Warrenton’s Great Fire of 1909

View from Ashby Street, where the fire started, shows the extent of the destruction. Buildings on Waterloo Street and Courthouse Square were lost, but through heroic efforts, the Courthouse and county jail were spared.

At about 7:40 p.m. on the night of November 22, 1909, a fire started in the hayloft of the Bradburn & Clatterbuck Livery Stable on present-day Ashby Street, near the corner with Lee Street. The cause of the fire was never determined, but the first witnesses on the scene were met by tongues of flame shooting out of the hayloft, and a high wind was blowing.

Most of the town’s firefighters were in town, either at a revival at the Methodist Church on Culpeper Street or at the Post Office waiting for the mail. They responded quickly when someone rang the Courthouse bell. But their efforts to battle the blaze quickly failed due to a lack of water.

At the time, Warrenton was served by a reservoir on View Tree Mountain. The dam had been rebuilt, but a leak had developed at one end of the dam, and the gravity-flow of the water was minimal. That problem, plus the fact that the region was in the grips of a fall drought, created a “perfect storm.”

The fire spread from the livery stable to the adjoining buildings, with flames raging up Ashby Street toward Waterloo Street, Court House Square, and Winchester Street. The next structure to ignite was the adjacent Ullman stable, followed by W. A. Garner’s skating rink. Soon the Farmers’ Hotel at the corner of Main and Ashby streets was threatened. 

Across Ashby Street, the Warren Green Hotel annex was being hit by windblown, burning embers, and the stone walls of the county jail began to heat up. Blown by the wind, the fire spread across Court House Square to Winchester Street. Across from the Farmer’s Hotel, the almost-new Warrenton Municipal Building was soon ablaze.

Many more men rushed to town to help, including a detachment of cadets from Bethel Military Academy who marched in double-quick. But without water there seemed to be little they could do.

Frustrated, the firemen dropped their hoses and took buckets from stores and dwellings to form bucket brigades, using sand and water pumped from wells. But there was no stopping the flames. Chaos reigned as burning debris blown by the wind fell everywhere.

Fearing for his inmates’ safety, the county jailor released eight prisoners without handcuffs or manacles from the jail, and moved them to safety. None tried to escape.

Irvin Garrett remembers

Irvin Garrett was four and a half years old at the time of the fire, and in an interview with the Fauquier Historical Society more than 70 years later, he recalled many details. It was after dark, and Irvin and his sister Esther were at home on Waterloo Street with their aunt, Hattie Burgess Cropp, while their mother Lelia Garrett was at the revival at the Methodist Church.

When it was apparent that a huge fire was happening nearby, their Aunt told the children to go up to bed, but instead, they hid under the dining room table. “This turned out to be very fortunate for us,” Garrett recalled. The fire soon spread to the roof of the house, and they ran outside. 

“How my aunt, my sister and I became separated, I do not know… but Esther took off by herself to find our mother at the church,” Garrett recalled. “I remember watching tar paper roofing, on fire, being blown through the air and igniting everything on which it lit. I also remember the dozen or so horses from the livery stable stampeding through the Square.” 

“I ran across the street approximately at the location where the John Barton Payne Building stands to the area in front of the Old Jail. From there, Mrs. Addison Weeks led me to safety at the home of Mr. Ernest Ash.”

Dynamite

Having exhausted all other firefighting means, it was decided that the only way to stop the flames was to create fire breaks by dynamiting the structures immediately in the line of the fire. Firemen secured a 500-lb. cache of explosives from Paul C. Richards, the contractor building the new road to Bethel, and they began containing the flames by flattening the buildings in the way, creating fire breaks.

One of the first buildings to be demolished was the 2-story Warren Green Hotel Annex, creating a break that saved the main part of the hotel and the businesses on Culpeper Street.

The report published Nov. 24, 1909 in the Baltimore Sun recounted the heroic actions of C.C. Waugh, “…a strapping worker in the construction department under Mr. Richards,” who was credited with stopping the spread of the blaze by blowing up Mrs. H.A. Parker’s house with 50 pounds of dynamite before the fire reached it.

“If Waugh worked quickly enough, he knew he could save the eastern and business sections of the town. He set the pasteboard boxes of dynamite inside the cellar, and then looked about his pockets for a fuse. “He had none, but knew that if he went for a fuse he would not have time to come back because the house would be off. He knew that if he had the fuse at that minute, the house would be down before the fire reached there, and the flames could not leap the breach.

“Unhesitatingly, he wrapped a bunch of newspapers tightly in his fingers and set a match to them. Glancing at the cellar door and gauging the distance, he leaned over, cat-like, and threw the blazing papers at the dynamite. He figured that it would take several seconds for the flames to eat inside the pasteboard, and he took a chance that those two seconds would give him his life. As he jumped out of the cellar and darted across the street, the flying debris of the house, following a terrific detonation, fell about him, and he was thrown 20 feet across the road. He scrambled to his feet unhurt.”

Acts of bravery

There were other acts of bravery. Charles Marshall grabbed a fire extinguisher and climbed to the roof of the Post Office at the corner of Main Street and Alexandria Pike. Every time an ember landed on the roof, he put it out.

“At her home on Waterloo Street, a woman was in bed with her two-day-old infant beside her,” according to the story in the Baltimore Sun. “The fire had started to eat its way up the back porch. The cry rang out around the burnt district until it was heard above the roar of the flames, ‘A woman is in danger!’ A dozen men rushed to the house, emerging a moment later carrying the mother in their arms, and a giant Warrentonian bore the babe with careful tread behind.”

On Winchester Street, the home of Dr. Carter was aflame, and the fire spread across the street to Capt. Edward Carter’s house, Carter Hall. Several boarders lived there, and they tried to save what possessions they could by throwing them out the windows, where the Bethel cadets moved them to safety.

By 11:30 a.m. the next day, it appeared that the fire was burning itself out, and in light of the danger and extreme efforts, no one was killed, and injuries were minor. But the damage to the west end of Warrenton was extensive, and 14 families were left homeless. 

No fewer than 26 buildings were lost, including the new Municipal Building, the skating rink, the Five Points Building and the Farmers’ Hotel. Fortunately, the books owned by the Warrenton Library Association that were stored in the hotel were removed by volunteers to the California Building before the fire consumed the building. Remarkably, the old Moses Hall on Waterloo Street was spared while adjacent buildings were lost.

The total damage estimate was $125,000, with about $80,000 covered by insurance. Damage to Carter Hall was set at $10,000, while the relatively new Town Hall was valued at only $2,500. The T.E. Pattie general store on Winchester Street and all of its contents were lost, valued at $12,000. 

The greatest single loss was the studio of artist Richard Norris Brooke. While the building was only valued at $2,000, value of the paintings lost in the fire was set at $25,000, and only partially insured. Another significant loss was the small building on Waterloo Street that housed Chief Justice John Marshall’s law office from 1788 to 1780.

While some blame was placed on the Town Council for not having the leak in the reservoir fixed before the fire, most understood that the extent of the disaster was unavoidable, and could have been much worse. A number of new ordinances were enacted, including forbidding smoking in or near any public or private stables. Fire lines within which frame structures could not be built were established, and the possibility of adding a chemical firefighting engine was explored. 

A small shed in which to store the town’s firefighting equipment was built on the site of the burned Municipal Building, and a new Town Hall at Main and Fourth streets was remodeled with offices upstairs and fire department on the ground level, an arrangement that would work for many years.

“We will have a newer and a better Warrenton,” wrote Capt. Fielding L. Poindexter, editor of the Warrenton Virginian. “The spirit of our town will assert itself as it did in Baltimore, and we will rebuild upon the ashes.” 

Warrenton rebuilds, prepares

The buildings may have been lost, but the prime locations remained, and over the next few years, new structures did “rise from the ashes.” The Warrenton Supply Co., incorporated in December 1913, was built on the site of the livery stable and skating rink, and was soon selling Studebaker, EMF and Allen & Stanley Steamer automobiles. 

A new Municipal Building, also known as “The Opera House,” was erected on Courthouse Square, along with new retail stores. The Warren Green annex was rebuilt, and although it was severely damaged, the brick walls of Carter Hall were still sound and the historic home was rebuilt. Across Winchester Street, homes and the new Warrenton Methodist Church rose from the ashes. 

The town council purchased its first piece of motor-driven firefighting apparatus in 1921, a Chevrolet truck equipped with a 50-gallon chemical tank and a hose carriage costing $2,815. 

William G. Bartenstein was appointed chief by the town council in 1922, and in 1924, Chief Bartenstein, B. H. Smith, Alex Hamilton, Alwyn Ash, Lester Burke and Irvin Garrett, then 19 years old, met to discuss organization of a fire department. Young men of the town responded enthusiastically to the invitation to join. 

The fire department was given space on the ground floor of the Town Hall in space used to store a steamroller, and after much work, it was made usable for the firemen. The fire alarm was a steam whistle located down the hill at the Warrenton Electric and Ice Company owned by M.J. O’Connell. The plant operators sounded the alarm – a short blast for a fire in town, a long blast for out of town.

On Dec. 3, 1924, the formal organizational meeting was held, with Mayor Thomas E. Frank presiding. W. G. Bartenstein was formally elected chief, A.S. Hamilton first lieutenant, Alwyn Ash second lieutenant, Lester Burke, president, Irvin Garrett secretary-treasurer, and C.C. Burke official truck driver. 

Members paid dues of 10 cents a month, or $1 per year. Regular drills were held, and soon they were able to demonstrate their expert hose work to the town council.

The infant fire company’s first fundraising effort was a minstrel show, directed by Alex Hamilton. It was held on May 20, 1925 on the stage of the movie theater operated by Mrs. Washington on Courthouse Square. About $400 was realized, and the money was applied to payments on a Seagraves 350-gallon pumper the town council had purchased. 

In the early days, the firemen fought fires with no protective gear, except what could be improvised. When Fielding’s Flour Mill at the railroad depot caught fire in the early morning of June 25, 1925, firemen used metal highway signs to shield themselves from the intense heat as they fought the blaze. The roof of the depot was damaged, but firemen prevented the blaze from spreading to nearby buildings.

Until other communities started their own fire departments, Warrenton was the only firefighting unit in the county, and they answered alarms from one end of Fauquier to the other.

John Toler
About John Toler 15 Articles
Broad Run resident John Toler is the co-author of the recent Fauquier County and Town of Warrenton history books, and has contributed numerous newspaper and magazine articles focused on the history of Fauquier, Prince William and Loudoun counties.

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