The steamer ship Shirley catches on fire at the wharves in West Point, causing extensive damage to the ship and the town.
At approximately 10pm on November 29, while the crew of the Shirley slept, a fire broke out on board the ship, quickly spreading to the wharf it was tied to. A night watchman sounded the alarm, alerting the crew on board and others on shore. Unfortunately the fire was extremely aggressive, spreading to adjacent wharves and warehouse buildings nearby. Luckily all the crew on the Shirley escaped, although some of them were unable to reach the wharf quick enough and had to jump into the Pamunkey River.
Within an hour, the ship, all the nearby wharves, warehouse buildings, twenty one railroad cars, and the railroad and telegraph offices were engulfed in flames and destroyed. 2600 bales of cotton were also destroyed in the fire. Basically the entire waterfront of West Point went up in flames that night. Luckily there was no loss of life during this memorable event in this small town that sits not much more than 30 miles east of Richmond. Damages were estimated to be about $250,000 in 1880 currency. It was thought that recent rains helped to keep the flames from spreading to the town and causing more destruction.
The story of the Shirley and the town of West Point did not end there though. The iron hull of the vessel was salvageable. The owners had the charred hull towed to Baltimore where it was rebuilt and renamed. The new name, interestingly as things turned out, was the West Point.
In 1881, the West Point began hauling cargo to different ports, including the town of West Point. On December 26, 1881, the ship arrived in West Point, and a stevedore crew went to work unloading the cargo onto the wharf. Below decks were several hundred barrels of kerosene and sixty barrels of gasoline. The latter fuel was relatively new in use, and its dangers were not as well known yet. At some point John Jarvis, a member of the group operating on the ship, went below to clean out the flues of the boilers. He carried with him a lit lamp, which must have ignited the gas vapors that had settled in the hold. A massive explosion went off, killing several people instantly. As fire raged, someone cut the ship loose and let it drift down the river, away from the wharves that had just been destroyed the year before by the same vessel. This incident would be the end of the ship though, ending the story of the Shirley/West Point, and more tragically ending the lives of nineteen people.