Walter Scott Hancock


"I ... saw the first awfully sublime sight of my life--the bursting of the flames from the summit of the dome."


Hancock's description of the fire:

University of Virginia, Sunday, Nov. 3, 1895


Last Sunday immediately on writing the forgoing notes, I put up my books and prepared to dress for services.


Just as I found myself stark naked & before a bright fire was preparing to take a sponge bath (it being about 10.15 a.m.) Mrs. Lambeth in a very excited voice called to me that the Public hall was on fire. I thought nothing of it, completed my bath & soon hastened over about 10.30. I found the fire serious indeed. The rear end of the Annex near the roof was smoking & the flames had just burst out. A great crowd of students & others had gathered all around much excited. Some were running here & there helpless as to what should be done on account of the small supply of water. Helping to move a long & heavy hose, I considered what best to be done. A few moments suffice [sic] to show that the annex must certainly burn, -- most probably the Rotunda. I hastened to aid in removing the physical apparatus of Prof. Smith for this was nearest to me. Finishing all I could here I hastened to the Law lecture room & found all the important books removed. I took up an armfull [sic] of such as remained & hastened out; thence back to the physical laboratory. A pause for some minutes took place while several charges of dynamite & powder were used to blow down the Annex Reading room & Old Chapel. Then seeing all useless everyone did what they could to save the Library. When I got to the Library all the pictures of importance had been moved; the bust


of Grand old John B. had been carried out & the pedestal was being removed. The dome was full of smoke: for an instant there was but one man in the room that I could see & I asked him to hasten down with me to get twenty men to move Galt's celebrated statute [sic] of Jefferson which cost $10000. When we returned there were a great many in the room & on the stairs carrying books & other things. (Previous to all this I had helped to carry Prof. Kent's handsome secretary.) There was Dr. Cocke, Prof. Thornton & others, a rope had been secured & many were waiting but still Prof. Thornton delayed to assent to the moving. He thought the Rotunda would be saved--too sacred to burn--so we all thought at first. I joined Dr. Cocke in urging him to permit the removal. When he consented, I aided in lowering the statute [sic] from the pedestal. I was so stifled with smoke that I hastened to the window but did not recross for some moments. Returning I found stronger hands at work, so I hastened to remove books & desks. Then also to the reading room & the Old Chapel. When this was done I hastened out on the Lawn & saw the first awfully sublime sight of my life--the bursting of the flames from the summit of the dome. I could not stay here long, for we were called to fall in line to pass water. This I did until a halt was called. I returned to the Lawn--paused be-


hind Prof. W.D. Dabney (I love him!) & Mr. Paige the librarian. The old clock had stopped 5 minutes of 12 o'clock. Prof. Dabney turned to introduce me to Mr. Paige, the minute hand fell back to half past 11. Soon the old old bell stood out bare amidst the flames & smoke; a little later the clock fell toward the front & was crashed on the marble steps. Just here Prof. Minor touched me to aid in passing water. I hastened to one of the alleys & for a long, long while passed buckets though painfully tired. A halt was called. Returning to the Lawn I saw that the dome had fallen; a great smoke was rising from the ruins; the flames were licking up the (?) in part of the entablature from of [sic] the celebrated capitals of Jeffersons [sic]; & these were falling piecemeal. The fire had done its worst. I looked long at this most cherished work of the greatest of America's sons. I would willing [sic] have given all but honor to know it but a horrid nightmare which it seemed. Dr. Lambeth's house narrowly escaped. I went to see what was done there; ate dinner; returned to the Lawn found Tom Lewis & Prof. Dabney, with whom I walked around the ruins. Prof. Venable asked the name of the painter who copied the "School of Athens", the only good copy which a little while before had been in the Public hall. I told him "Balze". We went around to the wall on the west. It was growing dark. The moon came up from


opposite side & peeped through the desolated columns. We spoke of the Parthenon, the Pantheon; I thought of the Colliseum [sic] & of Byron. We separated & the tragic day was done.

On Monday evening 7.30 there was a mass meeting of the students in the Chapel. Most of the professors were there. It was the provident meeting hour of my life. To have been or to be a matriculate of the University of Virginia was sufficient honor for a life. All regret for not going to Hopkins died there. The Law class use the "Wash" Hall. Yester-afternoon I received a letter from Mr. Sprunt telling me of the bad condition of business and of his inability to take my books. I have but six cents; yet I believe by the favor of Heaven I shall finish my course here. Last night I debated at the "Jeff" and thought the exercises good. Enjoyed Dr. Cocke's sermon this morning text "All things work together for good to those who love God."