Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 1, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



1609-1664. -- Manhattan Island as seen by the discoverer, Henry Hudson. -- "A Rugged Fragment of Creation. -- Primitive Fire apparatus. -- Quaint Customs. -- Dutch Architecture. -- First five Ordinance (1648). -- Fire Wardens and Surveyors of Buildings.--The Reign of the Knickerbockers.

In considering the history of the Fire Departments of New York City some degree of attention must necessarily be given to a variety of subjects calculated to illustrate the growth and rapid development of the city. And what a wonderful story that is! What a bewildering panorama it reveals! What changes have been noted, what pregnant events dwelt upon, and what a wonderful tale of progress is to be unfolded. What alterations, moreover, have occurred in the locality now occupied by the city of New York since the ship of the discoverer first entered its quiet waters, or even since the burgomasters and schepens of new Amsterdam surrendered the infant metropolis to its English captors. The cluster of trading houses and rude huts of those days has expanded into the first city of the United States and the third largest in the world, containing over one million and a half of inhabitants, and untold wealth. But marvelous as is this material progress, it is not a whit more so than the story of the New York firemen. This gallant band of citizens has been and still continues to be, the protectors and defenders of the city in all its varied stages--from infancy to manhood. Such changes as have been effected from time to time in the organization of the departments have been brought about to conform to pressing public requirements and to keep pace with the times. Hence it became necessary, at successive periods, to pass a number of municipal ordinances regulating the force and defining their duty. These ordinances contain a pretty comprehensive history of the doings and operations of the firemen of our city.

It is also a noteworthy circumstance that the New World, even in its youth, should have shown its parent how best to guard against the dreadful ravages of fire, and how most scientifically to fight the flames which had been the terror of the Old World.

Europe, with its ages of civilization, and with all its inventive talent, had conceived nothing like the New York Fire Departments. No transatlantic city could show so devoted a band of men as our old Volunteers; and today our new department stands unrivaled for efficiency. The fame of the paid department has crossed the seas. One of the first sights which visitors to our shores are anxious to see is a fire engine house. An exhibition drill is to them something to be remembered in after years. But the volunteers were the pioneers of the glory of the Fire Department of New York. It is not too much to say that they built up the present admirable system. They, at least, largely and directly contributed to the perfection of its organization.

Our early firemen were drawn from all ranks in life--the greater part from the most influential classes. Each man felt he had a stake in the city, and readily volunteered his services. Many of them were individually the makers of our history. As a body, they have written one of the most remarkable pages in the history of the country. A volume devoted to these gallant fellows ought, therefore, to be a very interesting one.

As we have already intimated, we cannot touch a single company of the fire department, or the briefest period of the annals of that company, without finding ourselves face to face with some interesting bit of the history of New York. The histories of New York are all excellent in their way, but not one, we presume to say, has dealt with its people as this history does. We have walked into people's houses, so to speak, and have become intimate with them as no ordinary historian, who views men and manners afar off, has yet thought of doing. The Fire Department is co-existent with the first Dutch settlement. It makes us acquainted with the British colonists; it carries us into revolutionary times; we are borne along in the telling of its story to those piping times of peace when the only enemy that menaced the empire City was the fire fiend or the importation of disease; it brings us up to the stirring political times that for thirty years preceded the rebellion, and then it launches us into those years red with the blood of contending brothers and wherein those gallant firemen have played a conspicuous part. The experience of the firemen has been of use to the architect and the merchant. Nearly every improvement in the way of building has been the suggestion of men who have seen the evil effects of old methods and styles. They have given a fillip to the inventiveness of the practical engineer, and have helped to improve, in various ways, the useful arts. Thus, it will be seen, that no one who is ambitious to write a true history of the Fire Department can fail of writing a history of New York City, with all that the name implies.

What, then, with Henry Hudson, the intrepid navigator, when he landed on these shores, have thought of such a story, had the enchanted wand of some wizard transformed the primeval beauties of Manhattan Island into the panoramic picture which it presents to day, with its vast population, its commercial enterprises, and teeming business life. Surely, the adventurous skipper of the "Vlie-boat" or "Half Moon" would have thought it impossible that in the period of two and three-quarters of a century such a metamorphosis could have taken place. Well may we believe that he lingered with enthusiastic delight along the picturesque shores of the harbor, and the bay, the magnificence of the scenery being such as to cause him rapturously to exclaim, "It is as beautiful a land as the foot of man can tread upon!"

The site of New York originally presented only a wild and rough aspect, covered with a thick forest, its beach broken and sandy, or rocky and full of inlets forming marshes. These irregularities of surface rendered it all the more undesirable for building purposes. The early colonists made but little effort to overcome or remove those rude obstacles of nature in the path of civilized life.

"A more forbidding spot on earth," remarks a local h historian, "on which to erect a great city has seldom been seen than was presented in the original ground plan of the city of New York; and in rearing a city on such a foundation the builders have combined the arts of stonecutters of ancient Petraea an the amphibious labors of the founders of Venice and St. Petersburg. Sudden acclivities and projecting crags were originally intermingled with ponds and marshes. In some parts the tide penetrated nearly to the middle of the island; and in others were fresh water ponds, elevated considerably above tidewater. Midway between the Hudson and East Rivers was a pond of fresh water, which was discharged by a brook running southeastwardly to the East River, through a vast swamp or estuary--the tract now reaching from pearl Street on the west to Catharine Street on the east, and extending up nearly to Chatham Street. To the west of this swamp was another of less extent, separated from the former by a ridge, upon which Pearl Street runs. This, in after years, was long known as Beekman's swamp. To the west of the fresh pond was a valley of wet land reaching down to the Hudson, and ending in a marsh, a region now traversed by Canal Street. Beyond this belt of fresh water and marshes, that almost insulated the part below them, there pay to the northeastward a fine tract of arable land and extensive meadows, the southeastern angle of which was known for many years as Corlaer's Hook, so called after an early proprietor. Farther up, on the eastern side, the land was more broken and rocky, swelling into eminences, with intervening swamps ands morasses. The west side of the island was less varied in its natural features. The shore of the Hudson for a distance of three or four miles was low, and intersected by bays and estuaries.

As seen by the early navigators, this rugged fragment of creation was clothed in its primeval forests. The land thus discovered was not altogether an uninhabited waste. Scattered and enfeebled bands of the great family of the Mohegans were found along the banks of the Hudson. In character, habits, and pursuits, the human tenants of these wilds were but one remove from their irrational associates of the wilderness.

Adrian Block and his companions, whose ship was destroyed by fire, suffered great hardships on the island in the winter of 1613. They erected four huts near the southern point of the island, or about the present site of No. 39 Broadway. These were the first human habitations constructed by Europeans on the Island of Manhattan.

Ten years later, the dwellers, who has increased in numbers, built themselves huts, and, for the common protection, constructed a fort, which they made in the form of regular square, with four bastions. Those who could not find room within the fort built houses under the walls, and they formed the first street. This they called Hoogh Straat, now Pearl Street. Presently rude cottages began to cluster about the block house, and in good time the incipient metropolis assumed the title of New Amsterdam, while the whole territory of Hudson's River was called New Netherland. During the directorship of Peter Minuet (1624-33) the whole island of Manhattan was purchased from the Indians for a sum about equal to twenty-four dollars. As the rigorous winter season demanded a plentiful supply of fuel, the dry and inflammable nature of the huts--for houses they can scarcely be called--often gave rise to very destructive and alarming conflagrations. As early as the year 1628, it is recorded that some of the property of the colonists had been destroyed by fire. The experience of this, their first fire, was not lost upon them, for we find that in this year, "the making of brick, lime, and potash, was now begun, and grist and saw mills were built"

"On this island of Manhattan," says the Rev. Isaac Jogues, "and in its environs, there may well be four or five hundred men of different sects and nations; the director-General told me that there were persons of eighteen different languages; they are settled here and there on the river, above and below, as the beauty and conveniences of the spot invited each to settle; some mechanics, however, who ply their trades. Who, in the year 1643, while I was there, actually killed some two scores Hollanders, and burnt many houses and barns full of wheat."

After the conclusion, on the part of the authorities, to build a city tavern, in the year 1642, its site was selected close to the shore, south of the road to the ferry. The building was of considerable dimensions and cost; and this place was chosen for its situation, as giving a good appearance to the town from the harbor. The building was erected near high water mark, on the present northwest corner of Pearl Street and Coenties Alley. After the organization of the city magistracy, in 1653, this building was ceded to the city for the purpose of a city hall, and was used as such until the year 1699. Its principal use was for the sitting of the burgomasters and schepens, and for the prison. The chamber occupied for the sitting of the magistrates was on the southeast corner of the second story, the prison chamber being in the rear, on the other side of the house, facing a yard which extended to "Hoogh Straat" (Pearl Street). Upon the roof was a cupola, in which hung a bell, in the year 1656, which was rung for the assembling of the magistrates, and also on occasion of the publication of proclamations, the proclamations being read in front of the hall.

More permanent and substantial improvements were inaugurated by Governor Stuyvesant. He had been director of the company's colony at Curacoa, where he lost a leg in an unsuccessful attack on the Portuguese island of Saint Martin. Being obliged to return to Holland for surgical aid, the directors, in recognition of his "Roman courage," sent him to New Netherland as "redresser-general" of all abuses. He arrived in New Amsterdam in the middle of May, 1647, and found the colony in a "low condition." The aspect of city affairs was certainly not attractive. Fences were straggling, the public ways crooked, and many of the houses, which were chiefly built of wood and thatched with straw, encroached on the lines of the streets.

To remedy these defects stringent ordinances were passed, and "surveyors of buildings" were appointed (July 25, 1647) to regulate the erection of new houses "within or around the city of New Amsterdam." Citizens were obliged to see to the sweeping of their chimneys, while the abolishment of wooden chimneys and thatched roofs were decreed.

These are the names of the surveyors of buildings: His Excellancy, Lubert van Duicklargen, the Equipagemaster; Paulus Leendersen Vandiegrist, and the Secretary, Cornelis Van Teinhoven. These officials were "authorized and empowered to condemn all improprieties and disorder in buildings, fences, palisades, posts, and rails." Persons designing to build, plant, or settle, within or about the city of New Amsterdam, were warned, "that nothing shall be done or undertaken without the knowledge, consent, and examination of the aforesaid surveyors of buildings, in the penalty of twenty-five carolus guilders, and also of having whatever they may have put up removed."

Fires were of frequent occurrence. The inflammable materials of which the houses were composed, and the insufficient means of extinguishing the flames, led to great anxiety and insecurity, and a corresponding vigilance, or what was deemed vigilance, in the prevention of fire. As the houses of the New Amsterdamers were mostly confined to the southern point of the island, the settlement was well supplied with water with which to do battle in case of emergency. Besides being within easy reach of the waters of the bay, the East and the North Rivers, a stream "deep enough for market boats" to ascend flowed in from the bay, through the center of the present Broad Street as far as Exchange Place. Also, there was generally to be found a well or cistern in the garden of each house. But this abundant supply of water was about as practical a factor in the extinguishment of fire as were the "oceans of water" to the thirsty mariners, who, nevertheless, had "not a drop to drink." This paradox will be understood when it is stated that it was a difficult matter for the so-called firemen of this primitive era to utilize these natural sources of supply, and still more difficult of accomplishment to transport the water in sufficient quantities to the scene of the conflagration. The water had to be carried by hand, and "in such emergencies," remarks the Hon. Charles P. Daly, "we may imagine the scene of confusion that must have ensued when tubs, pails, or other means of carrying water, had to be hastily improvised to stay the progress of a fire."

This state of affairs was not destined to last long. It was the first period of fire organization. Other and more potent methods were, however, soon to be inaugurated. In order to introduce these methods the city fathers of those days, after due deliberation, and as a result of their combined official wisdom, signed the doom of wooden chimneys and thatched roofs, while four fire wardens were appointed to enforce the ordinance. This was the first step in the right direction; other plans were under consideration, and their adoption followed in good time. But as it took a very long while to set the wheels of Dutch official machinery in motion, reforms of every kind were slow and uncertain, and the easygoing burghers were content with one progressive measure at a time. Hence it came to pass that the year 1648 was a memorable one in the annals of New Amsterdam, for it was then that the first fire ordinance was passed. Houses, log cabins, had been run up with an entire disregard to the alarming possibilities of the ravages of fire. These rude dwellings were, it would seem, specially constructed with a view to their speedily becoming a prey to the devouring element.

Wooden chimneys and thatched roofs were certainly not designed to stay the fury of the flames. These naturally inflammable materials were subjected to a double process of seasoning, namely, to heat within and the rays of the sun without. Hence, a spark ignited them and a flame destroyed. It was in this year, then (1648), that a system of fire police was first established, the immediate cause of which was the happening of fires in two places. The preamble to this ordinance declares that "it had come to the knowledge of his excellency, the Director-General, that certain careless persons were in the habit of neglecting to clean their chimneys by sweeping, and of paying no attention to their fires, whereby lately fires have occurred in two houses." Mention is made of the fact that the danger of fire is greater as the number of houses increases, particularly as the majority of the houses were built of wood and covered with reeds, while some of the houses, it is pointed out, had wooden chimneys, "which is very dangerous." Therefore it is declared to be advisable and highly necessary to look closely into the matter.

From this time forth it is ordered no wooden or platted chimneys shall be permitted to be built in any houses between the Fort and the Fresh Water, but that those already standing shall be suffered to remain during the good pleasure of the fire wardens. To the end that the foregoing may be duly observed, the following persons were appointed fire wardens: From the Council, the Commissary Adrian Keyser; and from the Commonalty, Thomas hall, martin Krieger, and George Woolsey. They, in their turn, it is stipulated, shall visit all the houses in the city, between the Fort and the Fresh Water, and shall inspect the chimneys whether they be kept clean by sweeping, and as often as any shall be discovered to be foul they shall condemn them, and the owners shall immediately, without any gainsaying, pay the fine of three guilders for each chimney thus condemned--to be appropriated to the maintenance of fire ladders, hooks, and buckets, which shall be provided and procured the first opportunity. And in case the houses of any person shall be burned, or be on fire, either through his own negligence or his own fire, he shall be mulcted in the penalty of twenty-five guilders, to be appropriated as aforesaid.

The appointment of these fire wardens may be regarded as the initiatory effort to establish a system of protection against fire. They are the first fire functionaries, and as such it is interesting to learn something about the, beyond their names. Martin Krieger was the proprietor of a famous tavern opposite the Bowling Green. At a later period, when the city was incorporated and a municipal government formed, he was a member of Governor Stuyvesant's council, and from this time until the capture of the city by the British he filled many important offices. Thomas Hall was an Englishman. Having been captured by the Dutch and paroled, he took up his residence among the friendly captors, and in time became a man of wealth, filling many public offices. He owned a large farm in the vicinity of Spruce and Beekman Streets. This farm in later years passed into the hands of William Beekman, the ancestor of the Beekman family. Adrian Keyser was officially connected with the Dutch West India Company, by whom the New Netherlands was founded. He was afterwards a member of the Executive Council. George Woolsey, like Thomas Hall, was an Englishman. He came out as the agent of Isaac Allerton, a leading Dutch trader. The descendants of these men are to this day honored residents of this city.

A survey of the town was begun in 1654 and completed in 1656. The city was then laid down on a map and confirmed by law, "to remain, from that time forward, without alteration." Streets were also laid out, some of which were crooked enough. The city then contained by enumeration, "one hundred and twenty houses, with extensive garden lots," and one thousand inhabitants. One of the first acts of the city authorities, after the incorporation of New Amsterdam, was the framing and passage of an order similar to the one promulgated in 1648. From this it is inferred that but little attention was paid to the previous proclamation, and as a consequence several fires had occurred, "and further dangers are apprehended." Then the ordinance decrees that it is incumbent on the fire officials "to perform their duties as fire wardens according to the custom of our Fatherland." And names the following as such fire wardens: Hendrick Hendrickson Kip, Govert Loockerman and Christian Barents, "who are hereby authorized to visit all the houses and chimnies within the city jurisdiction."

In 1657 the progress of the city became so marked that it was thought appropriate to give to its thoroughfares the names of streets, which was accordingly done, and they are enumerated as follows:

T'Marckvelt (the Marketfield), De Heere Straat (the principal street), De Hoogh Straat (the High Street), De Waal (the Wall), T' Water (the Water), De Perel Straat (the Pearl Street), aghter de perel Straat (behind the Pearl Street, De Brouwer Straat (the Brewer Street), De Winckel Straat (the Shop Street), De Heere Graft ( the principal canal), De Prince Graft (the Beaver Canal) T' Marckvelt Steegre (the Marketfield path), De Smits Valley (the Smith's Valley).

The Dutch Burghers did not stop here. They had just put their hand to the plow and were not going to turn back. In addition to the foregoing measures for the common safety in case of fire, a rattle-watch of eight men was established. The duties appertaining to this watch were imposed upon each of the citizens in turn. Streets were for the first time paved with stone. There were no sewers, and the pavement extended to the width of only ten feet from the front of the houses, the center of the street being left base for the more easy absorption of the water.

The inauguration of these reforms must have transformed the budding city, from a condition which Governor Stuyvesant on his arrival had designated as "low," into one of comparative order and shapeliness. The hog-pens, and other offensive structures, must have also disappeared from the public thoroughfare, while no doubt, a more substantial order of buildings had taken the place of the houses which were "built of wood and covered with reeds and had wooden chimneys," for we find the Director-General in a proclamation enlarging upon "the beauties of a well-regulated city, with good dwelling houses and spacious gardens;" and also glowingly dwelling upon "the blessed augmentation of the population and trade of the city."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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