John T. Thornton


"Soon the flames had gained possession of the Rotunda and nothing is now left standing but the bare and ruined walls."

John T. Thornton, the son of William Mynn Thornton (Chairman of the Faculty), was twenty years old at the time of the Great Fire. He recorded his eyewitness account on the evening of the fire, Sunday, October 27, 1895, in a letter to his mother, Rosalie Thornton, who was living in Berlin. The photograph of Dr. Thornton, taken in 1945(?) is courtesy of his son, John T. Thornton, Jr. of Charlottesville, Virginia and shows (from left to right) Rosalie Thornton Byron, George Byron, Helen Thornton, John T. Thornton, and the family dog, Robin.



Sunday 26 [sic] Oct. 1895

My dear Mamma,

I write to let you know of a most  fearful calamity which has befallen the dear old University. This morning I heard cries of fire and found that the Annex was in flames. Everyone was running to the Rotunda and soon a large crowd was assembled. No water could be gotten as high as the flames, only a miserable little stream of water about six feet in length came from the hose when at the level of the ground. In response to telegrams, Lynchburg and Richmond sent their engines by special trains, but the Lynchburg engine was delayed in the road and did not arrive within an hour of the expected time. I received a telegram from Richmond when the fire had been almost put out & wired back not to send the engine. Their [sic] was nothing to do but to try to keep the fire from Buckmaster's and  Tuttle's houses and to save all that was within the Rotunda and annex. They tried to blow up the portico between the Annex and the rotunda [sic] in the hope that, if the engine should arrive in time, the Rotunda might be saved. But all to no purpose. Soon the flames had gained possession of the Rotunda and nothing is now left standing but the bare and ruined walls. The boys worked like fiends to save all that was possible. Kent estimates that only 1/10 of the books was saved but he is wrong--In my opinion at least 1/3 or over were saved. The Austin Collection was lost entirely. The statue of Jefferson, Minor's bust, the pictures were saved in fairly good condition. The School of Athens was lost. Uncle Frank's valuable physical apparatus was carried out but the greater part so broken as to be practically useless. Only 25000 insurance wh. no where near covers the loss. Is estimated that 75000 will scarcely rebuild the rotunda [sic] and annex [sic] to say nothing of loss in books and instruments. No change in lectures which will continue as usual, the classes meeting in Wash Hall, Temperance Hall, Museum and Professor's offices. Papa is back in his old room--5 W.L. where the chairman's office will be. Papa is so busy that he cannot write to you to night and told me to let you know of the loss. Am so exhausted myself that I cannot write much. The Professors are taking it bravely--not lamenting the past but making plans for the future. You can imagine how distressed everyone is. I myself, now that the excitement has worn off, am getting more and more miserable  every minute and I can't expressed to you  my sorrow. I love this old University with all my heart and if I who am comparatively young am so grieved what must be the distress of those old professor's [sic] who have worked for the University so long and lectured so often within those now ruined walls! What a number of blows have struck this University within the year you have been away! Misfortune after misfortune has crippled its usefulness and now that this crowning glory of the University, this building planned and built by Jefferson, this splendid library, our so famous copy of the School of Athens, the dear old clock that never kept time, should be destroyed seems the [sic] seems to be the crowning evil and the worst that this Nemesis who pursues us could let fall on our heads. Horrible! horrible! horrible! The things gets [sic] worse the more I think about it. However lamentations do no good. We can only depend on state aid and the generosity of our alumni. Have just opened a telegram from Geo. Anderson of Richmond saying that he wanted to start a subscription immediately. Telegrams of sympathy come from all sides. O'Ferral seems especially interested. That is a good sign that the state will help us. Some taking a cheerful view of the situation say that in the end it will benefit the U Va. by bringing her more before the people. Cannot offer any opinion on that subject. Thank you very much for the beautiful pair of gloves and more especially for thinking of me and of my 20th anniversary. Had intended to write you a special letter of thanks to-day but am too tired and miserable. Love to the children and yourself. Excuse hasty scribble, & believe me

Your aff. son--John T. Thornton