Gene Ramsay's History Blog

Are you a history buff who can't get their hands on enough stories about Norcross? You've come to the right place! In this blog, local historian Gene Ramsay will take you on a journey to Norcross' past to discover the people and culture who laid the foundations for the city we know and love today. 


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Jan 28

Fires and Firefighters in Norcross: Part I

Posted on January 28, 2022 at 8:19 PM by Gene Ramsay

Many homes and businesses that once stood in Norcross have disappeared in a fiery blaze.  And many that could have disappeared were saved by the valiant actions of the fire service personnel who have served the community over the years.  In this article we will look back at fires and firefighters during the first 100 years of our history.

Norcross was established in 1870, and as people moved into the town over the following years a number of stores, homes and related buildings, almost entirely of wood construction,  were added to the landscape.  And many destructive fires occurred, including

  • In 1874 a house owned by S T McElroy and M C Lively, occupied by the Foster sisters, burned to the ground (the sisters and their furniture were saved) 
  • in September 1879 a grist mill belonging to L P Murray burned in a late night fire. A number of townspeople ran to the site of that fire, but the mill was already heavily ablaze, and little was saved other than the door to the small shop building attached to the mill. 
  • in November 1904 three buildings on Jones Street burned, destroying the buildings that stood where the Paizanos’ and Zapata restaurants stand today.  
  • In November 1908 the town’s railroad depot burned to the ground.

Multiple newspapers around the state reported the depot fire, and these articles praised the citizens for doing the best they could to minimize the damage.  In an Athens newspaper the story had the headline “Norcross Fire Was Disastrous” and continued:

Norcross, GA Nov 21 – The biggest fire in the history of Norcross occurred here this morning.  Flames were discovered in the freight department of the Southern depot after 2 o’clock. 

The depot was completely destroyed, together with a large amount of freight and over three hundred bales of cotton.

There were about five hundred bales of cotton on the platform. Citizens helped to save a portion of the cotton.

Three freight cars were burned. There were eight freight cars on the side tracks. The citizens pushed five of them away and saved them.

The loss, which falls almost entirely on the Southern Railway, is about $50,000.By heroic work of the citizens a large portion of the town was saved from burning. Both men and boys aided in fighting the flames. 

The waterworks of the Buchanan Plow and Implement Works were used.

The photo below shows the original depot, which was located near in the vicinity of today’s Autry Street railroad crossing. 


In 1919 the city council decided that the city should take a role in firefighting, by purchasing firefighting equipment.   The minutes from the August meeting that year report:

Mr. King was present representing the Ajax Fire Engine works and after some explanation / description a motion was made to allow him to ship a sixty gallon capacity engine here on a trial of 30 days, upon the agreement that if the town agrees to keep the same it may be paid for Amount $475 on or before August 1921. With interest at 6%.  Otherwise the company is to be notified and engine reshipped to them at their expense. 

The motion passed 4 to 1, with members Webb, Lietch, Maloney and McDaniel voting in favor, while councilman Wall was against. The fire engine trial was evidently a success - in October of that year the council voted to keep the engine, and by the following March construction was underway for a building to house the fire equipment.  It was to be located behind Pickens’ store. 

Below is an illustration of an Ajax fire engine, taken from an advertisement by the company of the era.  It appears from the company’s advertisements that the engine’s tank contained fire-suppressing chemicals that could be sprayed with the attached hose onto a fire.


The Ajax unit was later supplemented by a trailer full of firefighting equipment – ladders, hoses, axes, etc. This could be hooked to the back of a city vehicle and taken to the site of a fire.

Many thanks to a number of individuals for their help in providing the information and photographs presented in this article, including Richard Garner, Carl Garner Jr., Junior Gant, David Little and the Norcross Masonic Lodge.


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