Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter Chapter 10, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie

An ordinance to reorganize the Fire Department was introduced in July, 1856. It provided among other things for one chief engineer, eighteen assistants and as many fire engine men, hook and ladder men, and hose men as were than or might thereafter be appointed by the Common Council in accordance with the provisions of "An Act for the better regulation of the firemen in the city of New York." passed March 29, 1855. The chief and his assistants should severally be elected by the firemen by ballot. The first election for chief engineer should take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in February, 1857, and thereafter every three years; and the first election for assistant engineers on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June, 1857. The chief engineer should at the time of his election be a fireman who had served the full term prescribed by law; should receive a yearly salary of three thousand dollars. Each of the assistants should be a fireman who had served three years, and should be an actual resident of the district in which he was nominated, and for which he was elected.

No fireman, while under suspension for any violations of the provisions of the ordinance, should be permitted to wear a fire cap bearing the frontispiece of the company to which he was attached nor allowed to vote, not permitted to frequent the house occupied by his company, or take part in any of the meetings of said company.

At the quarterly meeting of the Board of Engineers and Firemen, held on September 4, 1856, it was decided that the number of men at that time allowed to the different fire companies, namely, first-class engines, sixty men; second-class, fifty men; third class, forty men; hose companies, twenty-five men; and hook and ladder companies, forty men; was sufficient to perform the necessary duties of the respective companies, and that any further addition to companies by the Common Council would be prejudicial to the best interests of the Fire Department.

This action was deemed necessary because of a resolution adopted by the Board of Councilmen to increase the force of Hose Company No. 9 five men, on the face of the remonstrance and protest of the chief engineer of the Department. The board of Aldermen concurred in the action of their legislative brethren, and filed away the communication of the fire chief for future action on the kalends of February.

Harry Howard, of No. 108 Leonard Street, was elected chief engineer on February 3, 1857.

In January, 1858, the Fire Department was composed of fifty-two engine companies, sixty-two hose companies, fifteen hook and ladder companies, and four hydrant companies, with a force of over two thousand men. The estimate for that year for apparatus, and their repairs, etc., was sixty thousand dollars, and fifty thousand dollars for expenditures for buildings, and repairs to them, salaries, and light the engine and other houses. The real estate and houses on leased ground belonging to the corporation, in use by the Department, were valued at three hundred thousand dollars, and the apparatus at seventy-five thousand dollars, the interest on which, at six per cent., would amount annually to twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars, making the total yearly cost of protecting the city against fire, independent of the use of the water and hydrants, about one hundred and thirty-two thousand five hundred dollars.

The voluntary service of the members of the Department frequently bestowed at the hazard, and often the sacrifice, of their lives, had given them a strong claim to the good will of the Common Council and of the citizens generally.

The introduction of steam fire engines into the Department had been the subject of consideration for the preceding two years, and an appropriation was made in 1857 of nineteen thousand five hundred dollars for the purpose of testing the experiment. But no definite steps had as yet been taken toward purchasing any apparatus of that description.

On the fourteenth of April, 1858, an act was passed by the legislature extending and continuing in force until the first of May, 1880, unless sooner altered, modified, or repealed, the act incorporating the firemen of the city of New York, passed March, 1798, and all acts and parts of acts relating to the said corporation.

In February, 1858, one year after the election of Chief Howard, the Department consisted of fourteen engineers, one thousand eight hundred and fifty members of engine companies, one thousand two hundred and fifty-seven members of hose companies, and four hundred and fifty-two members of hook and ladder companies; making a total of three thousand five hundred and fifty-nine men, an increase of four hundred and seventy-four over the number on the rolls one year before. These were divided into forty-eight engine companies, sixty hose companies, and fifteen hook and ladder companies. There were forty-nine engines in good condition, sixteen ordinary; eleven hook and ladder trucks in good condition, and four ordinary; twenty-seven hose tenders in good condition, seven ordinary, and fifteen building. There was in use thirty-three thousand four hundred feet of hose in good order, thirty-seven thousand four hundred and fifty feet in ordinary condition, and ten thousand four hundred in very bad condition.

There was a large decrease in the amount of losses by fire during 1857 as compared to 1856. Total number of fires for the year ending July 31, 1856, three hundred and fifty-four, alarms one hundred and nine; total loss by fire, six hundred and thirty-two thousand and thirty dollars. Total number of fires from February 17, 1857 to February 17, 1858, three hundred and twenty-two; alarms, one hundred and ninety-eight; total loss by fire, four hundred and twenty-eight thousand two hundred and sixty-six dollars.

All hook and ladder companies (ordinance January 7, 1857) were allowed ten additional men; all the hose companies, thirty men; all first class engines, seventy men; second class engines, sixty men; and third class, fifty men.

The Street Department superintended the making of, repairing, and lighting the public roads and avenues; constructing, repairing, and lighting the public buildings; repairing wells and pumps; supplying the public rooms and offices of the corporation, the court rooms, the police station houses, the engine, hose and hook and ladder houses; and the public markets, with fuel, stationery, printing, and all other things necessary therefor; constructing and repairing fire engines, hose carts, hooks and ladders, hose, and other machines and apparatus for the use of the Fire Department. There were two bureaus in the Street Department, namely, a bureau for the building and repairing of wharves and piers, called the Bureau of Wharves; a bureau for constructing and repairing public buildings, and repairing of wells and pumps; for the supplying of the public rooms and offices of the corporation, the court rooms, the police station houses, the engine, hose, hook and ladder houses, and public markets, with fuel, stationery, printing, and all other things necessary thereof, called the "Bureau of Repairs and Supplies," a bureau for repairing fire engines and fire apparatus, under the direction of the chief engineer.

While proceeding to a fire in July, 1857, chief Engineer Harry Howard was attacked with paralysis, the consequence of severe fire duty which he had previously performed.

An ordinance for the better regulation of the Fire Department were into operation on March 29, 1858. It became the duty of firemen to prevent boys or disorderly characters from congregating in or about the place of deposit of the various apparatus, and not to allow the said place of deposit to be used for any other purposes than those directly connected with the performance of their duty as firemen. No person other than members or exempt members of the company, or of the Fire Department, in good standing, were allowed to sleep in any engine, hose, or hook and ladder house; the street doors should not be kept open except while persons were passing in or out, or while any necessary repairs or cleaning were being performed. Good order should be preserved in and about the houses occupied by their respective companies. In going to and returning from a fire, the drag-rope was the proper place for the firemen, except the officer in command. These should preent all boys and noisy improper persons from taking hold of the rope. On no account should a person, other than a member of the company, or a member or exempt member of the Fire Department, know to at least two of the members of the company present, be allowed to manage or have any control of the tongue or tiller of any apparatus in going to or returning from a fire. The officers and members of each and every company, when returning with their apparatus from a fire, or alarm of fire, were warned against any racing of their company with any other company, and cautioned to abstain from any conduct that would be likely to cause a breach of the peace, or reflect discredit on the Fire Department. Also it should be their duty to use all endeavors to cultivate good feeling among the members.

On the morning of August 18, 1858, a fire broke out in the City Hall. It was generally supposed that the fire was caused either from the burning candles, used in the windows of the City Hall for the illumination on the night preceding, on the occasion of the celebration of the completion of the first Atlantic telegraph cable, or from the fireworks discharged from the roof, the remains of which retained fire, and lodged in some unperceived place on the roof, or in some of the attics of the building, and suddenly burst forth into flames. The testimony taken at an investigation clearly established the fact that the fire originated from the remains of the fireworks and the empty boxes and cases used for them which were left on the roof.

A short time after the discovery of the fire, the cupola became enveloped in flames. The fire then descended through the roof to the attic rooms, and soon to the governor's room. The valuable paintings, however, in the latter room, had been previously removed with great care, so that none of them were destroyed, or even injured, except one slightly damaged in taking it down. The flames were subdued at two o'clock A. M., after destroying the cupola, the greater part of the dome, the roof and the attic rooms in the front part of the hall, and considerably injuring and defacing the governor's room. The bell cupola was also damaged, but the heavy frame work remained sufficiently strong to sustain the bell. The loss was estimated at fifty thousand dollars. No public written documents or records were deposited in the several offices in the building were destroyed or injured. There were, however, in one of the attic rooms a large number of printed proceedings of the Common Council of each Board thereof, together with some other books, which were nearly all destroyed, or so much damaged as to be almost worthless. Duplicate copies of all those printed books were, however, in the City Library room, uninjured. The noble exertions of the Fire Department succeeded in saving both wings of the Hall from fire, and for the skill and success with which the members battled the flames, they received the thanks of the Common Council and the benedictions of the people at large.

The working organization of the fire Department in February, 18569, consisted of fourteen engineers; one thousand nine hundred and twenty-two members of engine companies; one thousand two hundred and sixty-two members of hose companies; and five hundred and two members of hook and ladder companies; a total of three thousand seven hundred men, an increase of one hundred and forty-one over the previous year. The number of men allowed to each company were to first class engine companies, seventy men; second class, sixty men; third class, fifty men; hook and ladder, fifty men; and hose, thirty men. The amount of loss by fire showed an increase over 1858.

The Department had been much agitated on the subject of steam fire engines, and the merits of the innovation on hand power had been freely commented upon not only in the Department, but by all classes of citizens, from Messrs. Lee & Larned, patentees. Those engines had been completed and experimental exhibitions of their powers had been given at different times. They had also been put in practical operation on two occasions, namely, at the fire in Duane Street on the evening of January 17, 1859, and at the fire in South Street on January 24. But these tests failed to satisfy the members of the Department of the value of the steam fire engines, who stated that the expectations hoped from their introduction had not been in any manner realized.

In the light of the present experience the following comment of the chief engineer, in this connection, is strange and interesting reading.

The steam engines then owned by the city, said the Chief, were large in size and powerful in action, and if permitted to discharge water at every fire would entail more damage by that element than the one it was sought to subdue. The propriety of their introduction into general use was questionable in his judgment, though their services might be rendered effective on extraordinary occasions when the Department might be called on to do extra or laborious duty. In the respect they might prove an addition as an auxiliary defense against fire, he was disposed to question their capability and quickness in operation. The city of New York was protected by a Volunteer Fire Department unequaled in the world, and one their promptitude in responding to the call of duty the community relied for protection against the ravages of fire.

At a meeting of the representatives of the New York Fire Department held on May 20, 1859, the following persons were elected Commissioners;

Thomas Lawrence for the full term of five years, in place of John W. Schenck, whose term of office had expired. John J. Gorman, to serve four tears, in place of Nelson D. Thayer, resigned. Ernest W, Brown, to serve three years, in place of Robert H. Ellis, resigned; and William M. Tweed, to serve two years, in place of William Wright, resigned.

During the summer months of 1859 several fires had occurred in the upper portion of the city evidently the work of evil-disposed persons. The Common Council, e fore, authorized the mayor to offer a reward of one thousand dollars for the detection and conviction of the offenders.

The several fire insurance companies doing business in the city made a proposition to the city government to furnish and present a steam fire engine to the corporation. This proposition was accepted on the eighth of February, 1859.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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