Old Firemen – 1840
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, September 30, 1911 [pt. 2 p. 7]
In 1840 a lively interest was taken in the fire companies of the city, and new ones were in the process of formation. The population of that time was rapidly growing. The work on the patent office, general post office and Treasury, etc., dew many mechanics to the city, and buildings were erected for their use. Especially was this the case in the third ward, then bounded by 1st and 10th streets west, E street south and Florida avenue, known as “Boundary Street.” Probably seven-eighths of the residences were frame, and wood being the fuel danger was enhanced, and blazing chimneys, which often set roofs on fire, were common. The old companies kept up their organizations, and in addition to government and corporation aid received encouragement from the property holders generally, numbers of whom unable to become active members were contributing or honorary members, and not much effort was being needed to keep the ranks filled or form new companies. And, indeed, boys were looking to the time they should reach eighteen years of age and become members of some organization.
Columbia Fire Company on Capitol Hill elected as its officers, James Adams, president; John T. Ball, vice president; W.W. Stewart, secretary; Simeon Bassett, treasurer; James A. Tait, captain of engineers; S.S. Briggs, captain of hose. The Union Fire company of the first ward elected Edmond Hanley, president; W.B. Magruder, vice president; Charles Calvert, secretary; William H. Perkins, assistant secretary; Samuel Stott, treasurer; J.O.P. Degges, captain of engineers, and William H. Degges, captain of hosemen. This company established quite a library to which the citizens of the first ward made contributions of books and money, and its constitution encouraged temperance among its members, prescribing fines on any who should appear in an intoxicated condition at a fire or meeting of the company.
In view of the firemen’s procession which had been set for April 8, the members were uniforming themselves and preparing to make a great show. The Franklin Fire Company gave its first annual ball on February 3 at the American Theater on Louisiana avenue, east of 6th street, which was a great success. In subsequent years, however, the balls of this company were given on January 17, the birthday of Franklin.
Council Make Appropriations
The Intelligencer of April 10 gives a three-column account of the firemen’s procession which took place two days before. At sunrise the bells of the various engine houses were rung, and engine houses were decorated with banners and streamers. The National Hotel and many buildings were also decorated. It says, “About 6 o’clock a.m. the Union Fire Company, preceded by the Marine Band, marched to the railroad depot, Pennsylvania avenue and 2d street northwest, to receive the Mechanical Fire Company of Baltimore. About 7 o’clock the huzzas of the multitude betokened the approach of the cars and in a brief space of time the Union Fire Company, being previously arranged in admirable order in an open column on B street, received the visitors. The Baltimore firemen passed along the line, and members of the Union uncovering as they marched toward 3d street, near which stood his honor the Mayor of Washington and the president to bid them welcome. After short and appropriate addresses by the mayor and the president o f the Union to the president of the Mechanical Fire Company, they were responded to in affable and appropriate terms by the latter, the mayor, accompanied by F.S. Evans of the Union and the president of the Mechanical, entered a barouche. The Mechanical was escorted along Pennsylvania avenue to the mansion, lately occupied by Mr. Forsythe, at the western extremity of the avenue, and partook of an elegant breakfast. As it passed up the Avenue the bells of the Perseverance, Franklin and Union saluted and delegations of those fire companies were in front of the engine houses.
“The procession was formed at 11 o’clock on each street north of Lafayette Square under the auspices of J.H. Bradley of the Perseverance, who was in the uniform of that company, and moved first to Georgetown. At the head of the line were three barouches, each drawn b y four horses, in which rode the presidents of the Mechanical and Union and the mayors of Washington and Georgetown, with the commissioners of the public buildings. Then came the officers and directors of the Firemen’s Insurance Company seated on a grand pavilion mounted on wheels which was handsomely decorated with blue tapestry edged with pink; twelve directors surrounded the table on this pavilion and the handsome maroon-colored banner of the company was displayed. On the front of this were a fire engine, clasped hands and the name of the company. This pavilion was drawn by six white horses led by colored grooms attired in blue frocks rimmed in pink.
Baltimoreans in Line
“Next came the Navy Yard or Anacostia company of over fifty members, mostly mechanics in the navy yard. It had its engine drawn by six horses, suction by four horses and hose carriage by two and the members were attired in drab frock coats, black pants, blue capers and hats, and were headed by a banner on which was the painting of an Indian chief with a view of the Eastern branch in the background. A stalwart member personated an Indian chief.
“The Columbia fire company paraded about fifty men, uniformed in brown frock coats, white pantaloons and black hats and was headed by its banner, on which was a view of the east front of the capitol. Its engine, suction and hose reel were drawn by teams of four and two horses.
“The Franklin fire company made a showy appearance, for its members were attired in scarlet, as they believed in any color so ‘twas red. Red frock coats, hats and capes contrasted with white pants, and the six axmen, in red shirts, white pants and blue caps, set off the line. Its engine and hose carriage were each drawn by four hoses led by colored men.
“The Union turned out about seventy members, attired in plain drab frock coats with metal buttons, black pants, red and blue hats and red capes. Their apparatus consisted of two large engines and hose carriage, each drawn by four gray horses led by colored grooms, attired in yellow shirts trimmed in red, black pants and blue caps. On each engine were four boys in firemen’s uniform, each carrying a small flag. The company was preceded by five axmen.
Goddess of Industry
“The Vigilant fire company of Georgetown numbered about fifty men, and ha its engines decorated tastefully with artificial flowers, with a handsome banner n line. On the latter was a representation of Hercules pointing to a fire.
“In Georgetown at the intersection of Wisconsin avenue and M street a triumphal arch had been erected on which were the words ‘Hail, our brother firemen of Baltimore and Washington,’ and the Franklin displayed over the Avenue at 14th street a mammoth strip inscribed ‘Welcome, Baltimore Firemen,’ with the national flag on each side.. As the various companies passed under these they were cheered by the populace in a manner indicative of the approval of the community.
“The procession formed on the north side of Lafayette Square, and by H street and the Avenue reached Georgetown, passing over several of the streets, and returned to Washington over the lower or K street bridge, thence passing down the Avenue through the President’s and Capitol grounds to the navy yard and back to the Center market, where it was dismissed. Besides the breakfast at Mr. Forsyth’s in the morning, prepared by Caterer Fabier, refreshments were set out at engine houses and other places.”
Probably there never was a demonstration in Washington which created so much enthusiasm, and, indeed, it was a gala time long talked over in this community.
Early Morning Fire
It was uncertain how it occurred, but it was believed to have been set on fire. Before the arrival of the engines, which responded with promptitude, the back building was consumed and the firemen worked to preserve the adjoining property. The back part of Mrs. Ironsides’ house was very near the printing office, but being covered with a slate roof, it was saved, as also the frame house of Charles Bell. The session room of the Baptist church was somewhat damaged. The Medical College, corner of 10th and E streets, having a shingle roof, took fire, and the turret and the upper story were utterly destroyed, with a large number of books and paraphernalia. The total losses were about $40,000. On April 14 the stable of Dr Bohrer in Georgetown was destroyed by fire and a splendid saddle horse belonging to John Taylor was burned to death.
By this time that portion of the city north of the patent office was being rapidly settled and there was necessity for the protection of that section. April 15 a meeting of citizens was held at the schoolroom of John McLeod, on 9th street between G and H, to form a fire company. George Crandell was called to the chair and John Wilson appointed secretary. On motion of John Y. Bryant the name Northern Liberties fire company was adopted. It is said that the suggestion of this name is due to the fact that at that time a former resident of the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia was then conducting a popular saloon in the neighborhood of the patent office. The company continued to meet at this place and at a schoolhouse at the corner of 9th and H streets for some months. At the first meeting Messrs. Joseph Bryant, Joseph Deeble and Charles Wannell were appointed a committee on apparatus. At the meeting April 29 Capt. John Y. Bryant was elected president; Joseph Bryan, vice president; Benjamin Evans, secretary; and John G. Robinson, treasurer.
April 25, on Saturday, at about 5 o’clock, the stable of Goldin’s tavern at 7th and I streets northwest was struck by lightning and was instantly in flames. The Perseverance bell soon brought out the citizens and firemen, but the stable was entirely destroyed, although the horses were saved. The blacksmith shop, a wooden building, was pulled down and the material saved. It was noticed that the water supply was limited. A company of marines was ordered up by Col. Henderson to give aid, and he promised the authorities that they could be relied on whenever their services were required.
Sunday evening, May 17, a fire was discovered at the Medical College at 10th and E streets, but was soon extinguished. It was charged to an incendiary.
Money for Apparatus
On Sunday, June 14, two frame buildings on the southwest corner of square 382, at 10th and B streets, belonging to William Thompson, were partially burned. The fire originated in the house of Thomas Mitchell, who lost about $250 and Mrs. Couch was a small sufferer.
On Monday morning, June 2, about 2 o’clock, a frame building on 14th street was burned and all the fire companies responded to the alarm, confining the fire to the upper story and roof. The Intelligencer says that this fire in the dead of the night showed improvement in the organization.
On July 22, between 9 and 10 o’clock, the stable occupied by George Kendrick, owned by Dr. Bradley, near the foot of 11th street, was entirely destroyed. Fortunately there was little wind stirring and the other frame buildings on the square were saved. It was set on fire accidentally by someone taking a lighted candle in the place.
The question of organizing a volunteer fire department was engaging attention. The Northern Liberties fire company elected Joseph Bryan, J.B. Robinson, Benjamin Evans, Charles P. Wagnall and the president, John Y. Brant, delegates to the convention. The Union company elected Edmund Hanley, William Magruder, A. McIntye, Charles Calvert and George W. Harkness delegates. The convention, however, did not materialize. The Northern Liberties company had a meeting on August 26, elected Amon Green captain of engineers, Mr. Scott captain of hosemen and George Lambright captain of property men, and appointed a committee on uniforms. They had received a suction engine, and gave it a trial on the evening of the 27th.
On August 22 the stable of ex-Mayor Thomas Carbery, on the corner of 17th and C streets northwest, with its contents, was destroyed by fire. On the 25th another stable, near the corner of 4-1/2 street and Maryland avenue, was destroyed. These were supposed to have been set on fire.
September 1, about 1 o’clock, an alarm came from Georgetown, where a fire in a frame building, occupied by Mr. Upperman, in Washington street was destroyed, as well as an adjoining frame occupied by a colored family. Miss English’s Young Ladies’ Seminary and other buildings took fire, but were saved. September 1, about 9 o’clock at night, the stable of Mr. Casteel, on 4th street near Virginia avenue, was believed to have been set on fire, and was entirely consumed. Saturday, September 5, the stable and carriage house of Albert Parris, father of ex-Chief Parris, on K street between 19th and 20th, was discovered on fire, and the contents, including six horses and two carriages, were destroyed, notwithstanding the speedy arrival of the firemen. About 5 o’clock September 8 the stable of Maj. Smith, on 6th street between D and E streets, was burned, believed willfully. On the night of September 10 a stable in the rear of the National Theater was discovered on fire, but the fire companies responded so promptly that it was soon extinguished. The evening of October 3 a small blacksmith shop near the K street bridge was burned.
Island Citizens Form Company
Sunday night, October 18, a frame building near the 14th street bridge over the canal was set on fire, but saved from total destruction by the Franklin fire company. On the night of October 27 a house near the canal bridge near 4-1/2 street, belonging to Chloe and Thorne, was discovered on fire, and with the adjoining house was totally destroyed, with most of the furniture and clothing. Soon the exertions of the firemen saved the buildings back of them.
The Northern Liberties company held its new engine house and adopted a resolution of thanks to John McLeod for the use of his schoolroom at its previous meetings. November 6 the corporation granted the use of the city engine to the Island company, with an appropriation of $75. November 13 a fire was discovered in a frame building belonging to S.W. Handley on the canal between 9th and 10th streets, but the flames were soon arrested.
November 11 a fire broke out in the stable adjoining Thomas brown & Co.’s bakery on Water street, near the Aqueduct, in Georgetown, and the flames soon reached the latter. Both buildings and a large quantity of timber belonging to the Alexandria Canal Company were consumed. The Washington firemen went to the assistance of their Georgetown brethren and other adjoining property was saved. And on this occasion it is noted that the Anacostia or Navy Yard company made the distance in twenty-five minutes. November 26 the corporation gave the use of the bell hung on the West market to the Northern Liberties company and was used by the later until its house was burned in 1854.
Saturday a stable on Capitol Hill belonging to John P. Ingle and the frame building occupied by the printing office of George Etta, near the B&O Railroad Company’s property, 2d street and Pennsylvania avenue, were entirely consumed by fire.