Old Firemen – 1833, ‘4, ‘5, ‘6

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, August 20, 1911 [pt. 2, p. 2]

Under the charter of 1820 the prevention and extinguishment of fires was one of the duties imposed on the corporation of Washington. The fire apparatus owned by the general government and the corporation was manned by volunteer companies, but often by 1833 such companies existed only in name. In some instances the manual engines were in the custody of the commissioners of the ward. Nevertheless, fires and apparatus had an attraction for young men, and in some cases of fire there were to be found volunteers to do the work at the fires.

The streets were in such condition often that the older citizens did not relish the labor of dragging the apparatus to the scenes of conflagration and there working laboriously at the levers. Almost annually there were included in the appropriations money for the repair of the government engines, the Union, Franklin and Columbia companies, about $200 being sufficient therefore. The corporation also made appropriation for the market engine, and some companies were aided both by the national and local governments.

In 1833 the officers of the Franklin Company were Charles L. Coltman, long years a brick manufacturer, president; J.A.M. Duncanson, post office clerk, vice president; Nicholas Callan, justice of the peace, secretary; and Col. W.W. Billing, then a department clerk, treasurer, with W.L. McCauley, sealer of weights and measures, captain of engineers; Robert Coltman, afterward warden of the penitentiary, captain of hose; John F. Callan, druggist, captain of property men, and Anthony Preston, slater, captain of ladder men. The company at this time was meeting every other month, but at this meeting fixed its meetings on the first Tuesday of each month.

Treasury Building Burns
A serious fire took place in the Treasury building, on the site of the present department, about 2 o’clock Sunday morning, March 31, 1833, and it was totally destroyed, with many valuable papers. It was subsequently ascertained to have been the incendiary work of two brothers, R.H. and H.H. White, who were in the pay of a claimant whose object was to cover up a fraud. One of the brothers was convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary for ten years, while the other escaped through the statute of limitation.

In August delegates to a firemen’s convention were called to meet at the Washington engine house, adjoining the post office, and the convention subsequently met at the Franklin engine house. Three companies from Alexandria, two from Georgetown and four from Washington were represented. Col. C.K. Gardner, afterward city postmaster, called the meeting to order and Alexander McIntire was made chairman and E.F. Brown, a claim agent, was secretary. A resolution was adopted for the appointment of one from each company to lay before Congress a statement of the difficulties under which the fire companies labored. This committee consisted of Hugh Smith of the Hydraulion, Stephen Shinn of the Relief and Thomas E. Baird of the Friendship of Alexandria; R.B. Fowler of the Western Star and W.J. Gozier of the Vigilant of Georgetown and Col. C.K. Gardner of Columbia. Dr. William B. McGruder of Union, E.F. Brown of the Franklin and Samuel Bacon, jr., of the Phoenix, and the president, r. McIntire, was added to the committee. This committee subsequently met at the engine houses here and in Alexandria.

In 1834, at the annual meeting of the Franklin, there were but a dozen present and the officers of the preceding year were continued. It appears that the Intelligencer inserted the calls for meetings of the fire companies free of charge.

Water for Navy Yard
September 5, 1834, a resolution of the corporation gave permission to Commodore Isaac Hull, commandant of the navy yard, to construct a reservoir near the intersection of 9th street east and Georgia avenue and to convey water therefrom into the Navy Yard.

October 27 the cabinet shop of J.K. Plant, on C street between 9th and 10th streets, was entirely consumed by fire, with his tools and stock. This was the third fire in which Mr. Plant was a victim, he having been burned out in Alexandria and once before in this city. About noon the next day a two-story brick house on G street occupied by Mr. Douglass took fire, but so prompt was the assistance that the house was damaged only in the roof.

October 29, a call was made for a meeting at the post office engine house to organize a company for the third ward. At this meeting, Jacob Gideon, jr., was called to the chair, and Leonidas Coyle was appointed secretary, and after the submission of some resolutions they were referred to the following committee, which was instructed to report at a subsequent meting; John N. Moulder, formerly president of the Union; Joseph H. Bradley, Edward Ingle, Jacob A. Bender and Jacob Gideon, jr. About this time the Union was directed to dispose of all its dilapidated or defective apparatus and apply the proceeds of sale to the repair of the engine house.

Apathy of Citizens
A communication appears in the Intelligencer of the 28th calling attention to the apathy of the citizens on subjects calculate to benefit, improve and prosper. The writer directs attention to the inefficient organization, if there is any organization at all, of the fire companies, saying that the companies are quite as useless at a fire as a man without hands. He says there is no reason to expect much improvement “until we are made to learn wisdom from dear bought experience.”

At a recent fire he says ten members endeavored to take out the Washington engine, but were forced to break in, the keys being locked up in the Post Office Department, and most of the members took foot to the fire, presuming that the engine would follow by instinct. He asked if there was no danger of relying on a fire company of such patriots, and urged the thorough and efficient organization of the Washington Fire Company.

In 1835 the Franklin e-elected the old officers, Messrs. Coltman, Duncanson, Callan and Billing.

April 2 a fire broke out in Mechanics’ row, on the north side of D street between 2d and 3d streets, and the interior and roofs of two of them were destroyed. This was owned by Thomas Laws’ estate.

April 10 the Franklin Fire Company, through N. Callan, jr., secretary, appealed to the citizens of the second ward for new members. He said the apparatus was in excellent order and all it required was physical force to work the same. At the following meeting a number of new members were elected, among them George M. Davis, a cabinet maker; Elias Travers, grocer; Hiram Ritchie, tinner; William H. Hope, a printer and afterward of the firm of Wallace & Hope of The Evening Star; C. Woodberry, a son of Secretary Woodberry, and James Colgate, a well known clerk. At this meeting a badge with the head of Benjamin Franklin was adopted. The balance of the year the company continued to appeal for the filling of its ranks, and the Washington company was looking to the formation of an additional company.

Pulled Engines to Alexandria
Notwithstanding the condition of the Washington companies was far from first-class when the establishment of James Green, an extensive cabinet making plant in Alexandria, was destroyed April 25, 1836, several engines were drawn there by the firemen and rendered valuable service, though the building and contents were entirely destroyed.

The Intelligencer of December 16 gives a long account of the burning of the old Blodgett Hotel on E street between 7th and 8th, in which were the general post office, the city post office, the patent office, etc. The paper says that the calamity had long been feared by the citizens, who knew of the combustible nature of the building and the custom of stowing fuel in the vaults beneath the first floor. It was not long after 3 ‘clock that one of the clerks, Mr. Crown, was awakened by the smell of smoke, and he gave an alarm. One of the church bells rang in half an hour’s time and the engines responded tardily. The fire had its own way, and soon the entire building was in flames, and in a little less than an hour the whole interior was destroyed. The wind was blowing and it was very cold and the house of Col. Seaton, opposite Hendley’s Tavern at the corner, and other nearby buildings were in great danger from the heat. From the Louisville Courier and Inquirer, the Intelligencer copies, on the 20th of December, an account said to have been sent by Amos Kendall, the Postmaster general, in which he says he was awakened at 3:30 o’clock by an indifferent sort of alarm, that one bell gave out a few sleepy strokes and a few voices cried fire; that he went to the office and finally discovered smoke issuing from the basement window when there were only twenty or thirty persons present, and it was a long time before either engine or water was used to arrest the progress of the flames.

The few clerks seemed to be paralyzed and three quarters of an hour after he reached the spot, scarcely a move having been made to save the building, etc., an engine arrived and made a feeble attempt to play, but there was no sympathy in the crowd, the mass of whom stood looking on with the feeling apparently akin to gratification. But the work of preservation at length commenced. Mr. Rives of the Congressional Globe was seen carrying out encyclopedias of documents and his example was followed by others. There were two engines in attendance, which ceased their ineffectual effort to save the building and played on the adjacent buildings.

Other Property Endangered
“While these events were passing,” he says, “the wind was breezing gently from the westward of north, this blew the embers and fragments over against the opposite house of W.W. Seaton, esq. and threatened its destruction. He heat became so intense that you could not bear your hand on the glass windows, the zinc composing the pipes down the wall began to melt and it was no longer possible for the firemen to stand between the two buildings. Te friends of Mr. Seaton clustered about him and the house was soon stripped of all its moveables, and its destruction seemed inevitable; but at the very moment when even the hope of its preservation seemed to have been abandoned, the wind clapped suddenly around to the southwest and the house was saved. When you speak hereafter of the malevolence of the wind remember that it has once, at least, done a generous act, for had it not been for this capricious change whole blocks from thence to Pennsylvania avenue must have laid prostrate.

A fire on the roof of Rev. Dr. O.B. Brown’s residence on the south side of E street between 8th and 9th was discovered December 19, and it was fortunately extinguished by persons on the roof and with the aid of an engine.

In this year Congress made an appropriation of $5,000, by which an acre of land with the fine spring belonging to John A. Smith, situated in what is now the reservoir at the filtration plant, was purchased, and water was conducted therefrom and supplied the water at the Capitol till a few years ago. The spring was reserved after the reservoir was located by the erection of masonry which extended above the level of the water in the reservoir. Owing to a failure of Congress to make an appropriation to keep the pipes in repair this spring water has gone into disuse. From 1834 until the introduction of Potomac water this was the main supply relied on for fish ponds and fountains at the Capitol, and from 1837 it also supplied the Treasury, Post Office and other buildings. An appropriation of $10,000 was nearly all expended for the latter purpose.