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1908 Orange Fire

About 5:30 a.m. Sunday. November 8, 1908, a fire began in the apartment over Dr. Lawrence S. Ricketts’ drugstore on Railroad Avenue. The alarm was quickly sounded, but there were high winds, and a large portion of the town’s business district was quickly engulfed in flames. The locals could only respond with a bucket brigade that did little to stem the blaze for several hours.

Around 8:00 a.m., the Charlottesville fire department sent a special train equipped with a steam-powered pumper, three horses, a tanker car filled with water, and fourteen firefighters. The townspeople and firefighters from Charlottesville worked together to battle the flames.

The intersection of East Main Street with Byrd Street, near the Orange Baptist Church, marked the easternmost extent of the fire; and a small warehouse adjacent to the railroad freight depot was the limit of the fire to the south. The fire had consumed the structures along the northern half of Railroad Avenue, which some called the Broadway of Orange, and many of those on the south side of East Main Street, from Chapman Street to Byrd Street. An estimated $100,000 in damage ($3.15 million in today’s dollars) resulted from the conflagration. Despite the significant destruction, no lives were lost; and reconstruction on several of the burned lots began shortly after the fire.

The destroyed properties included: the Orange Baptist Church (quickly rebuilt on its present location on West Main Street in 1909); drug store of Dr. Lawrence S. Ricketts and the two upstairs apartments, Ware-Watts Hardware Company; real estate office of Adonirum Judson (A.J.) Harlow; two stores owned by G.A. Gaines; grocery store of J.D. Morris and the clothing store of Sol Cohen; Emil Levy's dry goods store (known as "Levy's Busy Corner”); Waite & Chewning Furniture Company; house occupied by Mrs. Carrie Anderson; house of Mrs. Jane McDonald; apartment and a bakery owned by Mr. Bushby; mortuary and residence of A.J. Harlow; and the Southern Railway telegraph office and interlocking tower.

Initially, the cause of the destruction was rumored to be a cat that had knocked over lantern. However, the blame for the conflagration quickly shifted to Mr. Towles Terrill (77 yrs old), who lived in one of the apartments over Dr. Ricketts's drug store. Terrill escaped the fire unhurt, but would lose his life in another downtown fire in 1916.


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