The Million Dollar Fire of ‘97

April 15th, 2016

Phillip Space - reporter / Knoxghost News   

The Million Dollar Fire of ‘9

  Shortly before 4 a.m. on April 8, 1897, a porter working in the Hotel Knox in Knoxville Tennessee smelled smoke at about the same time a nearby patrolman saw flames on the roof of the hotel and notified the fire department. 

A billowing of flames swept across the roof as firefighters arrived and began hastily evacuating the building. Firefighters shot water onto the inferno in a desperate effort to prevent the fire from reaching neighboring buildings including where the Mast General Store stands today.

James McIntosh then realized they had a problem. The fire had reached the elevator shaft likely trapping people on the upper floors and turning the hotel into an unbearable furnace. Compounding his frustrations the chief realized his hoses were far too short to effectively combat the blaze that was threateningsome of the city's biggest buildings: stores, stables, warehouses and others. The fire department had two steam engines and 3,500 feet of hose which was nearly 3,000 feet too short.

Flames leapt from building to building and crossed a firewall. By 5 a.m., three buildings had been swept up in a torrent of flames as desperate crews choked on clouds of smoke and struggled to pump water onto the roaring fire.

Soon reinforcements arrived on a train from Chattanooga. The much needed reinforcements included nine firefighters, a fresh engine, a ladder truck and 3,000 feet of hose.  The dying embers were finally extinguished by afternoon. The official death toll counted five people, with damages that topped a million dollars. The cause remains undetermined to this day.

That fire destroyed much of the east side of the 300 and 400 blocks of Gay Street. With the ruins smoldering, city leaders declared it the greatest loss the city had ever suffered. The business community vowed to rebuild the structures better than before. Most of which were rebuilt, bigger and better, within five years

In the shattered aftermath there were many questions that remain unanswered to this day.  What caused the fire? Some have speculated arson. And what was the true death toll of the fire? The death toll from the hotel was based on the single page from the hotel ledger that was found partially charred in the rubble. Only five names were on the hotel registry. The hotel was a popular destination for many weary travelers and rumors had spread through the community that the hotel had many more guests that perished in the fire. Hints of a cover-up began to circulate that there were more victims of the fire.

 Traveling salesmen of the era frequented the hotel.  In the era before the telephone was in every home many salesmen traveled about without their families knowing their exact location. Some have speculated there may have been more guests at the hotel who died there and the fate of the victims was never known by their families.

  Soon after the tragedy there were reports of paranormal activity in the area caused by the restless spirits of the deceased. 

 “Some believe the Hotel was filled with travelers who haven't seen family for many months or years, which would be a definite reason for unfinished business for the dead and spirit activity,” said J-Adam Smith of Haunted Knoxville Ghost Tours.

  Modern businesses built on the location of the tragedy have reported strange occurrences on their properties.  Employees at the Downtown Grill and Brewery have reported noticing liquor bottles being relocated in the middle of the night and have heard footsteps in other rooms when no one was present. Do the restless spirits of the long deceased still wander the streets of downtown Knoxville?

  Haunted Knoxville Ghost Tours takes daily tours through the streets of Knoxville to revisit the dark and often tragic history of the city in a quest to find paranormal activity. To learn more about the group visit the website at www.hauntedknoxville.net.