The cries of "Fire!" that stirred Thomas Rutherfoord from sleep and illness didn't seem urgent; perhaps he thought he dreamt them.
It was about 3 a.m., Jan. 9, 1787.
The Richmond dry-goods merchant later recalled, "[Fire] soon appeared to spread so rapidly and the alarm became so general that no one could obtain assistance to move their goods."
It was every man for himself.
The Fellowship Fire Co., formed two years earlier by such public-spirited citizens as Rutherfoord, lawyer John Marshall and physician and former mayor William Foushee, soon found itself overwhelmed.
Rutherfoord's managers back in Scotland (one of whom was his uncle) had earlier asked him to buy an insurance policy from Fellowship Fire to safeguard goods in their Richmond inventory. Rutherfoord explained that it wasn't that kind of fire company; the group, he noted, "met occasionally for working an engine, and concluding with a frolic."
Richmond became Virginia's seat of government in 1780 and was incorporated in 1782. At the time of the fire, Thomas Jefferson's columned Capitol was a year away from completion. The statehouse, a wooden structure, stood at 14th and Main streets. A shed sheltered the Farmers Market. Adam Craig, a clerk for various courts, completed his house at 18th and Grace streets around 1787.
Craig's handsome wood-frame residence was an exception in the Richmond of 1,800 people, half of whom were slaves. (Almost the entire population back then could cram into today's Carpenter Theatre). Most Richmonders inhabited wooden hovels scattered from the river to the hilltop. Some of these cottages, John Marshall's sister-in-law Betsy Ambler said, looked as though they'd been carried on sturdy Scottish backs, "the weaker of whom were glad to stop at the bottom of the hill; others a little stronger proceeded higher; while a few…reached the summit, which, once accomplished, affords a situation beautiful and picturesque."
On that January morning, though, the scene was terrifying. Fire caught from the wood-frame chimney of Miss Julia Hartshorne's boarding house, near present 14th and Franklin streets, rapidly spreading to nearby Anderson's Tavern, and then to a portion of the Byrd warehouses where some 70 hogsheads of tobacco burned.
The state treasury building south of Franklin appeared to be in the fire's path, causing the hasty removal of the money to the crest of Council Chamber Hill. The fire's progress necessitated removing papers again to the governor's house at the southeast corner of Capitol Square.
Fire would've consumed the temporary Capitol, a wooden warehouse building at Virginia and 14th streets, but the bucket brigade pulled down two buildings in the way.
Rutherfoord's storehouses stood three blocks from where the fire burst forth. He "commenced to move and enjoined all those in my employment to exert themselves in removing the goods out of the stores." Rutherfoord led the way by carrying "pieces of sheeting" toward the river, though his illness prevented him from doing much more. He urged his coworkers to drop whatever they'd carried, run back and put the goods by him.
Richmonders blinking through the smoke into the breaking dawn counted some 50 destroyed residences and commercial buildings out of the city's 300 structures. A similar loss today would equal 18,000 buildings.
Winds from the south whipped flames that — in three hours — consumed almost everything on the south side of Main Street from 10th to 15th streets and many buildings north of Main including the Byrd tobacco warehouse just south of Franklin on each side of 14th.
The disaster destroyed tremendous amounts of property and left many destitute, though apparently few died. Debris took a month to clear; brick buildings went up on lower Main Street and elsewhere.
Rutherfoord recorded with evident pride that much was saved from his stores. However, one unopened storehouse with salt and wool goods burned to the ground. Rutherfoord, an excellent records keeper, claimed damages of more than $10,000 that his London insurer honored. He held a fire-sale auction of rescued goods in February.
Rutherfoord lived to age 86 and with his wife, Sarah, had 13 children. The fire left at least one other legacy: Richmond banned wood-frame chimneys.