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Looking out from the Smithsonian Castle in the middle of the National Mall, one has a bird's-eye view of much of the pageant of American history. (Library of Congress)

Smithsonian Perspectives

In its early days, the Smithsonian faced the Civil War, a disastrous fire and a vastly uncertain future

With the ending of the Civil War, the Smithsonian faced an unrelated catastrophe. In January of 1865, a fire broke out, collapsing the central roof of the Castle and destroying the second floor. Lost in the flames were most of the papers of the founder, James Smithson, many of Secretary Henry's files, and the priceless collections of portraits of Native Americans by Charles Bird King and John Mix Stanley.

After the shaky circumstances of its creation, the trials of war and the devastation of fire, the Smithsonian faced the country's postwar future. We who can look back at the Institution's subsequent growth take pride in what the nation and the Smithsonian would soon accomplish. But how uncertain it all must have seemed in 1865.

I. Michael Heyman

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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