Old Firemen, 1825 TO 1829

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, August 5, 1911 [pt. 2 p. 7]

Notwithstanding the lack of fires in the year 1824, the various fire companies kept up their regular meetings and organizations. The Columbia Fire Company on Capitol Hill, January 4, 1825, re-elected its old officers: Maj. MacDonald, secretary of the Senate’s office, president; John C. Frost of the clerk’s office of the House of Representatives, vice president; William Ingle, secretary, and John Pic, treasurer. The directors were Messrs. Young, Rapine, Middleton and Spriggs, the latter being a clerk at the House end of the Capitol. Among the dozen members elected at this meeting were Eleazer Lindsay of the firm of Ingle & Lindsay; John Underwood and John Coyle of the first auditor’s office; William Hickey, then a clerk in the pension bureau, and later executive clerk of the Senate; John Williams, a shoemaker, who was prominent in this company, and who, in 1840, was one of the organizers of the Northern Liberty company; Hugh, Alexander and George McCormick, Simeon Bassett, Alfred Thurston and William A. Bradley, who afterward was mayor of Washington and city postmaster.

The Union Fire Company re-elected most of its officers: John A. Moulder, a Treasury clerk, who for many years was in the city councils from the first and third wards; Thomas Sanderford, carpenter and builder, and Henry N. Steiner, a Treasury clerk and an alderman, vice presidents; William Ford, a carpenter, secretary, and Matthew Hines of the old Hines family of that section, treasurer. At the same time the fire buckets were being examined and the law enforced.

February 7, 1825, a meeting was held at the house of Solomon Drew, near the navy yard gate, for the purpose of forming two companies for the navy yard engines. A committee was appointed consisting of John Davis, master plumber; Marmeduke Dove, sailing master, and James Bury, foreman smith, to take the names of those employed in the yard for that purpose. A second meeting was held at which Thomas Lyndall, master joiner, presided, and companies Nos. 1 and 2 were formed. In this year Congress made a small appropriation to repair the engines owned by the government. The Alert Fire Company was meeting at the Lancasterian School house, Henry Olds, at 14th and G streets northwest, and they were using the Treasury engine. The Union company was meeting at the town hall over the West Market; the Washington Fire Company met at the engine house on 7th street, adjoining the city post office, and December 16 of that year it met to inspect and exercise the engine, hydraulion and hose. At the same time Andrew Coyle, chief clerk of the Post Office Department and president of the company, made an appeal for efficient men, especially mechanics, to become members, as it was at a season when they might be expected to be called into service and it was for the cause of humanity that there should be an efficient company.

Fire in Library of Congress
The Intelligencer of December 24, 1825, under the heading of “Fire at the Capitol,” says: “About 12 o’clock Thursday night, the 22nd instant, ------- Vincent, sergeant of the guard on duty at the Capitol, being apprised of an unusual light in the apartment of the Library of Congress, alarmed the librarian, who instantly came to the spot and on opening the doors perceived part of the gallery of wood, which runs around the apartment, to be on fire. He immediately removed the books to the alcove adjoining, and the alarm being spread the citizens promptly assembled. An engine and hose were brought and by very active exertions of the firemen, aided by a number of members of Congress, who vied with one another in their exertions to save the Library, the flames were extinguished in less than an hour.

“Very few books, and those of little value, were consumed. Some others, of course, were injured by the wet and by their hasty removal; but the loss was trifling as to what might be expected. The ceiling of the saloon is partly destroyed and one of the alcoves of this beautiful apartment. It is believed that the fire originated from a candle left in the gallery by a gentleman who was reading there until a late hour and which being upstairs was not noticed when the library was closed. The unusual light was perceived by Mr. Edward Everett of the House of Representatives, who was returning to his lodging from an evening party, and who indicated it to the guard. Among the earliest roused and most active were Mr. Houston, Mr. Webster, Mr. Dwight and Mr. Wickliff. Mr. Ward of New York narrowly escaped injury from falling plaster. Few of the citizens were aroused and members of Congress are entitled to much of the credit for having saved the library and all the perishable part of the building.”

The late John P. Ingle, in a letter to the Intelligencer, published January 8, 1826, says that the engines and hose referred to belonged to the Columbia company whose engine was at the fire. The engine house was where the statue of Washington was afterward located. This is the only fire noted in the public press in that year.

At the annual meeting of the Columbia, January 3, 1826, the old officers were elected with the exception that Alfred Dowson of the noted Dowson’s row of boarding houses on A street north became a director in place of Mr. Middleton and Griffith Coombe took the place of ex-Mayor Rapine. At this meeting the commissioner of public buildings was asked for additional hose, etc. August 4 the city council made an appropriation to pay the claim of William C. Hunneman of Boston for an engine. It appears that the corporation had bought such an engine for the Union company in the first ward, but it did not give satisfaction and was returned to Thomas Bulfinch, a commission merchant at 10th and the Avenue, and treasurer of the Potomac company of the fifth ward, as the agent of the claimant. The Potomac company was located at the 4˝ street and P streets northwest. In November the president, James Young and John P. Ingle were appointed a committee to wait on the commissioner of public buildings and suggest the erection of an engine house at some suitable place outside of the Capitol grounds, and also to give him their views as to the plans and ask for the erection of an alarm bell.

Fire in Alexandria
The Intelligencer of Friday, January 10, 1827, gives an account of the “Awful Fire at Alexandria!” which broke out at 9 o’clock the preceding day. It notes that the river was frozen over and the thermometer stood at 13 degrees above zero. The townsmen literally flew to the assistance of their neighbors; the Columbia company was on its way in a few minutes, and soon after 300 persons from the navy yard, the Washington company from the post office, the Alert company from the second ward and the Union from the first, as well as all the marines from the barracks, under Capt. P. G. Howle, numbering in all a thousand men, responded. They arrived when the fire was most appalling, but it was arrested and a vast amount of property saved. The Alexandrians were nearly exhausted, and the reinforcements from Washington were most opportune. The paper says that it was a wonder that the fire was put under control. A fierce northwest wind was blowing, and the water as it descended turned to ice and sleet on the firemen’s garments.

In 1855 John P. Ingle wrote a letter to James A. Tait, then president of the company, stating that Dr. May about 10 o’clock on the morning of the fire, by the aid of his spyglass, found that the town was on fire in three different places, and gave the alarm, that the Columbia pressed a wagon and two horses into service and the Columbia’s engine, hose, etc., were on their way, and before 12 o’clock were pouring a stream of water on a house at the corner of Prince and Union streets, and prevented it from burning, and he says he has every reason to believe that if this house had caught the warehouses on the east side of Union street and the shipping, ice-bound at the wharves, would have been fed to the flames. The Columbia got its supply of water through a hole cut in the ice. About forty houses were burned, and the loss was over $200,000.

January 18, while the citizens and engines were at Alexandria, the roof of Allen’s dry goods store, a few doors west of the site of the present Star office, was discovered on fire, but was extinguished by neighbors with little loss. January 24 a meeting was held of citizens of the fifth ward, south of E street south, between 4th street east and 10th street west, to organize a fire company – the Phoenix of the fifth ward. The Washington company was called to meet January 25, and an appeal was made for the formation of a hose company, for which a hydraulion and 600 feet of hose were at their service. At the meeting of the Washington company the same evening Andrew Coyle was elected president; Henry Smith, carpenter and builder, residing at 11th and F streets, vice president; William Hunt, secretary; Hezekiah Langley, lumber dealer, at 12th street wharf on the canal, treasurer; John B. Martin of the fourth auditor’s office, captain of engineers; Jacob Bender, master bricklayer, captain of hosemen, and Thomas J. Southerland, captain of hosemen.

Franklin Fire Company Formed
Tuesday, January 30, 1827, the subscribers to the Alert company met at the Lancastrian School house, and February 9 adopted a constitution and changed the name to that of the Franklin Fire company, electing officers as follows: Christopher Andrews of the third auditor’s office, president; George F. Coltman, builder, vice president; William James of the registry office, secretary; Isaac Cooper, gilder, on Pennsylvania avenue near 13th street, treasurer. February 3 a new company, the Phoenix of the third ward, was formed at the Washington company’s house, at which Dr. William Gunton, druggist, at 9th street and the Avenue, was elected president; C. F. Wiltach, druggist, at L and 12th streets, vice president; Richard Wright, secretary, and Eleazer Lindsay, treasurer. The Washington Fire Company tendered its engine, hydraulion and hose, and they were accepted. The company was located near 9th street and the Avenue.

At the annual meeting of the Anacostia company, January 24, Edward W. Clark was elected president; John Prout, vice president; William Speiden, secretary; Matthew Wright, treasurer; Henry Awkward, director of engineers, and James Friend of the line men, Peter Griffin of the ladder men, Robert Clark of the ax men and Charles Venable of the furniture men.

Under an act of the corporation of May 24 the mayor was authorized to purchase eight fire plugs to be placed on such hydrants as in his judgment was required, and it is remembered that they were on Pennsylvania avenue at the corners of 3rd, 4˝, 6th, 7th, 9th and 12th streets. June 30 an ordinance was passed to collect the water of several streams into the spring called Carroll spring, on the east side of New Jersey avenue near F street east. This water was also carried to reservoirs near the Eastern Branch market and other places. August 19, 1827, an appropriation of $600 for the purchase of an engine, hose cart, etc., for the use of the engine company of the fifth ward, the Phoenix, was made. August 9 of the same year $75 was appropriated for an engine house near the Center market. In the early part of September two two-story houses on the site of the present library were burned. The Columbia fire company met at the office of Alexander McCormick October 2 and resolved that the next meeting be held in the new engine house, which had been erected at the northwest corner of New Jersey avenue and B street southeast, now within the Capitol grounds.

New Home of Columbia Company
The first meeting of the Columbia fire company in the new engine house was held Tuesday evening, January 21, 1828, at which William J. McCormick was president pro tem and William Ingle secretary. Several new members were elected, among them Robert Brown, foreman stonecutter; Christopher Dunn, E. Stansbury, John Coyle of the first auditor’s office, Col. G. K. Gardner, afterward postmaster, and John McLeod of the general post office. The committee appointed in 1826 to solicit the erection of a house and purchase of apparatus, etc., reported that it had waited on Col. Elger, commissioner of public buildings, and Congress had made a very liberal appropriation; that the house had been erected on the very spot chosen; that a first-rate suction engine, with hose, fire buckets, with shafts and harness to attach horses to the engine, had been procured and the old apparatus had been repaired. They offered a resolution of thanks to Col. Elger and all concerned. The company proceeded to elect officers, and re-elected the old ones, with but one change, John Coyle taking the place of Mr. Coombe as director. A resolution asking for the exemption of firemen from militia duty was placed in charge of John Coyle, William J. McCormick and William H. Gunnell. Among the new members elected were John Purdy, Lemuel J. Middleton, James Towles, A. J. Sansbury and Dr. Frederick May.

The Franklin company held several meetings in the room over the Washington Library, the old Masonic Hall, on 11th street between C and D. A meeting of the officers of the companies was held March 4 to consider the propriety of memorializing Congress to exempt firemen from militia duty in time of peace. A house belonging to Thomas Law on the site of the New Varnum, on New Jersey avenue and C street, occupied by Miss Polk, was discovered to be on fire on the afternoon of March 26, but was soon extinguished. Miss Polk returned thanks to the fire companies and others, commending the assistance of three black boys.

An act was passed September 22, 1828, by the corporation appropriating $1,500 for the finishing of a reservoir for the conducting of water along 2d street to Pennsylvania avenue and elsewhere within the limits of the third ward, 1st to 10th streets west. A meeting of mechanics was called at city hall July 31 to form a hose company. August 15, an appropriation was made to convey water from Carroll spring to the reservoir at Virginia avenue and 4th streets. A general meeting of the firemen was called November 7, to exercise the apparatus.

May 2, 1828, Congress made an appropriation of $3,000 to erect an engine house and purchase an engine for the Franklin fire company, and December 2 following a meeting was held at the house on 14th and E streets northwest.