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Fire in the Smithsonian Institution Building, January 24, 1865

Mary Henry Diary, Fire - Jan 1865 - Page 1

Jan.25th I record in my journal tonight one of the of the momentous and saddest events of lives – the burning of a large portion of the Inst. The fire originated in the insertion of the pipe of a stove which had been put up in the picture gallery into an air chamber in the wall instead of a flue. The man in charge had been told to be particularly careful and Father had inquired of several times if he was sure all was safe. The fire must have been smoldering several days but did not break out until yesterday shortly after three o'clock. I was sitting reading in the Library reading and surprised at the sudden darkening of the room went to the window and finding a thick cloud of smoke or mist obscuring the view I hastened from the room to discover the cause. One of the gentlemen from the Inst. met me saying "the building is in flames you have but five minutes to save your property." We immediately went to work packing books, etc. first clothing and then Father's library. The house was soon filled 

Mary Henry Diary, Fire - Jan 1865 - Page 2

26 Jan 1865
with people. The furniture was soon removed and placed under military guard outside of the Inst. We were soon informed that our end of the building was no longer in danger so we stationed ourselves at one of the windows to watch the progress of destruction. Truly it was a grand sight as well as a sad one the flames bursting from the windows of the towers rose high above them curling round the the ornamental stone work through the archs and trefoils as if in frill appreciation of their symatry(sp.), a beautiful fiend tasting to the utmost the pleasure of destruction. The capping of the square tower near us soon fell filling the air with smoke & cinders. Father(sp.) on the highest tower still stood mantled with flames while above it the anemometer turned, steadily recording the wind wh. fanned? into greater fury the fires beneath -- faithful in its dumb creation to the last. Thousands of spectators had col 

Mary Henry Diary, Fire - Jan 1865 - Page 3

Jan 1865 

lected in the grounds and a body of men kept mounted guard around the building driving them back as they approached too near. As the fire mounted to the upper room of the tower where Fathers papers were kept it was very hard to see them come floating down to feel that in the space of an hour was thus destroyed the labor of years. When the east end of the Inst. was pronounced entirely out of danger the furniture was restored and everyone except the inhabitants of the building ordered to leave. A military guard was placed at the door to prevent intrusion and in our carpetless disorder rooms we gathered to learn the extent of our calamity – numerous friends came in to offer sympathy and assistance and to urge us to leave the dismantled house for the night but we prefer remaining as the fire was still burning and our property was not entirely free from danger. Father & Mr. Rheese escaped very narrowly\. The roof of 

Mary Henry Diary, Fire - Jan 1865 - Page 4

1865 Jan
the office fell only less minutes after they left. They had time to save very little all the recorded letters of the Inst. The report almost ready for the press &c. were destroyed A drawer of articles on meteorology collected for a number of years by Father perished & observations & reflections of his own was destroyed. They were writing in the Office when the crackling of the flames above them warned them of the danger placing cloths over their mouths they endeavoured to obtain the papers of value but were nearly suffocated by the smoke. We are in some what better order today but are wearied out with the effort to restore out property to proper places. My one great effort was to preserve Father's books. If we had left them upon the shelves they would have been uninjured as it is. I am afraid many of them are lost.
26th Another busy tiresome day has passed in the endeavor to produce order out of confusion. We find 

Mary Henry Diary, Fire - Jan 1865 - Page 5

1865 Jan
many of our articles destroyed but much less injured than we expected owing to the kind care of our friends. The Apparatus room, the picture gallery, the Regents room & lecture room were destroyed. I went this morning to visit the scene of destruction. All Smithson's personal effects; all Dr. Hare's philosophical apparatus, the Stanley Indian Gallery of portraits have all perished. We entered the Apparatus room first. The dismantled walls & towers rose high above us reminding us of the ruins of some English Abbey. Mr. Welling was my companion. We picked out way over the cinders & burnt bricks through the lecture room to the Picture Gallery. The remains of the dying gladiator lay scattered about – we picked up a few pieces but they crumbled in our fingers. The blue sky above us formed a beautiful roof but we dreaded storms too much not to be glad to learn that something pleasing to the eye but a protection to the museum of curiosity below us was 

Mary Henry Diary, Fire - Jan 1865 - Page 6

Jan 1865
to be immediately erected. Father is himself again today. The warm sympathy of the Regents & friends of Inst. has been very grateful to him. Mr. Patterson told us the Senate was discussing a very important bill when it was announced that the Inst. was on fire and immediately adjourned. The Supreme Court aleys then(?) its session. People came from Georgetown to witness the conflagration. The loss of his letters is a very great trial to father but he had hardly mentioned it – thinking much more of the Library & private papers of Bishop Johns entrusted to the Inst. Fathers letters were written with very great care & were in answer to questions upon almost every subject. They had been all prepared with the greatest care. Not a letter ever left the Inst. but a copy of it was taken. It is next to losing Father to have them go. It is a calamity I have no resignation to meet. It seems so very hard to 

Mary Henry Diary, Fire - Jan 1865 - Page 7

Jan 1865
save our furniture and other things which are so valueless in comparison with those when we would so gladly give them in exchange.