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A period artist’s interpretation of the Richmond Theater fire of December 1811 Hand-tinted aquatint, 1812, courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center
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A circa-1895 streetcar traveled a route between Church Hill and Byrd Park. Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
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Richmond in the wake of flooding from Hurricane Camille in 1969 Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
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Doug Wilder on the eve of his election in 1989 Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
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Map reproduced from the Report of Advisory Committees for the Consolidation of the City of Richmond and Henrico County
Editor's note: This accompanies the article on five historical turning points published in Richmond magazine's February 2014 Sourcebook issu e.
1. "The Most Awful Calamity…" Dec. 26, 1811
A holiday evening at the Richmond Theater turned tragic when a swaying chandelier caught painted stage backdrops on fire. The building had one major exit for approximately 800 panicking patrons. More than 70 died, 54 of them women; the victims included wealthy whites, free blacks and slaves, entire families and Gov. George W. Smith. Dr. James D. McCaw lowered women from a window into the arms of blacksmith slave Gilbert Hunt. Richmond discouraged theater for years afterward, and ministers elsewhere preached against playhouses. A crypt for the remains became part of the foundation of Monumental Episcopal Church, 1224 E. Broad St., completed in 1813 by South Carolinian Robert Mills, the country's first native architect. The Historic Richmond Foundation preserved the building. Meredith Henne Baker in 2012 published a long-needed history, The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster.
2. Rolling Right Along: May 8, 1888
Frank Julian Sprague (1857 to 1934), a Connecticut Yankee and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., created with his team a 12-mile, 40-car streetcar system. The size and endurance were unprecedented. Soon, hundreds of similar lines started worldwide. The streetcar birthed Richmond communities such as Barton Heights, Forest Hills, Westhampton, Bon Air, Ginter Park and Sandston. The trolley became a social component of city life, but Richmond eventually surrendered to trends. In late 1949, the trolleys were burned in a pyre, and the tracks were ripped up or paved over. Since then, various groups have tried to revive at least a mile of track to no effect.
3. The Great Floods: Hurricane Camille, Aug. 19-20, 1969, and Hurricane Agnes, June 22, 1972
The James River, which birthed the city and sustains it, has on occasion piled out of its banks with terrible consequences. Camille, a Category 5 storm that roared inland, claimed 113 lives statewide and pushed the river in Richmond to almost 30 feet above flood stage. Shockoe Valley drowned. Agnes brought waters to nearly 37 feet, again inundating Shockoe and damaging hard-pressed Fulton. These disasters discouraged extensive building along the river and encouraged the James River Parks formation. More floods prompted the 1988 construction of the Richmond Flood Wall, dedicated Oct. 21, 1994. The wall created more commercial and residential ventures in the neighborhood. On Aug. 30, 2004, remnants of Hurricane Gaston stalled over Richmond, dumping 14 inches of rain in three hours. The pummeling overwhelmed Shockoe's drains, rushed water down neighboring Church Hill, and the flood wall backstopped the churning 10-foot-deep water.
4. Son of Virginia: Jan. 14, 1990
Lawrence Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves who was raised poor on Church Hill's 28th Street, became governor of Virginia and the first African-American governor in the history of the United States. He'd blazed political trails in the legislature and as lieutenant governor. He also attempted a run for president in 1991. After a stint as a radio talk show host and a controversial attempt to start a slave museum in Fredericksburg, in 2002 he and former mayor and U.S. Rep. Thomas J. Bliley, R-7th, teamed to alter the city charter to give Richmond an at-large elected mayor. Wilder initially said he wouldn't pursue the office, but in 2004 he did. His term yielded more sound than light. The senior statesman continues to make appearances in Richmond magazine's "Best & Worst" issue, thanks to readers' responses.
5. Reach Exceeds Grasp: Midnight, Dec. 31, 1969
After unsuccessful attempted mergers with Henrico County, Richmond in 1969 annexed a portion of Chesterfield County. The annexation, secretly planned by both sides, was to solve the issue of Richmond's eroding white population by adding 47,000 residents, 97 percent of whom were white. Richmond paid Chesterfield $7.8 million for the land and assumed $19.3 million of county debt. The annexation caused an urgent wave of white flight. Black activist Curtis Holt Sr. pursued a suit under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the U.S. Supreme Court replaced Richmond's at-large election system with a ward arrangement to provide adequate representation that in 1977 produced a black majority council. Annexation, once a fairly simple process, became anathema. Today, "regional cooperation" is almost non-existent. To read about more historical turning points, see Richmond magazine's February 2014 Sourcebook.