Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 1, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

Chapter 1, Part 2

Towards the latter part of the year 1657 the need of regular leather fire buckets was much felt. None existed in the colony, and the thought of manufacturing them themselves was too visionary and impracticable to be entertained just then. As the Fatherland was depended upon to furnish nearly all the artificial necessaries of life, it was decided to send to Holland for the buckets, as specified in the following resolution:

Whereas,-in all well-regulated cities it is customary that fire buckets, ladders and hooks are in readiness at the corners of the streets and in public houses, for time of need; which is the more necessary in this city on account of the small number of stone houses and the many wooden houses here; therefore, the Director-General and Councillors authorize the Burgomasters and Schepens of this city, either personally or through their treasurer, to demand immediately for every house, whether small or great, one beaver or eight guilders in sewant; and to procure from fatherland, out of the sum collected in this manner, two guilders hundred and fifty leathern fire buckets, and also to have made some fire ladders and fire hooks; and to maintain this establishment, they may yearly demand for every chimney one guilder.

This tax was promptly collected by the city authorities, but the much coveted fire buckets were still beyond the reach of the city fathers. The resolution, quoted above, looking to the mother country for their procurement, was reconsidered, as it would take a long time before they could have reached this country. So, after waiting some months, it was decided to invoke the aid of the city shoemakers. But the shoemakers of those primitive days lacked confidence in their ability to perform the task assigned them. Four out of the seven Knights of St. Crispin responded to the call to meet the city fathers in solemn and serious conclave. The date of the meeting was the first of August, 1658. The views of each shoemaker were solicited. The first declined the arduous undertaking; the second declared he had no material; the third, more enterprising, proposed to contract to make one hundred buckets for the consideration of six guilders and two stuyvers each (about two dollars and fifty cents), and the fourth, after much persuasion, consented to make the remaining fifty upon the same terms.

These are the terms agreed upon: Remout Remoutsen agrees to make the said buckets all out of tanned leather, and to do all that is necessary to finish them in the completed manner for the price of six guilders two stuyvers (about two dollars and fifty cents each), half sewant, half beavers, a fourth part of the half beavers to be "passable," three-fourths whole beavers: on these conditions he is to make one hundred buckets, which he promises to do between this and All-Saints' Day. Adrian Van Lair, on the same terms, to make fifty buckets.

But Rome was not built in a day, and at the end of six months from the date of the above agreement, that is to say, on the twentieth of January, following, the one hundred and fifty leather fire buckets were delivered at the Stadt House, where fifty of the number were deposited. The remainder wre divided into lots and placed at the residences of the principal inhabitants, namely:

Number 1 to 50, in the City Hall; 51 to 62, in Daniel Litschoe's tavern (present Pearl Street, near Wall); 63 to 74, in the house of Abraham Verplanck, in the Smith's Valley, (Pearl Street, near Fulton); 75 to 86, in the house of Burgomaster Paulus Leendenen Vandiegrist, (Broadway, opposite Exchange Place), 99 to 110, at the house of the Sheriff (or Schout), Nicasius de Se'le, (southeast corner Broad Street and Exchange Place); 111 to 122, at the house of Pieter Wolfersen Van Couwenhoven, (northwest corner Whitehall and Pearl Streets); at the house of Jan Jansen, Jr., ten; at the house of Hendrick Hendrickson Kip, Sen., Ten, (Bridge, between Whitehall and Broad Streets): at the house of Jacobus Backer, ten, (Broad, between Stone and South William Streets).

The burning of a small loghouse on a bluff overlooking the bay, where Castle Garden now stands, led to the establishment of the first fire company in 1658. This organization, disrespectfully dudded the "Prowlers," consisted of eight men, furnished with two hundred and fifty buckets, hooks and small ladders, and each of its members was expected to walk the street from none o'clock at night until morning drum-beat, watching for fire while the town slumbered.

This company was organized by ambitious young men, and was known also as the "rattle-watch." It was soon increased to fifty members, and did duty from nine P. M. until sunrise, all the citizens who could be roused from their beds assisting in case of fire. One of the first fire buckets is till preserved by James Van Amburgh, of Westchester County, whose ancestor was one of these early firemen. The first serious fire had occurred the year before, in 1657, when Sam Baxter's house caught fire--from a blazing log which rolled out of the fireplace during the night--and was completely consumed. It was regarded as the handsomest dwelling in the settlement of the early Dutch, and its destruction gave the needed impetus for the organization of a fire company. Even the veteran firemen who still survive would laugh if they would read the manner in which those early fire laddies undertook to provide against conflagrations. One of the rules was that each citizen of New Amsterdam was required to fill three buckets with water after sunset, and place them on his doorstep for the use of the fire patrol in case of need. Another Dutch ordinance directed that ten buckets should be filled with water at the town pump, "wen ye sun do go down." And these were to be left in a rack provided for that purpose, so that the members of the "rattle-watch" could readily lay their hands upon them "if ye fyer does go further yan ye efforts of ye men and call for water."

Then the fire was extinguished, the buckets of the citizens that had been used were thrown in a great heap on the common, and the town-crier, mounting a barrel, shouted lustily for each bucket proprietor to come and claim his own. As the stirring nasal cry,

"Hear ye! O! I pray ye.
Lord Master claim your buckets."

penetrated to the suburbs of the town, boys ran from all directions, and fought savagely on the grass at the crier's feet, to see who should carry home the buckets belonging to rich men, knowing that the reward would be a cake or a glass of wine, or a small coin.

The prevention of fire was a subject which caused much anxiety and unremitting attention. To see that the ordinances were carried out, frequent examinations were made of the chimneys and houses. These precautions caused much annoyance to the order-loving Dutch matrons, who, doubtless, regarded such visits as an intrusion. The worthy fire functionaries found their zest but ill-requited. They were often insulted and abused, but they bore it all with true Dutch fortitude, until their female persecutors called them "chimney sweeps." This was the crowning indignity, and not to be borne. Retaliatory measures wre adopted. The goede vrouws were summoned before the magistrates and fined for their discourteous conduct. This, it seems, did not men matters, for the office of fire warden fell into disuse, and the ordinance became a dead letter.

Public wells at this time wre found to be no less a public than a private necessity, equally indispensable in time of peril by fire as in the preservation of the public health. The first public well was dug in front of the fort in 1658. This well afforded an abundant supply of spring water, and "it became the great resort of the inhabitants during the remaining period of the Dutch occupation." The public wells were situated in the middle of the streets, and and the water was passed from them in buckets through long rows of citizens to the scene of the fire. Water was raised from these wells by the old Egyptian method of a balance pole and bucket, a mode still familiar in county parts. So far as drinking purposes were concerned, the water so obtained was very bad.

Dwellings of a more costly character than had previously been known were soon to be erected. In 1657, Peter Cornelisen Vanderveer build a fine house on the present Pearl Street. The year following, Governor Stuyvesant erected a large house in the vicinity of the present Whitehall Street, the name of which street it is alleged has been derived from the white hall of the Dutch Governor. Others followed, and the demand thus occasioned induced the establishment of a brick-yard in the year 1659, by De Graff and Hogeboom, and brick buildings after this period became the fashion with all who could afford the additional expense. Compared with more recent times, those dwellings must be considered as extremely inexpensive. A house and lot of the value of one thousand dollars of our present currency would then have been of the first class; they rarely exceeded eight hundred dollars. Rents varied from twenty-five dollars to one hundred dollars.

About the year 1656 several merchants had erected stone edifices, and the schools had been established. The houses put up ion the earliest period were usually one story high, with roofs of straw and chimneys of wood. These were succeeded by houses of brick and tile--the gable end usually to the street; apparently by a succession of steps from the line where the roofs commenced, the wall on the street, from each side tapering to the top of the center, in a point where often was a weathercock. And frequently on the street front, in iron figures, was designated the year in which the house was built. The street door was divided crosswise in the middle, the upper half having a large brass or iron knocker on it. A porch or "stoop" was at the front, on which the street door opened; and on each side was a bench, on which, in pleasant weather, some of the family were wont to sit and pass their leisure hours, often in company with a friend or neighbor. An alley on one side made a passageway to the read part of the building, where was the family kitchen with its huge fireplace. The plan of the town at that period was substantially the same as is now found in the same locality. The water line, however, has been carried out far beyond its original place. The fort was located just below the present Bowling Green. From the fort a broad, straight roadway, led back towards the cultivated boweries farther up the island. This was from the beginning the principal street of the town, though not a favorite one for residences on account of its distance from the water. The Dutch called it "De Heere Straat," or Main Street. The English changed its name to Broadway.

The Dutch, in imitation of what was done in Holland, built dykes in Broad Street, as far up as the City Hall. The city was enclosed with a wall or palisades from Trinity church across Wall Street to the East River.

Like most other Dutch villages of former times, the town of New Amsterdam was not wanting in its supply of windmills. These machines played an important part in those days, when there was no water power convenient. The windmill adjoining the fort, and standing upon the present State Street, was the first of its kind erected by the Dutch. Another windmill occupied the eminence on Broadway, between the present Liberty and Cortlandt Streets. Farther eastward on the heights along the East River shore was another windmill, opposite the ferry landing from Long Island. Another stood upon the south part of the present City Hall park. Yet another was erected on the North River shore, below the present St. Paul's Church. "These, and several others," says Valentine, "erected from time to time, on prominent points of the landscape, were distinguishing features of the Dutch city of New Amsterdam." The first windmill in Broadway, near Cortlandt Street having decayed, it was ordered in 1662 that there be another erected on the same ground, "outside of the city land-port (gate) on the Company's farm.

The vicinity of Chatham Street, south of Pearl Street, was, in its natural condition, very high ground, and was called Catumut's Hill. It had also at time the names of Windmill Hill and Fresh Water Hill, In 1662 a windmill was erected in this vicinity--west of the present Chathan Street and a little north of Duane Street. This mill was in existence for over half a century. An old windmill stood on the easterly side of Elizabeth Street, midway between the present Canal and Hester Streets. It was still standing for some years after the revolutionary war, the last relic, it is supposed, of that kind of structure in this city.

The British seized the Dutch possession of New Netherland in 1664. This marked a transformation in the municipal affairs of the city government. But those Batavian pioneers have bequested to the city many of their noblest characteristics, which have descended to the present day.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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