Savannah has a wealth of 19th century architecture, but almost nothing survives from the 18th century. The reason is two major fires (in 1796 and 1820), both of which burned an enormous portion of the city.
Savannah’s Great Fire of 1796 was one of the most devastating fires ever to have struck an American city at that time.
Only a few years earlier, Savannah and its people had emerged from the years of the Revolutionary War seemingly well poised to capitalize on its growing position as a shipping and mercantile center. Over a single night, most of its progress was lost.
By 1796, the populated parts of Savannah were in the area roughly bounded by the river and Oglethorpe Avenue (then South Broad Street) on its north and south, Jefferson Street on its west and Lincoln Street on its east, with only isolated houses beyond this area.
Expansions of the city’s square plan in 1790 and 1791 had added three new wards, centered around Franklin Square on the west and Washington and Warren Squares on the east, but for the most part, the city had yet to spread into these newly-laid-out areas.
Most of the city’s residents were in six densely built wards, a mass of closely packed houses whose construction was almost entirely of wood.
Nonetheless, the city had done well to recover itself from the destruction and economic setbacks of the Revolutionary War. Business was good, and new homes and buildings were going up.
Still, in the 18th and into the 19th centuries, wide-scale disaster was never far away. Violent storms, epidemics and fire threatened the city’s new-found prosperity and were of major concern to Savannah’s officials and residents alike.
As dusk fell in the early evening of Saturday November 26, around 6 or 7pm, a small fire broke out in the bakery of a Mr Gromet, located on present-day Ellis (then Market) Square.
Mr Gromet and any associates he may have had were either not present, or not able, to put out the flames, and the fire began to spread, first through his own property and then into neighboring buildings.
Although Savannah’s council had adopted several practical measures intended to minimise the risk of fire, it had put few strategies in place to allow a rapid response to a developing conflagration.
The city had a very small and ill-equipped volunteer fire service and one or two fire engines, pulled by hand and in bad condition. It had also ordered the construction of wells in several of the city’s squares. Ordinances forbade various high-risk activities such as building open fires in enclosed back yards.
For many years, Savannah had suffered no serious fires. When the 1796 fire broke out, nobody had the knowledge or experience of what to do in response to a blaze of this magnitude.
Several circumstances aided the rapid spread of the fire. For two months before, there had been very little rain; the wood-built houses of Savannah’s most built up areas were tinder dry. A light north-north-west breeze, gathering as the flames grew, fanned the initial fire and spread sparks and embers from burning buildings to their neighbors.
Despite the efforts of the fire company and any new-found volunteers, the blaze was soon out of control. It raged furiously until around midnight, moving up and along Bay Street from its start point on Ellis Square, reaching almost up to Abercorn Street and from there burning southwards and eastwards across the city until it reached the commons on its sides.
The direction of the wind spared many of the buildings immediately north and west of Ellis Square. Much of the far eastern portion of the city too was saved by a change of wind direction, caused by the intense heat of the burning downtown.
Around 1am, the fire began to abate. Much of Savannah’s population – rich and poor, slave and free – spent that cold November night outdoors, surveying the ruins of their city and their homes by the light of the dying flames.
Dawn broke on devastated city. Half a dozen men were dead, killed in their attempts to fight the blaze. Two thirds of the city had burned almost to the ground, the wood frames of the buildings entirely consumed and only the brick chimneys – several hundred of them – left behind.
A reported 229 houses, excluding outbuildings, had been destroyed, leaving 400 families homeless. 171 houses escaped the fire, but many of those fortunate not to lose their home still lost their livelihoods, their places of business and their tools or goods destroyed.
The center of government, the City Exchange, was gone. So was the Christ Church and the Independent Presbyterian Church, besides many other commercial and functional buildings.
The immediate effects of the fire were so severe that the General Assembly intervened to provide for the people’s relief. The mayor was instructed to write to other cities and states requesting their assistance.
Savannah received almost $40,000 in donations, which was distributed between the city’s newly homeless. Victims were to be reimbursed in proportion to their losses, prompting protests from the poorer citizens, many of whom had lost everything they owned as well as the immediate means to support themselves.
Council also imposed regulations on the price of food and building materials in the time after the fire, to prevent profiteering by unscrupulous merchants. It deployed the militia to cut down on looting, and ordered searches of ships in port and properties outside of town for stolen goods.
Although many needs likely went unmet, two years later the city still had $3500 of its $40,000 fund on hand. By that time, Philadelphia was the city in need, then in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic. Savannah sent the money there as aid.
Chastened by the catastrophic results of its fire, Savannah began to invest greater efforts in measures to prevent and fight future outbreaks. It looked to the larger cities of the North for inspiration, roughly modeling its own system of ward-based volunteer fire companies on those already established there. Homeowners were also obliged to provide a bucket for every fireplace in their house, and a ladder.
Reconstruction of the city began, aided by the high price of cotton around the turn of the century. Destroyed buildings were replaced, including a new City Exchange, for which the cornerstone was laid in 1799.
By 1798, a census of Savannah found a city of 6226 people (2272 white, 3216 slave and 238 free black), living in 618 houses. There were additionally 415 kitchens, 228 outhouses, plus various shops and stores.
Despite its new measures to fight fire, Savannah was not free of its destructive effects. A quarter century later came another great conflagration, every bit as severe as the last.
Walter J Fraser, Savannah in the Old South. University of Georgia Press, 2003.
Thomas Gamble, Jr, A History of the City Government of Savannah, Ga., From 1790 to 1901. Savannah City Council, 1900.
William Harden, A History of Savannah and South Georgia, Volume I. Lewis Publishing Company, 1913.