Old Union Engine House

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, July 1, 1911 [pt. 2 p. 4]

The old Union engine house at the southeast corner of 19th and H streets will, it is expected, be ready for the celebration there by the Association of Oldest Inhabitants the Fourth of July. For several weeks past the mechanics have been engaged in enlarging the structure, but the familiar lines of the old yellow building erected in 1837 have been preserved and the conventional engine house of old times will remain in this sample, much to the gratification of the oldest citizens and descendants of the fireboys of old. The upper floor will be given over to the use of the Oldest Inhabitants and the lower floor to the old firemen, of whom but few remain, the volunteer organization having gone out of existence in 1864. In each room there will be displayed many valuable relics of the past; on the lower floor the old suction engine, hose carriage, hooks, trumpets, hats and belts, caps, leather buckets, hose, etc.

All the fire engine houses of ante-bellum days have disappeared, and when the Veteran Volunteer Fireman’s Association was formed, some thirty years ago, none of the ancient apparatus could be found in the District. After several months one engine and hose carriage were found, purchased and brought to the city, and they will be kept for future generations. They will doubtless be viewed with as much curiosity as some of the exhibits in the National Museum.

The old company, as well as the house, has an interesting history extending back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There were organized fire companies in Georgetown and Alexandria before the government moved here, in 1800, and the first engines used in the city were procured for the protection of the Treasury in 1800, and an engine was used at a fire there January 3, 1801, by the clerks. There is no record of an organized company, however, until after the corporation, by an act of 1833, directed the purchase of three engines and provided for the organization of companies under fire directors.

History of Old Company
Therefore, it is interesting to know the history of the company for which the house was erected. In 1803 an act was passed by the corporation for the establishment of companies to take charges of the engines procured for the protection of the four markets – the West, at 20th Street and the Avenue; the Center, or Marsh, at 7th street and the Avenue; the Capitol Hill, on New Jersey Avenue near C street, and the Branch market on Market square, south of K street near the navy yard. A board of superintendence was appointed; Thomas H. Gillis, one of the clerks who came here with the government, was director for the first ward.

August 11, 1804, Mr. Gillis called a meeting of the citizens of the West market to organize a company, and Mr. J. Strech, a clerk in the Treasury, presided and Mr. Gillis served as secretary. They, with Capt. John Woodside, who had distinguished himself at the fire at the Treasury in January, 1801, appointed a committee to draft rules and regulations for a fire company. This committee reported at a subsequent meeting and the company was organized. With others Peter Hagner, father of Judge Hagner; C. W. Goldsborough and N. K. Randall took part. It does not appear, however, that the company was then known other than as the First Ward Fire Company. In common with the companies formed for the other engines, it followed the rules adopted by the board of superintendence in 1806. These required the engineers to take charge of the engines; the lane men to form lines and keep the engines supplied with water; the sentinels to keep safe and protect all movable property and the furniture men to remove all valuables from the houses and places in charge of the sentinels; the engineers to wear a hat with a white crown, with the word “Engineer” on the front, and to carry a speaking trumpet; the lane men hats with a black crown and white brim and each carry a white staff; the ladder men the same style hats with a ladder on the front, and furniture men black hats with white crowns and the word “Furniture” on the front; the sentinels the same, carrying a white staff.

Attends Fires in Every Quarter
This company did not confine its services to the saving of property in the west part of the city, but attended fires in any quarter. For some years after they went into service they were called out often. In the first year of the war of 1812 there were so many incendiary fires which were only checked by the summary action of the citizens in organizing night patrols, but a patrolman essaying to play the part of a “firebug” was lynched and this action had a beneficial effect. During the war the companies, as such, were in a state of lethargy. The membership, however, were mostly in military service. Soon after the burning by the British measures were taken to revive an interest in the fire companies. In January, 1815, the partial destruction by fire of Herford’s brewery, on a sluice about the site of the present Safe Deposit Company on Pennsylvania avenue between 9th and 10th streets, was an incentive, and in that year an appropriation was made for the purchase of an engine for the Treasury Department. The first ward company was reorganized July 21, 1815, at O’Neale’s Franklin House, corner of 21st and I streets, when it took the name of the Union Fire company of the first ward, although there was a company of that name in the second ward.

Among the personnel of the company were John N. Moulder, president; Thomas Sandeford and Richard S. Briscoe, vice presidents; Joseph Brumley, treasurer; Col. John Davidson, Col. Thomas Carbery, afterward mayor; John Potts of the War Department, James A. Kennedy, William Linkins, Matthew Hines, Ed Hines, Col. Michael Nourse of the Treasury, Thomas Brown, Lewis Leproux, William Ford, Joseph Forrest and others. These were divided into engineers, hosemen, laddermen, lanemen, furnituremen and sentinels. The apparatus was mostly furnished by the government in 1819 and it was housed on the square near the market. There was little accommodation in the building for meetings, and these were held at the town hall over the market house, then at the Western Academy, and later on I street west of 17th street, which was one of the two public schools then in operation. Meetings were also held at Pawling’s Tavern in the Seven Buildings and other places.

Does Good Service
Among the fires the company attended was that of the theater at the corner of 11th and C streets, April 19, 1820, as also a fire nearby April 4, in which they did good service. Under the act of June 21, 1821, $50 for a bell was appropriated, and it was placed over the engine house. In 1823 another location was chosen for the engine house on the south side of the Avenue near 1st street, and in the same year there was added to the apparatus an hydraulion. This they tried on July 22 at the Treasury Department.

The hand engines were worked by levers with long wooden handles, and when one set of men became exhausted a new set would take their places. The water with which the engine was supplied was conveyed from the nearest cistern or pump by the firemen forming two lanes and passing the buckets from one to the other until the engine was reached, and the other lane returning them. These lanes were formed and presided over by the staffmen, who carried a trumpet and a white staff five feet long. The method of filling the engine with water by hand was abandoned when the suction engine made its appearance, about 1832. To this engine a hose was attached and placed in the nearest cistern or well. The engine and hose carriage were not drawn by horses, but by hand, and to the hand-tongue was attached a rope about 100 feet in length, with which the firemen and citizens dragged the apparatus to the scene of fire.

September 20, 1824, the company’s president, Mr. Moulder, presided over a meeting of the general staff of the District companies, to prepare for a general meeting and a trial of the apparatus in front of Appler’s Tavern, corner of 12th and Pennsylvania avenue, the present site of the Raleigh Hotel.

Extends Aid to Alexandria
On the morning of April 18, 1827, the great fire in Alexandria was discovered and the companies of the District responded, some of them running the distance of seven miles, this company – the Union – among them. With a number of the marines sent down by Col. Henderson, 1,000 men went to the aid of the firemen of that city. The weather at the time was exceedingly cold, the thermometer standing at 13 degrees above zero, and much shipping was ice-locked at the wharves; but after five long hours the flames were extinguished, and credit was given the Washington companies for saving the shipping. They participated in the fire of the Union Hotel in Georgetown in August, and also at the Treasury on the night of March 30, 1833.

At the convention of the fire companies September 11, 1833, this company was represented by Alexander McIntyre and William B. Magruder. The object of the convention was to secure legislation for the proper government of the companies of the District, including Alexandria and Georgetown. With other companies they participated in saving property in the vicinity of the general post office and patent office, which were totally destroyed by fire December, 1836. January 5, 1837, the Union appears to have been reorganized. Rev Frank S. Evans was elected president; Ed Hanley, vice president; Flodoardo Howard, secretary; Samuel Stott, treasurer, and a committee was appointed to attend the convention for memorializing Congress for a charter of a firemen’s insurance company. At this time the apparatus was reported in good order and fit for service, but, Congress having, March 3, 1837, made an appropriation of $7,225 for the purchase of a fire engine, apparatus and engine house for the War and Navy Departments and the company directed its president to inform the Secretaries of War and Navy that it would take charge of such apparatus. It also requested that the commissioner of public buildings allow a member of the company to accompany him when he selected the apparatus and Mr. Hanley was selected as that person.

Purchase of the Apparatus
April 11 Mr. Hanley reported that the apparatus had been purchased and two days after the company issued an invitation to the other companies of the city and Georgetown to meet for a test of the apparatus in front of the President’s house in October, but there is no report of such meeting. In this month the company received a check for $50 from a Philadelphia insurance company for their success in extinguishing fire at Capt. Ramsey’s. A destructive fire took place at the corner of Pennsylvania avenue and 9th street, originating in the store of C. E. Washington & Co., which occasioned the loss of $40,000 and one on June 6, in the carpenter shop of James Carrico north of St. John’s Church.

In April the present site of the engine house was bought by Col. Noland, commissioner of public buildings, plans made and the building erected. By July 10 such progress had been made in the work that they took steps to celebrate the opening by a firemen’s procession. Dr. Magruder, E. Coolidge and George W. Harkness were appointed a committee to confer with committees of the Washington and Georgetown companies to arrange for a grand procession Tuesday, October 24. When the procession took place there were in line the Columbia, with engine, hose and hydraulion and about sixty members; the Vigilant of Georgetown with seventy-five members; the Franklin with engine, hydraulion and hose reel and nearly eighty members in line; the Marine Band, mayors and members of the councils of Washington and Georgetown and the officers and directors of the Firemen’s, Potomac and Franklin fire insurance companies; the Perseverance fire company with the apparatus; the Navy Yard company; the Anacostia with fire engine and about fifty members; the Western Star of Georgetown with engine, suction and hose carriage, and the Union with new hose carriage, two wheeled reel and new engine with seventy-nine members.

There was much rivalry by the companies as to making the best display, each having teams of two and four horses to each piece of apparatus, many banners and United States flags, with flowers, were in the line. The route of the procession was one at which organizations of the present day would balk.