February 4: In Wartime, the Colt Arms Factory Is Destroyed By a Suspicious Fire


Just after 8 a.m. on the morning of February 4, 1864, as the Civil War was nearing  the end of the  third year of the nation’s most violent and divisive  conflict, the loud, sharp, incessant tones of a steam whistle pierced the air in Hartford, alerting city residents to danger. As men and women rushed toward the source of the noise in the city’s south end, they were shocked to find the massive East Armory building of the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company completely engulfed in flames.

An illustration of the Colt Armory fire of February 4, 1864, from Harper’s Weekly magazine.

Factory employees first spotted smoke coming from an upper floor about an hour after they reported for work at 7 a.m. They leapt into action, grabbing a nearby fire hose and dragging it up several floors to reach the source of the flames. But when they opened the valves, no water came out, which led some — both then and later — to suspect the fire was the work of an arsonist, perhaps even a Confederate sympathizer, upset with the weapons Colt was providing to the Union Army.

The Hartford Courant reported the odds were heavily stacked against the men who tried to put out the flames, since “the floors of the building were yellow pine, and had become thoroughly saturated with oil which had dripped from the machinery.” Even the well-stocked fire engines that rapidly arrived on-scene were powerless to stop the fire’s advance.

Around 9 a.m., as the fire was starting to burn itself out, the iconic onion dome and gold colt statuette that sat atop the East Armory building fell to the ground with a dramatic, fiery crash, a coda to the catastrophe.

At the end of the day, though firefighters had been able to prevent the conflagration from spreading to nearby factory buildings, the East Armory and nearby front office buildings were declared a total loss, with damages estimated at two million (in 1864 dollars). Nine hundred men found themselves out of work. Their plight would be a temporary one, however, thanks to the foresight of Elizabeth Jarvis Colt. Although Samuel Colt had never insured his factory buildings during his lifetime, after his death in 1862, his widow, Elizabeth, had immediately taken out an insurance policy for the company — a policy that allowed her to rebuild the East Armory in three years. During that time, the company utilized the other, undamaged buildings on its sprawling Hartford campus to continue manufacturing firearms. One of Hartford’s most famous companies burned to ashes and pledged to resurrect itself, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Colt Armory Burns,” connecticuthistory.org

The Fire at Colt’s Armory [1864],New York Times archive