2. Market Street Horror

120 years ago, Market Street ended at the St. Johns River in the vicinity of present day Courthouse Drive. As the fire consumed Downtown Jacksonville, fleeing residents found themselves trapped between the fire’s flames and the St. Johns River once they reached the Market Street docks. While rescuers attempted to save desperate residents, gusts and waterspouts capsized the steamboat Irene. A few days later, the body of Harry Bounetheau, an art collector who tried to save is collection at the Market Street wharf, was found floating in the river. Officially, the Great Fire of 1901 claimed seven lives with most of these deaths occurring at or near the Market Street wharf. In 2002, Illinois sculptor Bruce White was commissioned by the Cultural Council to design a monument that would remind the community of the Great Fire of 1901. The 40-foot-tall stainless steel monument was dedicated in 2003.

1. Memorial Park

While the Great Fire of 1901 did not stretch into Riverside, the events of that day would play a significant role in the life of noted Jaxson James Weldon Johnson. It was a trip to this space, then a new riverfront park, where Johnson was arrested for meeting with a New York writer who wanted to discuss the fire’s impact on the city’s Black population:

Excerpt from Johnson’s autobiography, Along This Way:

We sat talking. The sun was still bright, but was preparing for his plunge under the horizon, which he makes more precipitantly in the far south than he does in the north. At the point where we were sitting the St. Johns River is several miles wide. Across the water the sun began cutting a brilliant swatch that constantly changed and deepened in color until it became a flaming road between us and the dark line of trees on the opposite bank. The scene was one of perfect semi-tropical beauty. Watching it, I became conscious of an uneasiness, an uneasiness that, no doubt, had been struggling the while to get up and through from my subconscious. I became aware of noises, of growing, alarming noises; of men hallooing back and forth, and of dogs responding with the bay of bloodhounds. One thought, that they might be hunters, flashed through my mind; but even so, there was danger of a stray shot. And yet, what men would hunt with such noises, unless they were beating the bush to trap a wild, ferocious beast? I rose to go, and my companion followed. We threaded our way back. The noises grew more ominous. They seemed to be closing in. My pulse beat faster and my senses became more alert. I glanced at my companion; she showed no outward sign of alarm. Suddenly we reached the barbed wire fence. There we stopped. On the other side of the fence death was standing. Death turned and looked at me and I looked at death. In the instant I knew that the lowering of an eyelash meant the end.

Just across the fence in the little clearing were eight or ten militia-men in khaki with rifles and bayonets. The abrupt appearance of me and my companion seemed to have transfixed them. They stood as under a spell. Quick as a flash of light the series of occurrences that had taken place ran through my mind: The conductor and motorman saw me leave the street car and join the woman; they saw us go back into the park; they rushed to the city with a maddening tale of a Negro and White woman meeting in the woods; there is no civil authority; the military have sent out a detachment of troops with guns and dogs to get me.

I lose self-control. But a deeper self springs up and takes command; I follow orders. I take my companion’s parasol from her hand; I raise the loose strand of fence wire and gently pass her through; I follow and step into the group. The spell is instantly broken. They surge around me. They seize me. They tear my clothes and bruise my body; all the while calling to their comrades, “Come on, we’ve got ‘im! Come on, we’ve got ‘im!

After Johnson was released, he took the woman back to the Boylan School in LaVilla and told his brother John Rosamond Johnson about what had taken place. Terrified over the event, the brothers decided to get away from Jacksonville as fast as possible and head to New York.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com