On January 10, 1921, a major fire broke out in the U.S. Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. The fire department responded quickly, but the building was already ablaze when the firemen arrived. A crowd of about ten thousand people quickly gathered and watched the flames and the efforts of the fire department.
Due to heavy smoke, the firemen were unable to get close to the flames. The firemen eventually chopped holes in the floor of the building and simply dumped in thousands of gallons of water, drenching everything below. Of course, “everything” included millions of paper records of the 1890 U.S. Census.
Hundreds of stories have been published over the years about the tragic loss by fire of the U.S. 1890 Census. Almost all genealogists studying ancestry in the United States are aware of the story. Indeed, most of the hundreds of published stories have been more or less accurate, although brief. Many details have been ignored. It is obvious, but rarely mentioned, that bureaucratic mismanagement was a major factor in the loss of the records. One fact has always been clear, however: the records of 63 million people were lost. Indeed, this was a loss of a significant piece of United States history.
Surprisingly, not all the records were destroyed.
The following morning Census Director Sam Rogers reported the extensive damage to the 1890 schedules, estimating 25 percent destroyed, and another 50 percent of the remainder damaged by water, smoke, and fire. That leaves 25 percent of the records more or less untouched. Even most of the 50 percent listed as “damaged” were believed to be readable. Rogers estimated it would take two to three years to copy off and save all the damaged records.
A few days later an assessment by Census Bureau Clerk T. J. Fitzgerald was far more pessimistic. Fitzgerald told reporters that the priceless 1890 records were “certain to be absolutely ruined. There is no method of restoring the legibility of a water-soaked volume.” His assessment probably was accurate for records stored in a building without air conditioning, containing tons of water-soaked paper records with no easy method of drying them out elsewhere. (Air conditioning and humidity control were almost unknown in 1921.)
Nonetheless, the water-soaked records were soon moved to another building as the original Commerce Building needed to be repaired. However, the new location also had no air conditioning or humidity control. The documents remained in the second location for several years as mold, mildew, and rot set in. Thirteen years later, the Census Bureau finally destroyed the remaining 1890 schedules. We can assume that most of the water-soaked, rotting documents were no longer readable by that time.
Surprisingly, most genealogists are not aware that about 6,000 of those records did survive and are available today. While that is only a tiny 0.0001 percent of the 63 million records of people who were originally documented, there is always a slight chance that your ancestor’s records may have survived.
A YouTube video featuring Roger Lee, also known as “The History Guy,” contains 12 minutes 36 seconds of information that is packed with details. The video also contains dozens of photographs made of the fire and of the events in the days and weeks following. This video contains more details about the fire and the subsequent events than most all the other published articles. Best of all, this video is available to you, free of charge. You can watch it any time you wish in the video player below as well as at https://youtu.be/hwFLuIYgEIk.
About Roger Lee, also known as “The History Guy”
Roger Lee was a high school Social Studies teacher who wanted a quick and reliable resource to guide his high school students in the days before Google. He developed a guide on paper which was later expanded and, even later, became an online publication. Now Mr. Lee has made the YouTube video containing pictures and his verbal description of events that destroyed most of the 1890 Census.
Mr. Lee holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in History and Political Science from Washington State University. He also holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Washington, Tacoma, in Educational Administration. He is a veteran educator, teaching Social Studies to a diverse student population at an alternative high school in Auburn, Washington, for ten years. Mr. Lee is currently an Assistant Principal at Auburn Senior High School, also in Auburn, Washington.
Roger Lee acquired the domain name “historyguy.com” in 1998 and soon thereafter trademarked “The History Guy.” In addition to his many YouTube videos, Mr. Lee operates a very popular web site at: https://historyguy.com.