Old Firemen – 1837

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, September 3, 1911 [pt. 2 p. 3]

In the latter part of 1836 there was increasing interest in the fire companies, although some had existence in name only. The necessity for fire protection had been emphasized by the destruction of the post and patent offices December 15, 1836, and the sentiment was strong for an efficient company in the center of the city. After some consultation among the leading citizens residing about City Hall, among whom were Capt. John H. Goddard, afterward for many years captain of the Auxiliary Guards; John C. Harkness, a carpenter and master builder; H.T. Pairo, dry goods merchant; C.W. Butler, Samuel Bacon, grocer; Capt. Caleb Buckingham, machinist, a meeting was called at the council chamber of city Hall January 18, and the Perseverance Fire Company was formed. The Union company was fully reorganized in that month and elected Rev. French S. Evans, president; Edmund Hanley, vice president; Dr. Flodoardo Howard, secretary, and Samuel Stott, long a grocer at 20th street and the Avenue, as treasurer.

The committee on memorializing Congress to charter a firemen’s insurance company and for the organization of a fire department held frequent meetings, as also the delegates to a convention to urge the exemption of firemen from militia duty. As a result, Congress passed an act chartering the insurance company, as also an act exempting seventy-five members from militia duty on a company which possessed $500 worth of apparatus and one hundred members if their apparatus was worth more than $1,000. It also passed an act for the formation of a fire department, consisting of the presidents of the several companies and for the appointment of an inspector of apparatus in each of the three cities of the District; Alexandria being then included in the District. The officers of the companies were given authority to enforce obedience to the constitution and rules, to preserve order and summon aid to work the apparatus.

The Perseverance Fire Company organized an efficient company for the “third ward” at a meeting where Joseph Bryan presided and John C. Harkness was secretary. The project to form a firemen’s insurance company was indorsed, and John H. Goddard, M.P. Callan and John Purdy elected delegates to the convention. Like action was taken by the Franklin company, and Dr. Wallace Kirkwood, John Smoot, Nicholas Callan, jr.; C.L. Coltman and W.W. Billing were appointed delegates. Subscription to the stock of the firemen’s company was taken in April. Shares were $20 each, $2 payable on subscribing, $2 in four months and stock notes given for the balance, and none but members of the company were allowed to subscribe.

Gives Account of Fire
The Intelligencer of May 29 gives an account of a destructive fire about 6 o’clock in the morning of the 27th. It says: “As Mr. John Walker, the butcher, was going from his house to the Center market he discovered fire to be issuing from the back part of the dry goods store of Messrs. C.E. Washington & Co., at the corner of 9th street and Pennsylvania avenue. The alarm bells were soon after rung, and in a very short time the engines of the several fire companies, well manned, arrived on the spot. The flames, however, owing perhaps to the combustible nature of the goods soon attained the ascendant and in the course of two hours the entire building gave way with a tremendous crash, the outer wall facing 9th street falling across the street and covering it with bricks. Fortunately no one was killed, but a colored woman carrying a sofa was knocked down by the bricks, but not seriously injured. The Washington company’s loss was about $40,000, insured for half that amount. The iron chest was gotten out by Mr. J.A. Bender and others. The boarding house of Mrs. Gassaway suffered, some of the occupants narrowly escaping with their lives. Mr. Slade’s hardware store, adjoining, was injured, but insured to the amount of $3,000, as also that of Mr. Rawlings, merchant tailor; Mr. Wilson, hatter, and Hiram Ritchie, tinner. There were a number of idle persons who refused to assist, notwithstanding they were called on by the mayor and a magistrate.

The Perseverance company succeeded in the apparatus of the Phoenix company, which was made effective by an appropriation of $100 to repair things. At that time it was housed in a small frame building near the corner of 9th street and Pennsylvania avenue, and the company held its meetings at the City Hall, the Masonic Hall, opposite, and other places.

On June 6, 1837, about 3 o’clock, James Carrico’s carpenter shop on 16th street, north of St. John’s Church, was totally destroyed. This was said to have been caused by the use of a lighted cigar. On the next day, one of the outbuildings of John Bohlay’s place, east of the marine barracks, was burned, as also a meat house and stable. The Anacostia engine was in service, manned by the mechanics of the navy yard, assisted by marines. Several of the uptown companies responded promptly. On the 8th an attempt was made to fire the venetian blind factory of William Noell on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue a few doors east of 10th street, and on account of prompt discovery little damage was done. On July 10 the Union Fire Company appointed William B. Magruder, E. Coolidge and J.W. Harness a committee to confer with the committees of other fire companies and make arrangements for a firemen’s procession on Tuesday, October 4, following.

Firemen’s Company Organized
On July 18, notice was given that 5,000 shares of the stock of the Firemen’s Company had been subscribed and the companies were requested to elect directors. On August 4 announcement was made that the company was ready to receive applications for insurance. The directors were: Edmund Hanley and John Barclay of the Union, McClintock Young and John C. Rives of the Franklin, Andrew Rothwell and John C. Harkness of the Perseverance, James Adams and Joseph Follansbee of the Columbia, and William Speiden of the Navy Yard and Anacostia company, and James A. King of the Western Star, and Charles E. Eckel of the Vigil of Georgetown.

August 7 the Intelligencer notices the laying of iron water pipes along the Avenue from the Capitol to the Treasury. It states that the construction of fireplugs at proper distances will prove serviceable in case of fires near the plugs; that the first experiment to test them had taken place on the 4th instant when the Perseverance Company, under Capt. Buckingham, turned out with its engine and hydraulion, and the hose being affixed to the plug near the Elliott buildings, on Pennsylvania avenue, east of 4-1/2 street. The experiment was in the presence of Maj. Nolan, commissioner of public buildings and others and afforded satisfaction.

September 4 the council granted the use of the old copper engine in the tobacco warehouse, previously used by the Phoenix Company of the fifth ward, to James B. Atkins, John B. French, Alexander McWilliams and others, provided they repaired it and organized a fire company under the regulations of the council. The Intelligencer of September 18 describes the new hose carriage of the Franklin made by George Jeffries of Philadelphia, and the painting of the head of Franklin, by J.A. Woodside of Philadelphia, on the front locker was highly praised. The officers were C.L. Coltman, president; James M. Duncanson, Wallace Kirkwood and McClintock Young, vice presidents; J.H. Smoot, secretary, and W.W. Billings, treasurer. The paper also notices the hose carriage with fifteen hundred feet of hose of the Union.

October 11, a fire of the day before is reported. It was a carpenter shop in the rear of Mr. Browning’s store, on Pennsylvania avenue between 3d and 4 -1/2 streets, and communicated to the stables of Mr. Browning and Ignatius Adams. The carpenter shop was occupied by Mr. Fitzgerald. A meeting was called October 20, of young men under twenty-one, at the city hall, to form a fire company.

Firemen Give Parade
The firemen’s procession took place Tuesday, October 24, forming at the Union engine house, proceeding by the Avenue to Georgetown returning by way of K street through the city and the President’s grounds by way of Pennsylvania avenue to the Capitol, and thence to 8th street southeast, to Virginia avenue, and by way of New Jersey avenue and Pennsylvania avenue to the Center Market. Those in line were the Columbia Fire Company, with the engine, hose cart and hydraulion drawn by horses, and sixty members wearing white badges, headed by James Adams, president; George Phillips, vice president; William R. Tait, captain of engineers; Samuel Briggs, captain of hosemen; M.L. Clubb, captain of property men; William Ingle, secretary, and Simeon Bassett, treasurer.

The next company was the Vigilant of Georgetown, O.M. Linthicum, president; Joseph Hilton, vice president, and seventy-five members, the apparatus decorated with flowers and drawn by horses; the Franklin, with engine, hydraulion, hose carriage and hose cart drawn by horses and seventy-eight men in line. The Marine Band headed this: the mayors of Washington and Georgetown, the city council and officers and directors of the Firemen’s Potomac Insurance Company being in carriages. The Perseverance Fire Company came next, headed by J.H. Goddard, with a large and small fire engine drawn by horses, with seventy-three men in line; then the Anacostia, with a small engine drawn by horses, fifty members in line, headed by John Davis of Abele, president, and William Ellis, vice president; next the Western Star Company of Georgetown, with forty-eight members in line, headed by George Shoemaker, president, with the engine, auction and hose carriage drawn by horses; the Union Company, seventy-nine members in line, with hose carriage, two-wheeled hose reel and new engine drawn by horses, led by postilion.

This was the first firemen’s parade which ever took place in this city, and along the route many places were decorated, in some as elaborately as were the machines.

About 8 o’clock of October 31 Mrs. Smith’s boarding house on New Jersey avenue near C street took fire from the chimney and t was extinguished with but little damage. The Intelligencer says, “Several chimneys have been seen to blaze out in the last week in the third wad, where an efficient superintendent of sweeps is wanted.”

While firemen of that day would seem to be opposed to the militia system, such was not the case s to the uniformed companies, for some such companies were composed in part of active firemen, and that they encouraged such companies is seen in the fact that the Washington Light Infantry in its earlier days had the use of the hall of the Franklin Company.