November 6, 1898
As the shadows lengthened on a quiet Sunday afternoon in November 1898, two policemen pedaled their bicycles on a routine tour through a Capitol Hill neighborhood. Suddenly, a tremendous explosion shattered their conversation. They turned instinctively toward the Capitol, three blocks away, to witness a sheet of flame rising from the building’s basement-level windows along the east front.
Moments earlier, another police officer inside the building had detected the odor of gas. Until recently, gas had been commonly used to light the Capitol’s interior, so the officer was not unduly alarmed. At the moment he set out to investigate, a large volume of gas from a leaky meter in the basement was rising slowly to the level of an open flame in a lamp left burning for the gas company’s meter reader. The resulting explosion, just north of the Rotunda on the Senate side, heaved the floor upward, spewing brick, plaster, and dense black smoke in all directions. As the intense fire raced up an elevator shaft to the upper floors, it melted steel, cracked stone, and incinerated priceless records.
Gas pipes had honeycombed the Capitol since mid-century, when that fuel began to replace whale oil as the principal means of lighting the building. In 1865, according to William C. Allen’s definitive history of the Capitol, 1,083 gas jets provided lighting for the Rotunda. On those rare occasions when evening sessions of Congress coincided with gala White House entertainments, the city lacked sufficient gas to fuel, at the same time, the East Room’s chandeliers and the lighting apparatus above the Senate and House Chambers. This spurred a search for a more reliable and safer means of lighting.
In the early 1880s, Capitol engineers experimented with electricity but concluded that the flickering light of the primitive incandescent lamps was inadequate for the building’s needs. Within a few years, however, advances in technology accelerated the installation of electric lights throughout the Capitol, and by 1896 both Chambers relied on this means of illumination.
For several more years, the Capitol employed chandeliers outfitted with both gas and electric lights. Then came the disastrous explosion of November 6, 1898. Although no one was injured, the blast reduced large portions of the interior to a pile of debris weighing 20 tons. Thus ended the Capitol’s transition from gas to electricity.