fire

Patent Office in 1855 after it was rebuilt. (Source:  Cliff - Flickr: The Patent Office, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17697085)

The Patent Office Fire of 1836

American commerce and invention suffered a terrible blow on December 15, 1836, when the U.S. Patent Office caught fire. The office, which was located in Blodget’s Hotel on E Street NW between 7th and 8th Streets, shared its space with the U.S. Post Office and a branch of the local fire department, of all things. Unfortunately, that volunteer fire department had disbanded and the only way to fight the flames was a bucket brigade. When the fire was finally doused, America lost an estimated 7,000 models and 9,000 drawings of pending and patented inventions.

Fire and Rain: The Storm That Changed D.C. History

British soldiers set fire to Washington on August 24, 1814, prior to the worst storm that had been seen in Washington for years. (Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

D.C. has had more than its fair share of extreme weather lately, setting records for the highest number of days over 90 degrees and the most rainfall ever recorded in a single day, as well as being the site of a toothier type of storm. One day in 1814, however, combined all three - extreme heat, rainfall, and wind - surprisingly, somewhat to the District's advantage.

On August 24, 1814, for the first and only time in our country's history, Washington, D.C. was overrun by an invading army. The British army had easily defeated inexperienced American defenders, and set the city ablaze. The President had fled to Brookeville, MD, and many of the citizens had fled along with the army. Those few residents of the capital who hadn't already fled may well have prayed for anything that could stop the flames. What they got, however, was something far more than they were hoping for: a "tornado" more powerful than any storm in living memory.

The Pentagon Goes Up in Flames, 1959

Smoke rises from the Pentagon on July 2, 1959. (Photo source: Arlington Fire Journal blog)

The call came in to the Arlington County Fire Department at 11:16am on July 2, 1959… The Pentagon was on fire.

ACFD units raced to the scene, soon to be joined by deployments from 34 other jurisdictions including Falls Church, Alexandria, Fort Myer, the District, Prince Georges County, Bethesda and the Inter-Agency Government Pool — over 300 firefighters in all.

When trucks reached the scene, black smoke hung over the building, so thick that they had to form a human chain in order to navigate. Firemen groped, clawed and cut their way to the blaze, which had erupted in the Air Force statistical services offices between rings C and D and corridors 1 and 10.

Arlington's Bravest: The Arlington County Fire Department

It's a foreign concept now but for many years, Arlington County did not have its own fire department. Instead, the county was served by a number of independent volunteer fire departments. These were organized locally, typically within neighborhoods where citizen leaders saw the need for some level of fire protection and established a resource right in their own neighborhood. (The first such VFD was established in Cherrydale in 1898.) When a fire broke out, the volunteers would leave their homes or businesses and go fight the flames.

The recently renovated ballroom of the Willard Hotel was destroyed by fire on April 23, 1922. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

Save the Suitcases! The Willard Hotel Fire of 1922

There have certainly been worse fires, but the Willard Hotel blaze of 1922 caused quite a stir. It resulted in $400,000 (close to $5,400,000 in today's money!) in damages to the grand hotel and sent some of the District's most distinguished citizens and guests out into the street in their pajamas. Some just moved a little more quickly than others. Apparently emergency procedures were a little different back then.

The Wawaset Disaster of 1873

Few remember it today, but in 1873 “the Waswaset horror” broke the hearts of many in D.C. and the surrounding area.

On August 8, 1873, the Wawaset was heading towards Cone River from Washington. Around 11:30AM, near Chatterson’s Landing, the fireman of the steamer raised the alarm that a fire had broken out on board. The boat was very dry, “almost like timber”, and it spread quickly on the oiled machinery of the steamer. Captain Woods immediately steered the boat towards shore. He stayed in the pilot’s house in order to keep the steering ropes from catching on fire; if those were lost, there would be no way to direct the steamer. If the steamer could make it to shore before the fire became too much for those on board, any loss of life could be avoided. Sadly, it didn’t happen that way.