A Wounded City

The damage caused by the 1897 ‘Million Dollar Fire’ hit Knoxville’s commercial district hard, as this aftermath photo shows.

The train out of Chattanooga drew crowds of watchers and roused excitement as it sped through the Southeast Tennessee town of Cleveland. Tearing through the Bradley County town at a mile-a-minute, the racing train had hearts pumping fast, hands waving and clapping, and voices cheering it on.

All along the tracks, people lined up to see the train making its run at a speed rarely seen in 1897, and growing faster the further the train traveled.

By the time the train reached Sweetwater, it was making 75 mph.

Despite the speed, the train crew did not anticipate problems or delays. Arrangements had been made to ensure the track was clear for many miles ahead, and that all switches were locked down at every station along the way so as to make sure the train did not acidentally divert onto the wrong track.

By the time the train reached Bearden in Knox County, it was racing at 90 mph.

The train was not running so fast because it carried a dying child, famous politician, dignitary or celebrity. The W.L. Dugger on board, an important component of what was going on, was not a person but a stream engine.

The crucial human passengers on the train were nine Chattanooga firemen, recruited to lend a hand to their counterparts in Knoxville, who had been fighting a fast-growing fire that had broken out in the very early morning hours, seeing their manpower and equipment were not by themselves up to the task,

The train had to travel 111 miles to reach its destination, and thanks to communication, coordination and cooperation, it completed the trip in 117 minutes, according to that day’s edition of the Knoxville Tribune.

Tennessee Tech University Professor of History William Hardy wrote a detailed account of the April 8, 1897, fire published in a 2013 edition of The Journal of East Tennessee History. In it he noted that the arrival of the Chattanooga firemen is to be credited for enabling the Knoxville Fire Department to bring the blaze under control within a few hours.

Even so, losses were significant, but according to Hardy would have been much worse without the help from Chattanooga.

“The devastating fire, which swept through the heart of Knoxville’s business and warehouse district, destroyed a number of buildings on the east side of Gay Street that housed the bulk of the city’s wholesale trade industry – the driving force behind its post-Civil War economic boom.”

The fire had begun in the night for reasons never firmly established. A Knoxville policeman named Gowan had dropped into the Hotel Knox and was talking with a porter named John Davis, who was cleaning the lobby of the heavily occupied hotel.

Both heard crackling noises, and it was Davis who first saw flames. An elevator shaft was drawing the fire upward like a chimney, causing flames to spread fast. A fire alarm sounded at 3:46 a.m. and Knoxville firefighting steamers rolled out within minutes.

Meanwhile, Davis raced through the hotel corridors, shouting “fire!” and pounding doors. Hardy wrote that “Davis’s bravery saved the lives of countless hotel guests.”

Despite all efforts, the fire spread and some guests on the third floor threw a mattress onto the roof of an adjacent bank building and jumped onto it, one at a time, Hardy recounted. Two guests managed to escape by leaping onto ropes left hanging from a nearby building by painters who had been at work there earlier.

Still others made ropes of their own out of bed linens and blankets and went down them to the ground.

Unsurprisingly, the fire spread to other buildings. Two blocks of Gay Street from Commerce Avenue to Union Avenue in downtown Knoxville were destroyed. Damage estiimates topped $1.1 million. The fire was to be remembered in perpetuity as Knoxville’s “Million Dollar Fire.”

Five people died as a result of the fire, and some 300 others were rendered at least temporarily unemployed.

Many businesses, fortunately, were able to find new quarters elsewhere in the city while the damaged area was rebuilt. Today Knoxville’s Mast General Store stands on the site of the hotel where the conflagration began.

Wise thinking helped guide restoration of the area with buildings more resistant to fire than the ones they replaced.

Inevitably, lawsuits occurred, fingers were pointed, accusations flew and wounds healed slowly. In time, though, the damage was repaired, lives moved forward, and the city of today shows little to hint at the hellish night of April 8, 1897, when flames lit the Knoxville skies as a train raced at high speed from Chattanooga to help save lives and property.

The cause of the fire has never been firmly established.

Cameron Judd is a lifelong Tennessean born and raised in Cookeville and a Greene County resident since 1982, when he first joined The Greeneville Sun staff. He also is an extensively published author of western and frontier fiction, having worked with several major publishing houses. In 2019 he won a first-place Tennessee Press Association award for his personal column, “Clips To Keep.”

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