The Treasury Fire

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 17, 1911 [pt. 2, p. 5]

Early Sunday morning, March 31, 1833, the building occupied by the Treasury Department, following the removal of the government to the capital in 1800, was totally destroyed by fire, but fortunately most of the old papers were saved. It was thought at the time to have been caused by accident, but subsequently it was proved to have been the result of incendiarism in the interest of a claimant who had presented a fraudulent claim on the government.

The building, the site of which is now covered by the present granite structure, was of brick, two stories in height, with a basement and an attic, and faced south. There were some fifteen rooms on each of the two main floors, and some of the rooms in basement and attic were also utilized for office purposes. The Secretary's and firs controller's offices were on the second floor, and the three rooms occupied by the treasurer and others by the first auditor and registrar filled up the main floor.

But Two Fireproof Rooms
Two of the room sin the west end of the building were fireproof, and preserved their valuable contents. The building was heated by hard and soft coal, and wood was burned in the fireplaces. This building, as well as the State Department, was surrounded by a yard in which were several outbuildings. A small fire engine for the protection of the department, which had before been manned by the Alert fire company, was in one of these buildings, with a small hose reel. This apparatus, however, was out of order and the hose in very bad condition. Sparsely settled was this section of the city.

Immediately opposite on 15th street was the residence of James H. Causten, and near the corner were two or three other buildings, while at the northeast corner of F and 15th the old Fenwick Tavern building was then occupied by the Bank of Metropolis. There was a pump in the Treasury yard, one on F street near 15th street, and a little distance south of the building a pond of water. The pumps soon gave out at the fire and the water in the pond could only be reached by uniting the hose of the different companies, but such was the condition of the hose that it was but of little service. In fact, the building was beyond saving before the arrival of any engine company.

Story of the Fire
In the National Intelligencer, Monday, April 1, the following account is contained:

"We are sorry to have to announce that the public building east of the President's square, occupied as the Treasury Department, was consumed by fire yesterday morning between 2 o'clock and sunrise. The fire was first discovered in the room adjoining that of the chief clerk of the department, usually known among the clerks and other officers by the name of Mr. Laub's room. It is not known whether the fire originated in the floor or the ceiling of the room, the whole being in a blaze before any one approached it; but no doubt appears to be entertained that the fire was accidental. The whole room was on fire before the alarm was given, and until the alarm was given even the watch walking the pavement in front of the Branch Bank (near the spot) perceived nothing of the fire (the building of the State Department interposing). Every exertion was made, as the people gathered to the spot, finding that it would be in vain to attempt saving the building, to rescue the books and papers of the several offices. A great deal was saved by the clerks and other citizens, considering the circumstances. Indeed, it is hoped that few books or papers of much consequence are destroyed.

"All the books and papers on the ground floor are believed to have been saved (in great disorder of course) and all those in the third story were destroyed. Of the books and papers in the apartments on the second story, much the greater part were saved.

Books Saved From Destruction
"The offices on the first floor, the books of which are saved, were those of the register of the Treasury, the treasurer and the first auditor. On the second floor nearly all the books of the first controller, whose office occupied the greater number of the rooms, were saved, and a part of those belonging to the office of the Secretary of the Treasury, in whose immediate apartments the fire was first discovered.

"Of the offices connected with the Treasury Department several of the most extensive are kept in other buildings than that destroyed, and are, of course, entirely safe, viz., those of the second controller, second, third, fourth and fifth auditors and the solicitor of the Treasury.

"The papers destroyed were many of them obsolete and almost all of a date prior to 1820. The most important papers destroyed were perhaps the correspondence of the head of the Treasury Department, which was kept in the room wherein he fire originated.

"When the fire was first discovered it was the dead hour of the night, and the whole population of the city was so deeply buried in sleep that a comparatively small number arrived early on the ground. Very soon after the first cry of fire was scarcely uttered, at 2:30 o'clock, the keeper of the Orphan Asylum bell caught and repeated the alarm; whence it happened that the persons first at the fire, next to the immediate neighbors, were roused by that bell, and had half a mile to run before they arrived at it. To save the building, however, when once on fire would, under any circumstances, have been impossible, so inflammable was its structure, as well as its contents.

Demand for Fireproof Construction
"No one can look at the smoldering ruins without a sensation of astonishment at the fatuity and utter improvidence with which books and papers of such vast consequence have been so long trusted to any other than a fireproof building. The few scattering vaulted rooms in the building entirely escaped the flames; and had the hole building been similarly constructed the fire could not have occurred, or if, through extreme carelessness, it had occurred would have been confined to the room in which it originated.

"Where was the watchman of the building? is a natural question. He was, we hear, sick at home; and the youth who substituted for him was so sound asleep that he was perhaps only saved from being burned alive by those who broke open the doors and roused him. Had he been ever so wide-awake, however, unless he had happened to inspect the particular room where the fire began, the alarm from outside might have been his first notice.

"We were glad to observe that creditable exertions were made by the proper officers yesterday to collect and secure the scattered books and papers, to that by 2 o'clock in the day they were safely housed."

Guarded by Watchmen
At that date there were very simple arrangements made to protect the department buildings. A few watchmen were employed at each, and it was customary at the Treasury for two watchmen to see that everything was secure under lock and key and that the fires were arranged to keep safely until morning. One of these watchmen remained all night, but was permitted to lie down and sleep at 10 o'clock. On the occasion of the fire the regular watchman was sick, and his son was substituting for him.

At a few minutes past 2 o'clock that morning a resident, who was out to call a doctor, noticed the reflection of the flames on a window near the center of the second story. He immediately went to the doors and found them locked, and, being joined by others the door was forced and the young watchman roused from his sleep. The engine of the department was at once gotten out, but was found to be not in order. A cry of fire was at once raised, and in a little time drew out a small number of persons, not over 250 in all. Among these were the secretary, Louis McLane, and several of the bureau chiefs and clerks. Seeing that the building itself was doomed, most of the efforts were made to save the books and papers. These were hurriedly carried to the yard and subsequently to the houses of Mr. Caustin and others on the east side of the street.

Clerks Brave Flames
The clerks and others worked in removing the papers from the second story until the floor was burned through and sparks were falling upon them. The wind was blowing from the southwest, carrying masses of burning paper to the roof of the Bank of the Metropolis building, and this required the attention of the firemen. Among the fire companies which responded were the Franklin, from 14th street and the Avenue; the Union, from the West Market; the Washington, from 7th street near E street, and the Vigilant, from Georgetown.

The Columbia, from Capitol Hill, was late in arriving, owing to the condition of Pennsylvania avenue. The fire being extinguished, Secretary McLane set about providing quarters for the department, and, securing the five three-story buildings on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue at 15th street, at once took possession, and business was resumed April 3.

President Orders Inquiry
President Jackson at once directed an investigation by the cabinet and Chief Justice Cranch. No less than fifty-seven witnesses were examined, and it was shown that the building had been securely closed and every precaution had been taken as to the fires, and the calamity had not resulted form any neglect or inattention. It, however, appeared that there had been some question raised as to the accounts of Mr. Laub, the disbursing officer, in whose room the fire originated, and as he was not seen at the fire that morning, he was suspected of knowing something of its origin.

The government alleged that he was a defaulter in over $11,000, and entered a suit on his bond, and he was also indicted for setting the building on fire. He was tried a few years afterward, but in both cases was fully vindicated, the verdicts being in his favor. It was clearly shown that the burning was instigated by other parties interested in destroying evidences of fraud.