By Tina Monaco, Historian, Georgia Heritage Room, Augusta-Richmond County Public Library System

In 2023, the Digital Library of Georgia, with support from Georgia Public Library Service, digitized two oversized, handwritten, bound ledgers that were donated to the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library System by the Augusta Fire Department. The ledgers document fire history in Augusta, Georgia, from 1906-1937 and detail several of the most significant and destructive fires in the city’s history, making them an important resource for understanding how catastrophic fires shaped the cityscape and local history.

Since the Augusta Fire Department is the second oldest in the state, behind Savannah, the ledgers are important to understanding fire fighting methods during the early 20th century, when mechanization and new technology were altering the way fires were fought.

Both ledgers document the daily fire alarm box alerts that came into the fire department headquarters. The fire alarm boxes were numbered and spread throughout the city on street corners, telephone poles, and commercial buildings, connected by a telegraph system.

When a box was pulled, a pulse was transmitted along a network of low-voltage wiring, alerting the fire department. Whether the fire turned out to be small and insubstantial or a major conflagration, it was recorded in the ledger.

Along with the time and the box number, information including the date, fire district, street location, building occupant or owner, cause of fire, and the type of building was recorded. Financial details such as insurance payouts and the cost incurred by property loss are also noted. Further information about damage or what was used to combat the fire may also be listed.

By itself, the Augusta Fire Department ledgers simply record names and addresses, but when used with other digitized primary sources such as city directories, Sanborn maps, and historic newspapers, those people and places come alive and are no longer just an entry recorded in a historic ledger.

The Great Fire of 1916

The ledgers document the most calamitous blaze in Augusta’s history, the Great Fire of 1916. At 6:20 p.m. on March 22, 1916, as downtown merchants closed up shop for the day and families were sitting down to evening meals, fire alarm box 34 on the corner of Board and Eighth Streets emitted a shrill call, alerting Augustans to a fire.

Local accounts at the time claim it was started by an unattended iron in Kelly’s Dry-Goods store in the Dyer building on the corner of Eighth and Broad Streets. This was never proven, although Augusta’s fire chief at that time, Frank G. Reynolds, later called the 30-year-old building a fire trap because its stairwells were constructed around an elevator shaft, creating an architectural nightmare in terms of fire control.

Augusta Fire Department Ledger March 22, 1916.

Several factors led to the blaze growing in intensity. Strong winds drove the blaze northeastward where it ultimately destroyed 35 blocks in downtown and Olde Town, burning 541 dwellings and 141 businesses. The destruction displaced 3,000 people. Miraculously, no one was killed. Long-time Augusta Chronicle newspaperman Bill Kirby noted in a 2016 column that the winds were so fierce, singed hymnals and prayer books were discovered across the Savannah River in South Carolina.

Souvenir Views of Augusta’s Big Fire March 22, 1915.

The Great Fire of 1916 is recorded in the 1906-1923 ledger along with notes describing the financial cost of the fire as $4,999,513 in damages, which is nearly $100 million in today’s value.

Shortly following the fire, Chief Reynolds wrote an indictment printed in the Augusta Chronicle blaming city officials for allowing lax building standards, such as subpar wood framing and wood shingles. He also cited inadequate water pressure, which dropped quickly as the fire began and stayed low in the hours that followed.

Many of Chief Reynolds’ complaints were later corroborated by the insurance investigations. The ledgers note the issue regarding water pressure, which proved to be a mitigating factor in the spread of the fire.

Augusta Fire Department Ledger from March 22, 1916 showing cost of the Great fire of 1916.

Additional Fires Recorded

While the ledgers record the major fires that destroyed significant portions of Augusta, they also document smaller, less destructive fires that might not have ever been reported in newspapers or other sources, along with identifying information about the individuals associated with the property.

In May 1906, during a typical day in terms of the number and severity of the calls coming in, 27 calls were recorded, 26 from the call boxes and one by telephone. About half the fires were noted as insignificant, including a call that came in on May 23 at 10:45 p.m. from call box 19 indicating a fire at 426 Greene Street. The ledger notes the address was residence-owned and occupied by A. J. Tweedy. The fire is noted as insignificant and the cause of the fire is listed as “window curtains.”

Images of America Augusta Surviving Disaster (Misty A. Tilson) Building on far left is the Albion Hotel.

Archival Resources Detail Local History

Used in conjunction with additional Augusta resources, the fire ledgers paint a more complete picture of the city’s historical landscape, particularly in terms of its people and places. They also help people search for ancestors and places they may have lived.

For example, when searching through the 1905 Augusta City Directory to learn more about A. J. Tweedy, whose curtains started a small house fire, one will learn that he and his wife Emma lived at the Greene Street residence, and that Albert was the manager of the Tweedy Loan Company at 738 Ellis Street.

1905 Augusta City Directory.

The Sanborn maps for Augusta reveal how the city worked to prevent large-scale fires following the Great Fire of 1916. An image taken from the 1917 Sanborn Map a year after the destruction shows the 700 block of Broad Street, including buildings that were destroyed in the Great Fire, along with those being rebuilt using what was referred to as “fire proof construction.”

“Almost immediately after the fire, a new building code was adopted which called for a better class of construction throughout,” according to the Augusta City Council Yearbook for 1916. This is evident in an image from the Digital Library of Georgia that shows steel frames replaced the outdated and potentially hazardous use of wood frames.

Augusta, Richmond County, Georgia, Apr. 1917 / Sanborn Map Company Digital Library of Georgia.

The threat of catastrophic fires plagued U. S. cities until strict building codes, technological changes, and loosely organized volunteer fire departments were implemented under the administration of city governments, much of which occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Augusta Fire Department ledgers are a window into this time period of major changes, and are a helpful resource for exploring fire history not only in the city of Augusta, Georgia but throughout the United States.

View the ledgers and more through the DLG

The digitized ledgers, as well as many other important documents from Georgia’s history, are freely available to view through the Digital Library of Georgia. To view them, visit and search for “Augusta Fire Department Ledgers.” The collection allows you to view each ledger separately. The first ledger covers the period from January 1906 – December 1923, and the second ledger covers the period from January 1924 – December 1937.

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