Old Firemen, 1815 TO 1820

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, July 22, 1911 [pt. 2 p. 9]

After the burning of the Capitol and other public buildings and the end of the war of 1812 was in sight normal conditions were resumed, and among other matters the necessity of extinguishing fires led to a revival of interest in the few fire companies which were then in a disorganized state. December 28, 1814, a slight fire on the premises of George Moore, near 10th and C streets, emphasized the need of fire fighting apparatus. A meeting was called of the citizens of the second ward in the council chamber on 11th street between C and D streets December 31 to organize a fire company in the ward, and a notice was given at the same time of an examination of premises to see who were delinquent in keeping fire buckets ready for use. At the meeting the mayor, James H. Blake, presided, with Charles Glover as secretary. A committee to solicit subscriptions was appointed, consisting of Peter Lenox, Clothworthy Stephenson, James N. Varnum and R. C. Weightman. A fire damaged the brewery of Henry Herford, on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue between 9th and 10th streets, on the night of January 15, 1815, causing a loss of nearly $2,000 before it was extinguished by the citizens, but much valuable property in the vicinity was saved by them, water being close at hand in Sluice run. This fire awoke an interest in the fire companies, for the want of discipline and efficient apparatus was sadly felt.

In the public prints the necessity of new companies, as well as apparatus, was urged, and the citizens of the second ward, then extending from 2d to 14th streets, from the river to the Boundary, were called to form a company at Keowin’s Tavern, on the site of the Metropolitan Hotel, on January 24, 1815. Nor was the interest confined to citizens, for February 10 Congress appropriated $1,000 for a fire engine and fire buckets for the Treasury Department, but these were not then purchased, for the building had not been rebuilt.

Company Is Formed
On April 12, 1815, a meeting was held in the Franklin House, 21st and I streets, to organize a fire company for the first ward, then embracing all the city west of 14th street.

Fires took place at the houses of Samuel N. Smallwood, afterward mayor, and Mordecai Booth, clerk to the navy yard, near the corner of N and 1st streets, southeast, in May, 1815. John Achman, engine builder, was then located near the Seven Buildings, and in July was offering a fire engine for sale. In March, 1816, the commissioners of the wards, William Waters, Henry Hereford, Henry Ingle and John W. Brashears, were engaged in inspecting the buildings as to the precautions against fires and requiring the owners to provide the requisite number of fire buckets. In May the mayor provided for the inspection of the engines of the second and third wards. The first was the Center market engine, near 9th street and Pennsylvania avenue, and the other that of the Capitol Hill Market, on East Capitol street. In the same month $900 was appropriated for an engine and $150 for an engine house on K street near 6th street southeast, at the Branch market, in the fourth ward, which then included all east of 4th street east.

The commissioners of the wards had custody of the engines pending the formation or organization of companies. In the following month $1,200 was appropriated for an engine and $350 for a house, fire hooks and ladders for the first ward engine, located on the West Market square, Pennsylvania avenue and 25th street.

On the morning of December 7, 1816, a fire broke out in the two-story brick house occupied by David Westerfield as a cabinet and upholstery shop and warehouse, on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue between 12th and 13th streets, which, with the adjoining frame dwelling of R. Estep, was totally destroyed, and two other brick houses damaged. The papers noticed the activity of the citizens. On the same evening a meeting was held at David Hotel, now the Metropolitan, for the relief of the sufferers by this fire. Mayor Blake presided and Joseph Gales of the Intelligencer was secretary. A committee was appointed to solicit contributions: Capt. Peter Lenox, John McClelland, Joseph Mechlen, Henry Ingle and Thomas Halliday. At this meeting the corporation was requested to provide a suitable alarm bell and to have at least one good and efficient engine in each ward.

Engine Is Ordered
In March, 1817, an engine was ordered at a cost not exceeding $600 for the second ward, and it was received in August. January 4, 1818, Commodore Decatur’s stable, near the northwest corner of Lafayette Square, was burned. On the 12th of the same month the house of Gen. Philip Stewart, on N street west of 4½ street, was discovered on fire, and in a short time nothing but the walls remained.

The houses of Benjamin Sprigg, clerk in the office of the House of Representatives, and the unfinished houses of Edward S. Lewis of the third auditor’s office and Daniel Fagan were destroyed, but the adjoining houses of Thomas Dougherty, clerk in the House of Representatives, and William Jones were saved. The engines of the second and third wards were there, and did good work; nearly all the furniture was saved. March 15 a meeting was held at Davis’ Hotel for the relief of some of the sufferers at this fire. January 19, 1818, a meeting was held at Queen’s Hotel, 1st street, to form a fire company. Ex-Mayor Daniel Rapine presided and John P. Ingle was the secretary, and they were directed to prepare articles of association to be reported the 21st instant. This they did, selecting the old name of Columbia Fire Company.

The following were elected officers: James Young, grocer at New Jersey avenue and B street southeast, president; ex-Mayor Rapine, vice president; William Ingle, secretary; Alexander McCormick, treasurer. There were about twenty-five engineers, axmen, laddermen and sentinels, among them Nicholas L. Queen, Richmond Johnson, then of the Bank of the United States; William J. McCormick, subsequently and for many years register of the city; John Dunning, a leading butcher; Rev. A. Hunter, chaplain, U. S. N.; James Middleton, for many years a carpenter; Ignatius Wheatley, living on A street near 1st; A. R. Dawson. Benjamin Burch, doorkeeper of the House of Representatives; James Hickey, Simeon Matlock, Mark Hickey, William Brent, Griffith Coombes. Mr. Young declined to serve as president and John G. MacDonald of the office of the secretary of the Senate was chosen president.

Suitable badges were ordered to be procured, also axes and fire hooks. In the Intelligencer of January 22, 1818, “Civis” appealed to the citizens to take more interest in organizing companies to work intelligently at fires, and he urged that the general government provide first-class engines for each of the public buildings, and asked what would become of the general post office, the patent office and the Congressional Library were a fire to break out with the means provided by the city so inadequate that not a single engine had sufficient power to reach the roof of the patent office.

Company Reorganized
January 24, 1818, a meeting was held at the Western Academy, the public school house on I street west of 17th, and the Union Fire Company of the First Ward was formed, or rather the old West Market was reorganized. At an adjourned meeting of the Columbia Fire Company, February 28, Thomas Law, Samuel Burch, House clerk; E. D. Tippett, public school teacher; Thomas Dunn, sergeant-at-arms of the House, and others were elected. At a subsequent meeting, held at Queen’s, the membership was increased.

About 1 a. m. June 18, 1818, a fire broke out in the boarding house of Mrs. Thompson, in the Six Buildings, on the Avenue between 21st and 22nd streets. It was extinguished with some loss to the interior and there were some narrow escapes of the boarders. In a communication to the Intelligencer describing the fires the citizens are praised and thanks returned for removing and returning the furniture without much damage. The service of a number of youths forming the Star Fire Company is commended. The Treasury engine was manned by these boys.

In July, 1818, the mayor was authorized to have reservoirs constructed at the site of the public hydrants ten feet square and eight feet deep. Up to this time water had been piped from springs on C street between 4½ and 6th, from Caffray’s spring, near 9th and F streets, and it was contemplated to lay other wooden pipes. However, the numerous ponds were natural reservoirs, but the means of getting water therefrom were limited, as the companies each had only a few hundred feet of hose, and the hydraulion or suction engine had not come into use.

Navy Yard Active
The Navy Yard people formed the Navy Yard company at Hemsworth’s Tavern, near the gate, December 8, 1818. John Davis of Abel presided, with John Newland secretary, and after adopting a constitution officers were elected. Marmaduke Dove was chosen president, Mr. Davis, vice president, Mr. Nowland secretary and Lemuel Townsend treasurer. Among the fifty-odd members were James Bury, W. B. Ellis, Benjamin King, Thomas Sindall, William and Thomas Sanderson, William Burdine, Moses Shelton, George Beane, George Grant and others. Nearly if not all were employed in the yard, but the company and apparatus, belonging to the United States, responded to fires generally.

The Anacostia or fourth ward company, whose apparatus was near the Branch market, 6th and K streets southeast, was organized at Lawson Peirson’s tavern, opposite the marine barracks, December 16, 1818, and the following officers were chosen; Dr. Alexander MacWilliams, president; J. W. Brashears, vice president; Noah Brashears, secretary, and Robert Desha, treasurer; Thomas Holiday, James Friend, George Adams, William Prout and E. W. Clark, director of engineers, laddermen, sentinels, house and lane men, and Robert Clark and Colmore Beane, axmen

The Star fire company of youths above noticed met December 23 at William Coltman’s, on the north side of Pennsylvania avenue near 18th street, to elect officers for the year 1819. In that year the Union Fire Company re-elected John N. Moulder president and the other officers. The Columbia Fire Company held its annual meeting January 5, 1819 at John Pic’s tavern, on B street east of New Jersey avenue, and elected as officers: Ex-Mayor Daniel Rapine, president; Rev. Andrew Hunter, vice president; William Ingle, secretary, and Alexander McCormick, treasurer. Francis Allison, Charles Nevitt, John C. Brent and others were elected members. The Patriotic Fire Company on January 27, at Holtzman’s tavern, 8th street north of Market space, elected the following officers: Andrew Coyle, chief clerk of the Post Office, president; David Ott, druggist on Pennsylvania avenue west of 9th street, vice president; William H. Barron, secretary, and William Hewitt, register of the city, treasurer. Among the thirty odd members arranged, in divisions of engineers, laddermen, axmen, etc., were Andrew Coyle, jr., Stephen P. Franklin, J. J. Sample, Aron Van Coble, James Moore, jr., John Settinus, Ezekiel Young, Samuel Bacon, John Hughes, Joseph S. Clark, Henry Smith, Seth Hyatt, P. Mauro and B. M. Belt. The next meeting of the Patriotic company was held in the council chamber on 11th street. On February 22 the Gazette had a communication calling attention to the frequent alarms of fire when depredations were committed on property and calling on the mayor and corporation to organize a set of watchmen especially for night duty to protect the property.

Plan for Signaling
At a meeting of the Columbia Fire Company at Fitzsimmon’s Hotel March 2, resolutions were adopted looking to a conference of committees from the various companies to devise a plan of signaling at night the location of fires. They also directed the president and vice president to wait on the President of the United States in the event of the passage of a bill in Congress to purchase fire engines for the protection of public buildings and inform him of the willingness of the company to take charge of that designed for the Capitol. In April the Star Fire Company met at the engine house at the Treasury. On the 7th of April, about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, several frame houses on I street between 19th and 20th streets were burned. These belonged to Mrs. McKelden and Mrs. Kedglie, and the occupants suffered greatly. The next afternoon several small brick and frame houses near the south end of New Jersey avenue were burned and the next morning a small fire near the Navy Yard bridge slightly damaged some houses. Before the engines returned to their houses another fire took place on the property of Griffith Coombe, George Beall and others on New Jersey avenue southeast, entirely destroying some outhouses. Just as the citizens were returning from this fire another alarm was sounded for a fire at F and 13th streets, and this destroyed the houses of John A. Wilson, George Miller and others. It was a very exciting fire, as the flying cinders, fanned by the winds, set fire to several roofs. Mr. Lambell’s stable on K street near 7th southeast was burned the next morning. In view of these fires a town meeting was called by B. G. Orr, the mayor, at 4 o’clock April 10 at the Center market to organize patrols, solicit subscriptions for sufferers by the fires, etc. The councils were asked to take measures to regulate the fire companies, procure apparatus and provide means for a better supply of water. Attention was called through the Intelligencer to buckets use at fires not being returned. April 14 the mayor, Benjamin G. Orr, offered a reward of $500 for the apprehension and conviction of incendiaries.

Officers Hold Meeting
A meeting of the officers of the fire companies of Georgetown and Washington was held at the Center market in April, at which Andrew Coyle presided and Col. William B. Randolph was secretary. There were present Dr. Alexander McWilliams of the Anacostia, M. Dove of the Navy Yard, John N. Moulder of the Union, Col. W. W. Billing and C. L. Coltman of the Star and Daniel Rapine of the Columbia. Resolutions were adopted declaring that the companies would act under the laws of the corporations of Washington and Georgetown, and that at fires the officers of the engine arriving first on the ground should be recognized as chief in command, and that they would do their utmost to promote harmony and intelligent co-operation at fires. There were represented at this convention the Vigilant, Union and Sun companies of Georgetown.

In April the corporation made an appropriation of $1,000 to purchase alarm bells for each of the four market houses. There was a dearth then of fires for several months. At a meeting of the Columbia Fire Company, November 2, a resolution was adopted that the ladder men procure a set of wheels for the conveyance of ladders and hooks, and this is the first mention of anything like a hook and ladder truck or carriage in the District. Messrs. Benjamin Burch, Nicholas L. Queen and Henry Timms were appointed the committee to wait on the President and Col. Lane, commissioner of public buildings, and ask that the engine for the protection of the Capitol be placed in their charge. The council November 5, made an appropriation for a first-class engine for the first ward company, as also one for a supply pump hose carriage. These pumps were built in Philadelphia, and it was claimed that with one two men could supply the largest engine with water faster than a full set of men could discharge it. October 30 two frame tenements near the navy yard, occupied by Messrs. Wheeler and Locke, were burned; but by the exertions of Mayor Smallwood, who lived near, and the citizens, the adjoining property was saved.

December 22, 1819, a meeting was held at Mattingly’s Tavern, near the foot of 3rd street southeast, for the purpose of organizing a fire company. This was known as the Phoenix company, and the engine and apparatus were located at the tobacco warehouse on 3rd street between M and N streets, and the following officers were elected: John A. Chalmers, president; Thomas Howard, clerk in the navy yard, vice president; Edward Mattingly, treasurer; G. W. Dawson, secretary. There were about forty members present at the first meeting, among them William H. Barnes, lumber measurer; Joseph Follansby, a well known carpenter; Henry Kurtz, foreman anchorsmith at the navy yard; Gustavus Howard, carpenter; Henry Johnson, Thomas Nevitt, Thomas Coote, brewer; Edward Booth; Samuel P. Lowe, tobacco inspector; William R. Maddox, William Nottingham, Charles L. Nevitt, E. Castile, George Sanford and others.