranking Delta Airlines executives on the morning of April 22, 1947. They were coming to Columbus to prepare for the opening of the new terminal office.

At about 11 a.m., J. C. Fussell, a businessman, taxied his small plane into the wind and onto the runway. An eyewitness said the Delta plane carrying the executives was about to land when Fussell's plane flew out and settled down on its tail. The Delta pilot immediately felt the impact of the smaller plane on his tail pulled the nose of his aircraft up and apparently began to turn right. Fussell also probably turned his plane in the same direction. The end came when the two tangled planes fell to the ground. Nine people were killed.

A twister surprised the population of Columbus on the morning of March 14, 1913. Most of the people were in bed when it struck at 3 a.m. This is believed to have saved most of the people from serious injury or death. There were no deaths and most of the injuries were cuts from flying glass. The tornado came across the river from Alabama. It passed over Front Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets and did $200,000 worth of damage to the downtown area.

The tornado of April 18, 1953, was much more destructive. It hit the city in the early afternoon — a more critical time. This storm killed two Columbus men, and one Phenix City woman, injured more than 400 people, destroyed more than 400 homes, and damaged more than 2,700 other dwellings.

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