Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 2

By Holice and Debbie

Chapter 2


1664-1731. -- The British take possession of New Netherland. -- Establishment of a "Burger Wagt." -- Inadequate Supply of Fire Buckets and Hooks and Ladders. -- Action of Governor Dongan and his Council. -- Adoption of means for the Extinguishment of Fires. -- Pavement of Streets. -- Appointment of Fire Wardens. -- "Throw out Your buckets." -- The City at the Commencement of the Seventeenth Century.

When Governor Nicolls wrested the province from the Dutch, he, in a letter written in 1665, to the Duke of York: "such is the mean condition of this town (new York) that not one soldier to this day has lain in the sheet, or upon any other bed than straw." This, however, did not prejudice him to the extent that he could not appreciate the natural advantages of the place. "The best of all his majesty's towns in America," is what he says upon entering it. This is what he predicts of the city; "Within five years the staple of America will be drawn hither, of which the brethren of Boston are very sensible."

During the military rule of Governor Colve, who held the city for one year, everything partook of a military character. Then the Dutch mayor, at the head of the city militia, held his daily parades before the City Hall (Stadt Huys); and every evening, at sunset, he received from the principal guard of the fort, called the "hoofd wagt," the keys to the city, and thereupon proceeded with a guard of six to lock the city gates; then to place a "burger wagt," a citizen guard, as night watches at assigned places. They also went the rounds at sunrise to open the gates, and to restore the keys to the officer of the fort.

On the thirtieth of January, 1674, there was a meeting of civic officials in regard to fire matters. There were present Captain Knyff, on behalf of the Honuorable Governor; Anthony De Mill, schout; Johannes De Peyster, Johannes Van Brough, and Aegidius Luyck, burgomasters; William Beekman, Jeronimous Ebbingh, Jacob Kip, Lourens Van der Speigill, and Guilame Ver Planck, schepens. At this meeting the fire wardens presented a written report of the number of fire bucks and other implements "found by them to be provided." They made a demand for an additional supply of the implements, "requesting that this court will be pleased to order that such fire hooks and ladders as are necessary may be made."

When the city came permanently under British dominion by the peace of 1674, its former exclusive Knickerbocker character began gradually to wear off. At that time almost all the houses presented their gabled ends to he street, and all the most important public buildings, such as "Stuyvesant Huys" on the water edge, at present Moore and Front Street, and the Stadt Huysor city Hall, on Pearl Street, at the head of Coenties Slip, were then set on the foreground, to be more readily seen from the river. The chief part of the town lay along the East River (called "Salt river in early days), and descending from the high ridge of ground along the line of Broadway. A great artificial dock for vessels existed between "Stuyvesant Huys" and the bridge over "the canal," where it debouched on the present Broad Street.

As already intimated, New York was in primitive days the "city of hills." Thus, at the extreme south end of Broadway, where the ancient fort formerly stood, was a mound, quite as elevated as the present general level of the street in front of Trinity Church, and thence regularly declining from along that street to "the beach" on the North River. The hills were sometimes precipitous, as from Beekman's and Peck's Hills, in the neighborhood of pearl Street and Beekman and Ferry Streets, and from the Middle Dutch Church on Nassau Street down to Maiden Lane. Between many of the hills flowed in several invasions of water, such as "the canal," so called to gratify Dutch recollections, which was an inroad of water up Broad Street. Up Maiden Lane flowed another inroad through Smith's marsh or valley. A little beyond Peck's Slip existed a low water course, which in high tide ran quite up to the collect, and thence, joining with Lispenard's swamp on the North River side, produced a union of waters quite across the city, converting it occasionally into an island. This accounts for the lowness of Pearl Street where it traverses Chatham Street. There they had to use boats occasionally to cross foot passengers over from either side of the high rising ground.

The importance of taking precautions against the happenings of conflagrations was recognized in many ways, as is evidenced by the ordinances framed and measures adopted from time to time. On the sixteenth of February, 1676, all persons having any of the city's ladders, buckets, or hooks, in their custody, were called upon to immediately deliver them to the mayor. It was also ordered that wells be dug, as follows: "One in the street over against the house of Fowliff Johnson's, the butcher; another in the broadway against Mr. Vandike's; another in the street over against Derrick Smith's; another in the street over against the house of John Cavildore; another in the yard or read of the Cytie Hall; another in the street over again Cornelius Van Borsum's." On the twenty-eight of February there was published a list of persons that had "noe chimneys, or not fitt to keepe fire in," and an order was issued by the mayor and aldermen calling upon these delinquents to cause suitable chimneys to be built without delay. In January of the following year John Dooly and John Vorrickson Meyer were appointed to inspect all the chimneys and fire hearths in the city, and on the fifteenth of March, 1683, a law was enacted empowering the appointment of viewers and searchers (fire wardens) of chimneys and fire hearths, to report to the mayor and aldermen, who could impose a fine not exceeding twenty shillings for each default; prohibiting the laying of straw, hay or other combustible matter in their dwellings houses, or places adjoining the same, "but at a distance from their houses and the streets; and providing for hooks, ladders, and buckets, to be kept in convenient places; and, further, that "if any person should suffer his chimney to be on fire he should pay the sum of fifteen shillings."

On the ninth of September following, the mayor, aldermen, and commonalty of the city, petitioned the governor to confirm unto them the several ancient customs, privileges, and immunities granted by the former governor of the province, Col. Richard Nicolls, 1665, who incorporated the inhabitants of the city, New Harlem, and all others inhabiting the island of Manhattan, as a body politic and corporate under the government of a Mayor, aldermen, and sheriff, etc.

In responding to the petition of the corporation of the ninth of September, Governor Dongan and his council, at a meeting held on December 6, stipulated that the city should "appoint one, or more if necessary, to look after the chimneys for the preventing of fires, and that all houses keep one or more leather buckets."

A public chimney-sweep was appointed for the city (1685), who was to cry his approach through the public streets, and who probably originated the whoop peculiar to his vocation. His rates were fixed by law at a shilling and eighteenpence per chimney, according to the height of the house.

Great damage seems to have been done by fire in January, 1686. The Common Council, at a meeting held on February 28 of that year, referred to the absence of means for the extinguishment of fires,, and it was ordered that every inhabitant whose dwelling house had two chimneys should provide one bucket, and for more than two chimneys, two buckets; that all brewers possess five buckets apiece, and all bakers three, said buckets to be provided before September 25th ensuing, under a penalty for neglect of five shillings for each bucket. Five years later, on the twenty-fifth of November, 1691, this order was re-enacted. But there were added the stipulations that the buckets should be provided by the occupants, and the cost thereof allowed them by the landlord out of the rent, and "every man to marke the buckets with the letters of his landlord's name, upon forfeiture of six shillings, for the use of the city, to be paid by the tenant on default," etc. The mayor was empowered to acquit "poore people" of the penalty.

At the same time, Derrick Vandenburgh, John Rose, Snert Olphite, and Garrett Rose were appointed to "goe round the towne and view each fireplace and chimney, that they be sufficient and clean swept," with the penalty of three shillings and sixpence to each inhabitant for each defect.

Chief among the substantial indications of progress was the completion in 1693 of the Garden Street Church. It was built in the midst of a beautiful garden, "a great distance up town," fronting a narrow land called Garden alley, which afterwards became Garden Street, and is not Exchange Place. This year Wall Street was first paved to the width of ten feet, in front of the houses facing the wall.

A fire occurred in that part of the town called the "Fly" in February, 1691, at which several buckets were lost. Complaints reached the mayor that people of thievish propensities had appropriated them, whereupon His Honor issued an order directing the crier to give notice round the city that the stolen buckets be taken to the mayor immediately so that they might be restored to their owners. Other appliances besides buckets had been thought of. Two years before the fire in the "Fly," five "brant masters" (fire wardens) had been appointed on January 4, 1690. These fire wardens were: Peter Adolf, Derck van der Brincke, Derck Ten Eyck, Jacob Borlen, and Tobeyas Stoutenburgh, and it had been ordered that five ladders be made and provided for service at fires, with sufficient hooks therefor.

In 1693, it was ordered "that every inhabitant in the streets hereinafter mentioned, shall, before the first of August next, cause to be paved, with pebble stones, so much of said street as shall front their respective premises." Thence follows the designation of the streets to be paved, eight in number. The crude condition of the city in respect to its streets may also be inferred from an order made in this year, that "the poisonous and stinking weeds before everyone's door be forthwith plucked up." The above system of paving continued for many years, and it is believed that, up to the time of the Revolution, the "kennel' ran through the centers of the streets, and if sidewalks existed, they were the voluntary work of the adjacent owners. No regulations are to be found in the public ordinances concerning either their construction or repair.

After the revolutionary war, the subject of city improvements was under a commissioner, instead of a committee of the Common Council. Gerard Bancker was the first street commissioner.

Additional precautions were now taken against occurrences of fires. In 1697, the aldermen and assistant-aldermen were authorized to appoint two persons as fire wardens in every ward. The penalty of three shillings was imposed for the neglect to remedy defective flues and hearths--one-half to the city and one-half to the wardens--and if a chimney should take fire after notice had been given to clean it, the occupant was mulcted in the sum of forty shillings. This is the first record of a paid Fire Department in the city of New York. The system had advanced beyond the limits of "viewers" and "overseers," and had reached a point where something like an organization was effected, and arrangements completed for paying, fining, and discharging the men, who were obliged to view the chimneys and hearths once a week. In short, a more prompt and systematic performed of duty was required.

The practice of having every house supplied with fire buckets now became general, and was continued long after the introduction of fire engines. The manner in which an alarm of fire was given in the night time is graphically told by the Hon. Charles P. Daly: :If a fire broke out at night," he says, "the watchman gave the alarm with his rattle, and knocked at the doors of the houses, with the cry, 'Throw out your buckets!' the alarm being further spread by the ringing of the bell at the fort and by the bells in the steeples of the different churches. When the inmates of a house were aroused, the first act was to throw out the buckets in the street, which were of sole leather, holding about three gallons, and were also hung in the passage close to the street door. They were picked up by those who were hastening to the fire, it being the general custom for nearly every householder to hurry to the fire--whether by day or by night--and render his assistance. As soon as possible two lines were formed from the fire to the nearest well or pump, and then they gave out, the line was carried to the next one or to the river. The one line passed up the full buckets, and the empty ones were passed down the other line. No one was permitted to break through those lines, and if any one attempted to do so, and would not fall in and lend a helping hand, a bucket of water or several were instantly thrown on him. Each bucket was marked with the name or number of the owner, and, when the fire was over, they were all collected together and taken in a cart, belonging to the city, to the City Hall. A bellman then went round to announce that the buckets were ready for delivery, when each householder sent for his bucket, and, when recovered, hung it up in the allotted place, ready for the next emergency.

The first attempt to light the streets was made in November, 1697. The ordinance reads as follows:

The Board, taking into consideration the great inconveniency that attends this city, being a trading place, for want of having lights in the dark time of the moon in the winter season, it is therefore ordered that all and every of the housekeepers within this city shall put out lights in the windows fronting the respective streets of their city, between this and the twenty-fifth of march next, in the following manner: Every seventh house, in all the streets, shall, in the dark time of the moon, cause a lantern and candle to be hung out on a pole, the charge to be defrayed equally by the inhabitants of the said seven houses.

During this period (1697) a night watch was established, composed of "four good and honest inhabitants of the city, whose duty it shall be to watch in the night time, from the hour of nine in the evening till break of day, until the twenty-fifth of March next; and to go round the city, each hour of the night, with a bell, and there to proclaim the season of the weather and the hour of the night."

The erection of the City Hall on Wall Street, at the head of Broad (in 1700), was the great event which established Wall street as the central point of interest for leading business and professional men. The City Hall was supported upon brick arches over the sidewalks, under which rooms on the first floor was at a later day appropriated for the reception of the first two fire engines in new York, imported from London.

Four able-bodied men were appointed watch and bellmen for the city in 1702, from November 1 to April 1 following. They were to go, every hour in the night, through the several streets, publishing the time of the night; to apprehend disturbers of the peace, etc., and to see that no damage be done by fires. A lantern, bell, and hour-glass were proved for them by the city.

The Common Council, on the sixth of November, 1703, ordered that the aldermen of each ward should command the respective constables therein to make a house to house inspection, to ascertain whether the number of fire buckets required by law ere kept on hand, and to present the delinquents for prosecution.

New and more stringent regulations were now passed in respect to fires, the fire wardens were directed to keep strict watch of all hearths and chimneys within the city, and to see that the fire buckets were hung up in their right places throughout the wards, and two hooks and eight ladders were purchased at the public expense for the use of the fire department.

This system prevailed, with slight modifications, until the introduction of the hand engines from London.

A law for the better prevention of fire was published at the City Hall on November 18, 1731. After the customary ringing of three bells, and a proclamation had been made for silence, it provided for the appointing of "viewers of chimneys and hearths," to make monthly inspections; the fine of three shillings for neglecting the directions of the fire wardens, re-enacting the fine of forty shillings for chimney on fire, and establishing a like fine for "viewers" who should refuse to serve, and a fine of six shillings for neglect of duty; providing for the obtainment of hooks, ladders, and buckets, and fire engines, to be kept in convenient places; for leather buckets to be kept in every house; a penalty for not possessing the required number of buckets, and a fine for detaining other men's buckets.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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