Most of the space in Blodgett's Hotel was occupied by the
headquarters of the General Post Office, as the Post Office
Department was called, and by the Washington City Post Office.
The western three-fifths of the building (the old portion) was
occupied by the General Post Office, while the first floor of
the eastern two-fifths (the new portion) was occupied by the
City Post Office.
The second and third floors above the City
Post Office, as well as most of the garret or attic of the
entire building, were occupied by the Patent Office. The cellar
running the full width of the building was dark and damp, with
only wooden shutters in the windows and thus subject to drafts.
The floor was of dirt or, in wet weather, of ankle-deep mud. At
one end of the building, the window was not even closed by a
shutter and was open to prowlers. There were three areas used
for storage of wood for winter fuel.
The General Post Office had
an area under its portion piled from floor to ceiling with wood.
Under the eastern portion, there were two firewood storerooms,
one for the City Post Office and one for the Patent Office. It
was the practice of the messengers of the City Post Office and
the Patent Office to store ashes from their fires in the cellar.
The Post Office ashes were piled on the ground in the corridor,
and the Patent Office ashes were kept in a wooden box in the
corner of the fuel room.
The messengers had been warned against
storing the ashes, but there was no trash pickup in those days,
and they had nothing else to do with them. The ashes from
General Post Office were dumped in the street, along with the
piles of garbage dumped there by the rest of the community.
There was a fire-engine house at the northeast corner of
Blodgett's Hotel, complete with a fire engine purchased by act
of Congress 16 years earlier. The engine was a forcing pump with
1,000 feet of riveted leather hose. When it was built, a
volunteer fire company was formed to man the engine, but the
members became discouraged and disbanded.
A few of the employees of the City Post Office worked there
until about 2:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, December 15, 1836,
until they had delivered the southbound mail to the driver who
would deliver it to the steamboat. After that, the messenger,
Samuel Crown, went to sleep in the postmaster's office, the
watchman, James Summers, went to sleep in his own room, and a
Post Office clerk, Cornelius Cox, slept in a room adjoining the
About 3 a.m. Mr. Crown was awakened by suffocating
smoke. He examined the fireplace and could find no fire and then
went to wake Mr. Summers. Mr. Crown quickly explored the windows
in the cellar and found smoke coming out of the southeast end of
the building. He next went and woke Mr. Cox, then ran down the
street in his night clothes, yelling fire, to the home of
another Post Office clerk, James A. Kennedy, and roused him. He
then returned to the Post Office to don his pants.
As he ran down the street yelling fire, Mr. Crown probably awoke
someone sleeping in the front room of William T. Steiger's home
across the street from the Patent Office. Something awakened a
friend of Mr. Steiger, who notified Steiger that the Patent
Office was on fire. Then, as Mr. Cox knocked on James Kennedy's
door, his knocking probably awoke Henry Bishop, the Patent
Office messenger, who lived in the vicinity. Mr. Bishop sent his
eldest son to notify Mr. Ellsworth, a few blocks away, and went
himself to the Patent Office to get in. He had his keys, but the
main door was blocked and he could not get in. He then tried to
enter through the City Post Office, but could not make it
through the smoke.
Steiger went also to notify Mr. Ellsworth but
was delayed because Mr. Ellsworth had recently moved from a
boarding house to his own house on C Street. Steiger got there
just as Ellsworth was preparing to leave. They went together to
the Patent Office and tried with Mr. Bishop to get into the
office. It was impossible. They tried to find a ladder to enter
the office through a window, but there was no ladder closer than
the Treasury Department.
The employees of the Post Office Department at the other end of
the building quickly began removing all of the departmental
records, and virtually nothing of any importance was lost.
Very little was done initially to extinguish the fire. The
engine room next door to Blodgett's Hotel was opened, but the
leather hose had disintegrated to the point of being useless.
The members of the former volunteer fire company had known this
for years. John Ruggles, who boarded nearby at 7th Street and
Pennsylvania Avenue, was quickly on hand. He had the engine
pulled out of the engine house and tried, but that was found
useless. He then formed a bucket brigade, the first useful
attempt to put out the fire. His opinion was that if an engine
had been available for use within 15 or 20 [Pg 108] minutes of
his arrival, the fire could have been extinguished with little
John C. Callan, a local druggist, went over to 14th
Street and with great difficulty obtained the engine there and
brought it back over to Blodgett's Hotel on 8th Street. By the
time the engine arrived, flames were coming through the
first-floor windows. Water was poured onto the fire for a while,
but the limited supply available was soon exhausted, and flames
took over for a final time. [footnote 5] Former President John
Quincy Adams, now in Congress, heard the alarm bells and went by
before sunrise to witness the end of the fire.
Meanwhile, William T. Steiger had returned to his rented home
across the street to attempt to save his dwelling. His wife
Maria was nine months pregnant. Some of his friends had gathered
at his home, and they took Maria and a few small belongings to
their home at a safer location. Mr. Steiger spent his time on
the roof and in the attic, trying to keep the blankets on the
roof wet. Glass in the attic windows had melted and cracked, the
paint on the house was blistered, and the blankets were badly
scorched in places. He was certain that his home would burn, but
it did not. It was, he said, a fortunate circumstance that the
wind blew from the west and not from the north, for otherwise he
could not have saved the home.
About 24 hours later, on Friday
morning, Maria gave birth to a baby girl. The parents were
thankful that the birth was not 24 hours earlier. [footnote 7]
When Steiger was later ready to return the book he had borrowed,
the library was gone. Children played in the ashes, finding tiny
metal pieces, gears and wheels, forever disassociated from the
inventions they had helped to model.
In fact, every paper, book and model in the Patent Office was
destroyed. About 10,000 patents had been issued in 46 years, and
they were all destroyed. The models in the garret, which had
been so carefully classified, were gone. The original bound
volume of full-color patent drawings made by Robert Fulton was
burned. Everything -- gone. Everything that Dr. Thornton had
prevented the British from burning in 1814 was gone.
Figuratively and perhaps literally, the musical instrument that
Dr. Thornton had saved in 1814 had been burned in 1836. Most of
the early industrial history of the nation had been lost to
Congress, of course, set out immediately to investigate the
fire. This was not, as patent people might suspect, because of
the loss of 46 years of patents. When the Treasury Building had
burned down three years earlier, Richard H. White was suspected
and charged with burning the building to destroy fraudulent
pension papers. The Post Office Department was currently under
investigation for awarding dishonest mail contracts, and
Congress was having difficulty obtaining the proper records from
the Post Office.
There was [Pg 109] immediate suspicion that
Blodgett's Hotel had been burned down to destroy the records of
those contracts. The principal problem with that suspicion was
that the officials of the Post Office Department had managed to
save virtually all of their records from the fire. It was the
Patent Office that lost everything, but the Patent Office was
not under investigation. Extensive testimony was taken from
everyone who might have had anything to say, including a
newspaper carrier who was on the street that morning but did not
even go to the fire. William T. Steiger provided a drawing of
the burned Patent Office which was published in one of the
official records of Congress. The tentative conclusion was that
someone had stored ashes containing live embers in the basement,
and that they set fire to the wood in the basement. There was no
finding of which office the ashes came from.
By January 9, 1837, Mr. Ruggles had a bill before the Senate to
do what was possible to restore the burned patent records. All
patentees were to be requested to return their patents to the
Patent Office for copying, and clerks of all courts to which
certified copies had been sent were to return them for copying.
The Commissioner and two other persons were to be temporary
commissioners to decide which burned models were most valuable
and interesting, and the Commissioner was to have them rebuilt
from available records. No burned patent was to be valid and
enforceable until restored. As many temporary clerks as needed
for the work were to be hired. In addition, a second examiner
was to be hired.
Immediately after Blodgett's Hotel was burned, the Patent Office
was temporarily conducted out of Commissioner Ellsworth's
dwelling house on C Street.