Hopewell, VA Fire, Dec 1915
Fire Destroys Du Pont City; Looter Lynched
Flames Sweep Hopewell, Va., with Citizens Helpless, and Cause $2,000,000 Loss.
Hint Of A Spy Plot
Fire’s Origin a Mystery, and Government Holds German Prisoner in Custody.
Governor Sends Troops
Great Explosives Plant Escapes Undamaged-Thousands of Workmen Are Made Homeless.
Special To The New York Times.
Richmond, Va., Dec.9.-Fire today practically destroyed the boom town of Hopewell, twenty miles distant from this city. Little is left of value in the “Wonder City” of 25,000 inhabitants, a town of mushroom growth, stimulated by the demands of Europe for powder. It was founded by the du Pont de Nemours Powder Company.
The fire burned itself out late tonight. The big explosives plant escaped damage. The fire caused no loss of life.
Early tonight a rough element began the looting of the ruins. Citizens early in the afternoon had established armed guards, but these were powerless to maintain order. Appeals were made to Governor Stuart to send the militia, and orders were issued at once for dispatching several companies to the town. Citizens of the town just after nightfall detected a negro in the act of looting. He was hanged just as a special train carrying the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, under command of Major E.W. Bowles, and two companies of the Richmond Grays, under the command of Major Fulmer Bright, reached the town.
The negro was found carrying off clothing from a pile in front of a burning store. He was seized at once by a party of citizens and hurried into a side street. After a moment’s consultation a rope was placed about his neck and he was hanged to a tree.
It was believed at midnight that the situation was under control. More troops will be sent if conditions demand. Martial law was declared just before midnight.
The property loss is estimated at $2,000,000.
Everywhere among the ruins tonight, lawyers, doctors, business men, and laborers were sitting on the goods they had managed to save, with rifles across their knees or revolvers in their belts.
The stores, hotels, restaurants, office buildings, and other structures destroyed will probably number 400. There was little insurance. Fully 10,000 employees of the du Pont Powder Company are homeless, and special trains are tonight taking them to Petersburg and Richmond for shelter.
Suspected Spy Held.
The fire started at 1:35 o’clock this afternoon in a thee-story frame building on Appomattox Street occupied by a Greek as a restaurant. Whether the fire was of incendiary or accidental origin has not been determined, and town and State authorities will make a thorough investigation. All of the employees of the Greek restaurant were at work when the fire started.
The arrest of a suspected German spy within the confines of the du Pont plant this morning caused many to believe that the fire was no accident. The German is held in custody. It is said that the suspected spy had maps and blueprints of the du Pont plant in his pockets and that he was attempting to explode some chemicals in a warehouse filled with guncotton ready for shipment. Officers of the Government who have the man in charge will not verify these reports. The name of the prisoner is kept secret.
The town’s two banks were burned. Officials of each had considerable trouble with foreign laborers, who frantically besieged the burning buildings in which their money was deposited. In one bank the cahier had to drive the frenzied men from the building at the point of a revolver.
A bank officer said tonight that all the cash and papers of the banks had been taken to Petersburg and deposited in vaults there.
Boy Gives the Alarm.
An 11-year-old boy was the first person to discover the fire. He saw smoke coming from the roof of a three-story restaurant building. He rushed into the building and soon afterward appeared at a front window with an infant in his arms. He shouted to the crowd that had gathered below to hold a blanket. A bed covering was used as a life net and the boy leaped into it. Neither he nor the infant was hurt. The mother of the child dashed from the building a moment later, her dress on fire. She escaped serious injury, however.