1893 Fire Destroyed Danville’s Finest Building

          The skies of downtown Danville, Virginia were bright with large flames lighting up Main Street just after midnight on March 7, 1893.  In one of the biggest fires in memory, Danville’s finest building, Wright’s Hotel, was destroyed.  The hotel was lower Main Street (see the map below).

 Wright’s Hotel from 1890 stationery

           The fire was contained to the hotel and the stores on the first floor, so neighboring businesses at first were relieved. The loss of the large five-story building was put at $50,000 and the insurance only covered $25,000.  Commission merchants, Jennings & Watson lost their office.  Their loss was about $9,000 with insurance coverage of $6,000.  A Boston shoe house owned by Aaron Summerfield lost his stock of shoes which was valued at $11,000, with $8,000 of insurance. 

It appears that Wright’s Hotel at 230 Main Street was built in 1889. In 1888, there are only three hotels listed in Danville (1) The Burton Hotel on the corner of Main and Union Streets (2) The Carolina Hotel at 543 Mains Street and (3) The Normandie Hotel at 546 Main Street.  Robert Brydon’s drug store was next door at 238 Main Street, directly in front of Craghead Street.

Wright also had businesses in Charlottesville, Grottoes, and Lynchburg.  A fire in Ghcrlottesviille a short time before this one just missed the hotel there.  On February 21, 1893, a samll building on West Main Street, near Wright’s Hotel, was burned down on Friday night.  Three years later, on May 12, 1896, a disastrous storm hit Charlottesville.  The roof of the annex of Wright’s Hotel was blown off and deposited in hte street, and much furniture was damaged.             

Another tragedy stuck in Danville later that day of the big fire.  Aaron Summerfield hired a crew to try and save some of his stock of shoes.  Suddenly, the wall of the large hotel collapsed burying the work crew.  Two persons were killed and five injured.  The newspaper reported the victims:
Killed were:
*John Lawson, (colored), and
*Jim Motley, (colored).”
*John D. Fickler, (white) arm paralyzed.
*William Powell, (colored) right leg broken.
*Simon Wilson, (colored) left leg broken.
*Smith Buford, (colored) internally injured, may die.

          Note the Summerfield Building opposite Craghead Street in this 1877 map of downtown Danville.  Aaron Summerfield lived in this building and operated a dry goods store here.  There are no buildings on the adjacent lots towards the bridge at this time.  It appears that the hotel took up three lots.  Myer Summerfield, who was the manager, lived on Floyd Street.  It appears that the Summerfield building was torn down to make way for the large hotel building and Summerfield operated his Boston shoe business on the ground floor of the building which burned in 1893.  Also note the Roanoke Navigational Canal, which was completed in the 1820s.  Above is the tail race from the water which was used for water-powered machinery.  The canal was originally a race to the old water-powered grist mill, which was being operated by John Dix in 1771.  This original mill here, which was rebuilt several times, was probably built by Col. William Wynne (see post on Palm Tree Springs).         

                   At the same time, on the afternoon of the fire, the falling wall crushed two adjoining businesses.  The liquor house of John R. Ferrell was crushed and the drug store of Robert Brydon was totally destroyed.  It was reported that Brydon lost his entire stock of drugs.  His pharmacy was located at 238 Main Stret just above the hotel


Robert Brydon, Druggist (rubbing of pharmacy bottle)

          Robert Brydon was born in 1845 in Edinburgh, Scotland and came to Toranto, Canada.    He left a drug business under his brother William Brydon and moved to New York in 1866 and to then to Danville, Virginia.  He opened a drug store here and married Ellen Page Dame (1849-1890) on October 17, 1872.  Ellen’s father Rev. George Washington Dame came to Danville in 1840 and taught school and became the Episcopal Rector.    

          In 1852, Rev. G. W. Dame bought a three-acre tract on Colquhoun Street from Col. Nathaniel Wilson.            In 1877, Rev. Dame lived in the house at the edge of his large lot (726 Colquhoun Street) and Robert Brydon and Ellen Page lived at 714 Colquhoun in the center of the street frontage.  Although the house at 726 has been replaced, the house at 714 is very old.  The bricks are hand molded and the framing is connected with wooden pegs.  It is unlikely that the original house would be built on the property line.  It is my thinking that Dame built this house in the 1850s and later built a larger house up the street and his daughter and son-in-law lived in the older house. 

Copyright 2008 Danny Ricketts

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