Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 10, Part VII

By Holice and Debbie

It had been represented to the Board of Aldermen that the Commissioners of the Fire Department had neglected and refused to report to the Common Council for approval their proceedings in the investigation of charges against members of the Department, with their decision thereon, claiming and insisting under authority of the laws creating the Board of Commissioners, passed March 29, 1855, as amended by the act of March 2, 1861, that their decisions were final and conclusive.

The Common Council regarded such claim as being derogatory of their authority and repugnant to the spirit of the laws, which provided an appeal from the decision to all tribunals of inferior and limited jurisdiction, and decided to take steps to establish its falsity.

There was a force of four thousand and forty men in the Department in June, 1861. The total number of fires for the year ending May 31, 1861, was four hundred and three, and the total loss one million three hundred and forty-seven thousand two hundred and ninety-seven dollars, one-third of which was lost at one fire in Warren Street, November, 1860. The following companies had been provided and were doing duty with steam fire engines: Nos. 2, 6, 7, 8, 26, 38, 42, 46, 47, and Exempt Engine and Hose Company No. 57. In addition to those, the Common council had authorized the providing of steam engines for Companies Nos. 5, 21, 33, and Hose company No. 52, making a total of sixteen steamers, which were considered a sufficient number for any ordinary emergency.

Never since the organization of the Fire Department had that institution been in a more thriving condition, nor had its prospects presented a fairer aspect than in 1862. During the year the general conduct of the members had been exceptionally good, the causes if complaint being fewer than in any preceding year, and the several companies appearing to vie with each other in their endeavors to uphold the whole community the long-established, generally good reputation of the organization. The working force consisted of three thousand eight hundred and fourteen men, a decrease of four hundred and thirteen from 1861. The total number of fires for the year was three hundred and eleven, and the total loss one million four hundred and twenty-eight thousand five hundred and eighty-four dollars.

A large fire occurred in January, 1862, at the corner of Fulton and Pearl Streets. Owing chiefly to the large quantities of oils stored in two of the buildings, the fire spread with such fearful rapidity that it was only by the most extraordinary exertions on the part of the firemen that the city was saved from a conflagration second only to those of 1835 and 1845.

On a requisition made upon him by the Secretary of War, Mayor Opdyke dispatched to Fortress Monroe, in Virginia, on April 17, the two powerful hand engines built for and used by Engine Companies Nos. 16 and 31. Assistant Engineer John Baulch, together with two members from each company, proceeded to Fortress Monroe with the apparatus, and were employed to take charge of them.

The gross expenditure for the Department for the year 1862 amounted to three hundred and eight thousand five hundred and twelve dollars and fifty-six cents; for the year 1861 it amounted to three hundred and thirty-seven thousand eight hundred and ninety-one dollars and seventy-eight cents, showing an increase for 1862 of forty-two thousand six hundred and twenty dollars and seventy-eight cents. Much of this expenditure was incurred for five machines and apparatus, including a number of steam engines.

At a meeting of the representatives of the New York Fire Department, held on May 12, 1863, John J. Gorman was elected fire commissioner for the ensuing five years.

During the year 1862-'63 the loss by fire amounted to one million one hundred and ninety-one thousand nine hundred and twenty-two dollars. The number of fires were two hundred and sixty-eight.

The working force of the Department at the close of the year 1863-'64 numbered three thousand nine hundred and sixty men, a decrease of two hundred and sixty-two from the previous year. The total loss amounted to two million nine hundred and thirty-five thousand and fifty-four dollars. The increase in loss was principally due to the numerous fires that occurred during the riots of 1863, the amount for July alone footing up one million one hundred and twenty-five thousand and sixty-eight dollars.

Intimation was given early in the year 1865 of the change that was so soon to take place in the constitution of the Fire Department. Certainly no city in the world possessed a more complete fire organization in the number of engines, the effectiveness of the steam machines, the copious supply of water, or the gallant army of Volunteers, directing these means for the preservation of property. The generosity and public spirit of the firemen could not be more highly appreciated, and nothing could efface the glorious records of their previous history, so full of instances of heroic daring and unselfish toil. Many of its friends, however, were of the opinion that the system so admirably adapted to a small city was not suited to a metropolis, and that economy, as well as the new machinery, demanded a change.

On March 30, 1865, the legislature passed an act creating a "Metropolitan Fire Department." On the thirty-first of March Chief Engineer Decker sent a communication to the Common Council requesting instructions in relation thereto. As some time would necessarily elapse before the new system could be properly and efficiently placed in a position to meet all that would be required therefrom in respect to the full protection of the lives and property of the citizens--the substitution of a paid system in place of the Volunteer organization--and as much suffering, and perhaps loss of life, might ensue in case of a disastrous conflagration unless the volunteer organization were continued in service, the Common Council urged upon the officers and members of the Department the public necessity of their still continuing their previous energetic and humane efforts in arresting on all occasions as theretofore the progress of the devouring element, thereby not only preventing thousands of helpless women and children from being rendered homeless and destitute, but wreathing around the memory of the Volunteer organization of the New York Fire Department a record of fame and usefulness of which both themselves and their children in after time might well be proud.

The four commissioners appointed under the act organized on May 2, immediately the attorney general of the state in his official capacity and on behalf of the people, sued out an injunction, enjoining them from taking possession of the city's property, also a writ of quo warranto, compelling them to show by what warrant they held their office as fire commissioners (the attorney general believing that the said "Metropolitan Fire Law" was unconstitutional).

The matter was tried in the Supreme Court and finally carried to the Court of appeals at Albany. That court on the Twenty-second of June deciding the law constitutional, the commissioners took possession of the Department immediately.

The commission consisted of Charles C. Pinckney, president; James W. Booth, Philip W. Engs, and martin B. Brown.

Whatever the abuse that was heaped upon the Volunteer firemen by those who desired to abolish the system from whatever motive, or whatever the danger that threatened them in the performance of their duty, the firemen, it must be said, were at all times ready and willing to assist to the utmost extent of their ability ion preserving the lives and property of their fellow citizens, and were deserving of unqualified praise for their self-sacrificing actions.

The Department was almost unanimously opposed to any change, and so powerful and unanswerable were their arguments before the committee of the assembly that their friends asserted to the use of money (said to be fifty thousand dollars) by the insurance companies alone secured the passage of the act. While the bill was pending before the legislature its advocates abused the members of the Volunteer Department unstintedly; but notwithstanding that shameful course the firemen did not desert the people, although it was freely asserted that the moment the bill would pass the legislature, they would cease to perform their duty. But the firemen disappointed their enemies, and kept on performing their duty as faithfully and cheerfully as they ever had done, until they were honorably discharged.

"The changes that have occurred," says an old resident and intelligent chronicler of the times, writing in 1862, "within my memory in the city at large, almost defy my own belief. The scenes of a moving panorama scarcely pass with greater rapidity before the vision. It is far from an easy task to recall the objects of local interest which have so suddenly disappeared. Time, and the inexorable demands of commerce and population and progress, are sweeping away all the landmarks associated with the traditions and memories of s past generation."

According to the last official report of the chief engineer of the Volunteer Fire Department, June 30, 1865, the working force consisted of three thousand four hundred and twenty-one men; the organization consisted of the following officers:


John R. Platt, president; 79 Murray Street; Sylvanus J. Macy, vice-president, 189 Front Street; Samuel Conover, secretary, 27 and 29 Pine Street; John S. Giles, treasurer, 174 Canal Street; and David Theall, collector, 130 East Fifty-first Street.


Jonas N. Phillips, president, 16 wall Street and 36 West Twelfth Street; Geo. F. Nesbitt, secretary, 79 Lexington Avenue.


John J. Gorman, president, 52 Ninth Avenue; Thos. Lawrence, 182 Waverly Place; Edward Bonnell, 298 Bowery; William M. Tweed, 197 Henry Street; Thomas Flender, 201 West Fiftieth Street.


John Decker, 334 Broome Street.





Elisha Kingsland

Melodean maker

44 first Street

Timothy L. West


250 West Seventeenth Street

Wm. Lamb


62 West Twenty-first Street

Joseph L. Perley


110 Cannon Street

Eli Bates


4 Patchen Place

James Long


3 Harrison Street

Bernard Kenney


94 Rivington Street

Bartley Donohue


112 East Thirty-third Street

Thomas Duffy


44 East Fifty-third Street

John Hamill


47th St., bet 7th and 8th Avenue

Michael Shaughnessy

Liquor Dealer

390 Eighth Avenue

Alex. V. Davidson


356 West fourth Street

Thos. Sullivan


102 East Thirteenth Street

Peter Weir


116 Leonard Street

Gilbert J. Orr


4 Centre Street

Thomas Cleary


100 Cedar Street

Michael Halloran


86th St. and 4th Avenue

Abram Horn



Geo. H. E. Lynch


Sylvan Place, Harlem


Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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