Smithsonian Institute Fire: An 1865 Tragedy

The Smithsonian Institute was founded on 10 August 1846, the same year that the Countess of Blessington introduce Harriet Howard to Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Smithson Institute’s founding donor was a well-to-do British scientist named James Smithson. He left most of his wealth to his nephew Henry James Hungerford, who died childless in 1835.

John Smithson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The estate then passed to the United States, who created the Smithsonian Institute. The institute’s stated goal was “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”[1] Construction of the Smithsonian Institute building, known as “the Castle,” began in 1849. It was designed by architect James Renwick Jr. and the building opened in 1855. Unfortunately, ten years later a devastating fire broke out 24 January 1865.

Smithsonian Institute

“The Castle” (1847), the Institution’s first building, which remains its headquarters. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At the time of the fire Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and his family (wife Harriet, daughters Mary, Helen, and Caroline, and son William) lived in the east wing of the building. Mary noted the devastation of the fire in her diary and maintained that the fire had been smoldering for several days before it broke out:

“I was sitting reading in the Library reading and surprised at the sudden darkening of the room [and] 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.’”[2] 

For years Henry had been wary that a fire might happen. In fact, he was so concerned he had taken precautionary measures that included prohibiting smoking and open fires at the institute. In addition, watchmen had been employed to make hourly rounds each night and to pay special attention to the spots where fire had been kindled during the day. Henry also ensured that buckets and barrels of water were constantly full and placed in various spots throughout the institute and large hoses were also available and ready for immediate use. Nonetheless, his precautionary measures proved insufficient when the fire broke out, which according to varying sources “occurred at a point where no danger was apprehended, and to which access could with difficulty be obtained.”[3]

An unusually cold winter struck in 1865. Two workers arranging paintings in the unheated gallery on the second floor of the Smithsonian were cold and installed a stove to keep themselves warm. Mary noted that her father checked on the workmen several times and was continually reassured that everything was safe and satisfactory. Unfortunately, the workmen mistakenly inserted the stove pipe through a wall-lining into a furring space thinking it was the flue. That resulted in a smoldering situation under the roof’s rafters which then erupted in a fire a few days later. This was noted in an after-the-fact report by the Board of Regents that stated:

“A coal fire, kindled with wood, had been burning in this stove for eight days previous to the conflagration, yet it appears from testimony that no evidence of combustion was observed by a person who passed through the loft six hours before the breaking out of flames.”[4]

As the fire raged people began trying to save what they could from inside the Smithsonian Institute. Mary reported that those at the end of her building were soon informed they were no longer in danger. It seems the fire was somewhat contained because of “incombustible materials of the main building: the flooring of the upper story, forming an iron and brick vaulting over the lower or principal story.”[5] However, there was nothing they could do about the fiery upper floor at the opposite end of the building, and they watched helplessly as it burned:

“[W]e 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 ornamental stone work through the archs and trefoils as if in frill appreciation of the symatry, 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 … Thousands of spectators collected in the grounds and a body of men kept mounted guard around the building driving them as they approached too near.”[6]

Fielding B. Meek, a deaf paleontologist that lived under the gallery stairs in a small apartment had been working on the second floor in the east wing when the fire erupted. He reported that his room suddenly became dark and thinking that it was a snowstorm he went to the window only to discover the Smithsonian Institute was on fire. He ran for water to help douse the flames but soon realized his efforts were useless. The buckets of water mandated by Henry were frozen solid and therefore useless. He thus grabbed his meager possessions and rushed to safety.

William J. Rhees, who had been hired in 1853 as a “general assistant” and private secretary to Henry was with Henry when the fire began. According to Mary:

“Father & Mr. Rheese escaped very narrowly. The roof of the office fell only less than 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. … 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.”[7]

Smithsonian Institute - William J. Rheese

William J. Rheese. Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.

The Lancaster Examiner also provided important details about the fire:

“The ceiling soon fell in and in a few moments the gallery was one sheet of flame. The fire, as it mounted the central tower and burst forth in full volume from the main roof was magnificently grand, and a curious spectacle was presented by the steadiness of the revolutions of the anemometer or wing register, surmounting the tower, while the fire flame was ravenously mountings its destruction.

The windows of the picture gallery soon burst out, disclosing only the shell of the room. There were some two hundred of [John Mix] Stanley’s pictures here. … Only five or six of them were saved. The loss is very serious, including the lecture room, the philosophical instrument apartment and most of the valuable instruments. The offices in the towers and the originals of the private records and archieves [sic] of the institution were destroyed.”[8]

Newspapers reported that part of the reason for the terrible destruction at the Smithsonian Institute was because there was great difficulty in getting water on the scene. With insufficient water the steam engines sent to fight the raging fire had trouble trying to douse and control the flames. In fact, the fire was not brought under control until late in the evening. Moreover, just as the infamous fire of 1925 destroyed irreplaceable relics at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, so too did the institute fire destroy priceless items belonging to the Smithsonian.

According to the Chicago Tribune, who reported on damages the same days as the fire began, the Smithsonian Institute suffered great losses:

“A large number of valuable manuscripts, chiefly on scientific subjects, with most of the records of the Institution, and costly apparatus, [were] lost. Some of the meteorological observations were saved, but the most valuable documents, including the correspondence of the Institution, back reports, Stanley’s gallery of Indian paintings, 200 in number, which are on the second floor were consumed, and the fine statue of the ‘Dying Gladiator,’ was destroyed. The library of about 45,000 volumes was saved, but was badly injured in its removal from the building, through carelessness and excitement. Cases of valuable stuffed specimens of birds, busts, books, meteorological instruments, &c., were recklessly thrown out of the windows and smashed.”[9]

The damaged to the Smithsonian Institute was not just limited to the building and its contents. Two men who helped with the evacuation of the building suffered from the effects of the fire and died within two weeks of its eruption. The first, explorer Lt. James Melville Gilliss, was a friend of Henry’s and had rushed to the scene of the fire to help. A few weeks later, on the same day that he was looking forward to seeing his son, who had just been released from a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, he died. It was 9 February 1865 when he unexpectedly suffered a stroke at the age of 53.  

Smithsonian Institute - James Mellville Gilliss

James Mellville Gilliss. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A day later 74-year-old John Varden, who had founded an earlier museum in Washington and was an American collector of antiquities and museum pieces in the Washington D.C. area., passed away. The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial reported that he died “after a severe illness, contracted by his efforts to preserve the property under his charge during the late fire at the Smithsonian.”[10]

Immediately after the fire Henry applied to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, for aid in constructing a temporary roof to protect the contents of the building from the weather. Stanton agreed. In addition, measures were also undertaken for the repair and improvement of the building. Expenditures on the repairs and rebuilding of the Institute’s building from January 1865 to April 1866 were published in the “Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institute” in their 1866 publication. The following chart shows the costs for this preliminary work and associated expenditures.

Chart Showing Preliminary Costs and Associated Expenditures Related to the Smithsonian Institute after the Fire of 1865.

Despite rebuilding efforts, American everywhere agreed that the losses suffered by the Smithsonian Institute fire would long be remembered and mourned. In fact, the Chicago Tribune bemoaned the fact stating:

“Every lover of science will deeply regret the tidings of the burning of the Smithsonian Institute. Although the building was not entirely destroyed, it is evident that its most valuable collections, embracing its records, back reports, a portion of its library, meteorological reports, correspondence, paintings, instruments and natural history collections are ruined. The loss in figures is trivial; compared with the incalculable loss to American science.”[11]


  • [1] Rev. W. Barlow, The Smithsonian Institution: An Address on the Duties of Government, in Reference Chiefly to Public Instruction; with the Outlines of a Plan for the Application of the Smithsonian Fund to that Object. (New York: B.R. Barlow, 1847), p. 18.
  • [2] M. Henry, “Fire in the Smithsonian Institution Building, January 24, 1865,” Stories from the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institute,
  • [3] Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 21 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1881), p. 237.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 305.
  • [6] M. Henry
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Lancaster Examiner, “Destruction of the Smithsonian Institute by Fire,” February 1, 1865, p. 2.
  • [9] Chicago Tribune, “From Washington,” January 25, 1865, p. 1.
  • [10] The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial, “Personal,” February 17, 1865, p. 2.
  • [11] Chicago Tribune, “The News,” January 25, 1865, p. 1.

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