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1827 Great Fire of Alexandria
and the Washington Navy Yard

By : John Sharp ©

Introduction:
      For residents of the Alexandria Virginia, Washington D.C. and Georgetown, the principle event remembered by nearly all the inhabitants for the year 1827 was the great fire at Alexandria. This extraordinary fire broke out on the morning of 18 January 1829, in James Green's cabinet maker shop, on the east side of Royal Street and quickly spread. Soon the fire and smoke could be seen in Washington from new Congress building. The mayor of Alexandria, quickly send riders to the mayors of Georgetown and Washington D.C. requesting their immediate aid.

      Fire companies in the early 19th century were all volunteer affairs and relied on clubs of young men to form the fire fighting cadre. Fire trucks were pump action often pulled by the firemen themselves or in some cases among the more affluent cities by teams of horse. Fire houses were a sort of social gathering place rather than a place where professionals would meet, and the money paid to the brigade went into the house's fund rather than to individual members. It was not all that uncommon to see someone "squatting" on a fire hydrant by placing a barrel over it so other fire brigades could not use it. However, paid professional firefighting services were eventually established. Below are three separate account of the 1827 Alexandria Fire. The first was published the day after the fire in the National Intelligencer. Due to many dangers of associated with ordnance production , the Washington Navy Yard was one of the few government institutions to have its own fire truck and its own organized fire company to respond to fire and disasters at the Yard.

      The second account from a participant in fighting the Great Fire is from the Diary of Michael Shiner. Michael Shiner 1805-1880. In 1827, Michael Shiner, was a enslaved at the Washington Navy Yard (About ten percent of the WNY workforce was enslaved labor) his owner Thomas Howard was WNY Chief Clerk who leased him to the yard. After receiving orders from the Secretary of the Navy, Commandant, Commodore Thomas Tingey, directed about three hundred of his WNY employees to Alexandria to help suppress the fire. Shiner recounts the efforts of the Yard Mechanics and laborers to get their equipment to Alexandria and the effort it took to fight the fire in subfreezing cold.

      Sadly Michael Shiner would again see Alexandria Va. when on 5 June 1833 his wife and the couple's three children were abducted of the streets of Washington and held in an Alexandria Va. slave pen at 1315 Duke Street. This slave dealing business was managed by the notorious John Armfeild and Isaac Franklin. Only through the intervention of kind and well-connected friends was he able to eventually secure their release.

      The last account of the fire is an extract from the Washington Navy Yard Station log for January 18, 1827 with remarks on the events of the day by the officer of the watch.

 

Transcription:
      Theses transcription are from the National Intelligencer, the Diary of Michael Shiner and Washington Navy Yard Station log respectively and were made from images of the original documents. The Diary of Michael Shiner was transcribed from the Library of Congress microfilm and the WNY Station Log from images provided Mr. Charles W. Johnson NARA Archives Specialist. In transcribing these documents, I have striven to adhere as closely as possible to the original in spelling, capitalization, punctuation and abbreviation (e.g. "Do" or "do" for ditto or same as above) including the retention of dashes, ampersands and overstrikes. For the special problems associated with the transcription of the Diary of Michael Shiner see my introduction to that doument. Where I was unable to print a clear image or where it was not possible to determine what was written, I have so noted in brackets. Where achievable, I have attempted to arrange the transcribed material in a similar manner to that found in the letters and enclosure.

                      John G. Sharp                                                                                         March 15, 2009
                      Stockton Ca

National Intelligencer
Washington DC
January 20, 1827

AWFUL FIRE AT ALEXANDRIA

A few minutes before nine clock yesterday morning an alarming Fire broke out in the town of Alexandria.. It was soon perceived from this city; and, cold as the weather was, (thermometer at 13) our townsmen turned out with alacrity, and almost literally flew to the assistance of their neighbors. The Engine from Capitol Hill with its hose, tens under way in few minutes after the fire was discovered. About three hundred persons from the Navy Yard, headed by Captain Booth were underway almost as soon, but having further to go, did not arrive quite as early on the ground. The Engine from the Post Office Department, with its fine hose, got under way as soon as the fire was ascertained to be serious, and had just started when an express arrived to our Mayor form the Mayor of Alexandria, soliciting aid, upon which the Engine of second ward, and that of the first notified and were under way. Nor were our Georgetown neighbors behind hand with great spirit they went down in numbers in carriages and on horseback, and on foot, carrying also, it is believed, their engine. All the Marines on the Station were also carried down by Capt. Howle, under orders of Col. Henderson, and carrying an engine with them, and although they did not arrive until the fire got under, afforded important service as guards -

      The whole number of persons who went down from this side of the river could not be less then a thousand. If we appear to dwell too much upon the public spirited conduct of our citizens on this occasion let it be recollected that the distance to Alexandria from most of the points started from was seven miles, and that the engines and men arrived about the time the fire was most appalling. If any other cause for exultation is thought necessary to justify it, let it be found in the fact that the fire was arrested, and a vast amount of property rescued from the jaws of destruction by the aid thus afforded. The first succors from the city arrived about 11 o'clock, and was followed by successive supplies.

      Our friends at Alexandria, exhausted by the fatigue and anxiety, were not employed in endeavoring to save their individual property, and without the excellent apparatus of hose &c, which we have, were not able to contend with the devouring element. They welcomed relief from this quarter as almost providential, and they are unbounded in the measure of their thanks fro the assistance, without which, the best part of their town, with most of the shipping, would have shared the fate of that valuable portion of which was already in flames.

      As it was however, the conflagration was awful, and the destruction of property very great, as may be supposed, from the raging fire in the thick of the town for five long hours, with a brisk North West wind-blowing. It is a wonder, indeed that the fire was got under at all. The hose and forcing machinery, having the river for a source of supply, furnishing copious and inexhaustible supplies of water effect what not supply of water by hand could have done and, although the water thrown in streams descended in the form of ice and sleet, mantling the firemen in icy garments, we believe but one of the engines was so frozen during the day as to be disabled, so steady were they worked.

      The fire commenced in the Cabinet Maker's Shop of James Green, on the east side of Royal Street between King and Prince Street and extended to Fairfax Street thence down Prince to Union Street. The number of houses destroyed besides other building was about 10 and the value of the houses and goods destroyed can hardly have fallen short of two hundred thousand dollars.

      Great danger was menaced by tumbling walls. One man reported to have been killed and one of our citizens under a falling wall, had an escape by means of the embrasure of a window, little less than miraculous. Refreshment was liberally served by the people of Alexandria to their visitants, and we shall be glad to hear that got home safe through the cold of last night, still more intense than that of the day.

Diary of Michael Shiner
      fier Broke out in the alxdrania in the state of virginia on the 17 of January 1827 on Wensday and the Disspatch came from alxdrania on the 18 day of January 1827 on thursday to the people of Washington early in the moring cauling on them to com down speedly to assist in putting the fier out and orders came from the navy Department the same moring from the Honable secatary of the navy samul southard to the commanding officer of the Washington navy yard commerder thomas tingey to send every Mercanic and laborers and engines out of the yard and every man that were Wher able to travel and orders Wher obeyed promptly by commanders and the men Wher dispatched in Double quick time and the people of Washington and george town Went hand to hand to assist them in putting fiers out the mecanics Wanted
[Page 18]
      to put the engines over by the shears and take them down on the ice but captin Walter Booth stop them and taken a around over the long Bridge by horse and hand they [had] one engine in the yard now that broke down 2 Befor We got ther and they wher no time Delade What ever for the oficers caried us in a half canter and a dog trot Comerder thomas Tinray [Thomas Tingey] Commandeid Washington Navy yard Went Down to alexdrania that day Captin Walter Booth sectiond in command went Down to alxdrania that day colal archabald henderson Went down that day Which wher a commander of the united Staets Merines Core Lieutenant Henry R Tyler caried down that day a Detachment of the united States Merines down to alex drania (He) carid them Down in Double quick time Purser Mr timothy Wind Went down to alexanria that day Colnal Wiliam Doughty the naval constructer went Down that day the master Builder James oner sr went Down and sailing master edward Barry went down that day Boats swain David eaton Went down and Mr William Speedon went down that day which at that time was clerk to Mr Wind the purser all the Master Workmen and Mechanics and Laborers of all classes went down that day a circumstance accrued between sailing master edward Barry and a colled man by the name thomas pen ton [penton]didnt conduct himseve so Well and Mr Barry gave him a repramand and it apears that tom pen gave him some insolents and Mr Barry when got home he reported him to captin Booth friday the 19 day of January 1827
[Page 19]

The Washington Navy Yard, Station Log
for the year 1827
provides the official Yard account of the great fire at Alexandria
      Thursday Jan. 18th 1827 - These 24 hours fresh gales from the N.W. very severe cold frost morning. Laborers Riggers Ordinary Men Carts & Oxen working as above until half past 11 o'clock A.M. when Bell rung a letter from the Secretary of the Navy read aloud to the Workmen requesting Commandant Tingey to send all the force within his power to Alexandria to extinguish a large fire that took place there; the men took two fire engines and proceeded to Alexandria where they arrived about two o'clock; at about 3 o'clock they had orders from Capt. Booth to proceed home with the fire engines as all fire was extinguished by the exertions of the people of Alexandria City of Washington & Georgetown; they got the engines back to the Navy Yard about 5 o'clock PM. One of the Engineers got broke in some respect in going down but was temporary mended


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