One hundred and sixty-three years ago this Thursday, gas lights replaced oil lamps in the U.S. Capitol. On the evening of Thursday, November 18, 1847, gas made in a plant beneath the Capitol flowed through newly installed pipes and into light fixtures throughout the building. “We witnessed last evening one of the most splendid and beautiful spectacles we ever beheld,” reported one Washington newspaper the next day. “It was the first time that the gas-lights of Mr. James Crutchett were exhibited.”
James Crutchett (1816-1889) was a self-styled engineer who briefly gained fame in 1847 for installing a gas-fueled lantern atop the Capitol dome in a failed bid to secure a contract to light the nation’s capital city. Crutchett spent the final 45 years of his life in Washington and his entrepreneurial exploits have largely been overlooked by Washington historians. His Capitol lantern scheme became a sidebar to architectural histories of the Capitol and his four decades as a gas man are little more than a footnote in the narratives on the history of Washington’s gas infrastructure.
The reasons why Crutchett came to Washington, D.C., in 1845 may never be known. Before Crutchett bought a stylish Gothic Revival Capitol Hill cottage and set up shop in the District of Columbia, he had spent the previous three or so years traveling throughout the American Midwest selling a gas lighting system he had invented in England prior to emigrating to the United States.
Crutchett’s tale is compelling. In addition to his lantern scheme, one chapter in Crutchett’s Washington story has yet to be fully explored. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Crutchett hatched a new money-making venture: selling George Washington and Mount Vernon kitsch made from wood he harvested from Washington’s former estate; Mount Vernon-themed lithographs; and, commemorative Washington and Mount Vernon coins. Doing business as the Mount Vernon Factory, Crutchett was churning out canes, bowls, picture frames, and other items made from Washington wood in a plant near his Capitol Hill home.
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Crutchett was in a Massachusetts jail and much of his Washington property was on the verge of foreclosure. In July 1861 federal troops confiscated his Capitol Hill property and turned it into sprawling aid station for troops flowing into the capital on foot and on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The military re-purposed Crutchett’s home, grounds, and factory buildings and they built barracks, stables, privies, and other buildings inside a large fenced compound that encircled several blocks east of North Capitol Street. The federal seizure of Crutchett’s property killed his business and Crutchett spent more than a decade filing complaints and suing the federal government for damages.
I first “met” Crutchett while doing research on architect, engineer, and artist John Skirving. You see, when Crutchett moved to Washington, he bought the Capitol Hill cottage Skirving had built just a few years earlier. Crutchett’s story is nearly as compelling as Skirving’s and I was reminded of it while following the events unfolding in Montgomery County related to the development of a master plan for the park formerly known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Temple University historian Seth Bruggeman wrote an intriguing book derived from his doctoral dissertation on public memory and the legends attached to a Virginia farm associated with George Washington. The manipulation of memory and narrative and their intersection with material culture presented in Bruggeman’s work reminded me of Crutchett’s Mount Vernon Factory exploits so I thought I’d pull out my old files to see if there was material enough for an article.
This post is the first in a two-part series on James Crutchett, nineteenth-century gas man, kitsch purveyor, and Washington fixture for nearly half a century.
And yes, there is enough for an article or two.
James Crutchett in 1842 invented a system for making and delivering lighting gas that he called simply, “Improvements in Manufacturing Gas and an Apparatus for Consuming Gas.” Crutchett’s system called for mixing coal or oil gas and air and it was not unlike other coal gas processes already in use. The mixture was delivered to burners he designed. He claimed the gas could be deployed on a large scale via a large gasworks or on a smaller scale by individual consumers. Crutchett was awarded a British patent for his invention in January 1843 and shortly thereafter he emigrated to the United States.
To date I have learned very little about Crutchett’s life in England prior to 1842. The 1841 English census has him working as a pawnbroker living with his wife, Elizabeth, and their infant son, Francis, in a house on King Street in the borough of Stroud about 100 miles west of London. The same year that the census was taken, English newspapers were reporting that Crutchett had been declared bankrupt. “I was a demonstrator on gas matters and experiments at the Royal Institution in London,” Crutchett told a U.S. Senate committee near the end of his life in 1886. The path he took from pawnbroker to engineer remains unclear.
Crutchett claimed that he had been invited to the U.S. by several New Yorkers interested in his new gas system. According to Crutchett, the New Yorkers included Robert Coleman, a proprietor of the Astor House, and merchant Alexander Turney Stewart.
After coming to the United States, Crutchett named his system the “Solar Gas” process (for the sun-like light he claimed it produced). According to Crutchett, what made his system more economical and cleaner than others available at the time was its main ingredient. Crutchett used “greasy substances” or common oil, like flaxseed oil, instead of coal oil. One 1847 description of his Capitol gas plant was not unlike a description for a rendering plant.
Between c. 1843 and 1845, Crutchett appears to have installed his gas lighting system in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; Covington, Kentucky; and, Wheeling, West Virginia. A marketing pamphlet Crutchett was circulating in 1847 to secure capital and contracts described his system: “For illumination of Cities, Manufactories, Hotels, Steamboats, Churches, and Private Residences.” In 1872 he explained to government attorneys that his engineering business was, “mainly pertaining to lighting up towns and cities with gas and improvements in mechanics pertaining thereto.”
By 1844 Crutchett was living in Cincinnati, Ohio. That year he was awarded a U.S patent for his “Improvement in Gas Light Apparatus”:
No records survive documenting how Crutchett decided to settle in Washington and how he knew John Skirving. The Crutchetts were members of a vegetarian church (Church of the New Jerusalem) while they lived in Washington and Skirving’s brother-in-law belonged to a similar group in Philadelphia. Beyond that tentative association and both men’s similar life stories — English expatriates, self-styled engineers, ill-fated business ventures, and an attraction to Washington — and evidence that they did business together between 1845 and 1850, any attempt to link Skirving and Cructhett prior to 1845 real estate transactions would be speculative.
In December 1845 Crutchett bought Skirving’s Capitol Hill property and he rapidly set about building a gas plant in the home’s basement. Crutchett fitted the entire property with gaslights making it the first private residence in Washington to be lit by gas. Crutchett called the former Skirving house “Bethel Cottage.”
The cottage was strategically located across North Capitol Street from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station and it was only a few blocks north of the Capitol. One observer described it in 1844, shortly after it was built: “Mr. Skirving’s English cottage on Capitol Hill, is one of the neatest specimens of rustic architecture I have ever seen.”
It doesn’t appear that Crutchett advertised his services in local newspapers when he arrived in Washington, yet he did manage to quickly land some local clients. Among Crutchett’s first commercial projects in Washington was his installation of a solar gas system in Coleman’s Hotel in July 1846.
A January 1847 edition of the Washington Daily National Intelligencer described Crutchett’s Capitol Hill premises after the construction of the gas plant and installation of gas lighting:
One of the most striking and brilliant improvements that we have lately noticed in this metropolis is that of Mr. Crutchett, who has not merely lighted up North Capitol street, by the introduction of nine solar gas burners between his residence and the Capitol gate, but actually illuminated Capitol Hill by these incomparably beautiful and splendid lights. We understand that these nine gas lights are all supplied from the beautiful cottage residence of Mr. Crutchett, which is entirely lighted with solar gas, including its parlors, bed-rooms, porticos, porches, and garden, rendering the whole most beautiful to the eye when viewed either externally or internally.
Crutchett formally approached Congress in January 1847 with a petition urging the legislature to hire him to “light up the public buildings, grounds, etc.” The gas man boasted that he had “made a new & valuable discovery in the mode of making gas & gas apparatus for the purpose of illumination” and he invited members of Congress to see the system in use on his property.
In March 1847 Crutchett succeeded in getting Congress to appropriate $17,500 to fund his proposal to light the Capitol. First, however, Crutchett had to demonstrate that he could provide light that was more efficient than the oil then in use. Crutchett elected to grandstand his way into the contract by constructing a 92-foot-high mast attached to the Capitol dome onto which would be fitted a gas-burning lantern in addition to installing lighting fixtures in the House and Senate chambers.
From the outset, Crutchett’s scheme transfixed Washington, the members of Congress, and a nation following the exploits in the newspapers. Washingtonians, anxious to have a municipal gas system, eagerly awaited the completion of Crutchett’s lantern while legislators became increasingly concerned about the potential hazards of mast supporting a source of fire above the Capitol’s copper-clad wood dome.
Before Crutchett could begin constructing the gasworks and infrastructure, Congress ordered Benjamin B. French, Clerk of the House of Representatives, to ascertain whether Crutchett’s plan was feasible and safe. French, in turn, sought opinions from Smithsonian Institution director Joseph Henry as well as architects Robert Mills and William Renwick.
All of the experts consulted agreed that Crutchett’s plans would not harm the Capitol and work got underway in the summer of 1847. When Congress broke for summer recess, work began laying pipes beneath the stone floors and in the walls.
Crutchett and his workers built a gas plant in the Capitol’s northwest quadrant and placed lighting fixtures throughout the Capitol. Scientific American described the new Capitol lighting fixtures in December 1847: “The chandeliers of both houses are superb.” Fabricated in Philadelphia, “The one in the House of Representatives is ornamented with a beautiful scroll; that in the Senate by thirteen brilliant stars, representing the good old thirteen states, with their pendant prisms,” wrote Scientific American.
The mast to support the lantern arrived at the Capitol the last week in June 1847. The 92-foot white pine pole originated in Pennsylvania and it tapered from an 18-inch diameter base to 10 inches at the top.
The polygonal iron, copper, and glass lantern was made in Washington. Measuring six feet in diameter and 20 feet high, the lantern included reflectors to ensure that the light would be seen from a distance as well as on the Capitol grounds.
The lantern and mast were attached to the Capitol dome in August 1847 by iron braces. The contraption some in the press simply called “Crutchett’s Long Pole” became the most prominent element breaking the Washington horizon. House of Representatives Clerk Benjamin French wrote to his brother in October 1847, “ ‘What has got the magic lantern on the Capitol?’ There it is, right in front of my new dormer window.”
Together, the mast and lantern weighed more than three tons, according to a detailed report by architect Robert Mills, who was paid $50 to review and report on Crutchett’s plans. Originally, the lantern was to have been ignited nightly by an electric starter. Instead, each night a workman had to climb a ladder and manually light the lantern.
The lights first were demonstrated in mid-November 1847. The interior lights were praised while the lantern failed to live up to Crutchett’s billing. Massachusetts senator John Fairfield wrote to his wife after seeing the lantern for the first time: “Crutchett’s big light on the dome of the Capitol I don’t think much of it. It affords a tolerable light immediately about the Capitol but the light is not extended so far as had been anticipated.”
Commissioner of Public Buildings Charles Douglas reported to Congress that the light emitted by the lantern was not worth its costs:
It may with propriety be doubted, whether the light upon the top of the pole possesses such superior advantages over the same quantity more conveniently located for lighting, as to justify the present increased expense and great danger of attending to it in its present position, which is now done by a person ascending the pole to the lantern and there igniting the gas.
Architect Charles B. Cluskey recommended in a report to the House of Representatives that the pole and lantern be removed and replaced with lighting closer to the ground and more strategically placed. Cluskey claimed that his proposal, “Would illuminate the grounds around, and exhibit the building in beautiful and bold relief for a considerable distance.”
Except for a brief scare in December 1847 when fumes from sewers beneath the Capitol sickened legislators and the source initially was blamed on Crutchett’s gas, few found fault with the quality of lighting inside the Capitol. In his letter to his wife on the new lighting, Senator Fairfield wrote,
The Senate chamber was lighted up last evening with gas, and looked splendidly. The light proceeds from a lot of chandeliers suspended in the center and quite up to the ceiling. The above makes light enough to write by and read the finest print in my part of the chamber.
Crutchett had hoped that the demonstration would lead to additional contracts to light the whole Capitol and perhaps even the entire city. Crutchett’s growing questionable reputation, however, caught up with him and both he and his lantern were roundly criticized.
Critics included editorial writers in the Baltimore Sun and the New York Herald. “The crotchett [sic.] of Mr. Crutchett is really peculiar,” wrote “Lobos” in a Herald editorial. The Sun called Crutchett a “novice” and several writers played on the double entendres inherent in describing Crutchett’s pole.
The surviving federal documents do not detail the allegations made against Crutchett, but court records from the following decades show a consistent pattern by Crutchett to not repay large sums of money he borrowed to fund his various schemes. In fact, when he bought the Skirving Capitol Hill property, he got an unsecured $5,000 mortgage from the Skirvings and he failed to repay them spurring John Skirving to sue and initiate foreclosure proceedings against Crutchett.
In a scathing report to the House of Representatives Committee on Public Buildings, commissioner Charles Douglas outlined the damage to the Capitol by Crutchett’s lantern. Douglas conceded that the lantern and mast were stable during calm weather, but high winds would endanger the Capitol. The commissioner also noted that the Capitol’s structural stonework was not adequately built to support the conduits cut to run Crutchett’s gas lines.
The tenor of the Douglas report undoubtedly was influenced by how Crutchett got the contract to light the Capitol. Normally, all work to public buildings was vetted and managed by the Commissioner of Public Buildings. When Congress voted to execute the contract with Crutchett, it bypassed the normal process. Douglas ended his report by commenting on Crutchett’s character,
Deeming it to be my duty, I take leave to say a few words in relation to contracts for executing the public work and the loose manner in which they are too often performed … Under such peculiar circumstances, favorable opportunities are afforded to the contractors, which are seldom neglected by them, to plan and execute their work in such a manner as they think best, and too often in a way that is far more profitable to themselves than beneficial to the government.
When Douglas requested that Crutchett provide firm cost estimates for building and operating a permanent Capitol gas plant and lighting system, Crutchett failed to deliver the requested information.
Crutchett was shut out of the Capitol’s efforts to introduce gas lighting and he lost out on playing any real part in creating a municipal gas infrastructure in the District of Columbia. In the spring of 1848, local entrepreneurs began the process to secure a congressional charter to incorporate the Washington Gas Light Company and by June 1848 workers were removing Crutchett’s lantern from the Capitol dome.
The Capitol building and grounds ultimately were lighted by the new Washington Gas Light Company. At first, the Capitol had its own gas plant. Less than a decade later, however, the gasworks were moved off-site. Serviced by the Washington Gas Light Company, the Capitol remained lit by gas until 1896.
Out of Gas: Founding the Mount Vernon Factory
James Crutchett temporarily abandoned engineering after his first wife, Elizabeth, died in August 1848. By 1851 Crutchett had remarried and he got caught up in the cult of Washington sweeping the nation. In the capital city, efforts were underway to fund and build a national monument to the late first president and Congress was being petitioned to purchase Mount Vernon. Although not a U.S. citizen, Crutchett did claim to have read a lot of American history. When asked in 1872 about his interest in Washington and the desire to make and sell Washington memorabilia, Crutchett explained,
I felt that it was due to the memory of Washington that he should have a national monument, and if the people were put in mind of it in some regular form they would be willing to do it.
Crutchett signed a contract with John A. Washington Jr. (1820-1861). The late president’s grand-nephew, Washington was the last private owner of Mount Vernon before the property’s purchase by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The July 1854 contract between Washington and Crutchett granted the entrepreneur the rights to cut and remove lumber from Mount Vernon. Crutchett described the enterprise in his 1872 deposition:
[I] worked up the timber from Mount Vernon into various mementoes, believing that the Mount Vernon wood would be appreciated by the people of the United States especially, and by people generally throughout the world. To make the Mount Vernon wood into various articles of furniture for use and ornament, and embellishment, as mouldings, ornamental floorings, cabinet work, movable and fixed picture frames, mouldings, and the engagement of artists to execute engravings, pictures, and other things, the proceeds of which were to be devoted to reimburse the expenditure and one half the profits to the building of the national monument and the restoration of Mount Vernon.
After inking the contract with Washington, in the fall of 1855 Crutchett bought axes, picks, and other equipment and sent a contingent of workers to Mount Vernon where they began cutting roads and harvesting lumber for Crutchett’s new enterprise. Crutchett bought a ship and rented steam tugboats to bring the wood across the Potomac and by 1857 he was selling finished items produced in his Mount Vernon Factory.
Coming in Part II: The Mount Vernon Factory and the Soldiers’ Rest
Sources: All of the secondary histories that discuss Crutchett’s time in Washington appear to rely on incomplete and incorrect information. Primary documents used in this brief post include District of Columbia land records, litigation documents, correspondence, and military records related to the confiscation of property during the Civil War. A more complete discussion of the primary sources used will appear in expanded published versions of this research. Contemporaneous newspaper and magazine coverage of Crutchett’s lantern and efforts to install gas lighting in the Midwest during the 1840s provide colorful details about his exploits. Crutchett’s own marketing materials, although celebratory and biased, provide a road map of his travels prior to 1845. TThe most authoritative and comprehensive source on the Capitol building’s architectural history is William C. Allen’s History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (2001, U.S. GPO).
© 2010 David S. Rotenstein