View of Capitol in 1847-48
Interest At That Time In Lighting City By Gas
Relegation of Oil Lamps and Candles to the Past
Eighty-Foot Mast

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 20, 1907 [p. 11]

The picture of a southwest view of the Capitol and grounds in 1847 and 1848 reproduced herewith doubtless will be regarded as a curious one. It differs from the conventional representations of the old building, as will be seen, by it shaving an eighty-foot mast, guyed on the old dome, on which is the lantern used by Mr. James Crutchett in lighting the grounds by solar gas It also shows the old iron railing, which was erected on the circular roadway about 1830, and some of the primeval forest in that portion of the grounds. Within the enclosure in the southwest portion was a specimen of real country. Some citizens may recall how they found themselves locked in when the old watchman cleared the gates at 10 o'clock at night, as also their adventures with spooning couples who sought seclusion in that part of the grounds.

The picture will, however, excite no greater interest at this time than the view did sixty years ago, for the public of that day was interested in the introduction of gas, and the public of today can well imagine the interest of the people of that day in the project for lighting the Capitol building and grounds, the latter from the dome. Though other communities had been using gas several years, it was not till the date mentioned that the era of gas came in and that of the whale oil lamp and the candle waned.

Increase in Lamps
The Capitol building was lighted by oil and candle, the grounds by lamps. Prior to 1825 there were only ten lamps in the grounds, east and west, but in the thirties these numbered twenty-four. In the forties the lamp-lighter, Mr. P. Kaufman, had increased work, the number of lamps reaching seventy in and around the grounds, and an assistant was employed, the late Conrade Kaufman. Improvement had been made, flint steel and tinder box had given way to the Lucifer match, but the greasy lamp and candle had been in use for years and was then. The question as to a better illuminant had been discussed for several years, and some of our citizens had learned of the advantages of gas in Baltimore. The substitution of gas for the oil lamps and candles in and about the Capitol had been freely discussed, and in 1840 Robert Mills, architect of the Capitol, through Col. W. Noland, then the commissioner of public buildings, made a report warmly advocating the lighting of the building and grounds with gas. There was no immediate result from that or from the discussions by the public.

When, about 1846, Mr. James Crutchett came to this city and settled near North Capitol and C streets, he experimented with the manufacture of solar gas in a small way and later enlarged his works, which were located just east of the present Baltimore and Ohio depot. Having succeeded in lighting his home, before the close of 1846, he approached committees of Congress with a proposition to light with solar gas the Capitol building and grounds. Congress was slow, however, to act, for his invention had not been successful other than in a small way, and Mr. Crutchett was sanguine that his light would light up so large a territory as to cause doubts. Indeed, it was said that while he expected to place a light on the dome, which would light up a mile or two of the city, he would not have been surprised if he lighted the whole District.

Secured an Appropriation
Mr. Crutchett, however, succeeded in securing an appropriation of $17,500 in the act of March 3, 1847, by which the secretary of the Senate and clerk of the House were directed to contract with him for lighting the building and grounds with solar gas. Of that sum Mr. Crutchett expended $5,000 that year and the year following the remainder, with a further sum of $3,000, and later nearly $3,000 for extra work. With this aid he enlarged his works, introduced gas in the building and placed on the dome an eighty-foot mast and a lantern by which the grounds and much of the surrounding city were well lighted. The light could be seen many miles down the river and so well lighted the city that some old citizens can recall that as far west as 12th street they could tell the time by a watch. It was during the time that the lantern was on the dome that ex-President John Quincy Adams was stricken while in the House of Representatives and died. The Capitol was draped in mourning and a piece of black bunting placed around the lantern. A few days later it was loosened by the winds and gave the appearance of a black flag, but it was not allowed to remained there long.

For some reason, probably the cost of manufacture being more than was expected and the prospect of having a cheaper gas, Mr. Crutchett did not renew his contract, and embarked in other business, establishing the Mt. Vernon cane factory. By the act of July 6, 1848, the Washington Gas Light Company was incorporated with a capitol of $50,000, the following being the incorporators; Col. B.B. French, then clerk of the House of Representatives; John F. Callan, Jacob Bigelow, W.H. Harrover, M.P. Callan, W.A. Bradley and W.H. English. That the company was soon organized and furnishing gas is apparent, for, by August 12 following, appropriations of $2,000 were made to pay it for lighting the Capitol and grounds to August 31; of $10,000 for laying pipes, erection of lamps and posts, etc., in the Capitol grounds, and $10,000 for laying pipes and furnishing 100 lamps on the avenue between the Capitol and 15th street. The first appropriation was expended at once, the second in 1849 and 1850, and the third in 1849. Thus oil and tallow were relegated to the past and illuminating gas was introduced to the Washington public.