Columbus’ Bibb Mill still burns today — on YouTube, where the quarter-mile-long brick behemoth that burned one year ago yet blazes away in videos posted by people who caught the fire on cell phones or video cameras.
Columbus firefighters got the first alarm after midnight on Oct. 30, 2008, and while racing up Second Avenue from Station No. 1 at 10th Street saw the orange glow lighting up the sky.
The fire roared through the night, sending fat embers flying all over town. The mill’s pine wood floors, long treated with oil, fueled the flames. All firefighters could do was back off and contain the blaze, and keep nearby homes from igniting.
By daybreak, 11 fire units and 60-65 firefighters had been sent to the scene. Crowds of spectators gathered, some bringing food and beer.
Today the cleanup continues, with maybe a month or six weeks left to go, said Bill Reaves of Reaves Wrecking, which is doing the work.
The bricks that formed the mill’s imposing walls are not going to waste, he said. They’re being laid into new walls in new buildings.
“We shipped 100,000 to a really nice house down in Orlando in the last two weeks,” Reaves said. “They go mostly in higher-end residential uses, nicer houses.”
“It’s just the authentic look of used brick,” he said. “It’s like an antique: You can buy a reproduction or you can buy the real thing.”
A century of life
The beginning of “The Bibb,” as locals called it, dates back to 1899, when the North Highlands Dam was built. The dam’s water pressure in 1900 powered a rope-drive system in the Bibb, which expanded in 1916, and again in 1920. The mill’s 1916 addition extended the main building from 300 feet to 500 feet. Its 1920 expansion took it to 1,010 feet, from the river to First Avenue at 38th Street. This central mill building was six stories tall and 650,000 square feet.
In the 1940s, the mill had about 3,000 workers. On its last day of operation, March 20, 1998, only 200 were left.
Planning the future
Today the fire’s cause remains undetermined, said Chief Jeff Meyer, who heads the Columbus Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. “As far as anyone can remember, that was the largest structure fire we’ve had in Columbus,” he said.
Owner Brent Buck and architect Will Barnes still are working on plans for what next happens to the property.
“There is a master plan currently being developed,” Barnes said. A $10,000 grant from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation has helped pay for a conceptual plan focusing on questions such as, “What will we do with the footprint of the historic mill, and how will we salvage the 1920s façade — how does that fall into the overall plan?” he said.
That façade at 38th Street still stands. How much of the remaining ruins will be preserved is yet to be determined, but the footprint of the building will be marked for future generations to see, Barnes said.