In researching my recent epic on the Keeper of the Crypt, I came across another example of a topic that I thought I had exhausted in my book: Explosions in the Capitol. I had documented occurrences in 1876, 1898, 1915, 1971, and 1983. It turns out that there was an even earlier one. Like all but one of the others, this one caused no fatalities, though damage to the crypt was heavy.
It was 2:30 PM on a slow August afternoon. Congress had adjourned about 10 days earlier, and little was going on in the Capitol. Suddenly, those employees who were still in town were thrown out of their chairs by a massive explosion. The immediate thought was that some plot to blow up the Capitol had been carried out, but closer examination showed that it was simply the main pipe that brought gas into the building to light it had caused the explosion.
Apparently, the pipe, which was just over 20 years old at the time, had ruptured, and the gas streaming out mixed with the air and was somehow ignited.
The blast did major damage to the crypt, fortunately not the location of George Washington’s body. According to newspaper reports of the time, the blast blew out “all the heavy framework surrounding it, tearing all the doors and frames and windows to splinters, and scattering the fragments through the basement passages in all directions” Nobody was injured in the blast; although the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate had visited the crypt just a few short hours earlier “in company with several ladies” they were safely away by the time the explosion happened.
Repairs were begun almost immediately, with “all the employees […] promptly on hand to lend their assistance, and measures were at once taken to prevent further damage, as well as to repair that already occasioned.”
One of the items damaged was Abraham Lincoln’s catafalque, which had been stored – along with other items used during his funeral – in the crypt. The catafalque, a roughly-made wooden table covered with black cloth, had been made to hold Lincoln’s coffin while it laid in state in the Capitol.
It was quickly repaired, as it was needed just a few days later for a second time: To hold Thaddeus Stevens‘s coffin. Since then, the catafalque has been used by all who have lain in state in the Capitol, as well as other locations around DC. In between, it can be viewed in the Capitol Visitor Center, in the back of the museum.