Story From: March 24, 1934
The Transient Bureau Fire
This is the story of one of the most disastrous fires to ever occur in Lynchburg history, at the Downtown Transient Bureau during the Great Depression.
Listen along as we discuss the story and fate of Frank Wells, one of the men who tried to escape the fire.
Narrator: Lynda Gentry
When Lynchburg residents opened their Sunday morning newspapers on March 25, 1934, the headline extending clear across the front page read, “Fourteen Dead, Seventy Hurt in Holocaust.”
In that morning’s newspaper were several stories about a fire. A fire that would eventually claim the lives of at least 19 men — all of them displaced from their homes and families during the Great Depression.
The story of what happened to these men in the cold, early morning hours of March 24, 1934, was told in newspapers across the U.S. and Canada.
REPORTER 1 (Monroe Morning World, Monroe, La., Sunday, March 25, 1934)
The red flames of death swept through a federal transient relief bureau before dawn today and 14 lonely wanderers perished in the raging inferno.
Seventy-five others, whites and negroes, were either burned or hurt as they leaped to the street from upper windows as the flames, starting from gravy boiling over a hot stove, swept through the former furniture store with almost incredible speed.
REPORTER 2 (The Greenwood Commonwealth, Greenwood, Miss., Saturday, March 24, 1934)
The bodies, some of them charred apparently beyond hope of recognition, were carried to Lynchburg undertaking establishments while the injured were carried to two hospitals in every available ambulance, hearse, truck and private car.
REPORTER 3 (Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light, Corsicana, Texas, Tuesday, March 27, 1934)
Grease boiling over on a hot stove was blamed for the fire — the worst remembered in Lynchburg’s history. William Rasch, the cook, said he had begun preparing breakfast for the estimated 200 occupants of the building when the grease boiled over on the stove and quickly set fire to the building.
The transient bureau was located at the corner of Church and 12th streets, behind what is now the Lynchburg Visitors Center. It was one of many such places opened by the federal government during the Great Depression.
At transient bureaus, men — and sometimes women — could find hot meals and a place to sleep while they looked for work in the area. One of those men was Frank Wells of Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Not much is known about Frank, who was one of about 100 African Americans staying at Lynchburg’s transient bureau when the fire broke out.
A search of the 1930 U.S. census reveals a 29-year-old black male named Frank Wells who was a convict in Spartanburg, South Carolina. No other personal information is listed.
Perhaps, when Frank got out of jail, he hit the road, looking for work and a fresh start. One can only imagine what it was like for Frank and the other men who lived at the transient bureau.
Ya see, for some, they ain’t wanna work. They ain’t wanna do nothin’ at all. But not me, I get angry — well, maybe mostly sad — when I heard the word “tramp”.
I know what it mean. I ain’t ignorant. But that ain’t me. I work. But sometimes there ain’t no work. Sometimes, you gotta hop on that train, see where it lead you. Sometimes, you gotta get what you can from the sweat a’your back, then there ain’t nothin’ else to sweat over.
These days … these days, e’erybody want work but ain’t nobody got the coin. They ain’t even got the bread. I heard that even the men in suits up in New York been throwin’ themselves outta windows, cuz they some market crash and the coin dry up.
Now, I ain’t never got enough coin to lose to get that upset, but they musta had a helluva lot — ‘scuse my words — to be upset enough to jump out a nice window like that!
Men in fancy suits, jumpin’ out fancy windows onto them fancy sidewalks like the building was on fire.
At the time of the fire, Frank was one of about 190 men staying at Lynchburg’s transient bureau. It’s been reported that the building was vastly overcrowded, operating at about twice its capacity.
White men were housed in one section and African Americans in another. When the out-of-control fire shot up from the kitchen through an abandoned elevator shaft, complete chaos ensued.
Little did they know, as smoke and fire swept through the building, how many would be killed or injured. In a report to the Associated Press, Lynchburg resident P.R. Pittman described what he saw from the window of his apartment.
P.R. PITTMAN (from The News, Lynchburg, Va., Sunday, March 25, 1934)
I live right across the street from the transient bureau. My room is on the second floor above the Blue Mountain Cafe and the first that I knew of the fire was about 5 o’clock this morning when I heard a crash of glass and the mingled shouts and screams of the men.
I jumped from my bed to the window and saw the whole upper part of the building across the street enveloped in flames, with smoke belching in clouds from the roof and around the windows.
The corner window nearest me had been broken in the crash of glass which awakened me, and just as I got to the window I saw a man dive out head first.
He made a grab for the telephone cable which runs above the sidewalk close to the building, but his shoulder hit it instead. The impact threw him back against the brick wall of the building and from there he plunged headfirst to the sidewalk.
I heard him moan, “Lord, have mercy on me!” just after he fell, but just then two others leaped from the windows, both of them landing on the first man. I guess that finished him, because he never moved again.
In the meantime, a dozen or more others had crowded to the one window and they seemed to be fighting and screaming like maniacs, all trying to get out at one time. I saw three men climb out on the narrow cornice and edge themselves along the front of the next building down to the alley, away from the blaze and heat of the building.
One was pushed off to the street below by those behind him. I think both of his legs were broken in the fall, as he seemed unable to get back to his feet. I lost sight of him after that in the crush and excitement of the others.
Those who managed to follow the cornice as far as the alley jumped across and caught the telephone cable with their hands and then swung safely over to the telephone pole and down to the ground.
By the time the fire department arrived there must have been between 35 and 40 men laying helpless in the street, all of them shouting and yelling for help.
Hardly any of them had on more than their underclothes, and I could see that many of them had received terribly fractured legs and backs as they landed. Others appeared to be burned and nearly all of them were bleeding from one or more wounds.
I have never seen a more terrifying sight in my life and I don’t think I’ll ever get over the effects of it. I am a partial cripple myself and there was very little that I could have done to help. But even if I could have done anything, I was too horrified for the first five or 10 minutes to do anything but look.
One of the men P.R. Pittman saw leap from the windows could have been Frank Wells. According to official records, Frank suffered a broken tibia while trying to escape the blaze — the sort of injury one might sustain while jumping from a second-story window.
That night, I ‘member it snowin’ all day. I ain’t get cold easy, so I lay down on my bunk like every other night. Some kind of a pork stock stew cookin’ — I can tell — someone had a good day and they bringin’ some hog for e’erybody.
But then somethin’ else make its way up the ol’ shaft. I can’t tell what it is at first. Hard ta say. He cook with wood, but it ain’t the same smell.
And he always burn the grease. He always gotta pour water on it every week. But this week — this is somethin’ else.
Then I hear the yellin’. I hear “Get out, get out, get out!” I hear it, so I run to the window. I see all the men on the bottom floor, dozens a’ men, musta been a hundred of us packed in that place. I seen them runnin’ into the street below. Some got burns, some still burnin’. By the time I hear “Fire!” I already seen the burns. The some, it just start pourin’ up into the shaft and through the doors. They say, “Get out, get out!” but the fire’s in the stairs. There ain’t no way to get out.
Some a’ the men start to panickin’. (coughs) They see the window, and they start throwin’ the chairs. (coughs) I can’t see nothin’ no more, but I can hear the crashing and the screams (coughs) as men start throwin’ themselves down to the snowy street. (coughs) And I can’t smell nothin’ no more. Nothin’. But the smoke make me blind, the smoke make me drown. (coughs)
I ain’t got no coin to lose, but I still gotta jump.
So, I crawl over to the window, over broken glass and over men that already stop breathin’. I drag myself up to the sill and look out.
I think about all the places I been and all the things I seen. And I see the Hill City for the last time. And for a second, through the ash and smoke, I smell the James River and the mountain laurel cuttin’ through the cold night breeze. And I jump.
In the days after the fire, telegrams and letters poured into Lynchburg from all over the country with people anxiously seeking news about fathers, sons and brothers.
Among the sad stories was that of James Marshall Roberts, a former Lynchburg resident who had set to wandering a few years before.
Roberts had come back to Lynchburg, unannounced, to see his daughter. But before going to see her, he spent one night — March 24, 1934 — at the transient bureau.
His daughter, Mrs. Aubrey Grubbs, found out that her father was in town when she saw his name listed among the dead.
(PAUSE, THEN NARRATOR AGAIN)
The Transient Bureau fire was the deadliest fire in Lynchburg’s history. Depending on the source, anywhere from 18 to 22 men perished in the fire, the youngest of which was 14 or 15 years old.
Most of the dead were sent home for burial. A few were not. They included six African-American men. One was Frank Wells.
According to his death certificate, Frank held on to life for about a week after the fire. He died on April 1,1934.
His cause of death was listed as “2nd degree burns of body, face, arms and legs” with a contributing cause of fracture of the left tibia, likely sustained in a leap from the transient bureau’s upper story.
On the death certificate, Frank’s age was estimated at “about 35.” Next to occupation, birthplace, and mother’s and father’s names were written the same two words: Not Known.
Frank was likely buried in a potter’s field at what was then called the Methodist Cemetery, now Old City Cemetery. Exactly where is unknown.
Two days after the fire, there was a bit of good news. A cat, one of three cats known for catching mice at the bureau, had been found alive.
REPORTER 4 (The Daily Advance, Lynchburg, Va., March 27, 1934)
Transients who lived through the great fire look with something akin to respect upon one of their fellow survivors, a little brown cat.
The cat was one of three cats that caught the bureau mice. They were pets of the men. When the fire broke out in the dormitories Saturday, claiming 17 lives, nobody thought much about the cats.
All of Sunday there was the excitement of providing quarters for the human survivors, taking care of the suffering at the hospital, trying to find the relatives of the dead.
Then yesterday, men went over to the bureau to see if some of the groceries in the kitchen could not be salvaged. Off, in one corner of the dark basement, they heard weak, pitiful cries.
They began a search and up in a corner of the rafters they found the little brown cat. It was suffering for want of food and water, but apparently it hadn’t moved after climbing up there for safety from the flames and smoke 48 hours before.
It was carried across the street to the Salvation Army Citadel, where the men fed it and it became an immediate pet. Nobody knows what happened to the other two cats.
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