Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 10, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



1854-1856. -- Creation of the Board of Fire Department Commissioners. -- Peter Cooper's Plan. -- How Abuses had Crept In. -- Charges in the Newspapers. -- Investigation Held. -- Location Of Companies. -- Burning of the Cupola of the City Hall. -- Exit the Old Volunteers.

In 1854 the Fire Department of New York was composed of nearly four thousand citizens, who devoted their time and exertions to the public service without any reward except the satisfaction derived from the faithful discharge of their duty as citizens. It was conceded that that branch of the civil service possessed the capacity for government in itself at least equal to that of the citizen soldiery who were left in the free and full management and control of their own internal affairs. Besides it was seen that the system of administering the affairs of the Fire Department through the Common Council was burdensome to the latter body, interfering with its more legitimate business, and had operated in experience unfairly and injuriously to the Department, greatly impairing its efficiency. An ordinance was therefore introduced creating a "Board of Dire Department Commissioners," composed of three persons from each of the eight sections of the fire districts, and three from that portion of the city known as the Twelfth Ward, two from each district being exempt firemen, and the third one of the active firemen of the city. The chief engineer should be an ex officio member of the board and all its committees.

The venerable Peter Cooper gave some attention to the prevention and extinguishment of fires, and communicated with the Common council in that respect, February, 1854. The plan and principle which he advocated were designed to make the performance of fire duty a dollar-and-cent interest to some three-quarters of all the officers in the employ of the city government. He recommended placing a boiler-iron tank, thirty feet in height, on the top of the existing reservoir on Murray Hill. That tank was to be filled, and kept full of water, by a small steam engine. Further, he proposed that the City Hall should be raised an additional story and covered with an iron tank that would hold some ten feet of water, the outside of the tank to be made to represent a cornice around the building. With that greater head and supply of water always at command and ready for connection with the street supply, the moment a signal was given from any police station it was apparent that all the hydrants could be made efficient to raise water over the tops of the highest houses in the city. Also he would cause to be placed in every street, at convenient distances, a small cart containing some three hundred feet of hose. These carts should be so light that one man could draw them to the nearest hydrant to the fire, and bring water on the fire in the shortest possible time. With that arrangement he proposed to make it the interest of every man in the police to watch incendiaries and thieves, and to use every possible effort to extinguish fires as soon as they had occurred.

Mr. Cooper had presented a similar programme twelve years previously.

In the spring of 1854 there were but one first-class engine in the Department, No. 38, nine and one-half inch cylinder; four second-class, Nos. 14,21, 22, and 42; and three third-class, Nos. 5, 13, and 20. Nos. 14, 21, and 42 were each eight and one-half inch cylinders; No. 22, eight inch; Nos. 13, 7, 5, and 20, each six and one-half inches. The complement of men allowed to each company was as follows

Engine No. 38 (first-class Philadelphia style)

Nine and one-half inch cylinder

Sixty men

No. 22 (second-class piano)

Eight inch cylinder

Fifty men

No. 42 (second-class piano)

Eight and one-half inch cylinder

Fifty men

No. 14 (second-class Philadelphia)

Eight and one-half inch cylinder

Seventy men

No. 21 (second-class Philadelphia)

Eight and one-half inch cylinder

Seventy men

No. 5 (third-class New York style)

Six and one-half inch cylinder

Forty men

No. 13 (third-class new York improved)

Seven inch cylinder

Forty men

No. 20 (third-class New York improved)

Six and one-half inch cylinder

Forty men

The chief engineer was elected, every three years, by the members of the Fire Department, by ballot. The election for this office took place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in February, 1754, and thereafter every succeeding three years.

The chief engineer was ordered not to receive any annual returns from companies but such as had conformed to section first of the ordinance, passed June 22, 1842, relative to the Fire Department, as follows: "the Fire Department of the city of New York shall consist of a chief engineer, assistant engineers, fire, enginemen, hose men, hook and ladder and hydrant men, who shall be citizens of the United States, of the age of twenty-one years and upwards;" and in future to receive no return of members to fill the vacancies in companies unless the foreman and secretary had made affidavit that such persons were citizens of the United States, and twenty-one years of age and upwards.

The common Council instructed the mayor to appoint three persons to act as bellringers at each of the different alarm districts, such person to be selected from among exempt firemen. The bellringers, so appointed, received as remuneration for their services the sum of five hundred dollars per annum, and were subject to removal by the mayor for misdemeanor or negligence of duty.

As foreshadowed by the action of the Board of Aldermen in their attempt to dismiss Carson, Chief Engineer, from office, and notwithstanding that numerous petitions from fire companies had requested such action, seemingly justifying it, there was yet a dormant feeling of dissatisfaction which manifest itself only after the inauguration of the new Council in 1854. In February of that year a committee of representatives of the Fire Department, Carlisle Norwood, D. Milliken, and Henry W. Belcher, presented a petition to the new Board, setting forth that during the preceding three or four years serious and gross abuses crept into the Department by which not only its morals had been impaired, but its efficiency and discipline had been destroyed. The great majority of the firemen were of every vocation, the merchant, mechanic, artisan, from the professional and laboring classes; and that majority in point of character and respectability would challenge comparison with any other institution in the country. Their aim was to discharge the self-imposed duty with fidelity, and to elevate the character of their body; but to accomplish that they should be sustained by the authorities. That support had not been accorded for the preceding few years; for owing to a personal difficulty between the head of the Department and the municipal government, the latter had by every means in their power set at defiance the authority of the former, disregarded his recommendations, and thus given every encouragement to the riotous and disorderly to carry out their infamous and wicked designs without restraint. The result was that the Department which should have been the pride and the boast of the city had become a by-word and reproach; charges of a heinous nature were freely made against some of its members through the public prints, which want of power on the part of the Department prevented them from investigating.

In connection with this matter a special meeting of the representatives of the Fire Department was held in Firemen's Hall on February 13, 1854, at which resolutions were adopted, stating that among the causes which had mainly brought about the deplorable condition of the Department had been prominently the flagrant conduct of the city government, which, instead of endeavoring to preserve the discipline and character of the Department, had done all in their power to destroy them by the indiscriminate creation of firemen, the restoration to membership of men expelled for bad conduct, the encouragement and license given to the riotous and disorderly by their neglect to punish them when brought before them; in a word, by the wholesale abuse of their authority to gratify personal ends and political purposes.

On the fourth of May, 1854, it was stated in a daily newspaper in regard to the Broadway catastrophe, that the chief engineer testified that within his knowledge a gang of men, wearing the garb of firemen, attended fires for the purpose of stealing; that he had known members of the Fire Department to be caught thieving; that in one case of a member expelled for stealing at a fire the Common Council had reinstated him; that a member, then foreman of an engine company, had been thus expelled and reinstated; that sometimes persons attended fires dressed as firemen though not members of the Department; and that, in his judgment, more than one-half the fires that had occurred were the work of incendiaries.

The Common Council requested the chief engineer to inform them whether he had been correctly reported. He replied, on May 15, 1854, that if the evidence had been fully and correctly reported their inquiry would have been unnecessary. His reference to the reinstatement of persons expelled for stealing applied to the Common Council of 1853 and not to that of 1854. Attempts had been made to establish the fact that some of the persons killed were in the building for the purpose of stealing instead of extinguishing the fire, and that clothing recognized by the proprietors of the store as belonging to their stock was found upon some of the bodies. That was published far and wide, and made the occasion of severe comments on the Fire Department. The evidence adduced, however, showed that no clothing whatever from the establishment was found upon any of the bodies, except such as was placed under and upon them by their comrades after rescuing them from the ruins, in order that they might be carried to the hospital as comfortably as possible.

The following complement of men was allowed the different engine, hose, and hook and ladder companies, viz., First class engines, sixty men; second class engines, fifty men; third class engines, forty men; hose companies, twenty-five men; hook and ladder companies, forty men. Hydrant companies to remain the same as previously.

The strength of the Department in September, 1854, consisted of:
Thirty-three engines in good order, seven ordinary, and eight building.
Forty-three hose carriages in good order, seven ordinary, and six building.
Nine hook and ladder truck in good order, two ordinary, and one building.

The trucks were supplied with all necessary implements. There were in use forty thousand six hundred and fifty feet of good hose, and fifteen thousand eight hundred feet of ordinary; forty-eight engine companies, fifty-seven hose companies, fourteen hook and ladder companies, and four hydrant companies; two thousand nine hundred and fifty-five men. If all the companies were full, there would have been four thousand four hundred and eighty men.

During the year ending September, 1854, there had been three hundred and eighty-five fires, with a loss on buildings of eight hundred and seventy-three thousand two hundred and seventy-two dollars. There had been two hundred and twenty-one additional alarms, mostly caused by burning chimneys, spirit-gas explosions, etc., while for the residue no real cause could be ascertained. The loss was large compared with former years. Doubtless one-half the fires were the result of incendiarism, and one-quarter of carelessness.

Captain Ditchett, of the Fourth Ward police, proposed for the better prevention of personal injury and loss of life, and of interference with the firemen while on duty at a fire, that policemen be stationed with flags by day and lighted signals at night at proper distances on the streets leading to fires, and all persons passing, or who persisted in remaining within, the lines, should be arrested, unless they had business there. To adopt that plan it would be necessary to procure a badge for the Department, to be worn by members at fires when not in fire dress; and a law should be passed making it a penal offense for any person to wear a badge, or other insignia of the Department, except firemen, which would act as a salutary check on rowdies and thieves prowling about fires, and enable the firemen to discharge their duties more effectively.

Following are the names of officials and the locations of company quarters for the years 1854-'5:

Alfred Carson, chief engineer; office, 21 Elizabeth Street.

Assistant Engineers.--Michael Eichell, John A. Cregier, Moses Jackson, henry H. Howard, peter N. Cornwell, John Baulch, John Decker, John C. Oliver, William Simpson, John H. Brady, William H. Ackerman.

Fire Wardens.--Thomas Boese, John Reese, William B. Hays, Henry Lewis, John T. Harding, Isaac T. Redfield, John B. Miller, William Wessels, John Crossin, David Theall, Floyd S. Gregg, Charles L. Merritt, John Lynes, clerk. Meet once a month. Office, 21 Elizabeth Street.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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