|The ruins of Orange Baptist Church, 1908 (R. Duff Green)|
About 5:30 Sunday morning. November 8, 1908.
While making his customary rounds on the streets of Orange, the town's only policeman noticed a fire in the apartment over the drugstore of Dr. Lawrence Sanford Ricketts on Railroad Avenue.
The policeman raced to the Baptist church and sounded the alarm on its bells. Within minutes, all able-bodied people within the sound of those bells grabbed pails from their homes and formed a bucket brigade to battle the blaze. Water was drawn from private wells and cisterns while terrified residents did heroic work in battling the flames. Unfortunately, there was a high wind that morning, and in a very short time the main business district was engulfed in flames.
Shown below is a detail from the December 1905 Sanborn Company fire insurance map showing the section of Main Street and Railroad Avenue affected by the fire. Pink indicates buildings made of brick; yellow means it was a wooden structure. The note next to the Sanborn stamp sums up the inadequacy of Orange's readiness to react to a fire: "Water facilities: Private wells and cisterns. Fire Department: None. The town has two water tanks of 300 gallons each, mounted on wheels and drawn by hand. Hand pump of 40 gallons per minute capacity attached to each tank. Also one hand pump of same capacity used to fill tanks. About 600 feet of 1/2-inch hose. Carts equipped with buckets and axes. Topography mostly level, Streets not graded."
By 8:00 a.m., it was obvious that the town's resources were inadequate to deal with the emergency. A message was sent to Charlottesville, and the fire department there responded with the urgency the situation demanded. A special train was outfitted with a steam-powered pumper, three horses, a tanker car filled with water and additional fire-fighting equipment. Fourteen trained firefighters were also on board. Within an hour of receiving the alert, the train reached Orange.
The unlikely team of townspeople equipped with buckets and professional firefighters from Charlottesville worked together to battle the flames. The Baptist church marked the easternmost extent of the fire, which stopped at Church Street to the south. An estimated $100,000 damage had occurred, only half of which was covered by insurance. Despite those uninsured losses, reconstruction on some of the now emptied lots began shortly after the fire.
Based on newspaper accounts published in the aftermath of the disaster, I compiled this list of the destroyed properties:
-The Orange Baptist Church, which was valued at $6,000. Soon after the fire, members of the congregation began a subscription to raise the money to rebuild, and $4,000 was contributed right away. A brand new organ (valued from $1,350-$2,000 by the newspapers), obtained by the Lady's Aid Society, had just been installed. It was to be played for the first time on the morning of the fire.
-The drug store of Dr. Lawrence Sanford Ricketts and the two apartments above the store.
-The Ware-Watts Hardware Company.
-The real estate office of Adonirum Judson Harlow, who also owned the undertaking business mentioned below.
-Two vacant stores owned by G.A. Gaines.
-The building owned by Mrs. J.E. Perry which housed the grocery store of J.D. Morris and the clothing store of Sol Cohen.
-Emil Levy's dry goods store, "Levy's Busy Corner."
-Waite & Chewning Furniture Company.
-Dwelling owned by J. Martin and occupied by Mrs. Carrie Anderson.
-Dwelling of Mrs. Jane McDonald.
-Building owned by Mrs. Emma Slaughter of Washington, DC, which included an apartment and a bakery owned by Mr. Bushby.
-Business and residence of A.J. Harlow. Mr. W.L. Randolph was the licensed undertaker employed by Mr. Harlow.
-The Southern Railway telegraph office and interlocking tower. The nearby telephone and telegraph lines were also destroyed.
The following six photographs, taken the day after the fire, were shared with me by historian Ray Ezell. They are part of the Grymes Collection in the archives of the Orange County Historical Society. The captions for these pictures were written by Mr. Ezell:
This photo is taken from Church Street, east of where it crosses the railroad tracks, and gives the widest perspective on the damage caused by the fire. The partially standing brick walls of the Orange Baptist Church are visible frame-right and the steeple of the Orange County Courthouse is visible frame-left.
This view shows the wholesale destruction along Railroad Avenue and the south side of East Main Street. The burnt out walls of the Orange Baptist Church are visible in the background and the ruins of Levy's Busy Corner building are in the foreground. Mayor Perry's distinctive turreted house is also visible in the background obscured by the smoky haze from the smouldering hot spots.
This view is taken from where Main Street crosses the railroad tracks and looks to the south. Levy's Busy Corner (built earlier in 1908) had been destroyed by the fire, as well as Z.W. Chewning's Furniture Store directly east across the tracks from Levy's. The Southern Railway telegraph station, also destroyed, would have stood directly behind the photographer. Careful interpretation of the photo shows men at the tops of the telegraph poles re-stringing telephone and telegraph lines which were destroyed in the fire.
This photo is looking northeast from where Main Street crosses the railroad tracks. The ruins of the building on the north side of Main Street are visible as well as the impressive (former) People's Grocery Warehouse which borders the burnt district on the north.
This photo is looking south from the north side of East Main Street through the burnt district. The pile of rubble in the foreground is from the former Z.W. Chewning and Waite Furniture Company, which today is the location of the Orange Railroad Depot building. This shot makes clear the extent of the fire damage to the south along Railroad Avenue and on West Main Street.
This photo is taken from the railroad tracks, probably near the location of the railroad passenger depot. Large crowds are visible that have descended upon the burnt district to survey the damage. Railroad Avenue is at the left of the frame, and the ruins of the Orange Baptist Church is visible at the right of the frame.
So, what caused the great fire of Orange? 
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, there was some speculation that the cause of the conflagration was a cat that had knocked over lantern. Like the story of Mrs. O'Leary's cow and the Chicago fire of 1871, the cat tale proved to be apocryphal. It soon became apparent that the unknowing culprit was 77-year-old Towles Terrill, who lived in one of the apartments over Dr. Ricketts's drug store. Towles lived in the most meager of circumstances in his modest quarters. It was said that his bed consisted of a large wooden box filled with crumpled newspapers. While perhaps lighting his pipe that morning, his unextinguished match found its way into the detritus of his room, which then caught fire. Although he did not suffer serious burns from his mishap, by the time he was carried to safety he had lost consciousness from smoke inhalation. He did not regain his senses until Tuesday. He was still in critical condition, however, and it was feared that he might succumb to broncho-pneumonia. He was taken to the hospital in Charlottesville, where he eventually recovered.
|Map detail of Orange County, 1863|
Born on March 20, 1831, Towles Terrill was one of ten children born to Dr. Uriel Terrill (1793-1885) and the former Janet Lovell. The Terrill farm lay along the Orange Turnpike about five miles east of the town of Orange. On the map detail shown above, the Terrill farm can be seen at the right-center of the image. Towles Terrill spent his first 31 years working on this farm.
In addition to being a well-respected physician in Orange County, Dr. Terrill was also active in the political life of Virginia. In the 1840s, Dr. Terrill's name appeared in various newspapers because of his activities with the Whig Party. When that party lost its influence ten years later, Dr. Terrill switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party, to which he remained loyal for the last thirty years of his life.
On the eve of the Civil War, Dr. Terrill would have been considered a wealthy man. The 1860 census shows that his personal and real estate was valued at $48,460. The high value of his personal estate reflected his investment in the 37 enslaved people he owned.
During the Civil War, Dr. Uriel Terrill willingly sold goods and services to various quartermaster officers of the Confederate army. In 1863, he filed a claim for losses incurred when the divisions of Confederate generals Early and Johnson camped on his property. The claim involved the confiscation of a large amount of his fencing, which was then used as firewood. On October 31, 1863, Confederate quartermaster Major Robert H. Turner paid Dr. Terrill $319.20, the full amount of his claim.
Dr. Terrill remained on his farm for just six more years after the conclusion of the war. In 1871, just one year after the death of his wife, he sold his farm to New Jersey native Henry Mason for $9,000. He moved in with the family of his daughter Mary Julia and lived with them for the rest of his days.
Despite the sadness and turbulence of his later years, Dr. Terrill remained active in the political arena, and was elected to the House of Delegates at least once. He was still serving as a legislator at age 90.
Towles Terrill worked as a laborer on his father's farm until April 17, 1861, when he joined the militia company known as the Montpelier Guards. The following month, the Guards became Company A of the 13th Virginia Infantry. Towles's war record shows that he stood 5'7" tall, had a light complexion, gray eyes and dark hair.
Except for a bout of illness early in the war, the first two years of Towles's service in the Confederate army seemed to go well. He was marked "present" on the surviving muster roles during that time. But his fortunes took a dramatic turn on May 6, 1864.
During the Battle of the Wilderness, the 13th Virginia Infantry was part of Pegram's brigade in General Jubal Early's division. During the fighting on May 6, Towles was struck by a bullet in his left leg "just below his knee and fractured the bone somewhat." After a long convalescence, he appeared before a medical examining board on March 21, 1865. The board then issued a certificate of disability, which stated that he was "entirely disabled and cannot perform in any branch of field service." The board recommended that he be reassigned to duty with Major Cornelius Boyle , provost marshal at Gordonsville.
|Certificate of disability of Towles Terrill|
Towles was greatly troubled by his injury for the rest of his life. In 1884, he applied for aid under the provisions of an act of the General Assembly which entitled soldiers and marines "wounded in the late war" to receive some small compensation. His application included a certification from Dr. William Shepherd Grymes (who served as regimental surgeon of the 13th Virginia Infantry at the beginning of the war) that Towles's wound "required the resection of one of the bones of the leg and is to be presumed that he is more or less disabled for physical labor." For his sacrifice during the war, Towles received $60 on February 12, 1886.
After the war, Towles returned to his family's farm. Unable to endure the physical rigor of farm labor, he looked for work in another sphere. In 1869, he was hired as a traveling agent for the firm of Miller & Hopkins, land agents. His work carried him to destinations across the state, and he became well known for his outgoing personality and the knack for telling a good story. His popularity and ability to gain the attention of people he wished to impress was documented in an article that appeared in the Alexandria Gazette on May 11, 1887. By then he was known as "Colonel" Terrill, and was turning on the charm during an extended stay at the Metropolitan Hotel in Washington, D.C. Apparently, his reason for being in the nation's capital was to draw attention to the sad condition of the graves of the Madison family at Montpelier. He hoped to convince those in power to provide funding for a suitable monument for the father of the constitution. Such was Towles's eloquence on this subject, reported the Alexandria Gazette, that a New Yorker at this gathering offered to pay Towles's expenses to come back to Washington during the next session of Congress.
In his later years, Towles became a teacher in the Orange County schools. The Daily Star reported in October 1899 that Towles was teaching in one of the "colored" schools. When he retired from teaching in 1911 at age 80, he was granted an annual pension of $91.50.
"Colonel" Terrill seemed to have learned little from his brush with death in November 1908. By 1916 he was living in an apartment on the second floor of the Gaines Building on Railtoad Avenue. On October 30, 1916, a fire broke out in his room. What happened next was reported in the November 3 edition of the Culpeper Exponent:
The cause of death listed on his death certificate is "suffocated by smoke, caught in a burning building. His undertaker is shown to be A.J. Harlow, who lost his residence and businesses in the 1908 fire. Towles Terrill is buried in Graham Cemetery.
Special thanks to Ray Ezell for his assistance with this article.
 While the fire of 1908 is usually thought of as the "great" fire, another blaze struck Railroad Avenue just nine months later on July 20, 1909, as reported in that day's Richmond Times Dispatch:
The Sanborn Company fire insurance map of September 1909 shows an empty void along Railroad Avenue where the destroyed buildings once stood:
 While it is unlikely that Towles spent very much time, or any, with Cornelius Boyle at Gordonsville, I thought it worthwhile to write a little about him. Dr. Cornelius Boyle (1817-1878) was a lifelong resident of Washington, D.C. until the start of the Civil War. He was one of the city's leading physicians, and was well-connected politically and socially. In 1852, Boyle wrote the death certificate of John Payne Todd, the step-son of President James Madison:
Dr. Boyle also treated Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner after he was caned by South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks on the Senate floor in 1856.
Dr. Boyle sympathized with the Southern cause and was part of a network of other influential people in Washington who wished to give aid and comfort to the Confederacy. At he beginning of the Civil War, Boyle and his family left Washington and moved to Virginia. He was selected by Robert E. Lee to act as provost marshal at the critical rail junction at Gordonsville, which was linked to both Richmond and Washington. Intelligence gathered by spies in Washington would be sent to Gordonsville, and from there Boyle would ensure that it reached Richmond.
Dr. Boyle led a fascinating life, which is referenced in this article which I think many of you will find interesting: Secret Societies of the South
My primary sources for this article were contemporaneous articles from the following newspapers:
-The Alexandria Gazette
-The Daily Press (Newport News)
-The Free Lance (Fredericksburg)
-The Culpeper Exponent
-The Culpeper News
-The Richmond Times Dispatch
-The Shenandoah Herald (Woodstock)
-The Native Virginian (Orange)
-The Daily Star (Fredericksburg)
I also used information from the website of the Orange Volunteer Fire Company