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Washington, D.C.

Vigilant Firehouse

‘Bush the old fire dog died of poison July 5th, 1869. RIP.’  

Memorial design in Washington, D.C., is a highly bureaucratic affair these days, involving overlapping layers of planning commissions, agency reviews and advisory boards. The common result is a monumental (if sanitized) historical tribute that honors all and offends none. Look underneath the surface however, and there is a lesser known group of memorials that predate the bureaucracy and honor discredited social movements, political nobodys, and other figures of questionable historical significance.

Nowhere is this latter category more evident than at the old Vigilant Firehouse, with its tiny marble plaque to pet dog Bush, who “died of poison July 5th, 1869.” The brief and slightly mysterious inscription is barely legible on a faded stone located just six inches off the ground.

According to District Fire Company historian Albert J. Cassedy, the unfortunate animal “ran with the engine to all fires and parades and was a general favorite with all who chanced to form his acquaintance. He became careless about his diet, ate free lunch between meals and was taken suddenly ill July 4, 1869. The doctors pronounced it a hopeless case of arsenical poisoning, and after several severe spasms he passed peacefully in the sixth year of his age.”

The Vigilant Firehouse is the oldest in Washington, D.C., built in 1817, rebuilt in 1844 and closed in 1883. Overlooking the instances when they themselves were caught setting fires, the Washington Evening Star considered them a “first rate company” and “the only company in our city upon which citizens have to depend for the protection of their property in case of a fire.”

The engine company moved out and later tenants of the building included the Palmer Bottling Works and a McKittrick mattress factory. It’s presently an expensive shoe store. Unlike the largely forgotten Vigilant Fire boys, Bush the dog is set in stone forever.