Protecting Jamestown, Then and Now

Charles Werner examines the impact that devastating fires had on the Virginia settlement four centuries ago.


In 1606, King James I of England, in hopes of colonizing the New World, chartered the London Company. In 1607, a company of 105 fortune-seeking settlers set sail for the New World in the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery. On the shores of the James River, this settlement faced many challenges...


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Every State House where the legislature met in Jamestown burned. In each case, fire forced the move of the Assembly to another location. The last fire, in October 1698, which destroyed the fourth Jamestown State House (Ludwell State House Complex), resulted in the move of the capitol to Williamsburg. In his 1903 book, The Site of Old Jamestown, Colonel Samuel Yonge described what he found at the site of the State House and based on his research concluded that the building burned. The move of the State House to Williamsburg resulted in the decline of Jamestown into ruin and gradually became an agricultural area. It also resulted in the rise of Williamsburg to a heightened social and cultural center. According to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), there is a reference to the removal of bricks from the State House ruins at Jamestown to be used for construction in Williamsburg. As an additional note of significance on the ravages of fire during this colonial era, the fifth and sixth state houses in Williamsburg were also destroyed by fire.

Fires of colonial days were fought by bucket brigades, but with the extremely dry, combustible building materials and breezes off the river, fires spread so quickly that bucket brigades were believed to be ineffective. Beverly (Bly) Straube, senior curator for Jamestown Rediscovery/APVA, advised that while researchers have unearthed wooden buckets, axes and shovels that could have been used for firefighting, there has been nothing discovered that revealed any organized firefighting effort. Straube further explained that the belief is that once a fire got underway, the only thing left to do was to salvage whatever possible and just watch it burn. Even during the fire of the State House during Bacon's Rebellion, there is no mention of attempts to extinguish the blaze. Instead, writers mention throwing the government documents out the window to safety.

Protecting Jamestown Today

Visitors to Historic Jamestowne may see the remains, which are jointly administered by the National Park Service and the APVA. Currently, much of the island is preserved as a park. There are three buildings dating to the early 19th century, three modern buildings, one 18th-century ruin and a number of historical monuments at Historic Jamestowne. The only above-ground 17th-century structure is a brick church tower.

Today, the site of James Fort and its supporting museum buildings are protected by the James City County Fire Department under the command of Fire Chief Tal Luton. The current response for a building fire on Jamestown Island is three engines, one ladder, one medic, one heavy rescue, one tanker and a battalion chief on the initial alarm. The response also includes one engine from Williamsburg (the Williamsburg station is third due to the island and included under James City County's automatic mutual aid program). Equipped with modern fire apparatus, thermal image cameras, 800-MHz radios and exceptionally trained firefighters; this is quite a contrast to the bucket brigades of colonial firefighting.

While the fire protection is much better today, the dangers of fire in colonial Jamestown parallel problems that plague present-day America. Carelessness with fire from candles, cooking, outdoor fires and smoking are still prevalent reasons for serious fires and civilian deaths. Arson remains a retaliatory tool or a tool for profit.

400th Anniversary

While Jamestown fell into obscurity following the fire that ended its heyday, it has re-emerged and will be celebrated appropriately as "the birthplace of America." From May 11 to 13, 2007, Jamestown will observe its 400th anniversary with more than a dozen major events. Additional challenges will be imposed on the James City County Fire Department as 30,000 visitors per day are expected to arrive in Jamestown and the surrounding region during this three-day event. To add national and international attention, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine announced that Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip will attend the May festivities. Additionally, dignitaries from around the world are expected to attend the commemoration. The James City County Fire Department has been working with local law enforcement and state and federal agencies for over a year in the planning for public safety at the event.

Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, located in Virginia's Historic Triangle, are a testament to the American spirit. The original James Fort was mistakenly believed to have been located in an area submerged after years of encroachment of the waters surrounding it. Most of James Fort was recently discovered to be on dry land and is now one of the most exciting archaeological sites in the country.

More information on the commemorative activities may be found on the official "America's 400th Anniversary - Jamestown 1607-2007" website at www.jamestown2007.org/.