Around noon on Sunday, March 26, 1882, Carter Minor of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Co. ran across an obsolete frame trunk bridge connecting Richmond and Manchester, hauling a sloshing water bucket to deal with what he thought would be a small fire created by locomotive engine sparks. He instead encountered vivid, strong flames exceeding the extinguishing power of his pail's contents. Minor dashed back to a depot on the Richmond side. Trails of flame shot down the trestle into Richmond and Manchester.
Within 20 minutes, the bridge, by then "a molten stream" mirrored by the river, heaved, burst and collapsed, splashing into the water.
The city's Sunday churchgoers, leaving their sanctuaries, pointed at black smoke clouds drifting toward them from the river. After what seemed to be an unusual delay, every bell and alarm sounded for disaster.
Gamble's Hill (today the site of the NewMarket and Ethyl campus) became "densely populated, as if by magic," reported the Daily Dispatch newspaper. An estimated 5,000 people strained to view the fire. "As the flames gained a foothold on the Richmond side, the excitement became considerable," according to the Dispatch.
The worst appeared possible.
Mansions at Fifth and Main streets blossomed temporary flames, and a group "both white and colored" pitched in alongside the sextant to save the steeple of Second Baptist Church at Sixth and Main.
Gentlemen in their spotless Sunday linen and white kid gloves assisted railroad employees, saving a "palace-car" and several others, but not five new cars built at Tredegar. Smoke and soot poured into the streets and alleyways. The Dispatch reported that "many gentlemen of immaculate cleanliness" returned home "looking like chimney sweeps."
Druggist T.B. Williams galloped on horseback in search of the city lock keeper, hoping to flow the canal water for fire fighting. Finding him gone, Williams turned on the flume.
"The firemen did all they could," the newspaper explained. Difficult terrain and the sudden eruption of numerous fast spot fires hindered extinguishing efforts. The wind flung burning cinders into their faces. "They worked very hard and they saved much property that otherwise would have been destroyed. Honor to them."
A providential wind shift to the east aided in saving the city by pushing the fire away from lumberyards to the west that would've provided fuel for a growing conflagration.
The affected district covered three squares, Eighth Street from the bridge to Byrd, from Byrd to Sixth, and from Seventh to the riverfront. Buildings burnt included seven tobacco factories and stemmeries, the Vulcan Iron Works, and in Manchester, Thomas P. Smith's gristmill and the new Kaolin Works. The weight of bridge debris collapsed on the slate roof and wrecked machinery intended for making crockery.
Accounts varied on the tenement housing consumed, some 18 to 20 structures that displaced some 19 families. Reports approximated the loss at $600,000 — around $14 million in today's dollars.
James Thomas Jr. suffered the destruction of 10 brick tenements and two four-story brick tobacco factories, one run by Thomas C. Williams Sr. (who endowed the Richmond College law school) and another by physician and businessman Richard Archibald Patterson (for whom Patterson Avenue is named). Thomas carried no insurance on any of these buildings, valued at $48,000 — more than $1 million today. Patterson and Williams, however, had insured their businesses.
The last names of Thomas' Row residents indicated recent immigration: Whalen, Murphy, Tierney, Muldowney, Belton and O'Neal. The Dispatch described the effort to rescue meager belongings causing enough damage to said possessions that they were ruined anyway.
A hundred mules, stampeded to save them from Edwin Lafayette Hobson Sr.'s endangered stables, hindered escape and removal of goods from Thomas' Row. Residents got the impression that the mules' value exceeded their own.
Charley Betts, 16, son of painter Louis Betts, of Linden and Main streets, wandered into the burning section of town, eager to retrieve papers and books. He came to the tottering gable end of Pat Belton's house on lower Sixth. A fireman warned him off but too late. The wall collapsed and killed Charley. Two men, not identified, perished in the collapse of the Patterson factory; better luck came to bookkeeper Isaac Gentry, who jumped from a window to escape suffocation.
The scorched granite pillars that supported the bridge gave mute testimony. Fred R. Scott, president of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, explained that he'd desired an iron refitting for the bridge but that several contractors failed to fill the order. Now the bridge would be "promptly rebuilt."
The Dispatch led a drive for the relief of the displaced. The ladies of the City Mission, which prior to the fire had considered closing its doors at 14 N. 14th St., remained open for dispersing assistance.
The scent of burnt tobacco and wood hung in the air for days. Boys and women wandered around the wreckage, skipping over meandering streams of water.
While fire fighters acted in courageous fashion, a Dispatch letter writer faulted persistent equipment deficiencies.
"Predictions of such a fire as took place Sunday have been made, and the [City] Council implored to anticipate it by needful preparation. But what is the use of talking? No one will listen to an OLD FOGY."