The U. S. Patent Office

24 September 1877 Fire


Publication: The New York Times

New York, NY, United States
p. 1





REJECTED AND 65,000 TO 80,000





Special Dispatch to the New York Times.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 24. The most disastrous fire that has ever visited Washington occurred to-day, and resulted in the destruction of about one half of the Interior Department buildings, which occupy two squares, and extend from Seventh to Ninth and from F to G streets. The buildings consist of four wings, quadrangular in form, each wing being about 80 by 300 feet, with an open court of about one and one-half acres in the centre. The basement and first or main floor are occupied by the Secretary of the Interior, the Land Office, Indian Bureau, and Patent Office, the last named office occupying about two-thirds of the entire building. The model room is located on the third floor, and consists of four grand halls opening into each other, and affording a promenade of about one forth of a mile around the four sides of the quadrangle. The fire originated in a loft of the west wing, over the model room. This loft has been used exclusively for storage of rejected models, and has not been open to public inspection. The rejected models were packed in the loft on hastily improvised staging and shelving. The entire room was flanked with these wood supports, and pine tables were crowded together along its entire length and filled with models. In addition to this inflammable mass, the braces, rafters, and other supports for the roof were composed of pine wood, giving the loft the general appearance of a huge junk-shop, and suggesting just such a conflagration as to-day swept it away. The law allows the Commissioner of Patents to sell rejected models, or loan them to colleges and literary and scientific institutions, but as many imp9ortant patent suits have turned on rejected models, the Commissioner has decided to dispose of them in this manner during the past few years, and in consequence over 20,000 of such models were in the loft when the fire broke out.

As near as can be ascertained the fire originated in this grand collection of combustibles at about 11:30 A. M. No access could be obtained to the loft save by a narrow and crooked stairway. A large tank of water stood outside the south end of the attic, but this could not be reached because of the rapidity with which the flames spread, and it was necessary to go at least 500 feet before water could be obtained to throw upon the flames. The floor on which the fire originated, be 80 feet above the street, was 20 feet about the highest rise of Potomac water. The loft was seldom visited, and never with a light, and no fire has been in that portion of the building for over two years. The theory is that the fire originated from spontaneous combustion caused by rejected chemical compounds, of which large quantities in the shape of specimens were stored in the loft, or from the accidental placing of some model having a burning glass or lens in such a position that the sun shining through the skylight which covered that portion of the building ignited the punk that everywhere abounded.

Other theories still are advanced. It is said that the alarm was not given immediately upon the discovery of the fire, the employes in the room where it was discovered undertaking to subdue the flames. The alarm was not given until 11:35, when a Sergeant of Police on the outside saw smoke issuing from the roof. The inspector of buildings for this district was called upon a few days ago to examine the upper portion of the Ninth-street wing with reference to its capacity to support about 100 tons of file papers. He found that a large quantity of shelvings had been put up under the roof, and were loaded down with papers, and it was in this portion that the flames spread so rapidly. Another theory as to the origin of the fire is that some boards placed on the roof near one of the chimneys to keep the sprout in position were ignited by a fire kindled in one of the rooms below. One of the employes in the upper portion states that these boards have caught fire several times, and upon hearing the alarm this morning, he immediately went to the chimney and found the boards burned to a coal, the copper roof in a white heat, and the solder running down the roof. Almost directly beneath this spot was a dry pine partition. This could not fail to catch, and after that the course of the fire was very rapid. It was reported, however, that no fires had been lighted, the engineer not even having started his fire for the boilers. But upon inquiry it was found that between 9 and 10 o'clock this morning a fire of wood had been lighted in one of more of the office rooms on the basement floor of the west wing, the heated air from which would ascend the very chimney above spoken of, and it is supposed that a spark from the chimney ignited the boards. Another explanation of the fire was that some tinners had been at work on the roof at that corner and had a fire with them, and in some unknown manner the fire started from it.

About 20 minutes after the discovery of the fire the first stream was on it, and by that time the entire upper floor of the west wing was enveloped in flame, which burst through the windows and portions of the roof with a fierceness that threatened the destruction of the entire building. The delay in getting water on the flames was owing not so much to the lack of promptness on the part of the firemen as to the difficulty of reaching the fire. Hose had to be raised to the third floor and carried through 500 feet of corridors before water could be thrown upon the fire. Large blocks of glass placed in the floor of the attic to light the model-room below soon began to melt, and the fire dropped through and ignited the large wood and glass cases which filled the room. Of these there were 200, each 8 by 4 feet, and filled with models of patented inventions. From this time it was utterly impossible to do anything to check the fire in the west model-room. In 10 minutes after the first engine began to throw water there was an acre of fire sweeping over the entire west wing.

The firemen, seeing the hopelessness of attempts to save this wing, directed their efforts to the south wing, which is the original building. In this wing were placed the Washington relics, valuable souvenirs presented to various Presidents by rulers of foreign countries, and about 40,000 models of patented inventions. These were all removed under the directions of Secretary Schurz, the relics and souvenirs being taken to his won office. The wind favoring the firemen they were enabled to keep the flames from spreading to the south wing. In the meantime, however, the flames, assisted by a south breeze, communicated to the north wing, and spread with great rapidity eastward along G-street, about one-half the length of the wing, before they were checked. The floors of the model-rooms being composed of solid masonry prevented the flames from penetrating to the lower floors, but they were deluged with water, which soaked through and caused considerable damage to many of the public records. It was 2 o'clock before the fire was checked, and by that time two acres of models and furniture had been destroyed.

The destruction of rejected models is complete. These numbered about 20,000, but save in very few instances their value was slight. The number of patent models destroyed is from 65,000 to 80,000. These embraced all models in metal-working, wood-working, agricultural implements of all kinds, models in civil and mechanical engineering, mills, carriages, wagons, and models pertaining to railroading, hydraulic, pneumatic, and portions of models belonging to various other classes. Among the models destroyed is that for the original cotton gin invented by Levi Whitney. The models of sewing-machines and looms were much damaged, but mainly from water. The original model for the Howe sewing-machine was saved. About 100,000 models are intact in the south and west wings. These embrace all models in toys, fine arts, fire-arms, ships, stoves, lamps and gas-fixtures, leather-working, printing, and paper furniture, philosophical instruments, and builder's hardware. It is estimated that about two-fifths of all the models in the office were destroyed. Many of these were only valuable as curiosities, but it is estimated that about 10 per cent. of them had positive value as evidence in contested patent cases. The loss in this direction is lessened somewhat by the fact that all of the original drawings and written records of the Patent Office are safe. Over 200,000 original drawings were hastily carried out during the conflagration and saved from damage. The loss of these drawings would not have been severely felt, as nearly all the drawings have been reproduced, many copies having been made of each.

The Patent Office library of 30,000 volumes is uninjured. A miscellaneous library belonging to the Interior Department, consisting of 7,000 volumes, is somewhat damaged by water. The written records of the Patent Office are uninjured. The records of the Land Office were hurried out in great confusion, and are in worse condition than those of the Patent Office, although none of them were touched by fire.

Shortly before 3 o'clock the livery stables of Gheen & Osborne, on G-street, nearly opposite the Patent Office, were discovered to be on fire, but two more engines from Baltimore arrived about this time, and soon had streams upon the building. It was entirely destroyed, together with a number of vehicles and a lot of harness. About 50 horses were cut loose and rescued. The adjoining building, occupied by D. W. Stockstill, galvanized iron worker, was also destroyed. The livery stable of E. M. Chapin was badly injured by the falling walls. It is said that the fire at Gheen & Osborne's stable was the work of an incendiary, as the roof was of metal and could not have caught from a spark: besides, men were on watch on the roof for the sparks from the Patent Office while the building took fire from below. Gheen & Osborne lose about $22,000, on which they have an insurance of $16,000, divided between the Manhattan, Republic, Niagara, and People's Companies, of New York, and the Shawmut of Boston. Mr. Stockstill's loss is about $4,000; no insurance given. Mr. Chapin's loss is about $2,500; partially insured. J. G. Mattloch, the owner of the building occupied by Mr. Chapin, loses about $2,000; fully insured.

The original copy of the Declaration of Independence and relics of Gen. Washington, which were on exhibition in the hall of the main building, were saved, as was also the Franklin printing press in the same hall.

Many of the clerks of the Interior Department, Land, Patent, Indian, and Pension offices, have been ordered on duty to-night, preparatory to assorting the papers and books and drying all that have been damaged by water. It is said that arrangements are already in progress for renting a portion of the Corcoran fire-proof building at the corner of Pennsylvania-avenue and Fifteenth-street, in which the work of the department will be resumed and the records restored as far as possible. The United States marines stationed in this city, under Col. Haywood; Company A, of the Washington Light Infantry, under Col. William G. Moore, and a company of regular soldiers from the United States Arsenal, are now on guard duty at the building, where they will remain until all the records and public property shall be secured. Secretary Schurz and his private secretary, Mr. Witchell; Assistant Secretary Bell, and Chief Clerk Lockwood will remain at the building to-night, superintending the removal of the debris and the replacing of the records.

This evening the Secretary sent for Architect Clark, of the Capital, and Supervising Architect Hill, of the Treasury, and conferred with them regarding the construction of a temporary roof for the building. The plans will be prepared immediately, and a force of 60 workmen to-night commenced to remove the debris form the Ninth-street and G-street wings, preparatory to erecting the temporary roof, which will be done without delay. The damage to the building is variously estimated from $300,000 to $500,000, while that growing out of the destruction of models and other valuables belonging to the Patent Office is almost incalculable. The arches which formed the ceiling of the second story, and upon which the floor of the third story rested, are so badly damaged by the heat and water that many of them must be torn down and new ones built. The marble outer walls is considerably discolored by the flames and cracked in many places near the windows by the great heat.

Prominent builders of this city who have made a hasty examination of the outer walls of the structure since the fire declare they are badly cracked and bulged, and it will be necessary to rebuild a greater portion thereof.

The first building for the use of the Patent Office stood on the site now occupied by the Post Office Department, and was consumed by fire in 1836. The building was originally the Great Hotel, and by act of April 28, 1810, the Postmaster General, under the direction of the President of the United States, was "authorized to repair and finish the Great Hotel for the accommodation of the Post Office and Patent Office," $20,000 being appropriated for that purpose. The first appropriation for the erection of the present building was made Feb. 4, 1836. By that act $108,000 were appropriated, and the work was commenced the year following. It was completed about 1842, the entire cost of the building being $408,000. The east wing was commenced in 1849, and cost over $600,000. The west wing was commenced in 1852, and cost $750,000. The north wing was commenced in 1856, and cost $575,000. There has been expended upon the construction, furnishing, and repairs of the entire buildings, from 1836 to March, 1873, over $2,800,000. From the reorganization of the Patent Office, in 1836, to the close of last year, a period of 40 years, it receipts have been over $11,000,000, and out of these receipts it has paid all its expenses and turned over to the United States Treasury $1,179,665. In 1837 it receipts were $29,000 and its expenditures $33,000. In 1876 its receipts were $757,988 and its expenditures $652,543. Its lowest surplus for any one year showing surplus was in 1838, when $2,700 were paid into the Treasury. In 1868 the surplus was nearly $207,000, and last year it was $105,000. In 1837 it issued 435 patents; in 1876 it received over 21,000 applications for patents and issued over 17,000.


The Patent Office Building was built in sections, one being added to another to meet the growing demands of the departments having their offices in the building. The first section was built on F-street, between Seventh and Ninth streets; it was of red sandstone, and was afterwards painted white. During President Fillmore's Administration the east wing, of marble, was added on Seventh-street. Subsequently the wings on Ninth-street and on G-street were erected, also of white marble, thus forming a block of buildings 453 feet long and 331 feet wide. The height of the building was about 75 feet. It was thus a building of grand proportions, and its interior afforded ample space for the business of the Patent Office and the Department of the Interior. The grand portico, built in the Doric style, faced Eighth-street. From the entrance hall two broad flights of marble steps led to the fine galleries above. The central portion of the building was occupied by the Patent Office. The east wing gave accommodation to the Secretary of the Interior and his assistants, together with the Commissioner of Patents and his staff, on the ground floor. In other parts of the building were the rooms of the General Land Office and Indian Bureau. One splendid saloon, designated as the National Gallery, occupied the second floor, where were deposited countless models of patents, but which were so classified and arranged as to be easily found; curiosities and mementoes of national history, specimens of home manufacture, and other objects of interest were also exhibited. Four ranges of massive Doric columns 20 feet in height, and supporting the arched ceiling, 10 feet higher, gave to this floor a grand effect. Light was admitted from above by a central circular arch piercing to the roof. Other halls in the building were equally striking in their extent and noble architecture. In this building were kept some priceless mementoes and treasures of deep historic interest. Among them were the Declaration of Independence, Washington's commission as Commander-in-Chief of the American forces, his uniform, his camp-chest, the coat Gen. Jackson wore at the battle of New Orleans, and many other relics and trophies.


Keywords:Fire : Patent Office
Researcher notes:The "insulator connection" is the loss of the patent models of the Brookfield, Hemingray, and Brooke insulator presses.
Supplemental information:The Board of Inquiry's report may be seen at Article: 12678.
Researcher:Glenn Drummond
Date completed:August 27, 2011 by: Glenn Drummond;