Culpeper Volunteer Fire Department Historical Notes

September 23, 1937 The Culpeper Star Exponent


Culpeper’s Efficient Fire Company Is a Guarantee That the Conflagrations of 1886 will not be duplicated.

This week we reproduced an account, from the Piedmont Advance, then published in Culpeper, of April 3, 1886 (fifty-one and one-half years ago), of a most disastrous fire that occurred in Culpeper on Friday, April 2, 1886.


At about 2:30 o’clock last night fire was discovered to be issuing from the upper part of Green’s Hall in the end occupied by a McD. Green as a law office. The fire was first discovered by a drummer by the name Humphrey, who had just arrived on the 2 o’clock train. The alarm was at once given by Humphrey and Mr. David Schuyler an employee at the V. M. Depot here, and someone else began ringing the church bells.

(Green’s Hall was a large 2 story frame building, occupying the entire lot, the site of the present Messinger Building, in which is located the Sanitary Grocery Company.)

Origin of Fire

The exact origin of the fire is unknown, but it is supposed to have ether commenced in the oil room of O. C. Cole’s Drug Store or in Carver’s Saloon between which places there was only a small partition, occupying the lower floor of Green’ Hall.

Incendiarism Suspected

There is a rumor, which seems to be gaining some belief that the fire was of an incendiary origin. This rumor is founded upon the fact that the jewelry store of H. C. Burrows was found this morning to have been broken open with a cold chisel though nothing was disturbed in the store. Mr. Capehart, who sleeps in the store, was disturbed twice in the night by a noise at his door, and got up once but did not know that the lock had been broken. It is thought that the store of O. C. Cole was broken into and set fire by the same parties though there are no facts to confirm this. (Burrow’s jewelry was then located in the middle room of the present Exponent Building).

The fire when discovered was too far advanced to be checked by the means at command, and owing to the character of the building, (it being a frame one) the flames in a few minutes developed it entirely and on attempt was made to save it.

The Exponent Burnt Out

Besides O. C. Cole’s drug store there were in the building first to catch afire, The Exponent Printing Office, which was entirely destroyed with all the books and material of every kind. Wm. Carver’s Oyster Saloon, A. McD. Green’s Law Office in which was the large and valuable law library of his father, the late Jas. W. Green, which was one of the largest libraries in the state. The library was entirely consumed, not a book being saved.
Besides the library there were in the vault of this office large amounts of bonds and other collateral which was recovered after the fire, not being damaged very materially.

(The Exponent then owned and edited by the late George M. Williams, was soon re-established on the second floor of the Verandah Building, on Main Street, opposite the present Exponent Building. The Verandah Building was destroyed by fire in December 1886, the Exponent thus being burnt out twice in the space of 9 months. Early in 1887, it was re-established, being located in a one-story frame building at the rear of the Messinger lot across the alley from the present Culpeper National Bank.)

The Fire Spread

The fire spread in all directions which first caught and the facilities at hand for fighting the fire were entirely inadequate to cope successfully with the flames.

All efforts were now exerted to save the large brick drug store of J. B. Gorrell. In this the citizens were successful, although the building was on fire several times, and all of the large plate glasses in the windows were broken by the intense heat, which was almost unbearable, but finally by constant work and with the aid of the fire engines this building was declared to be out of danger. But in their efforts to save Gorrell’s store, other points were necessarily neglected, and the store of T. J. Sullivan, the residence of Wm. C. Norris, the store of T. S. Alcocke, the store of W. A. Ashby were now in light blazes and had to be surrendered to the fury of the flame.

(The Gorrell Building, now standing, is now occupied by White Brothers. At the time of this fire, it contained the drug store of the late Dr. J. B. Gorrell, and in the corner of the store of the late Stockton W. Cole.)

(T. S. Alcocke was the owner of the 2 story Piedmont Building on the site of the present Culpeper National Bank and the vacant lot adjacent thereto. The Alcocke store was in this building. T. J. Sullivan was on the corner where Bruce’s Drug Store is now, with the Norris residence in the rear.)

(The next stand made was at Shotwell brick store on Davis Street. Every effort was made to save this building, but in vain, and it seemed as if all the buildings on Davis Street, from Main to East would be consumed. The fire was burning fiercely now on both sides of Davis Street, and but little hope was entertained of getting it speedily under control. The fire was allowed to burn itself out on the south side of Davis Street, and all effort was concentrated to stop its progress on the north side, which is much more thickly built up. Notwithstanding the great efforts of the citizens to save Shotwell’s store, they were finally forced to relinquish it, for the heat by this time was terrible.)

(East of the Green Building on Davis Street was a one-story frame building occupied by W. A. McNeal’s meat market; then a one-story frame building, where is now Gayheart’s Drug Store, occupied by James H. Judd’s grocery and Saloon; then a frame building, occupied by W. A. Ashby; the Shotwell Building, now Weaver’s Market; then a frame building.)

Across the alley, where is now the Morris Drug Store, a brick building. Next was a vacant lot, and then W. W. Chelf’s new brick building, where the fire was halted.)

The Flames Subdued

It was now about 4:30 o’clock and the battle with the flames still continued with unabated vigor. Although the struggle had been going on doggedly for more than 2 hours without a moment’s intermission, the citizens, white and black, still kept up their exertions, and were not to be baffled, though they had fought a losing fight. The fire had now reached the point where the last stand had to be made. The knowledge that they had to subdue the flames now or surrender the entire block to their fury only served to redouble the efforts of the men, who now settled down for the final struggle and by almost super human efforts stopped their progress, though not until about $50,000 worth of property had been consumed, and the business center of our town destroyed.

The Losses

The following are buildings burnt, together with their value and their amount of insurance as well as the value of their stock of goods destroyed with their values:
J. C. Bell, a frame house, loss $1,200; insurance $200.
James Turner, frame shop on south side of Davis Street, together with stock of undertaker’s goods, recently sold to Jno. R. Fegans; lost $750; insurance $750.
O. C. Cole, stock of drugs, etc., loss $7,000; insurance $5,000 Mr. Cole will have a new stock of goods here and in place by the middle of next week, and will continue his business as formerly. He saved his books and iron safe.
W. J. Shotwell, two story brick store and stock of goods; loss $7,000; insurance for about one-half.
P. Thomas, frame building on Davis Street, occupied by W. A. Ashby, as a grocery; loss $1,500; insurance $1,000.
W. A. Ashby, stock of groceries and confectioneries; loss $1,500; insurance $1,000.
G. S. Krouss, job printing office, in W. J. Shotwell’s building; loss $1,600; insurance 900.
L. W. Burgandine, photographer loss $800; no insurance.
W. C. Norris, frame dwelling house and store; loss $3,500; insurance $3,500.
T. S. Alcocke, large two-story brick building, on Main Street; loss $6,000; insurance $4,000; and a large stock of dry goods, loss unknown.
T. J. Sullivan, bar room and grocery, in store room of W. C. Norris; loss $300; insurance $200.
J. B. Gorrell, damage done building by fire and water, $1,000, fully insured.
Rev. J. H. Judd, bar room and grocery; loss $1,000; insurance $500.
Exponent; loss $1,700; insurance $1,200. The Exponent will resume publication in a short time.
A. McD. Green, Green’s Hall and law library; loss $8,000; insurance $4,100. There was said to have been in Mr. Green’s vault at the time of the fire, one thousand dollars’ worth of bonds, etc. The vault was opened after the fire and the contents but little damaged.
W. A. McNeal butcher’s shop and tools; loss $300; insurance $200.
Rixey Bros. Damage to building, $100 etc., fully insured.
S. W. Cole, damage done to stock, $50; fully insured.

In addition to the losses stated above there are a great many more or less amounts which in the aggregate will make a considerable amount.

A sack of salt was used to great advantage during the course of the fire. The roof of the tin store of W. W. Chelf was in a blaze but was put out by the use of salt, it being spread over the flames and extinguished them almost immediately.

During the course of the fire the fire engine was disabled for some time by some one putting a bucketful of salt into the tank, which had the effect of clogging up the values and rendering the engine useless for a considerable length of time.

Our citizens, especially our colored citizens, are deserving of great praise for the efficient manner in which they worked and for not despairing when it seemed almost useless to try longer to oppose the progress of the flames.

The burnt and charred ruins are now surrounded by large crowds watching the smoldering hear of rubbish and picking out scraps of old iron and nails and men are busy throwing down the brick walls to prevent their falling and hurting anyone.

The detectives are engaged in working up the case of the supposed incendiary but have so far found no clues that will lead to the identification of the supposed criminal.

As we go to press liquor is flowing freely among the crowd.