By Mark St. John Erickson
12:00 AM EST, March 1, 2014
Sometime around 3 p.m. on the afternoon of March 3, 1814, a great fire erupted and roared through Yorktown, adding a desolate landscape of charred and toppled ruins to a series of disasters from which the once-flourishing port town never recovered.
Already staggered by the decline of the tobacco trade and the loss of its long prominence as Virginia's busiest slave trading market, the old settlement on the banks of the York River had suffered still more during the Revolutionary War and the 1781 siege, when many of its buildings sustained heavy damage from a French and American artillery bombardment that lasted more than a week.
The 1814 blaze seemed devilishly intent on destroying what remained, devastating many prominent structures along the top of the town's waterfront bluff and virtually wiping out the many stores, warehouses, wharves and houses that once crowded the low-lying district along the river.
"The county Court-house, the Church, the spacious dwelling of the late President Nelson, and the whole of the town below the hill, except Charlton's and Grant's houses, were consumed," the Richmond Enquirer lamented.
"The lower town was occupied principally by poor people, who are now thrown upon the world without a shelter or a cent to aid them ... scarcely anything was saved from the fired buildings."
Despite its catastrophic blackening of the waterfront, the blaze is believed to have started far up on the hill in the well-known ordinary -- or tavern -- of a Mrs. Gibbons.
As the prominent two-story structure burned to the ground, the flames spread to numerous other buildings, including the large T-shaped Courthouse of 1733, the ample H-shaped house of William Nelson -- former president of the council -- and the old York-Hampton Parish Church constructed in 1697.
Perched near the edge of the hill, the church may have provided the path by which the inferno raced down and spread to the waterfront district, Robert Nelson wrote in a letter to St. George Tucker of Williamsburg.
"The wind was high and the buildings old," the Enquirer explained.
"The fire of course spread like a train of powder."
When the blaze was finally extinguished, about a third of the buildings to survive the siege had perished in its flames.
Nelson reports the loss of several of his family's houses, an old store and granary and several storehouses, among many other structures.
"Almost all the houses on the Water('s) edge are burnt also," he wrote.
"I suppose there must be between twenty and thirty houses destroyed. How the houses on the left side of the street between the court house and my Aunt Nelson's escaped I cannot conceive."
As Colonial National Historical Park historian James Haskett remarked in a 1991 Daily Press story, what remained was a distant echo of the bustling port that had boasted some 200 to 300 primary structures at its zenith.
So severe was the damage that -- just as they did in response to the devastation inflicted by the 1781 siege -- many residents simply abandoned their destroyed or damaged properties, leaving fewer and fewer people in the town willing and able to rebuild.
"One third of the town was either never rebuilt or rebuilt with something not so expensive," Haskett said.
Still, there were some prominent survivors, including the charred shell of the old parish church.
So intense were the flames that its ancient clay and shell walls had hardened still more in the heat, enabling them to withstand 34 years of neglect before the 1848 reconstruction project that resurrected and renamed the historic sanctuary as Grace Episcopal Church.
Little of the 18th-century town remained, however, and what did suffered still more during the Civil War siege of 1862 as well as a second fire that erupted on Main Street the following year.
Packed full of ammunition and powder by the soldiers of the Union garrison, the town's new courthouse caught fire and exploded on Dec. 16, 1863 in a succession of violent blasts that lasted nearly 3 hours and could be heard miles away.
Fifteen more buildings were lost in the inferno, including the old jail of 1737 and the Swan Tavern, leaving only a remnant of the town's historic 1700s core still standing.
-- Mark St. Erickson
NOTE: Thanks to readers Steven Preas and Thomas Nelson for their timely reminders and help with source material on the Great Fire of 1814. Find out more about the blaze from Nelson's recent post at www.RememberYorktown.org.
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