U. S. Patent Office Fire

December 15, 1836


Publication: The Niles' Weekly Register

Baltimore, MD, United States
vol. 51, p. 242, col. 2 - 3


From the National Intelligencer of yesterday.



It is with no ordinary regret that we perform the duty of announcing the destruction, by fire, of the building in the central part of this city, which has for many years been occupied by the general post office, the patent office, and the city post office, with an important part of the contents of those buildings, including the entire contents of the two latter.

The calamity, great as it is, has long been feared by those old residents of Washington who knew the combustible nature of the building, (the floors being all of wood, and some of them not even counter-sealed), and the custom of stowing fuel, not only coal but wood, in the vaults, underneath the first floor. The calamity has come at last, and affords the second demonstration, within four years, of the utter absurdity and improvidence of the structures to which the public archives, records, and government accounts have been hitherto for the most part confided.

The first alarm of fire was given by Mr. Crown, a messenger, who usually sleeps in the room connected with the city post office (the postmaster's own room). The clerks had been at work, assorting the mails, until half past two o'clock, when one of the persons belonging to the office (Mr. Lansdale) passed out of the east door, and along the whole front of the building, without discovering anything to give rise to a suspicion of danger. Not long after three o'clock, Mr. Crown was roused from a light slumber by the smell of smoke. Opening the door of the city post office, he perceived a dense smoke, without any visible appearance of fire. He gave the alarm instantly, first rousing Mr. Cox, one of the clerks, who slept in a back room adjoining the post office, and who, coming out of the door of his room, passed along the whole of the long room with difficulty, through the smoke, hearing the fire crackling, but being able to see nothing. The watchmen in the body of the building, some distance from the city post office, had perceived nothing of the smoke, until they, also, were alarmed by Mr. Crown.

The hour of the night when all this took place being one at which the whole world is buried in the deepest sleep, it was found almost impossible to spread the alarm of fire. One of the church bells began to ring, but the ringer, not seeing any flame, ceased ringing almost as soon as he began, and it was a full half hour before the alarm bells were rung, and more than that time before an engine or a bucket of water could be commanded. As it was, the fire had its own way, and was at last seen in the vault or cellar under the delivery window of the city post office, followed shortly afterwards by flame from the windows of the latter, and, within five minutes afterwards, by flames from the roof, the fire having crept up along the stair cases or partitions to the top of the building before it broke out below.

From the moment of the flames bursting out from the lower windows, it was obvious that all hope of saving the building was in vain. In little more than an hour the whole interior of the building and its contents were destroyed.

The books of the general post office were all, or nearly all, saved, exertions having been made for their safety from nearly the first moment of the alarm, but a mass of papers, &c, belonging to the office were destroyed. Not anything was saved from the patent office or the city post office, the volume of the smoke preventing any body from penetrating the latter, so as to save anything.

As to the origin of the fire, it is impossible to say any thing, for nothing seems to be known of it, except that it was in a cellar or vault, in which pine wood and coal were stowed, all which were probably in a state of ignition before the fire disclosed itself to the eye. We the more willingly forebear any conjecture as to the cause of the fire, since both houses of congress have taken steps, through committees, to investigate it, and in one house with power to send for persons and papers.

Most fortunately, the night was calm and comparative serene, or the destruction of private property would have been inevitable and great. Had it occurred on the night previous, when the wind blew almost a hurricane, several squares of valuable buildings must have been destroyed. The means of the city for extinguishing fires are wholly inadequate to the value of the property at stake, and the sources for the supply of water for the engines are limited in their extent, as well as precarious. We trust that the lesson that we have just received will not be lost on those who have it in their power to apply the remedy.

Of all the amount of loss of paper and property sustained by this disaster, that which is most to be regretted (because irreparable) is that of the whole of the great repository of models of machines in the patent office. The moldering ashes now only remain of that collected evidence of the penetration, ingenuity, and enterprise which peculiarly distinguish the descendents of Europe in the western world.


Keywords:Fire : Patent Office
Researcher notes:All original patent documents prior to this date were destroyed. Some few have been partially reconstructed from court documents found here and there. The connection to insulators is that the first patents for glass presses were destroyed in the fire. For instance, the Enoch Robinson patent of 1827 was lost.
Supplemental information:The Nile's Weekly Register editorial report may be seen at Article: 12666. The report of the Congressional Inquiry may be seen at Article: 12667. Note that the New York Times' report of the 24 September 1877 Patent Office fire may be found at Article: 12677.
Researcher:Glenn Drummond
Date completed:August 7, 2011 by: Glenn Drummond;