Tragic fires created signposts for archaeologists

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Tragic fires created signposts for archaeologists

August 18, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Col. David Schwuist, a volunteer, is pictured pulling up bucket during excavator of a brick shaft. During the excavation, artifacts from the Green cabinet shop were discovered in an ash layer from an 1827 fire.
Five volunteer fire companies operated in l9th-century Alexandria. Last week I discussed the Friendship, which, although no longer and active firefighting unit, may still be visited at 107 S. Alfred St. The other fire companies were the Sun, the Relief, the Star and the Hydraulion. While they were successful in the larger goal of containing fire, many times fires claimed property and life.

A catastrophic episode like fire is actually an excellent time marker for archaeologists. Reading the layers of soil is much like reading a book, except, of course, we read backward and no one has provided pagination. Evidence of a fire actually provides a distinct soil layer, or stratum, it helps us date the soil strata above and below it. This type of dating has been very successful in London, where the major fires over the centuries have left defined soil strata across the city.

Alexandria has had its share of fires since its founding in 1749. The Alexandria Gazette chronicled the fire locations and losses. T. Michael Miller has recounted the fires in several volumes of the Fireside Sentinel, a newsletter published by the Alexandria Library. Alexandria Archaeology volunteer Peter K. Matthews has produced a map and index of these fires as an archaeological finding aid.

Perhaps the most noteworthy fire in Alexandria occurred Jan. 18, 1827. Again, Peter Matthews has provided and excellent geographic index of this event. The Gazette reported Jan. 23 that the fire began accidentally in James Green's cabinetmaking shop near 112 S. Royal St. The fire moved at great speed, and a northwest wind carried burning shingles 400 feet to the west, starting a second blaze on Prince Street. Firefighters came from Georgetown and Washington, and a traveling circus company assisted in putting out the fire. Fifty-three buildings were lost, at a cost of $107,277.

In 1971, during the Gadsby urban renewal project in the 300 block of King Street, archaeological evidence was discovered of the Green cabinet shop fire. Richard Muzzerole of the Smithsonian Institution, working with volunteers to rescue artifacts from urban renewal blocks, found a brick shaft behind 112 S. Royal St. with ash and artifacts dating to the 1827 fire.

Several of the Green furniture objects were found in ash, including a decorative chair rail, a support for a table or desk, a bedpost, a spindle, and a leg. The archaeology team also recovered decorative brass furniture hardware, such as knobs, lock plates and escutcheons. The Green furniture factory moved by 1834 to the southeast corner of Fairfax and Prince streets, and continued in business until 1877. The Green furniture artifacts are preserved in the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.

Pam Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.