Old Firemen, 1829, '30, '32, '32

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, August 12, 1911 [p. 9]

The year 1829 found the Columbia and Franklin fire companies in new brick engine houses built by the government. The Columbia engine house was erected at the northwest corner of B street and New Jersey avenue southeast, the site being now within the Capitol grounds. This was a substantial two-story and basement brick house fronting on New Jersey avenue, surmounted by a belfry. The apparatus was housed on a level with the street and run out of the two doors, whence it was drawn by rope to the fires on the hill or in the eastern part of the city.

If, however, the alarm came from downtown it necessitated the descent of the hill, which was accomplished by the apparatus being guided, while the gravity was overcome by the firemen holding it back with a rope. This was the case after the roadway was improved, as before the men could often get it safely over the rough roadway.

The engine house of the Franklin company was at the northeast corner of 14th and E streets northwest, in the reservation facing the municipal building, near where stands the statue of Alexander R. Shepherd, and was similar in plan and size, but the ground floor was level with the grade. The other engine houses were frame, that of the Washington company on 7th street adjoining the general post office, being a narrow building in which the apparatus was crowded. There was a second story to this, but its height was so low that the Washington Guards, Col. Seaton’s fine company, who kept their arms here, had to enter by the steps on the north side with unfixed bayonets and fix them on entering the room to place them in the racks.

Slight Frame Structures
This engine, together with the repairs to the same and to the house and yard of the department, cost about $2,000.

The houses of the Union, near the West market, Phoenix of the third ward, near the Center market, and Anacostia, in the sixth ward, near 6th and K streets southeast, were slight frame structures costing only a few hundred dollars – so small that it was customary to hold the meetings at other places than the fire engine houses.

At a meeting of the Columbia January 6, 1829, several new members were elected, including Dr. Fred May, jr., and William H. Campbell, long in business as a saddler; and the officers for the year were re-elected: J. G. MacDonald, John T. Frost, William Ingle and William A. Bradley, president, vice president, secretary and treasurer, respectively, with John Coyle, sr., James Young, Alfred Dowson and Benjamin Sprigg, directors. The Anacostia company met at the office of Robert Clark, near the navy yard, March 11 and elected E. W. Clark, president; Jonathan Frost, vice president; William Speiden, secretary, and Mathew Wright, treasurer.

Early in the morning of March 25, 1829, the house of Mr. Deshield, near the corner of New York avenue and 18th street, was discovered on fire, the roof catching fire from the chimney, and it was entirely destroyed, water being so scarce in the neighborhood that nothing could be done: besides, some of the engines were found to be in a leaking condition.

In a communication from Andrew Coyle to the young men of the third ward they were urged to form companies; and the fact that at the recent fires the apparatus needed men to sufficiently work the same was cited. On April 3 an act of the corporation provided for a the punishment of any one making a fire to cause an alarm was published, which prescribed the punishment a fine of $5, or in case of a slave thirty-nine lashes. At a meeting March 27 Andrew Coyle resigned the presidency, and the following officers were elected: Jacob A. Bender, president; Joseph H. Bradley, vice president; A. C. Gibbs, secretary; and Andrew Coyle, treasurer; John B. Martin, captain of engineers, and Joseph Bryan, captain of hosemen. Resolutions of thanks to Mr. Coyle for his services as president were adopted.

Union Company Reorganized
A notice published in the Intelligencer of April 9 says that the Union Fire Company of the first ward is defunct and calls a meeting to organize a new company. It appears that such a meeting was held and the Phoenix Fire Company of that ward partially organized. The Franklin Fire Company, of which Mr. Duncanson was secretary, as well as the Washington Company, regularly met and frequently exercised. The Franklin Fire Company, a short time before, issued a circular inviting the various companies to elect delegates to a convention to memorialize Congress for authority to form a fire association and also to exempt firemen from militia duty in time of peace.

On January 5, 1830, the Columbia Fire Company elected as delegates to the firemen’s convention James McCormick, Harvey Cruttenden and C. H. Dunn. Among the eight members elected at this meeting were Thomas J. Barrett, James Cull, afterward a magistrate; Joseph Elgar, commissioner of public buildings, and David M. Wilson. Officers were elected as follows: Henry Timms, president; William J. McCormick, vice president; William Ingle, secretary, and H. Cruttenden, treasurer. On January 11 at a meeting of the company John P. Ingle offered resolutions directing the treasurer and the secretary to deliver to the commissioner of public buildings all books and papers and the company be dissolved.

After some debate the resolutions were adopted, that on dissolution by a vote of 28 to 15. Protest against this action was filed by William Ingle, James McCormick and a dozen others. It appears from the proceedings of a meeting held January 16 that the company could not gain admission to the engine house because the key had been placed in the hands of Gen. Roger C. Weightman, the president of the newly organized company, the Columbian, and the members met the same evening at Dr. McCormick’s apothecary shop. At this meeting resolutions were adopted declaring the proceedings relating to the dissolution of the company to be null and void and a resolution was also adopted directing a committee to wait on Col. Elgar, the commissioner of public buildings, and ascertain upon what grounds he had dispossessed the company of the engine house and engine and to appeal to the President of the United States. James McCormick, William Ingle and Benjamin L. Bailey were appointed a committee, and fifteen new members were elected. On January 23 a meeting of the delegates from the fire company of the District was held at the hall of the Franklin Fire Company. There were present delegates from the Friendship, Sun, Relief, Star and Hydraulion companies of Alexandria, and the Washington companies were represented by John P. Ingle and Harvey Cruttenden of the Columbian: William Ingle and James McCormick of the Columbian; Joseph H. Bradley, James Bender and A. Bell of the Washington; William Archer, J. A. M. Duncanson and C. L. Coltman of the Franklin. Mr. Coltman was called to the chair and Mr. Duncanson was made secretary. The project suggested was indorsed and a committee of a member from each company was appointed to memorialize Congress on the subject.

Got Water From Tiber
The Intelligencer in February, 1830, reports a fire February 12, of which it says, “Fortunately it was in daylight, for the wind was high and the supply of water scarce until the suctions and hose brought it from the Tiber.” This fire broke out in the brick dwelling of Mr. Shepherd, a hairdresser, on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue between 14th and 15th streets. The house was entirely destroyed, as was the adjoining house of the Rev. Dr. James Laurie of the F Street Presbyterian Church. The paper says great exertions were made by the fire companies and individuals on the roofs of the houses, but want of organization was felt. Upon the whole the fire was got under control with less destruction of property than they hoped on arrival. In a communication a writer says that “the high wind in some degree may have prevented the spread of the alarm; that the church bells were not rung, which is considered highly culpable. The bell of the Franklin was, however, incessantly rung, but, being small and owing to the high wind, was heard but three or four squares, and he suggests that the sextons of St. John’s and the Unitarian churches should have peremptory orders to ring their bells for fires.

The firemen’s memorial to Congress to incorporate a fire department and exempt the firemen from militia duty was presented in February, but nothing was then accomplished. The Columbian was not represented in this memorial, but the Union and Phoenix of the first ward were represented by Mr. Duncanson and the Georgetown companies by O. M. Linthicum of the Vigilant, John Myers of the Columbia, John H. King of the Eagle. The Anacostia Company that year elected Edward W. Clark, president; Jonathan Prout, vice president; William Speiden, secretary; Mathew Wright, treasurer. March 1, the Union Company held a meeting at the West Market Hall.

In March, 1830, a plan for watering the city was presented to Congress by George Cameron. He said a spring affording four hogsheads of water could be obtained within five or six hundred yards of the Capitol and raised by steam or other power to a reservoir on the hill, and that that portion of water not wanted for the Capitol could be carried to other parts of the city, and it was referred to the committee on public grounds. About the time Isaac L. Skinner memorialized Congress on the subject of a great water basin in connection with the Chesapeake and Ohio and Washington canals.

Drain Through Mall
This basin he proposed to locate near the foot of the Botanic Garden through the Mall, which would contain about thirty acres, and the excavation would be one foot below low water mark. In connection therewith he proposed a building for hydraulic purposes, by which the water in the canal would operate forcing pumps so that water could be conveyed to the lobby of the House of Representatives and to the tops of other public buildings. He claimed that the public offices being thus supplied, if they had hose, any fire might be extinguished before the arrival of fire engines. He estimated the cost of his plan at $276,000. Robert Mills, architect, also proposed a plan for giving a supply of water to the public buildings and grounds. He said of the Tiber that the head springs would give seven, three and four and a half gallons per minute, which could be conveyed to the Capitol at a cost of $43,710, and recommended the construction of a reservoir, etc. He also discussed a plan to bring the water from Rock creek down the Avenue.

The Washington Company met May 26, 1830, to experiment with a new engine at the post office engine house. The Phoenix Fire Company of the third ward met to reorganize September 16, 1830 at Brown’s, now the Metropolitan Hotel. The Columbia company held several meetings at Burdick’s schoolroom on East Capitol street, in consequence of the Columbian Company, of which Gen. Weightman was the president, being in possession of the engine house and apparatus. It appears that the old company regained possession and held a special meeting there January 24, 1831.

On the morning of May 7, 1831, a destructive fire took place on 10th street above D street, in a cabinet maker’s shop in the rear of Col. Peter Force’s residence. The workmen were at breakfast at the time, and the shop being filled with shavings and other combustibles, by the time the alarm had reached two squares distance the workshop and other nearby wooden buildings were a mass of flames. Fortunately there was little wind, or all the houses west of the fire on 10th street and Varnum’s row on the Avenue would have been consumed. The fire reached D street, consuming the cabinet shop of Samuel Kirby, and was then fortunately arrested. The Intelligencer says: “Our city is extremely well supplied with water for every purpose but the important one of extinguishing fires, and for the want of judicious arrangement it is very badly off in this respect.”

The law in relation to fire buckets was in force and it was the duty of ward commissioners and constables to collect the same after each fire.

Urges Sinking of Wells
In a communication in the Intelligencer of June 24, 1831, the scarcity of water in the neighborhood of the City Hall, with the Masonic Hall and churches nearby is cited, and the absence of pumps is alluded to, and the sinking of wells is advocated.

November 30, 1831, John Cox, the mayor of Georgetown, in behalf of the citizens, tenders thanks to the Washingtonians for their services at a great fire two days before. This destroyed nearly all the property on the west side of High street (now Wisconsin avenue) between Prospect avenue and 1st street, now N street. It originated in White & Mumby’s bakehouse, December 2. “Public Good” urges the use of horses to draw the engines, saying if the men could be relieved of dragging the engines more persons would join the companies and on an alarm make for the fire.

In December a meeting was called to take charge of the Star engine, etc., located at the Treasury.

In January, 1832, the Washington Fire Company, at the post office, the Columbia, on Capitol Hill, the New Phoenix, near the Center Market, the Franklin, at 14th and E streets, and others were in commission. A writer notes that at recent fires the citizens served coffee to the firemen. In that year Jacob Janney was the president of the Franklin Company, J. A. M. Duncanson vice president, John F. Callan secretary, W. W. Billing treasurer, George Lamb captain of engineers, C. L. Coltman, captain of hose, Anthony Preston captain of laddermen and Robert P. Anderson captain of propertymen.

About 12 o’clock, Sunday night, August 26, 1832, there was another run of the firemen to Georgetown. The Union Hotel was entirely destroyed. The building was a lofty one, and the fire was first seen on the roof, and though the engines were well supplied with water from the canal, they could not throw it on the roof. Fortunately, the flames were confined to the hotel property, on which the loss was nearly $100,000.