Old Firemen, 1820 TO 1825

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, July 29, 1911 [pt. 2 p. 9]

About the close of 1819 Washington’s 12,000 people lived in over 2,000 houses. There had been some extension of the water service from the numerous springs; and under an act of Congress water had been piped in wooden logs to the President’s house.

There was a revival of interest in the various fire companies. The Star Fire Company continued its meetings at Mr. Coltman’s, on the Avenue near 13th street, and manned a Treasury engine. It was headed by W. W. Billings, president; Charles L. Coltman, vice president; J. A. M. Duncanson, secretary; T. J. Sessford, treasurer, and D. Bosworth, G. Given, T. K. Geay, John Douglas and others on the rolls. This is the company referred to before as being composed of young men, and from the accounts in the papers and traditions it was a most efficient organization.

The Union company in the first ward re-elected officers for the year 1820, John N. Moulder being the president; and among the members were many prominent citizens, the roll including Col. Thomas Munroe, the postmaster of the city; Col. Thomas Carberry, afterward mayor; John Rawlings, a well known carpenter; James A. Kennedy, for a lifetime in the city post office; William Linkins, whose grandchildren are now in the neighborhood; George McDaniel, John D. Barclay, Thomas Fillebrown, jr.; John Stretch, F. D. Tschiffely, Nathan Moore, Michael Nourse, B. W. Dashiell, Joseph Thaw, Charles A. Davis and William Williamson, department clerks, with Louis Lepreux, Samuel Harkness, John Bancroft, Frederick, Phillip and Abraham Hines and others of that section.

Columbia Company’s Officers
The Columbia Fire Company at its annual meeting at Congress Hall, or Queen’s Hotel, elected officers as follows; Ex-Mayor Rapine, president; Rev. Andrew Hunter, vice president; William Ingle, secretary, and Alexander McCormick, treasurer.

Among the membership were James Young, director of engineers; Griffith Coombe of the axmen, James Middleton of laddermen and Nicholas L. Queen of the sentinels. At this meeting, a committee reported that the engine provided by the government for the protection of the Capitol was ready for delivery and would be placed in the care of the company.

The navy yard fire company, at its meeting January 4, 1820, continued the old officers and they appointed a committee to wait on Commodore Tingey of the navy yard and ask if they could have the yard engine to go to any fires in the city or District.

The first annual meeting of the Patriotic company, then the second ward company, which manned the Center market engine, was held in the council chamber on 11th street January 5. The Anacostia fire company met the same evening at Moss’ Tavern on L street between 7th and 8th streets and elected the following officers: Dr. Alexander McWilliams, president; Robert Desha, vice president; William Speiden, secretary, and William Prout, treasurer, with Thomas Halliday, Robert Brown, Thomas Wheat, George Adams, Matthew Wright and E. W. Clark directors of the divisions.

Government Bought Engine
The Union company of the first ward exercised the engine purchased by the government for the protection of the public buildings. The officers of the Patrtiotic company were not elected until the middle of the month, and these were Andrew Coyle, chief clerk of the Post Office Department, president; Henry Smith, carpenter; George Sweeney of the city post office, and Charles Glover, vice presidents; William Cooper, jr., printer, secretary; William Hewitt, city register, treasurer, and among the members were John B. Martin, James Moore, jr.; S. P. Franklin, A. Tate, Jacob Gideon, jr.; Leonard Harbaugh, Owen McGlue and E. Young.

The Potomac Fire Company, located near the south end of 4½ street, was organized February 5. Commodore John Rogers was elected president, Thomas Dougherty, clerk of the House of Representatives, and R. Bland Lee, judge of the Orphans’ Court, vice presidents; Thomas Bullfinch, a commission merchant, treasurer, and A. McCrea, secretary. There were about fifty members, most of whom were employed at the arsenal. Among them were Richmond Johnson of the United States Bank, Eber Ward, M. D. C. Marche, William Wise, John Pumphrey, J. Van Riswick, Hezekiah Hall, Nehemiah Griffith, William H. Terret, E. S. Lewis and Lund Washington. At a meeting of the Columbia Fire Company in March Dr. Richmond Johnson, who had joined the Potomac company, near his residence, 4½ street between N and O streets southwest, withdrew.

At this date there were eight companies in the city, viz. the Columbia, Capitol Hill, with thirty-eight members; Union, at the West Market, with eighty-six members; Navy Yard, with fifty members; Anacostia, at the Branch Market, with about thirty members; the Star, using the Treasury engine; Patriotic, near the Center Market, with sixty-seven members; Phoenix, at the tobacco warehouse, 3d and M streets southeast, with thirty-two members, and Potomac, on Greenleaf’s point, with forty-eight members.

Fire Destoyed Theater
The theater at the northeast corner of C and 11th streets was destroyed by fire April 19, 1820. From the files of the Intelligencer it is learned that it was discovered to be on fire at 7 o’clock in the morning, and so rapidly spread the flames that the roof soon fell in. There had been a slight fall of rain the preceding night, which prevented the roofs of adjoining houses from taking fire from the falling embers, and the flames were confined to the theater, which was practically destroyed by the time of its discovery. The engine companies were on the ground promptly, and the proprietors of the houses on the Avenue between 10th and 11th streets in a card returned thanks for the preservation of their property, especially to John Cudpepor and others, who had at a great personal risk remained on the roof of the building nearest the theater and extinguished the embers as they fell. On the 24th of April, about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a slight fire took place in the third story of a building on 10th street east of the theater, and but little damage was done.

In May, 1820 the city was divided into wards, the first taking in all west of 15th street and in this were the Union company, at Pennsylvania avenue and 20th street, and The Star at the Treasury Department, though the members lived in the second ward. The second ward extended from the river to the boundary between 10th and 15th streets, and there was then no engine within its bounds. The third ward, north of E street south between 1st and 10th streets west, had the Patriotic Engine at Center Market, and the Post Office engine. The fourth ward was east of the third ward to 8th street east, and its engine company was Columbia on Capitol Hill. The fifth ward took in what was south of E street south, between 4th street east and 10th street west, and included the Phoenix company, near the south end of 3d street and the Potomac, near what is now the War College or Washington barracks. The sixth ward included the balance of the city, and the navy yard and Anacostia companies were in its bounds.

For Hydaulian Engine
By the act of July 10, 1920, $700 was appropriated by the city for the purchase of a hydraulian or suction engine for the former second ward, and also for the additional sheds to the engine house. In September the government engine for the protection of the President’s house, etc., was received from Philadelphia and placed in charge of the Union company, which September 16 gave it a trial at the West market.

In December, 1820, a question was asked in the Gazette why the ordinance in reference to keeping fire buckets was not enforced, the writer stating he knows of some of them being filled with potatoes, eggs, etc., and some of them are kept in garrets and kitchens. The Star fire company held its meetings in the fireproof office of the Treasury. The annual meeting of Columbia was held January 2, 1821, at which Messrs. Rapine, Hunter and Ingle were re-elected president, vice president and secretary, respectively. John Pie was elected treasurer and John G. McDonald of the secretary of the Senate’s office a director in place of Alexander McCormick. There were then about fifty members. At the meeting of the Star company Col. W. W. Billings was re-elected president, T. J. Sessford vice president, J. A. M. Duncanson secretary and David Bosworth treasurer. The Union elected officers January 8. Messrs. Moulder, Sandiford and Hanby being elected president and vice presidents, H. M. Steiner secretary and Joseph Bromley treasurer. There were about the same number of engineers, linemen, etc., as formerly. January 11 the Patriotic company met for the first time at the engine house near the east end of the old post office, a small wooden building on 7th street above E. Congress had made an appropriation of $6,000 for the purchase of an engine for the protection of the department and the erection of an engine house. The Patriotic company was composed to a large extent of clerks of the post office, the president, Mr. Coyle, being chief clerk of the department.

Fire in Presbyterian Church
In January, 1821, a fire took place in the Presbyterian Church on South Capitol street. February 4 the building at the southeast corner of 15th and G streets, known then as Wolf’s French Hotel, was burned. The streets were almost impassable at the time, but the engines were soon on the ground and succeeded in confining the flames to the building in which they originated. The property of Mrs. Clark, east of the building, with other property, was in great danger, and Mrs. Clark expressed her appreciation of the services of the firemen and others. The building belonged to Col. Thomas Monroe, and was soon after in service as the mansion of Maj. Gen. Jacob D. Brown, who died there in 1828, and subsequently again a hotel, run by La Bille, becoming in the thirties the famous boarding house, conducted till the civil war by Mrs. H. Ulrich, which was patronized by diplomats, congressmen and government officials.

An incendiary attempt was made at a house near the navy yard February 10 by throwing a burning brand of fire into a cellar, but it failed. The old officers of the Navy Yard company held over this year. On the 31st of May the trial of engines took place. This trial took place on the Weightman buildings, at the corner of Pennsylvania avenue and 6th street.

Negroes Man Engine
The Union engine, made by Patrick Lyons of Philadelphia, known by the boys of that day as the “Paddy Lion,” and that of the Patriotic took part, William P. Gardiner and Jonathan Elliott being the judges. They decided in favor of the Union company. It appears from a card of Mr. Moulder of the Union in answer to one by Mr. Coyle of the Patriotic that the latter was manned by stout black men from the brick yards and the former by her own members. Mr. Moulder stated that his company was ready for another trial, but would not again suffer themselves to be insulted by Mr. Coyle placing negroes on his engine in competition with the Union, whose members worked their own engine, and the Patriotic ought to and should work theirs. In June, 1821, the corporation made an appropriation to purchase a bell for the Union company. The Navy Yard fire company was at this time holding its meetings in the new Masonic Hall, corner Virginia avenue and 5th street southeast.

In 1822, at its annual meeting, the Columbia Fire Company elected John G. MacDonald president; John T. Frost, vice president, and re-elected William Ingle secretary and John Pie treasurer. The directors chosen were James Young of the engineers, Thomas Dunn of the axmen, Griffith Coombs of the laddermen and Daniel Rapine of the sentinels.

Star Company Officers
The Star Company elected W. W. Billings president, T. J. Sessford vice president, George Given secretary and John Douglas treasurer. The Union elected John N. Moulder president, Thomas Sandiford and S. W. Hanby vice presidents, Henry M. Stiener, secretary and Mathew Hines treasurer. The Alert fire company had its engine house on 13½ street south of the Avenue. In March the Washington fire company succeeded the Patriotic fire company, holding its meetings at the post office engine house. While the engine house of the Alert was on 13 ½ street, the meetings were held at the Western Lancasterian School house, corner G and 14th streets, know as Henry Olds. In July of that year, under an appropriation of $30, the gravel footway was laid from the Alert engine house to Pennsylvania avenue. The Washington Gazette of August 29 published an account of a fire which took place at 2 o’clock in the morning of August 19, at the livery stable of Thomas Smith, 19th street north of Pennsylvania avenue, the site being still used for a livery stable. The building and its contents, including fifteen horses, were soon destroyed. The Gazette says the exertions of the fire companies were praiseworthy in checking the progress of the fire. It is supposed to have been set on fire.

At a meeting of the Columbia fire company January 27, 1823, the old officers were re-elected, with the exception that Thomas Dunne and Mr. Rapine’s places were filled by James Middleton and James Carlton. At the annual meeting of the Union most of the old officers were re-elected. The Star company re-elected W. W. Billings president and Thomas J. Sessford vice president, and chose Jeremiah Hepburn secretary, George Given assistant secretary and Daniel Bosworth treasurer.

Citizens Urged to Join
In April, 1823, at a meeting of the Alert company in the Lancasterian schoolhouse resolutions were adopted reciting the decimation of the membership and urging that the ranks be filled, and appointing Francis Coyle, J. A. M. Duncanson and Charles L. Coltman to wait on the citizens and solicit members. May 1 the company was reorganized, Capt. James Hoban presiding and Mr. Duncanson being secretary. Officers were elected as follows: Capt. Hoban president; Charles L. Coltman and William Archer, vice presidents; J. A. M. Duncanson, secretary; and Henry Ashton, treasurer. An appropriation of $200 was made June 25 for erecting a new house for the Union company on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue near 21st street. July 22 the various companies had a trial of engines at the Treasury.

In 1824 there was but little change in the officers of the Columbia, and the Union elected the same officers with the exception of the secretary, W. P. Gardiner being chosen for that office. The Washington company was officered by Andrew Coyle, Henry Smith, Hezekiah Langley and William Hunt.

That the firemen did not forget their political duty as citizens is seen by the following: “The Independent Hose Company of Frederick in January, 1824, asked indorsement of their protest against any attempt to nominate a candidate for President by congressional caucus as being an unwarrantable attempt at dictation, unconstitutional and prejudging the case.” This resolution was laid before the Washington company and indorsed by it.

In the resolution the Washington company expressed appreciation of the solicitude of the Frederick company and declared that while they do not possess the privilege of voting for any one higher than mayor, the would cheerfully exercise all means in their power “by attaching their hose to that of the Independent company in order to reach the Capitol should it be endangered by a congressional caucus, and timely notice thereof will be communicated to the Independent Hose Company to lend their aid in cooling same.”

Citizens Get Warning
Attention is again called to the acts in reference to fire buckets, and citizens are warned of the approaching examination of premises. In the following summer there were frequent meetings for exercise of apparatus, and fortunately but few fires occurred. The only one noted in the papers that year was in February in the Washington penitentiary or workhouse, on M street between 6th and 7th streets northwest. Some of the female prisoners set fire to a floor, occasioning much excitement, but little damage was done. At this time considerably over half the buildings were of wood, and coal just coming into use, blazing chimneys were not rare. In September the officers of the companies were considering arrangements for general exercise of apparatus.