Phantoms from the fire—Atlanta, Georgia

The Ellis Hotel
176 Peachtree Street
Atlanta, Georgia

In downtown Atlanta, the city’s most famous thoroughfare, Peachtree Street, is lined with many possibly haunted landmarks. On any haunted tour of the city, one of the primary stops should be 176 Peachtree St.—The Ellis Hotel.

Winecoff Hotel Atlanta Georgia 1918
A view of the Winecoff Hotel in 1918. Courtesy of the Atlanta History Center.

This boutique hotel may offer ghosts in addition to its usual amenities.

The Ellis opened originally in 1913 as the Winecoff Hotel. It was here in the early morning hours of Saturday, December 7th, 1946, that a fire broke out. The 15-storey hotel, often advertised as ‘absolutely fireproof,’ was booked to capacity with Christmas shoppers, families in town to see the premier of the new Disney film, Song of the South, and some 40 Georgia high school students in town for a mock legislative session.

Starting in a third-floor corridor, the fire spread quickly. As the old hotel lacked modern fire preventive measures and the fire spread wildly up the single escape stairwell trapping everyone above it. The Atlanta Fire Department impressively responded with nearly 400 firefighters, 22 engine companies and 11 ladder trucks, four of them aerial. However, ladders were only able to reach people partway up the burning hotel.

As flames licked at their doors, guests began jumping or trying to lower themselves on improvised ropes of bed sheets. Others tried to propel themselves across to the Mortgage Guarantee Building across the alley off Ellis Street. The alley soon became dangerous as bodies began to fall. The sun rose that day to reveal 119 lives snuffed out among the still smoking carnage.

Winecoff Hotel fire Atlanta Georgia
Photographer Arnold Hardy was able to capture this image of Daisy McCumber as she plummeted towards the sidewalk. This young lady survived her fall and the photographer was granted a Pulitzer Prize for this photograph.

Sadly, the Winecoff itself was absolutely fireproof, just not the combustible interiors. The hotel’s modern incarnation as the Ellis can attest to that. Outside the hotel, a historical marker reminds passersby of “Georgia’s Titanic” while spirits may remain in the hotel as reminders to the tragedy.

Guests and hotel staff have cited a tremendous variety of paranormal activity. The building’s elevators have been known to act strangely and operate on their own accord. During the renovations into the Ellis Hotel, workers reported finding their tools moved or missing as well as hearing footsteps and voices coming from empty rooms. Guests have reported hearing screams and the sound of running within empty corridors while some have awakened to the odor of smoke within their rooms.

Staff members have also reported that calls come to the hotel switchboard from unoccupied rooms while the smoke alarm mysteriously goes off at 2:48 AM, the time the fire started. People outside the hotel have also claimed to have seen faces in the windows, some of them appearing to scream in pain.

Ellis Hotel Winecoff Atlanta Georgia
The Ellis Hotel in January of 2020, by JJonahJackalope, courtesy of Wikipedia.

After The Winecoff Fire was published in 1993, I bought a copy and passed it to my parents once I finished it. A short time later, we were in Atlanta one evening and decided to drive past the old hotel building. The huge building still stood derelict and we drove slowly down Ellis Street. Peering down the alley between the hotel and the old Guarantee Mortgage Company building where so many had leapt to their deaths, we spied some graffiti scrawled on the wall of the hotel. “The police tape is soaked in blood,” it read as if to remind viewers of the sacred somberness that continues to haunt the scene of the country’s deadliest hotel fire.

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