1836 U.S. Patent Office Fire

Congressional Subcommittee Report


Publication: The Niles' Weekly Review

Baltimore, MD, United States
vol. 51, no. 1322, p. 344, col. 1-3


In the house of representatives, Friday, January 20.

Mr. Conner, from the committee on the post office and post roads, which was, on the 15th December, instructed to inquire into the cause of the recent conflagration of the post office department, made the following report:

The committee on the post office and post roads report that, in obedience to the resolution of the 15th ultimo, instructing them "to inquire into the causes of this morning's conflagration of the general post office building; and also inquire what losses have been sustained by the government, and whether any, and, if any, what legislation is necessary by such conflagration;" "and that they be authorized to send for persons and papers in investigating the causes of the burning of the post office building," did, at an early day thereafter, proceed to the investigation. They summoned and examined, on oath, all persons whom they could learn or suppose any information could be obtained from on the subject. Among those were the postmaster general, the city postmaster, the commissioner of patents, the watchmen, messengers, and several clerks belonging to each office, together with citizens who were ascertained to have been upon the ground immediately after the alarm of the fire was given.

It appears from the testimony that the fire was discovered between the hours of three and four o'clock in the morning. As to the precise time, it will be seen there is some difference in the statements of witnesses; and it is but reasonable there should be, in the hurry and bustle of getting out of bed at that hour, and hastening to the scene. Samuel Crown, a messenger, who was sleeping in the city post office, and Joel C. Reynolds, a watchman in the general post office, seem to have been the first persons to discover the smoke, and give the alarm.    Crown was awakened from sleep by the smoke. He rose. Finding the room filled with smoke, he examined the fire in his room; went into the passage; it was filled with smoke. He waked up Mr. Summers, a watchman, and Mr. Cox, a clerk, both of whom were sleeping in the city office. He ran out of the east door, and found smoke issuing from beneath the platform or steps, by which you enter the east end of the building. He passed round to the south side, fronting on E street, broke open the cellar window. He felt the heat sensibly at the third window from the east corner, and at the fourth window it was quite hot. Mr. Cox, on rising, opened necessarily two doors connecting with the great letter-room, and passed through one corner of that room in getting to the east door; his own room adjoining and the letter-room were filled with smoke, but no light was to be seen. He heard the fire crackling beneath his feet as he passed out.

Mr. Kennedy, one of the clerks in the city office, resides near the building, heard the alarm, and was on the ground early and made several ineffectual efforts to enter the letter-room, as did others. But such was the density of the smoke when the first discovery was made, and very quickly afterwards of heat, that it is believed an effort at any time after the discovery would have been unavailing. Very shortly after this, the fire was seen bursting through the floor in the letter-room, as is supposed some fifteen, or twenty, or thirty feet from the east door of that room. The fire increasing rapidly, very quickly appeared at the window on the south side, and burst through the second window on the east side of the south delivery-door. In the testimony of those who reached the ground early, there is scarcely any difference in relation to the smoke issuing from the cellar windows, and proves conclusively that the fire originated in the cellar, under the city post office. About the time that the fire burst from the cellar windows and the window above on the east side of the delivery-door, an engine had arrived and was in readiness, commenced playing, first into the cellar window, then in at the upper window into the letter-room. A momentary hope seems to have been entertained that the fire might yet be extinguished. But the water failed, and the building was given up by all for lost. Other engines arrived, but too late to render any service. An engine belonging to the post office department was very shortly after the discovery of the fire, brought, but was ascertained to be out of repair and useless. That, and some buckets belonging also to the post office department, are the only means which seem to have been provided at any time to meet such contingency. Not a ladder of any length could be obtained in the neighborhood of the building. Several witnesses expressed the opinion that, had here been engines and other means necessary at the building within a reasonable time after the discovery and alarm, the fire might have been extinguished.

The officers, clerks, and messengers, reside in different parts of the city, many of them at so great a distance from the office as not to have heard the alarm; others at so late an hour as not to have gotten to the ground until the building throughout was in flames. Those who were present seemed to exert themselves in doing whatever could be done. The postmaster general, residing within a few rods of the building, was, very shortly after the alarm was given, at the office, and, apprehending the consequences, went directly into his office, and commenced, with some two or three others there, the getting out of the books and papers belonging to the post office department. Those on the first and second floors were gotten out, except the files and books belonging to the office of appointments. Those were in cases in the rooms and around the wall adjoining the patent office. Some books from the third story were saved; the greater part were lost.

Your committee have examined thirty-two persons, whose testimony they here present. That testimony, taken together, is conclusive to the minds of your committee, that the fire did originate in the cellar under the city post office; but in which room in the cellar they will not undertake to say certainly, and are unable to charge the fire with certainly to any particular cause. From the testimony of the messengers in the city post office and patent office, it appears that they were in the habit of depositing ashes in the cellar, a practice that your committee views as highly improper and dangerous. On the morning preceding the fire, the messenger attached to the patent office did deposit a small quantity of ashes in the third room from the east corner. They were taken up, he states, the morning before their deposit, and remained there that day and night in an iron vessel; and such was their precaution, that they never did deposit the ashes in the cellar on the day they were taken up. Those ashes are represented as being placed in a pine box that would contain from fifteen to twenty bushels. In this room the patent office had their winter's wood stored. The box stood near a brick wall, and some four or five feet distance from the wood. Yet other boxes were the one used as an ash-box.

It further appears, from the testimony of several, that, some year or more ago, a box placed in the passage in the cellar for the purpose of depositing ashes in, did take fire, but was fortunately discovered in time, and ousted, before any injury was done. It is possible that the fire may have originated in this box containing ashes, but from the evidence your committee are left in doubt and uncertainty. The box was placed near a brick wall, some four or five feet distant from the wood. Other boxes, dry, and of inflammable material (pine), were near and on the side that stood the ash-box, and, on being set fire to, would have produced a flame that would probably would have been seen by those who first discovered the smoke. Yet those witnesses who were earliest on the ground saw no light in the cellar, but all agree in seeing smoke issuing from the windows, and most freely from those in the second and third rooms from the east corner. That the fire That the fire originated on one of two rooms in the cellar, (the second and third rooms from the east corner), there is no difference of opinion with your committee; as to the particular room, some difference of opinion is entertained, the majority being unable to decide in which of the rooms it commenced.

The testimony of Mr. Cox, a clerk, and Mr. Crown, the messenger, both of whom slept in the office, as well as others, proves that all was safe in the office at about half after two o'clock that morning; a portion of the clerks were necessarily in the office every night until about that hour; that morning, about half after two, the business was closed, and the clerks left the office for their homes; on their retiring, the flames in the hearths and stoves were examined by Mr. Cox and Mr. Crown, and so secured that there was believed to be no danger before they went to bed. Mr. Summers, the watchman, whose duty it is also through the night to give out the mails, states in his testimony that about three o'clock in the morning, he was called up by the driver for the southern mail; that, after delivering it, he went out of the east door and over the platform or steps, under which smoke was afterwards discovered; at that time all was calm and quite, and there was no appearance or smell of smoke. It appears that charges to be careful about fire were almost daily given by the postmaster to those around him. In the post office department there were two watchmen employed, who took it by turns in watching through the night, one of whom was on duty until midnight, when the other was aroused to his duty, and continued up until sunrise; they were required often through the night to be out, and look around not only that part of the building occupied by the post office department, but the whole building.

The diagrams marked A and B will exhibit the position of the rooms in the basement or cellar, and the first floor or city post office. C exhibits the building after the fire, with the marks of fire and smoke. The old building was occupied entirely by the general post office, and the new part or east end, erected some ten or twelve years since, the first floor of which was occupied by the city post office, and the second and third stories were occupied by the patent office. The passage in the cellar, in connection with that in the old building, was continued quite through the new one, and on either side were divided into rooms which have been used for wood, coal, lumber, &c. The first room in the south east corner had in it pine wood and coal; the second, west, was filled with oak and pine wood, both belong to the city office, the next, or third; was stored with wood belonging to the patent office, and in which stood the ash-box before mentioned. On the north side the first room had in it wood, the second was not occupied, the third occupied by the patent office, the fourth had in it coal belonging to the general post office; the windows in the rooms on the east, south side, had wooden shutters hung on the upper side, that fell too of themselves, and might be entered without difficulty by any person who wished to pass in on the first floor. The postmaster occupied the room in the southeast corner, and in which the messenger slept at night. The next and large room fronting south on E street, was the letter and newspaper room; the front room on the north side from was used by Mr. Summers, the watchman as a sleeping room, and had in it also portmanteaus, bags, &c.; the second contained candles, oil, portmanteaus, old letter cases, paper, &c; in this room fire at no time was kept; the third was used by Mr. Cox, the fourth by colonel Corcoran, assistant postmaster.

In relation to the losses sustained by the government, your committee are unable to offer any opinion satisfactory to themselves, or that might be so to others. Much of that lost none could fix a value on; the models, the drawings, the books, and all else connected with the patent office, are lost nothing saved. The letters, papers, and mails that remained in the post office, with the furniture, all destroyed, with the fuel belonging to the offices.

The necessity for the erection of a building for the accommodation of the post office department must be obvious to all. The great object of the government should be the safety and preservation of the records. Those can be secure only in buildings strictly fire-proof. It was the practice in the post office building, and perhaps is the same in the o