Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 3, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

Christopher Colles, in 1774, had partly constructed a reservoir in Broadway, near Pearl Street, the completion of which was stopped by the Revolutionary War.

Isaac Bangs, a New England trooper of 1776, thus describes the new York of that period: "I spent most of the day in viewing the city, which is more extensive than I imagined. It is nearly as populous as the town of Boston. The public edifices are more numerous, yet not in general so magnificent as those of Boston. * * * On the southwest part of the town, which is a point between two rivers, is a very strong and costly fort, built by the kind's troops. Outside the fort, at the edge of the water, was a battery erected at a vast expense to the kind, of hewn stone, being about ten feet high, and having the inside filled up to form an inclined plane, sloping inwardly down to wall one and a half feet high. Over this the cannon were to play. But as so low a wall would not be a sufficient cover for the men, our people were employed in making a turf wall upon the stone wall, and when we arrived, had almost finished as complete a battery as ever I saw. From the above-mentioned fort, a spacious street, running east-northeast in a straight line, reached without the town above a mile. In this, near the fort, is the equestrian statue of George III," lieutenant Bangs refers to the "new" water works, and says that the well water is very bad and unwholesome, 'so that the inhabitants prefer to buy water for making coffee, out of carts employed in carrying it around the city." One Sunday he dropped into a church, but could not understand a word of the service because it was all in Dutch. On another Sunday, this observant soldier says: "In the forenoon I attended public worship at the Congregational meeting; was very much disappointed with the preaching. The parson had invited a chaplain of the army to do his work for him, who performed it miserably. Being tired of such nonsense as I heard in the forenoon, I tried the Church of England in the afternoon. But the satisfaction I received from the substance of an excellent sermon was greatly abated by the pedantic behavior of the priest, the irreverent conduct of the people and the foolish parade of ceremonies. I am determined next Sunday (unless I find better entertainment) to attend worship with the Dutch priest, whom I heard last week, choosing rather to worship where I understand nothing than to hear and see such folly."

On the fifteenth of September, 1776, (soon after the disastrous battle on Long Island), the British troops took possession of the city, and in their train were refugees from all sections. Later, traders and speculators came in hordes by every transport fleet from Great Britain, and a large business sprung up in the purchase and sale of army supplies, but the city itself found no profit in this abnormal traffic. The streets and buildings were allowed to go to decay, with the exception of temporary repairs for sanitary reasons, and the glories of the city were but a story of the past.

Up to 1776 there were but seven engines and two bucket and ladders, or trucks, although there wre building at the time one for No. 8. During the early part of the year the whole force of the Fire Department, consisting of a little over one hundred and seventy, formed themselves into a home guard, with Jacob Stoutenburgh as chief, but virtually under command of General Washington.

Two terrible conflagrations added to the measure of distress and ruin. Hardly had the British troops taken possession, ere (on the twenty-first of September, 1776,) a disastrous fire, breaking out in a small wooden house on the wharf neat Whitehall, occupied by dissolute characters, spread to the northward, and consumed the entire city westward of Broadway to the very northernmost limit. In this terrible calamity, which owed its extent to the desertion of the city and the terror of the few remaining inhabitants, four hundred and ninety-three houses were destroyed, including old Trinity and the Lutheran Church. Another destructive fire broke out on Cruger's wharf on the third of August, 1778, and burned about fifty-four houses.

The cause of so many houses being burned was attributed to the military taking the directions of the fire from the firemen. The commander-in-chief, to whom complaint was made by the citizens, gave general orders that in the future no military man should interfere with any fire that might happen within the city.

The following is a list of the number of houses burned (1778):

Col. Wm. Bayard, six houses and stores.
Messrs. John and Henry Cruger, six houses.
Gerardus Duyckinck, seven houses.
Peter Mesier, two dwelling houses.
David Provost, four houses and two pulled down.
Capt. Thomas Brown, four houses.
Mr. Varick, one house.
The estate of Andrew Meyer, one house.

Several of the inhabitants were restrained from going out to assist at night from a fear that they might be arrested as suspicious persons. In fact, several decent citizens were sent to the provost guard for examination, and some had to stay there two or three days until their "loyalty" could be made out. In one case, even a good loyalist, sometimes inclined "to taste a drop too much," was, by misapprehension of his character and in the excitement of the moment, hung up on a sign-post at the corner of Cherry and Roosevelt Streets.

These fires occurred while the British held possession of the city, and excited a fear at the time that the "American Rebels" had purposed to oust them by their own sacrifices, like another Moscow. It was, however, established that they were the result of accident and not of design.

After the great fire of 1776, major-General Jas. Robertson issued the following proclamation:

Whereas, There is ground to believe that the Rebels, not satisfied with the Destruction Of part of the City, entertain Designs of burning the Rest. And it is thought that a Watch to inspect all the Parts of the City to apprehend Incendiaries and to stifle Fires before they rise to a dangerous height might be a necessary and proper means to prevent such a calamity. Many of the principal inhabitants have applied to me to form such a Watch and have all offered to watch in person, etc.

The Revolution caused an abrupt break in the municipal history. The meetings of the Mayor's Court of Quarter Sessions and the Common Council ceased after July 4, 1776. On the occupation of the city by the British, they were not presumed; but, the city being placed being placed under martial law, military forms of municipal government were restored, it was under the constitution of the State of New York adopted in 1777.

The mayor and superintendent-general, in 1778, made proclamation to the citizens that John Norris, at the corner house, near the Main guard, and David Henry Mallows, near the Tea Water Pump, had the care of the chimney-sweeps, and that on a note in writing being left at either of their houses, a sweep would be sent to the place designated. A fine of five pounds, previously established, it was declared, would be punctually exacted from every inhabitant whose chimney should take fire through neglect. Each chimney should be swept once in four weeks. Similarly, notice was given that John Roome was appointed to examine the stoves put up in the city, and the places allotted by the inhabitants to keep their ashes in. The inhabitants were reminded that "the injudicious method of firing stoves, and keeping ashes having often endangered this city, it is expected that the citizens will punctually attend to such directions as Mr. Roome may judge necessary, in order to prevent the calamity of fire, which is equally to be dreaded by every inhabitant."

A number of citizens formed themselves into companies, in January of 1781, calling themselves by the names of the Friendly Union, Hand-in-Hand, and Heart-in Hand Fire companies. Their object was to undertake every service in their power, in case of fire, by removing and securing the effects of such of their fellow citizens whose situation, at such times, should require their attention. In order to be distinguished, they wore round hats with black brims and white crowns. They were exempted from handling buckets, or assisting in working the engines.

The troops in garrison were found to be derelict in the matter of complying with the order for cleaning of chimneys, and it was requested that in future the officers quartered in this city once in every month "will send to this office (barracks office, maiden Lane) for an order for the sweeping of their chimneys."

The whole increase of the city during the century of English domination did not exceed twenty thousand, an increase which seems at the present day vastly disproportionate to the commercial and agricultural advantages of the city and province. But this surprise will decrease when the jealous and narrow-minded restrictions thrown around the colony are considered. As early as 1705 Governor Cornbury, writing from New York to his official superiors in England, expresses himself in these terms"

"I hope I may be pardoned if I declare my opinion to be that all these colonys, which are but twigs belonging to the main tree (England), ought to be kept entirely dependent upon and subservient to England, and that can never be if they are suffered to go on the notions they have, that as they are Englishmen, so they may set up the same manufactures here as people may do in England." 

The Department (up to 1776) consisted as follows:

Engine Company No. 1--location, rear of City Hall.
Engine Company No. 2--Read of City Hall.
Engine Company No. 3--At Kalch-Hook Pond.
Engine Company No. 4--Broadway and a lane leading down to Jansen's windmill, Midway between little queen and Fair Streets.
Engine Company No. 5--On "Smit Valley," now Pearl Street.
Engine Company No. 6--Crown Street, near kind, now Nassau.
Engine Company No. 7--Duke Street, leading down to Terry, now Stone.
Engine Company No. 8--At the Tar pits, foot of now Maiden Lane.
Truck Company No. 2--Fair, near King Street.
Truck Company No. 2--S. e. of the Battery, adjoining the Basin.

During the war the Department was completely demoralized, but two engines having survived. Most of the members were killed, and when the British evacuated the city only one of the engines left would work.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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