Old Firemen in 1839

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, September 23, 1911 [pt. 2 p. 12]

The interest of the property holders in the volunteer fire department was apparent at the beginning of 1839. The corporation as well as the general government made appropriations for apparatus, the latter for the protection of the public buildings primarily, and also aided in the purchase of apparatus for the Perseverance company. In the meetings of the Columbia Fire Company, located at the Capitol, and the Franklin, near the Treasury; the Anacostia, near the barracks and navy yard, measures were taken for laying before Congress the need for new apparatus.

At the annual meeting of the Columbia company the following officers were elected: James Adams, president; John C. Fitzpatrick, vice president; W.W. Stewart, secretary; Simeon Bassett, treasurer; William R. Tait, captain of engines; Thomas Marche, captain of property men. The Union Fire Company elected Ed Hanley, president; William B. Magruder, vice president; George Calvert, secretary; J.O.P. Degges, assistant secretary; Samuel Scott, treasurer; Samuel Drury, captain of engines, and George W. Harkness, captain of hose.

At this meeting a uniform hat and cape were adopted. The hat had red front and back, the sides blue, the name of the company, “Union,” on the front over clasped hands, and on the back the motto “In union there is strength” in gilt letters, and at the bottom the figures “1836.” The capes, reaching to the waist, were of vermillion red with a gilt border shaded in black, a gilt star in each corner and in the center a large spread eagle, over which there was the word “Union” and below the name of the division in gilt letters.

Fought Fire in Storm
At 7 o’clock p.m. January 9, the roof of a frame building adjoining McGonigle’s tavern, on the west side of 10th street between D and E streets, was discovered on fire. The Intelligencer says: “In a very few minutes the fire spread with an alarming rapidity to the adjoining frame buildings, which were very old and combustible. The alarm bells were rung immediately and the Franklin, Perseverance and other companies were speedily brought out, and rendered very effective aid, but we regret to learn that in spite of all their exertions, aided by numerous citizens and the hail and rain which fell copiously on the flames, four frame buildings were destroyed. Two were owned by Mr. F.A. Weaver, professor of music, and the other two by Mr. McGonigle. We are sorry to learn that beside the destruction of the buildings damage was done to the property of the occupants and there was no insurance on any of the buildings or other property destroyed. We learned that Mr. John Foy, on the corner of 10th and D streets sustained considerable loss by the sudden and perhaps unnecessary removal of his property. * * * The fire is supposed to have caught from a foul chimney. The continued working of the several fire companies amid the pelting storm of hail and rain during the progress of the fire was highly commendable. We learned that the mayor, Peter Force, whose residence was very near the fire, kindly supplied the firemen and others with refreshments during the night.”

On Sunday night, January 27, a fire broke out in an old frame building on Jefferson street in Georgetown, and although the fire companies of Georgetown and the Union and Franklin companies were soon on the spot, the building was entirely consumed. The Perseverance ran as far as Pennsylvania avenue and 19th street, when it found its assistance was not needed. The Intelligencer commends the fire companies in going to the assistance of their neighbors on such a remarkably cold night.

The Franklin company elected the following officers: McClintock Young, president; Wallace Kirkwood, vice president; W.J. Bailey, secretary, and John C. Rives, treasurer.

First Firemen’s Ball
The first announcement of a firemen’s ball was that of the Perseverance Fire Company, given February 19 at the Masonic Hall, opposite the courthouse. The managers were the mayor, Peter Force; ex-Mayor William A. Bradley; William Gunton, Joseph H. Bradley, Dr. J.C. Hall, Henry Ingle, Dr. Joseph Borrows, F. Asbury Tucker, Joseph Etter, Maj. L.J. Middleton, H. Clements, Joseph Gales of the Intelligencer, John W. Maury, afterward mayor; Caleb Buckingham, machinist; Capt. John Goddard, who afterward headed the Auxiliary guard; Samuel Bacon, grocer; George W. Phillips, many years afterward of the United States marshal’s office; Peter F. Bacon, a general of the District militia; John T. Towers, leading printer, afterward mayor; Valentine Harbaugh, long a druggist, and John Stallings, master painter. The company had elected a few weeks before John H. Goddard president; John C. Harkness, architect and builder, vice president Maj. Middleton, secretary and Edward Ingle, treasurer. In the notice of this ball in the Intelligencer of February 22 that paper compliments the management on its success and describes the decorations of the rooms. The standards of the other companies were displayed, and on the floor a star was chalked, on which appeared the names of the companies, that of the Perseverance, with the motto “Prodesse civibus,” being prominent. The presence of the mayor and other prominent citizens was also noticed.

March 20 application was made by the navy yard company (Anacostia) for permission to erect its engine house in the square bounded by Virginia avenue, K and 9th streets.

March 25 the shingle roof of E.P. Maxwell’s dwelling, on Indiana avenue between 3d and 4-1/2 streets, was discovered on fire. Through the promptness of citizens it was extinguished and the services of the Perseverance company, which responded promptly, were not required.

The next fire was on Wednesday morning, April 10, on 7th street pposite Center market. It was the roof of the old frame building in which John H. Clarvoe kept the tavern known as the Trade Union. The Perseverance Fire Company responded promptly and subdued the flames. The Franklin soon after aided the former in the good work. An interesting incident of this fire was that in throwing out some of the supposed feather beds the tick was torn and the fresh breeze blew the contents over the lower portion of the city. At that period the wanquepine, or cat-tail, was used as a substitute for feathers, and this incident led to the name Cat-Tail Row being applied to the buildings on 7th street opposite Center market.

Huge New Fire Bell
The Intelligencer of April 15 notices the erection of the Perseverance engine house, at Pennsylvania avenue and 8th street, as also its new bell, which many of our citizens regarded during the forties and fifties as the curfew bell, as it was rung at 9 o’clock each evening as a warning for the colored race to be indoors an hour later. The paper stated that the bell would be rung for fifteen minutes at 10 o’clock that night to accustom the public to its sound. It describes the bell as one made in Boston of 1,040 pounds weight, of fine tone, which could be heard at a distance of about four miles. It had been hoisted to its position in the belfry four days previously by a detachment of the company acting under the direction of Capt. John Peabody, father of the late ex-Chief John J. Peabody. The building was erected by Jonathan P. Walker, carpenter, on the plans of John C. Harkness. The hall was forty by twenty-five feet in size, and over the president’s chair was the handsome painting of a mother rescuing her child from an eagle’s nest, a present of the artist, H.M. Bowen of this city, to the company.

A false alarm of fire is noted April 17, as also the destruction of an old boat by fire on the canal at 12th street, to which the Franklin, Columbia and Perseverance responded. May 6, the council gave permission to the Anacostia or Navy Yard company to build an engine house near 9th and K streets southeast.

Saturday night, April 27, a fire broke out in the house on the southeast corner of 10th street and Pennsylvania avenue, which was occupied by Ezekiel Young, merchant tailor, on the first floor, and by Mr. Etter as the printing office of the Christian Statesman, on the second floor. The Perseverance bell was immediately rung and the alarm was taken up by the bells on the Baptist Church on 10th street and the Unitarian Church, 6th and D streets, when the fire companies turned out with their usual alacrity. The progress of the fire was arrested and confined to the cellar. The principal loser was Mr. Young, caused by the removal of his goods. It was believed to have been the work of an incendiary.

A slight fire took place about noon August 1 at Dowling’s Tavern on F street between 13th and 14th streets.

In August a meeting of delegates was held to arrange for a firemen’s procession, as also to form a fire department. Subsequently the first Monday in April, 1840, was fixed for the date of the procession.

Attacked by Rowdies
The Intelligencer notes that October 1, while the Perseverance, Franklin and Union companies were in Georgetown on a false alarm of fire they were assailed by a number of rowdies, who threw bricks, paving stones, etc. Some of them were arrested and taken to the watch-house and others received personal chastisement from the firemen.

October 29 an alarm of fire was rung by the Perseverance and Unitarian bells and the Franklin and Perseverance started for a blaze in the western part of the city, which proved however, to be a bonfire near the glasshouse at the foot of 20th street.

The Intelligencer of November 4 notices the new engine house and apparatus of the Anacostia or Navy Yard company. The house was built by Jacob Bender, bricklayer, and Clark & Henning, carpenters. The engine was made by John Agnew of Philadelphia who also made the suction. On the engine were two handsome paintings, one representing an Indian chief and the other an Indian squaw. The engine could throw a stream 170 feet horizontally. The hose reel was made by Cabit Buckingham and the hose made by Mr. Lamb. The fire bell, made by Wellbanks of Philadelphia, weighed something over 400 pounds, and had a peculiar sound. On the same date the Intelligencer notices that the Perseverance had received a new suction made by Shere & Sons of Baltimore. This had a trial at the Capitol, and through 200 feet of hose sent a stream over the balustrade seventy feet and from the box through a single section of hose threw a horizontal stream of 162 feet.

Resolutions of condolence with the family of William S. Inch were adopted by the Anacostia fire company, and the company attended his funeral Sunday, November 10, the bell being tolled during its progress.

The councils in November made an appropriation to build a shed to accommodate the ladder division of the Franklin company near the corner of 14th and D streets northwest.

Saturday night, December 2, a frame building at the arsenal, used as a deposit for coal, was burned.