Monday, December 3, 2018

Five Firefighters Killed in Lynchburg

William Reuben Moore was born 1846 in Franklin County, Virginia, to Thomas Moore and his second wife, Frances Delaney. William married Mary Olivia Wrenn, who went by Olivia or Ollie, my second cousin three times removed, on 2 June 1875 in Lynchburg, Virginia.

I have been unable to find William and Olivia in the 1880 census and know very little about their lives. Olivia died on 9 January 1881 in Lynchburg at the age of 26 years. I know William and Olivia had a least one child as their headstones are engraved "Mother" and "Father," but I have not yet found the children.

William was a volunteer fireman and was still volunteering with the Lynchburg Fire Department soon after its formation in April 1883 as a Captain. Just a month later five firefighters died while fighting a major fire downtown, including William Reuben Moore.

Memorial plaque located at Presbyterian Cemetery commemorating the first
firefighters killed in the line of duty in Lynchburg, Virginia; courtesy of FAG
volunteer LJH

Lynchburg and Its People, published in 1900, described the fire:

"The question about the paid fire department had not been fully settled. March 28, Alexander Thurman was elected chief, and the work of organization started.

The Fifth Street station had been finished, and in May the Gamewell electric fire alarm was in operation. None dreamed of the fearful experience that awaited the new department so early in its history.

There was nothing unusual in the early morning of May 30. It was a hot, dusty day and business was moving along as usual, when about ten o'clock the city was startled by a rude alarm of fire. The alarm came from the box at Main and Ninth streets, and before the fire department arrived Jones, Watts Brothers & Cos.' big iron front hardware store seemed to be in a blaze from bottom to top. It seems that a clerk threw a lighted paper upon the basement floor where the oil was kept, and it immediately caught fire. The elevator shaft was open and the building caught so quickly that there was not time to close the safe. The newly organized department began to fight the fire in earnest, but it was powerless. The streams of water seemed to feed the flames, and soon the Virginian Building, corner of Main and Tenth street, was afire. Then the Sample Room, a tailor shop, a frame stable corner Church and Tenth streets, Peters & Flood's tobacco factory and two frame houses on Church street caught, and were soon wrapped in flames. Holcombe Hall, Friends' warehouse, Mrs. C. J. M. Jordan's house and several other buildings caught, but were extinguished before much damage was done. At one time it seemed as if two or three blocks would be destroyed, but fortunately the winded changed and they were saved. The people were almost frantic, and once it looked as if there would be a riot; men wanted to take the hose from the firemen. The Home Guard and the Blues were called out to preserve order, and they had scarcely gotten on the ground when another disturbance arose and a race riot was imminent.

The fire was at length confined to the buildings already burning, and the firemen turned their attention to them. Edward McCrossin and W. P. Redman climbed to the top of the reeling iron front of the hardware store to attach a rope in order to pull it down, before it fell and killed some of the men. This was successful, and when it was over the Virginian Building blazed up and Halsey Gouldman, J. A. Vaughn, J. T. Clement, Captain W. R. Moore and Felix Delbelvre went into the house with two streams of water. They had been there about thirty minutes when the division wall fell with a crash and buried them beneath its ruins. A shudder of horror went through the crowd as soon as it was learned that the men were buried under the hot bricks. The citizens rushed in to help remove the debris and it was with difficulty that the police and the military companies could keep them back and prevent other accidents. Willing hands worked for hours searching for the bodies. None thought that any escaped death, and they were correct, for when the bodies were reached it was found that they had been killed almost instantly.

Besides the great loss of property in this, the most disastrous fire ever known in Lynchburg, the awful death of these brave men carried sorrow to every heart. The city council called a meeting that night to honor the heroic dead, to arrange for their funeral, and to have a monument erected to their memory by the city.

The funeral was appointed for Thursday, May 31, at 4 p.m., at the Opera House. When the time arrived all business was suspended, the houses were draped and the streets were crowded with people. The five caskets rested in front of the stage, and every available space in the building was occupied by citizens eager to show their last respect to the brave men. Revs. T. M. Carson, S. B. Southerland, G. C. Vanderslice, W. T. Hall, W. E. Edwards, and W. R. L. Smith took part in the service, and Major John W. Daniel delivered the funeral oration. After these ceremonies were concluded the longest procession ever witnessed in Lynchburg, consisting of the white and colored military companies, various orders and associations, fire companies, city officials and citizens took up its line of march to the Presbyterian cemetery. There the services at the grave were performed by Revs. J. H. Williams, R. R. Acree and J. M. Rawlins.

A subscription for the widows and orphans of the dead fireman was at once started, and in a few days after the funeral a mass meeting was called at the Opera House to arrange for the investment of the funds raised. Peter J. Otey, N. R. Bowman, R. L. Waldron, Charles M. Blackford, and W. A. Strother were appointed trustees. The total amount was three thousand, four hundred and sixty-eight dollars. Later the council decided that instead of a monument in the cemetery it would erect a memorial fountain at the foot of Courthouse Hill. This was done and the fountain stands there today as Lynchburg's recognition of the brave deed of these faithful men."

The fire department purchased several burial plots at Presbyterian Cemetery. Four of the firefighters killed in the 1883 fire were the first firefighters to be buried there. Capt. William R. Moore, a volunteer firefighter, who worked for the Northern & Western railroad was buried in a family plot at Spring Hill cemetery.

In 2009 the Lynchburg fire department erected a memorial at Presbyterian Cemetery, commemorating the firefighters killed in the 1883 fire because the marble headstones were growing harder to read. According to the News & Advance, it was "feared that one day people visiting the graveyard won't know who these men were and the sacrifice they made."

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