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Bringing the HEAT with Archives Month!

October 22, 2022

The month of October is a notable month for a couple of reasons: 

  • It's National Archives Month, which means we're celebrating the work of archives and archivists!
  • It's the 100th Anniversary of Fire Prevention Week, sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association. 
American Archives month
City Beautiful Scrapbook from 1957 - Ad for Fire Prevention Week
From the City Beautiful Scrapbook Collection, date: 1957.

We're throwing both of them together for an educational blog post that's not only about notable fires in Nashville history, but also some behind-the-scenes info about the on-going processing and preservation of the Fire Department Collection. 

Fire Department Collection, housed in Metro Archives Section 2

It's Archives Month!

Archivist cartoon

October is an archivist's favorite month because we get to brag and promote all the cool work we do; we do that all the time really, but now we have an excuse! During the month, we like to share info via social media and other outlets, about what it is we do, why we do it, how we do it, and any other fun details involved.

Last year, we focused more on our favorite items in the collection. If you're interested in those details, or simply in learning more about who we are and what we do, check out last year's blog post

This year, since it's the 100th anniversary of Fire Prevention Week, we're also using that theme as it pertains to telling the story of the Fire Dept. records in our collections. Starting with when we acquired the department collection and what's been processed so far...

  • According to Ken Fieth, our fearless leader and Metro Archivist, the Fire Dept. began transferring their records to the Archives during the reign of the first Metro Archivist, Virginia Lyle.
  • More of it has been added to the collection over the years, and in 2012, there was an exhibit of the materials at the Archives in Green Hills. As some added fun and education, the Fire Dept. brought out some of their older trucks and equipment for all to see (see Ken below decked out in gear). 
Metro Archivist Ken Fieth, all decked out in Fire Dept. gear
Metro Archivist, Ken Fieth, decked out in firefighter gear.

Today, the Fire Dept. Collection is pretty big! Sooo big, it cannot all fit here at our Library Home. But the bulk of it (probably about 80%) lives at our storage facility on Elm Hill Pike or EHP (our first home). 

What's included in the collection, you ask?

Mostly reports, personnel records, log books, scrapbooks (a lot pertaining to Fire Prevention Week), some over-sized materials such as blueprints, and an endless amount of negatives. 

Fire Dept. Collection negatives
Negatives' boxes from the Fire Dept. Collection housed at the Library.

How much is processed?

Ha - that's funny. So what we have housed here at the Library is all processed. What lives at EHP is currently in progress, and so far we've scanned about 6 boxes of negatives/slides out of at least 20 more to go. Also, we've scanned/indexed several of the scrapbooks in the collection.

What happens after an item is processed?

Currently, our processing system includes scanning the media (either photos, negatives, or slides), rehousing them into an archival-safe sleeve or container, indexing for meta-data purposes, and sending the materials back to EHP for safe keeping.

Same goes with the scrapbooks in the collection that are also being scanned/indexed presently; after that procedure - they're wrapped in archival-safe paper (like a present) and again, sent back to their EHP shelf to nestle safely upon their shelf.

Photo of Fire Dept. Shelves at Metro Archives off-site storage

Do we have other collections pertaining to the Fire Dept. outside of the official collection?

What a great question, and the answer is yes! A few other collections we have that include materials pertaining to the Fire Department are: 

  • Chief Rozetta Collection [Chief from 1901-1919]
  • Chief Wayne Vick Collection [1969-2004, Chief over the Fire Department Shop]  
  • Parrish Fire Collection
  • City Beautiful Commission (scrapbooks)

Outside of these collections, there are a few other governmental materials or primary sources that include information about the Fire Dept. and their daily activities, such as...

  • The City Annual Reports (one of my favorite records because of the wealth of info you can learn about the city at any given time). 
  • City Alderman or City Council Minutes
  • City Directories
  • The Nashville Weather Report Collection that provides some intriguing context into the daily workings of the Fire Department. See a sample below from September 26th, 1891, after a small earthquake shocked the city...
Nashville Weather Reports Collection - Entry from Sept. 26th, 1891

100th Anniversary of Fire Prevention Week

Fire Dept Collection - Display for Fire Prevention Week
From the Fire Dept., display for Fire Prevention Week. Unknown year.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Fire Prevention Week, which occurs annually during the week of October 9th in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire. Several cities, including Nashville, participated in Fire Prevention Weeks prior to 1922, but it was that year specifically when the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) began sponsoring the public observance in October. 

If you'd like to learn more about the history of the event or any other details, check out the NFPA's website here, as I'm only briefly glossing over what we have in our collections pertaining to the Week. 

Fire Prevention Week in our Records

Though I wish we had Fire Dept. scrapbooks dating back to 1922, we sadly don't and most start around the late 1940's to early 1950's.

They are greatly detailed though, with plenty of images of the various events of the Week, such as the "Miss Fire Prevention" contest (that Oprah won in 1971), Little Miss Spark, safety demonstrations and inspections, and a parade! 

See a few scanned pages below...

Metro Archives Photos Collection - Oprah Winfrey being crowned Miss Fire Prevention, 1971
From the Fire Dept. scrapbooks, students visiting Fire Hall in 1959.
From the 1959 Fire Dept. scrapbook, students visiting one of the fire halls.
From the 1959 Fire Department Scrapbook, demonstration of fires starting from smoking in bed.
From the 1959 Fire Dept. scrapbook, display of fires starting from smoking in bed.

And from the 1972 scrapbook, a statement of inspection statistics for the year of 1973, from the Dept. of Codes Administration...

From the 1972 Fire Department scrapbook, inspection statistics for the year.

Notable Nashville Fires

Last but not least, a brief recap of one of the worst fires in Nashville history, that occurred on January 2nd, 1892.

Back in the day, it seems just thinking the word "fire" sparked a fire, but that's why the Fire Dept. was established as a paid entity (in 1860), with more and more equipment added over time to help the firefighters safely and efficiently.

Calendar of Firefighters at work

Though the 1892 fire is an important one to mention for a couple of reasons that you'll find out, I'm sure there were several other notable fires prior to the establishment of the Fire Dept. Like in 1872, the year that the Fire Chief declared in his report to the Mayor and City Council that...

"...I have to report it as one of the most disastrous of my Administration, and not only so here, but all over the United States, fires have appeared almost like an epidemic, sent to scourge the land..."

Also in 1881, there was another large fire that destroyed several downtown buildings, including ones on North Cherry Street. 

But the street we know today as 3rd Ave N, between Church and Union, was facing a swiftly-moving extinction on the evening of January 2nd...

"The Fire God Was Supreme"

Daily American newspaper clipping about the January 2nd fire
Daily American clipping about the fire on N. College St, on January 2nd, 1892.

January 2nd started out like a typical winter day of the 19th century - light flurries in the morning time that ended around 1:00 p.m. A cloudless sky with a brisk, northwest wind picking up in the evening time though, that would be dangerous for the upcoming events that would begin on the 4th floor of the stoves, tin-ware, and house furnishings business of Webb, Stevenson & Co., at 213 N. College (3rd Ave N today).

The below map is an 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, and the damaged buildings are outlined in red squares. 

1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance map

The cause of the fire unknown (even still today), but quickly drew a crowd as the firemen worked to put it out. I'm sure there were several fire halls at work, but one crew that was definitely battling the fire was from Engine Company 4, the city's first fire hall entirely staffed by Black men.

Engine Company 4, located on Woodland St.
Engine Company 4 on Woodland Street, the city's first fire hall where every member of the company was Black, circa 1908.

Within about 20 minutes of the fire starting (around 5:30 - 5:40 p.m.), the flames burst through the roof of the 213 building which caused a murmuring through the crowd of "the whole block is gone!" Which is what eventually occurred. 

Despite two streams of water from the rear of the building and another crew going in at the front to try to stop it, "the fire god was supreme" with this particular fire, and the firefighters struggled to control it.  

Daily American clipping from January 3rd, 1892
Daily American clipping from January 3rd, 1892, dramatizing how the fire quickly overtook the building.

For the next few hours, the fire was winning the battle against the firemen; no matter what they did to try to take control, it raged on.

The crowd that continued to amass as the fire crawled building by building, was about the size of the population of the city - or so the news article guesses. And they could all hear the moment the safes crashed through the floors of the Webb and the A.G. Rhodes & Company (211 N. College) buildings. 

At 6:26 p.m., the front wall of the Webb, Stevenson & Co. fell, spraying the pavement with bricks and mortar, and causing many on-lookers to run for cover. 

When the hook and ladder company attempted a second time to raise their ladder and get a stream of water on the fire, the angle of the ladder and the way it was raised became too much for the base to hold. At the time, firefighter Jesse Brooks was at the top of the ladder and was rapidly carried to the ground when the truck turned over. Luckily for Brooks, he was not harmed when the ladder crashed through the awning at the front of the Bradford Nichol's store. 

Fast forward some since the news article describing the event is rather lengthy in detail - after 7 p.m., the flames reached the Weakley & Warren Building at 215 N. College (which was 7 stories tall) and "...wrapped [it] in a garment of flame from the ground seemingly to heaven."

The tragic deaths of three firemen from Engine Company 4 came around 7:45 p.m., when there were six firemen on the roof of the Phillips & Buttorff building, at 217-219 N. College, spraying water into the windows of the Warren Building.

Despite shouts of warning to the men, the walls of the Warren building began to waver and crash quickly onto the roof of the Phillips & Buttorff building, sending three of the men from Engine Company 4 to their deaths: Captain C.C. Gowdy, Reel Driver Stanley (Stokeley) Allen, and Hoseman Harvey Ewing. 

Clipping from the Nashville Banner, date: January 4th, 1892
Clipping from the Nashville Banner, date: January 4th, 1892.

According to the Chief Engineer's report, the total amount of damage after all was said and done was $262,566.87 (roughly $8.2 million today). See the report below which details out every address that was included in the almost-all-night-long event. 

The Noel Block that housed the Western Union Telegraph Company was destroyed during this fire. It was damaged/possibly destroyed in the 1881 fire as well. This info is noted in the Nashville Weather Reports that are below. 

From the 1893 City Annual Report, fire damage report from January of 1892
Nashville Weather Reports Collection - entry from January 2nd 1892

It wasn't until 10:30 at night when the firefighters were able to get somewhat of a control on the conflagration. Like I already mentioned, what wasn't helping was the strong wind, sending sparks of flames throughout the block of buildings; because of this, it's a wonder more buildings weren't lost. 

If you're not already familiar with the 1916 East Nashville fire that destroyed several homes and caused some of the worst fire damage this city has ever seen - that's another I'd suggest you read about next! 

'Til next time, 


lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.