Old Firemen, 1800 TO 1814

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, July 16, 1911 [pt. 2 p. 9]

In the infancy of Washington, precautions were taken against fires by providing fire buckets for use in throwing water on the flames, but the city was badly equipped for fighting any extensive conflagrations, as regarded water supply or means for using it. It was the custom of every family to keep a cistern or hogshead for the collection of rainwater, and there were numerous ponds to be found in the city limits. There were no less than eighty springs from which streams flowed.

In the first ward, north of L street, was the well known Slash run, and in the neighborhood of the old Glass House, at the foot of 20th street, was Powder run. In the second ward was Sluice run, from the springs in Franklin Square, which emptied into the Tiber near 10th street. Another stream from the neighborhood of 12th and G streets passed down 11th street to the Tiber. From the neighborhood of Convention Hall was a stream which, passing through Judiciary square, emptied into the Tiber near Indiana avenue and 1st street northwest.

On Capitol Hill a stream came from a spring near 5th and C streets and another flowed from Carroll place, emptying into James creek. There was also a branch down 2d street, which was subsequently absorbed by the canal. A stream ran through Market square to the Eastern branch west of the navy yard, and this was converted into the branch market canal. Pumps, too, were relied on.

No engines were provided until after 1800. Congress, before moving here, made an appropriation for the purchase of engines for the Treasury Department, and none too soon was this action, for fires took place in the War Department on Pennsylvania avenue, near 22d street soon after. As may be supposed, the apparatus was of primitive character, an engine into which the water was poured, to be forced out through a few hundred feet of hose and thrown on the fire in half or three quarter inch streams, simple ladders, etc.

Destructive Fire in 1800
A very destructive fire occurred November 8, 1800, in a three-story house owned by Joseph Hodgson, and occupied at the time by the War Department. This building was situated on Pennsylvania avenue about 21st street. The fire was discovered by an aged negro, who at once gave the alarm, but, despite the work of citizens, the building and contents (with the exception of one volume in which contracts and deeds of land sold to the United States were recorded, and some of the papers of the accounting officer) were destroyed. This loss was felt very severely by the government, as a number of valuable papers were consumed that were impossible to duplicate. Shortly after this fire Mr. Hodgson died and after repeated petitions to Congress by Rebecca Hodgson, his widow, a bill was passed May 7, 1822, appropriating $6,000 to pay the legal representatives.

On the afternoon of June 20, 1801, about 7 o’clock, one of the rooms of the accountant of the Treasury Department was discovered to be in a full blaze. After a stubborn battle of about two hours the fire was gotten under control by citizens, but not until several rooms were burned out and many valuable papers destroyed. Among them were ledgers and journals in which were entered accounts settled by the commissary with the offices of the quartermaster and commissary department, claims of persons for services during the revolution, accounts rendered by the Bank of the United States for the sale of 8 per cent stock, etc.

Thought to Be Incendiary
The origin was never determined, but the general belief in after years was that it was the act of an incendiary whose object was to destroy evidence of a fraud.

The above and other fires led to the corporation taking action for the extinguishing of fires, and, as stated in a former article, a law was passed in 1803 making it obligatory on householders to provide themselves with leather buckets to be used in case of fire exclusively. The engines authorized by the act were to be stationed at the market houses and directors were appointed to organize companies to operate the same. A company was organized at the West Market, August 11, 1804, as stated in The Star, July 1. The meetings in the second fire ward, called by Capt. James Hoban, were held at the Rhodes Hotel, 15th and F streets, August 20 and September 8, and the Union Fire Company organized by electing James Hoban, president; Andrew Way, jr., vice president; Washington Poyd, treasurer; James Kearney, secretary; Clotworthy Stephenson, Peter Lenox, Lewis Morin and Henry Langtry, engineers; John Hewitt, Thomas Thorpe, Thomas Carpenter, Henry Hereford, John P. VanNess and Joseph Calvert, firemen; James Huddleston, John Aiken, Orlando Cook, George Moore, Hugh Boyd, Thomas Given, John Dobbin, C.M. Natz, laddermen; David Shoemaker, Richard Forrest, John M. Gowan, George Way, Lewis Clephane and Thomas Hertz, sentinels; John Payne, Edward Fretby, B.L. McCormick, Ezra Varden, Alex Cochran, Robert Tally, William and James Thornton and John Hewitt, firemen.

All were prominent in developing the city and among them were government and corporate officials, business men, mechanics, etc.

Form Third Ward Company
The third ward fire company, south of G street south was organized at King’s Tavern, near the navy yard, in December 1804, Dr. A. McWilliams, James Friend and C.G. Hereford being active in the organization.

On September 24, 1804, the citizens of the fourth fire ward met at Stille’s Hotel (alternate spelling is Stelle) and the company was organized by Griffith Coombe, director. Among those prominent were Daniel Carroll of Duddington, John Coyle, Henry Ingle, Daniel Rapine, afterward mayor, Samuel H. Smith, who established the Intelligencer and Simeon Matlock, a merchant tailor, later of the well known firm of Griffith & Matlock.

These companies manned the engines and were organized in divisions. Besides these the navy yard had an engine which was worked by the employes, Marmaduke Dove, the sailing master, attached to the yard for many years, having direction.

August 17, 1805, a fire destroyed the residence of Mr. Wilson, on E street east of 14th, with two adjoining houses, and damaged the home of McDermot Roe.

September 4 of the same year the hotel building of Mr. Carroll on 1st street between East Capitol and A street caught fire, but this blaze was extinguished with little damage.

April 11, 1806, a fire took place on Coombe’s wharf, foot of 3d street east, and was extinguished after considerable loss.

January 31, 1807, a fire broke out at the residence of John Dempsie, on Virginia avenue near the navy yard, at which the Columbia Fire Company rendered valuable service, and such was the conduct of the navy yard people under Capt. Cassin that the thanks of the Columbia, as well as the citizens, was given them.

Started Building Engines
As early as 1808 John Achman, a coppersmith, engaged in building fire engines on High street, Georgetown, but later moved to Pennsylvania avenue, near the Seven buildings. Mr. Achman had learned to make fire engines in Europe.

March 1809, the Columbia Fire Company contracted for an engine, costing about $600. At that time John Coyle was president and Nicholas L. Queen, Griffith Coombe and Henry Timms were members of the committee to collect subscriptions.

August 21 John P. Van Ness, Louis Morin and John Sessford advertised for proposals for pipes to convey water from Caffray’s spring, named after Father Caffray, the first pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, located at the northwest corner of 9th and F streets, to Pennsylvania avenue and along it. Water prior to this time had been conveyed from the spring on the north side of C street between 4-1/2 and 6th streets to the Avenue and some of the houses in the neighborhood.

In 1810 a reservoir was constructed near the Eastern branch market, and this was fed by the spring at Duddington, Mr. Carroll’s home.

In 1811 an engine house was erected on the Capital plaza and a fire engine purchased for the Columbia company. Peter Miller was at that time the president and J.T. Frost, secretary. The engine house was a simple structure for housing the apparatus, and the company held meetings at Stille’s, Long’s, Pic’s and other hotels or taverns nearby.

Company Is Reorganized
The second fire ward at that time took in that part of the city, between 3d and 16th streets east and north of G street south. May 1812, a meeting was held at Davis’ Tavern, the site of which is now occupied by the Metropolitan Hotel, to recognize the Union Fire Company of the second ward. It appears that subsequent meetings were held in the council chamber at the old Masonic Hall, on 11th street, near C street, and at the engine house, north of the Treasury, in the months following. This company used the Treasury engine.

November 1813, the corporation made an appropriation for an engine, for the second ward, to be located on 9th street south of the Avenue. It appears that by August 1814, this engine was procured and located, for at that time a meeting of the second fire ward company was held at Keowin’s Hotel, and a committee appointed to examine it, and the members were ordered to meet at the Center Market with their buckets to exercise it. It does not appear, however, that this company went into service, for with the invasion of the British in that month all interest in fire matters died out.