In 1828 the Board of Visitors created the University Fire Company, which, according to a letter from professor Charles Bonnycastle, was composed of students, professors and “servants.” The University also purchased a fire engine known as the Hydraulion, which its manufacturers advertised as having the water-pumping capacity of 16 men. That prodigious pumping capacity would be compromised by the lack of a crucial ingredient: water. The specter of an unreliable water supply would haunt the University throughout the 19th century.
The University Fire Company’s first test came in 1829, when the company quickly extinguished a fire, as well as a second one that occurred hours later. A letter from student Thomas Tucker indicated that these fires were the work of “mischievous students.”
The mischief didn’t end there. Student H.A. Holt describes an 1851 episode in which a group of students stole the University fire engine, “paraded” it around the Lawn and ended by “ma[king] the engine-house out of the lecture rooms in the Rotunda, where [the engine] was found the next day.”
Later fire-related incidents were considerably less lighthearted. The University was caught woefully off-guard in 1886 when Pavilion I erupted in flames. The fire company that extinguished the flames was not the University Fire Company, but the Charlottesville Fire Department. The University Fire Company had fallen into such a state of disrepair that it had been thought to no longer exist. The Board of Visitors responded by funding the purchase of new firefighting equipment for the company and placing fire hydrants “in the shadow of every large edifice on Grounds.”
Rather than improve the water supply on Grounds, the new hydrants merely increased the load on the already old and insufficient system. An 1887 attempt to showcase the newly re-created University Fire Company was a resounding failure. Reports noted that the water system lacked pressure and failed to produce “a stream of even moderate volume to the roof of the Rotunda.”
Though the University had faced several fires throughout its early history, none compared to the Rotunda fire of Oct. 27, 1895. While walking along the Lawn, a student noticed a wisp of smoke rising from the Rotunda and Rotunda Annex. The student immediately notified the janitor, Henry Martin, who rang the Rotunda bell for an extra long period of time, signaling the Charlottesville Fire Department that their help would also be needed.
The Washington Post noted the hydrant system produced a stream of water only “four or five feet long” as the Rotunda was consumed by flames. The arrival of a second fire engine and additional firefighters from the Charlottesville Fire Department was worthless without water.
In the aftermath of the Rotunda fire, Charlottesville firefighters were called to the University frequently enough that, in 1908, they asked the Board of Visitors to make a voluntary contribution. This request was initially rejected, but that policy was reversed when the department saved the Chapel from fire in 1910. As the Charlottesville Fire Department’s role in protecting the Grounds grew, the University Fire Company quietly faded into history.