Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 3, Part I

By Holice and Debbie


1731-1782. -- Introduction of Machines from London. -- Newham's Engine. -- Formation of the First Fire Companies. -- Who the Original Fire Laddies Were. -- Location of Stations. -- How the Department Force Increased. -- Terms of Service. -- Privileges and Exceptions. -- Act of Incorporation.

In year 1731 was the beginning of a memorable epoch in the history of New York and its famous Fire Department. Then came into use the hand fire engines. Then was laid the foundation of that gallant, emulous, and self-sacrificing body of volunteers, the record of whose deeds will read to posterity like an old romance. Just as the chronicles of the doughty Crusaders touch the hearts of youth of to-day, so will the history of the achievements of the old volunteer companies of the Empire City fire the bosoms of generations to come. This year saw the nucleus of a fine body of athletic men, ever ready to risk life and limb for the public weal. Soon were to be identified with those primitive engines, names that will live forever in our history, such as the Harpers, the Macys, the Townsends, the Goelets, William H. Appleton, Zophar Mills, George T, Hope, Marshall O. Roberts, and James Kelly. It was the beginning of an era of the clattering machine, with its rushing, shouting, bold and dashing attendants, as ready to fight their fellows for the place of honor in the hour of danger as the devouring flames themselves.

On the sixth of May, 1731, the city authorities passed the following resolution:

Resolved, With all convenient speed to procure two complete fire engines, with suctions and materials thereof belonging, for the public service; that the sizes thereof be of the fourth and sixth sizes of Mr. Newsham's fire engines, and that Mr. Mayor, Alderman Cruger, Alderman Rutgers, and alderman Roosevelt, or any of them, be a committee to agree with some proper merchant or merchants to send to London for the same by the first conveniency, and report upon what terms the said fire engines, etc., will be delivered to this corporation.

The committee named reported at a meeting of the Common Council, held on June 12, 1731, that they had proposed to Messrs. Stephen De Lancey and John Moore, merchants, to send for two fire engines to London, by the ship Beaver, of Mr. Newsham's new invention of the fourth and sixth sizes, with suctions, leathern pipes, and caps, and other materials; and that those gentlemen had undertaken to purchase and deliver them to the corporation at an advance of one hundred and twenty per cent. on the foot of the invoice (exclusive of insurance and commissions), and that the money should be paid for the same within nine months after the delivery of the same.

Towards the close of November of 1731, the good ship Beaver, was sighted off port, and on December 1st workmen commenced to fit up "a convenient room" in the new City Hall for securing the fire engines, and on the fourteenth, the engines in the meanwhile being landed and "secured," a committee was appointed to have them cleaned and the leathers oiled and put into boxes ready for immediate use.

"The importation by the city of these fire engines," says the Hon. Charles P. Daly in his valuable treatise on "The origin and History of the New York Fire Department," was an incident of no ordinary importance. There was no subject upon which at that time the inhabitants of the city felt a deeper interest than the most effectual means of extinguishing fires, for the loss of property by conflagration was a calamity to which the city from its first settlement has been particularly exposed.

These engines were designated as No. 1 and No. 2. They were located in separate sheds, in the read of the City Hall, No. 1 was the east side of the building, and No. 2 on the west side, facing King Street, now Nassau.

The aldermen and the assistant aldermen were in charge of the apparatus in those days, and they were called overseer. The mayor and aldermen took charge at fires, the public at large being compelled to do fire duty. No one over twenty-one years of age was exempt, and for a refusal to do duty they were liable to a fine of one pound or five dollars.

When the two engines were received by the city from London, they were a great curiosity, the people being fully as much interested as in the days when silver coinage were brought out.

Peter Rutger, a brewer and an assistant alderman of the North Ward, was the first man that ever had charge of a fire engine on Manhattan Island, and John Roosevelt, a merchant, was the second.

In 1677, the city contained three hundred and sixty-eight houses; in 1693 the number was five hundred and ninety-four; in 1696 it was put down at seven hundred and fifty; and when the two engines arrived from London, the population of the city was eight thousand six hundred and twenty-eight, and the number of houses was about one thousand two hundred.

Up to this time, as has been shown, the only means of extinguishing fire was the carrying of water in buckets, and the use of ladders and fire hooks. These primitive appliances, however, were more effective instruments as fire apparatus than might be inferred in view of the vast and ingenious mechanical appliances and machinery in use at the present day. Architecture had not then, as now taken the same ambitious flight. The buildings originally were chiefly of one story, and few houses exceeded two stories. The first three story house put up in the city was erected in the year 1699, in Pearl Street, opposite Cedar Street, and was built by a member of the Depeyster family.

Mr. Newsham advertised his engines in the following terms: Richard Newsham, of Cloth Fair, London, engineer, makes the most substantial and convenient engines for quenching fires, which carries continual streams with great force. He hath play'd several of them before his majesty, and the nobility of St. James, with so general an approbation that the largest was at the time ordered for the use of that royal palace. The largest engines will go through a passage of about three feet wide, in complete working order, without taking off or putting on anything; and may be worked with ten men in the said passage. One man can quickly and with ease move the largest size about in the compass it stands in and is to be played without rocking, upon any uneven ground, with hands and feet or feet only, which cannot be paralleled by any other sort whatsoever. There is conveniency for twenty men to apply their full strength, and yet reserve both ends of the cistern clear from incumbrance, that others, at the same time, may be pouring in the water which drains through large copper strainers. The staves that are fixed through leaves, along the sides of the engine, for the men to work by, though very light, as alternate motions with quick returns require; yet will not spring and lose time the least; but the staves of such engines as are wrought at the ends of the cistern, will spring or break if they be of such length as is necessary for a large engine when when considerable power is applied; and cannot be fixed fast, because they must at all times be taken out before the engine can go through the passage. The playing two streams at once, do neither issue a greater quantity of water, no, is it new, or so useful, there having been of the like sort at the steel-yard, and other places, thirty or forty years, and the water being divided, the distance and force are accordingly lessened thereby. * * * As to the treddles on which men work with their feet, there is no method so powerful, with the like velocity or quickness, and more natural safe for them men. Great attempts have been made to exceed, but none yet could equal this sort; the fifth size of which hath played above the grasshopper upon the Royal Exchange, which is upward of fifty-five yards high, and this in the presence of many thousand spectators.

Those with suction feed themselves with water from a canal, pond, well, etc., Or out of their own cisterns, by the turn of a cock, without interrupting the stream. * * * and play off large quantities of water to a great distance, either from the engine or a leather pipe or pipes of any length required. * * * The five large sizes go upon wheels, well boxed with brass, fitted to strong iron axles, and the other is to be carried like a chair.

It appears, nevertheless, that Newsham had produced nothing new, as all the potent properties of his machine consisted simply in the ingenuous mechanical adaptation of familiar principles. In form it resembled the machine in use when engines were worked by hand.

The practical usefulness of the new engines were soon tested, as appears from the following paragraph in the Boston Weekly news Letter of January 6, 1732, under the head of "News from New York:"

Last night, about twelve o'clock, a fire broke out in a joiner's house in this city.

It began in the garret, where the people were all asleep, and burnt violently; but by the aid of the two fire engines, which came from London in the ship Beaver, the fire was extinguished after having burnt down the house and damaged the next.

Some person, little apprehending, as it may be supposed, that it would descend as a memorial to our day, made the accompanying rough pen and ink sketch as one of these engines, which, though rude and badly drawn, is sufficient to indicate its structure and the manner in which it was worked. This engine, with slight modifications, continued in use down to 1832, and long afterwards, in this city.

The experience of the fire of the seventh of December, referred to above, had doubtless pointed out the necessity of putting the engines in charge of some competent and skilled person, and accordingly, on the twenty-first of January following, the mayor and four aldermen were appointed a committee to employ workmen to put them in good order, and to engage persons by the year to keep them in repair and to work them when necessary. Anthony Lamb was accordingly appointed overseer, or, as the office was afterwards called, chief engineer, at a salary of twelve dollars a year, and he and the persons employed by the year until him may be said to have been the first regularly organized Fire Department. The sheds fitted up for these two engines in the read of the City Hall would not seem to have been sufficiently commodious, and, accordingly, in 1793, the corporation ordered a convenient house to be built "contiguous to the watch house in Broad Street, for their security and well keeping." This building, the first engine house in the city, was in the middle of Broad Street, half way between Wall Street and Exchange Place. The watch house stood at the head of Broad Street, and immediately behind it, in the middle of the street, this engine house was built. Lamb held this office of chief engineer until 1736, when he was succeeded by Jacob Turk, a gunsmith, who appears to have been a man of considerable mechanical skill and ingenuity.

Fire engines were built and for sale in this city six years after their first introduction, as will be seen by the following advertisement from the New York Gazette, May 9, 1737:

A fire-engine, that will deliver two hogsheads of water in a minute, in a continual Stream, is to be sold by William Lindsay, the maker thereof. Enquire at Fighting Cocks, next door to the Exchange Coffee-house, new York.

The engines were being constantly changed from one ward to another, to please the aldermen. If an alderman or an assistant could get an engine located in his ward, it was a big thing, and the friends of the aldermen would freely build a house to put it in.

Several attempts were made to build engines after those brought over from London, but most all failed who attempted it. One Bartholomew Weldern built two, neither one of which would work. The price allowed for building an engine in those days was fifty pounds.

Thomas Lote was the first man that ever built an engine in this country that was used. It was known as No. 3, and on its completion was located adjoining "Kalch-Hook Pond." A full description of the company will be found on another page.

The volunteer Fire Department, so established, lasted for one hundred and twenty-seven years. A high compliment, and one that no doubt was deserved, was paid to the city's firemen in the preamble to this act, in these words: "the inhabitants of the city of New York of all degrees, have very justly acquired the reputation of being singularly and remarkably famous for this diligence and services in cases of fires," and it was, doubtless, this fact that led to the institution of the voluntary system. This act recites, furthermore, that the firemen, "have, at very great charge and expense, supplied themselves, and are provided with two fire engines and various sort of poles, hooks, iron chains, ropes, ladders, and several other tolls and instruments, for the extinguishment of fire. They were to manage and care for the fire apparatus," to be "called the firemen of the city of New York," and be ready for service "by night as well as by day." to compel and oblige them" to be "diligent industrious and vigilant," the common Council were empowered to remove any of them, and put others in their place, and, as an inducement to fill up the ranks, the firemen so appointed were, "freed, exempted, and privileged from the several offices of constables and surveyors of the highways, and of and from the being put into or serving upon any juries or inquests, and of and from being compellable to serve in the militia, or any of the independent companies, or other imminent danger." It was ordained likewise that the firemen enjoy the privileges given by the act of Assembly, on condition of their subjecting themselves to certain cited rules and regulations, of which these are an abstract:

Upon notice of the happening of a fire, they are to take the engines and assist in its extinguishment, and afterwards to wash the engines and preserve then in good order. If absent from a fire without reasonable cause, to forfeit twelve shillings. for any neglect of his duty, a fireman might be removed. Forfeitures were to be recovered before the Mayor, Recorder, or any Alderman.

Thirty-five was the number of firemen chosen. These were their names and occupations:

John Tiebout blockmaker
Hercules Wendover blacksmith
Jacobus Delamontague blockmaker
Thomas Brown cutler
Abraham Van Gelder gunsmith
Jacobus Stoutenburgh gunsmith
William Roome, Jr. carpenter
Walter Hyer, Sr. bricklayer
Johannes Alstein blacksmith
Everett Pells, Jr. ropemaker
Peter Lot carman
Peter Brower bricklayer
Albertus Tiebout carpenter
John Vredenberg carpenter
John Dunscombe cooper
Johannes Roome carpenter
Peter Marchalck baker
Petrus Kip baker
Andrew Myer, Jr. cordwainer
Robert Richardson cooper
Rymer Brozer blacksmith
Barnet Bush,  cooper
David Van Gelder blacksmith
Johannes Van Duersen cordwainer
Martinius Bogert carman
Johannes Vredenbergh cordwainer
Johannes Van Sys carpenter
Adolph Brase cordwainer
John Man cooper

"all strong, able, discreet, honest, and sober men." These firemen served without salary.


The following year (1739) the corporation selected five firemen from each ward, or thirty in all, and passed an ordinance for their regulation or government.

Upon the breaking out of any fire with the city, "a;; sheriffs, under or deputy sheriffs, high constables, petty constables, and marshals (upon notice thereof), were required to immediately repaid to the scene of the conflagration, and with their rods, staves, and other badges of authority, to aid and assist in extinguishing the said fires, and cause people to work to extinguish the flames. A part of their duty also was to property from the depredations of thieves, and to help the inhabitants to remove and secure their household goods. Thus was formed the first fire company in the city of New York.

Jacob Turk became the head of this new organization, and continued in the office for twenty-five years. Among other things, he introduced the well-known leather cap worn by the firemen to the present day. Turk was succeeded by Jacob Stoutenburgh, a gunsmith, and was one of the thirty firemen originally appointed in 1738. He continued to be the chief engineer down to the Revolution. When he was appointed in 1761, the city had largely increased in population and territory, and, in consequence, the force in the following year was augmented to two assistants and sixty men. After the breaking out of the revolution, it was converted into a military organization consisting of two battalions, commanded by Stoutenburgh, and was composed of one adjutant, one captain, five lieutenants, and one hundred and thirty-four men. It retired, necessarily as apart of the military, with the retreat of the American army from the city in 1776m and the extent of the ravages of the dreadful conflagration which followed immediately after the entrance of the British troops was mainly owing to the want of firemen in the city.

The governor's house in the fort, on the eighteenth of March, 1741, was discovered to be on fire, and notwithstanding the efforts of the Fire Department--then but recently organized, and having the benefit of one or two fire engines--that edifice, together with the chapel erected about fifty years previously, and all the other buildings in the fort, wre entirely consumed. The conflagration was at this time attributed to the carelessness of a plumber who had left fire in a gutter between the house and the chapel, and it was so reported by the governor to the legislature. A week after, the chimney of Captain Warren's house, near the fort, took fire, but the flames were soon extinguished with little damage. A few days after, a fire broke out in the storehouse of Mr. Van Zandt, which was attributed to the carelessness of a smoker. Three days later, the hay in a cow stable neat the house of Mr. Quick was discovered to be on fire. The alarm was given, and the flames were soon suppressed. While returning to their homes, a fifth alarm called the firemen to the house of Mr. Thompson, where it was said fire had been placed in a kitchen loft where a negro usually slept. The next day coals were discovered under the stable of John Murray in Broadway. The following morning, a fire broke our in the house of Sergeant Burns, opposite the fort; and a few hours after, the roof of Mr. Hilton's house, near the Fly Market, was discovered to be on fire. Both were extinguished without much damage, but the rapid recurrence of so many fires alarmed the inhabitants, and a rumor was soon circulated that the negroes had plotted to burn the city. The magistrates met the same afternoon to consult about the matter, and while they were still in session, another fire broke out in the roof of Colonel Philipse's storehouse. The alarm became universal; the negroes were seized indiscriminately and thrown into prison. People and magistrates alike were panic-stricken. The Common Council assembled and offered to reward one hundred pounds and a full pardon to any conspirator who would reveal his knowledge of the plot with the names of the incendiaries. From the eleventh of May to the twenty-ninth of August, one hundred and forty-four negroes were committed to prison, fourteen of whom were burnt at the stake, eighteen hanged, seventy-one transported, and the rest pardoned or discharged for the want of sufficient evidence. In the same time, twenty-four whites were committed to prison, four of whom were executed.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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