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A. The 1890 census is a sore subject for genealogists: It sparks bad dreams, anguished “if only”s and anxieties over brick walls. Why? More than 99 percent of records from the census were destroyed Jan. 10, 1921, during a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, DC.
When the fire broke out, firefighters flooded the basement with water. The flames didn’t spread to upper floors, but the 1890 census records—piled outside a storage vault—were soaked. (Even some of the census schedules stored inside the supposedly waterproof vault got wet.) The cause of the blaze couldn’t be determined.
The records sat in storage for a while, and no restoration efforts were made. Rumors circulated that they’d be disposed of; various groups protesting such measures were assured the rumors were unfounded. But sometime between 1933 and 1935, the records were destroyed along with other papers the Census Bureau deemed no longer necessary.
Fragments of the 1890 census bearing 6,160 names later turned up; they’re on microfilm and websites such as Ancestry.com. Also surviving are special schedules of Union veterans and their widows for half of Kentucky and states alphabetically following it.
In a precursor to the 1921 tragedy, an 1896 fire damaged 1890 supplemental schedules of mortality, crime, pauperism and “special classes.” They were later destroyed by order of the Interior Department.