Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 5, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

In addition to the foregoing, the Council committee recommended that a new engine house be built at the head of the Common Sewer, at Burling Slip, near Pearl Street, for Engine No 18, and with respect to the floating engine, that a boat be immediately procured for it, and placed in one of the most central slips on the East River, with a force of thirty able-bodied men. Protests were subsequently presented against this location for the engine house, and it was decided that a more eligible site would be at Beekman's Slip, supplying shipping with water. As these changes and assignments called for the employment of an additional number of fifty-one men, which would increase the employment to a greater number then the law allowed, it was decided to apply to the legislature to increase the number of firemen to six hundred.

The Fire Department consisted of a single engineer, who received his appointment from the common Council, and, who was invested with absolute control over the companies, engines, and all else that pertained to the organization; a number of fire wardens, commissioned by the same authority to inspect buildings, chimneys, etc., and to keep order at fires; and several voluntary companies under the direction of a foreman, assistant, and clerk of their own choosing. A few engine houses had been built; the greater part of the hooks and ladders, buckets, etc., were deposited for safe keeping in the City hall. Several of these pioneer companies retained their organization up to the time of the disbandment of the Volunteer System.

At this time, the city, though the metropolis of the western world, was a mere village in comparison with the city of today. The city prior was bounded on Broadway by Anthony, on the North River by Harrison, and on the East River by Rutgers Street; even within these limits the houses were scattering, and surrounded by large gardens and vacant lots; Broadway ended at Astor Place, where a pole fence, stretching across the road, formed the southern boundary of the Randall Farm, afterwards the endowment of the Sailors' Snug Harbor.

In November, 1802, the engine house at Hanover Square was removed to the Old Slip. On the twenty-ninth of the month the engine house of No. 4 in Nassau Street, between John and Fair Street, was removed to the public ground near the office of the Kine-pock Institution.

According to the report of the fire wardens of the Third Ward there were, in March, 1803, one thousand three hundred and thirty-eight fire buckets, and a deficiency of six hundred and fifty-two. The inhabitants of that ward were opposed to throwing out or carrying their buckets to a fire; and so frequent had become the loss of buckets at the fires, and on account of the impediments which existed in getting payment for those lost from the corporation, that many of the Third Warders were in revolt against the system, and declared they would not lend their buckets at all. In May one thousand fire buckets were ordered by the corporation for the use of the firemen. Engine No. 23 was destroyed at a fire which occurred in this month.

One of the terrible fires which were wont to ravage the city periodically before the introduction of fire-proof buildings and the existence of an efficient fire department, broke out on the eighteenth of December, 1804, in a grocery in Front Street, and raged with fury for several hours, burning the old Coffee House, on the corner of Pearl and Wall Streets, the scene of so many patriotic gatherings in the days of the Revolution, with many other of the old landmarks of the city. Forty stores and dwellings were destroyed by the fire, which was supposed to have been the work of an incendiary. The loss of property was estimated at two millions of dollars.

Even so early as this year the necessity for settling a regular plan of streets, for a distance of eight miles in length and the width of the island, was anticipated by the legislature, and a plan was established by law comprehending in its features the cutting down of mountains and the filling up of valleys to a regular and uniform grade over all that extent.

In December the number of fire wardens in each ward was increased to six, Gilbert Aspinwall resigned as warden, and John Ellis was appointed in his stead. John De Peyster and John Kane were appointed additional fire wardens in the Second Ward; Thomas Taylor, John L. Van Kleeck, and William H. Ireland in the Third Ward; and James Taller in the Fourth Ward.

In 1805 another fire ordinance was passed, which is in many respects similar to that of 1793. It is more comprehensive, however, and the fines imposed are in U. S. Currency.

It provides, in addition to the other, substantially as follows: The firemen of the city to consist of one chief, and as many other "engineers, fire wardens, hook and ladder men, and other firemen," as may be appointed by the mayor, etc., as firemen, and be distinguished by the said appellations.

The chief is to have control of the firemen, subject to the Common Council, and the engineer shall take proper measures for having the several engines "placed, filled, and worked," at fires. He is also to have charge of the repairs of engines, and to see that they are kept in good working order.

It changes the distinguishing badges, etc., to be worn by fire officials at fires, as follows:

In order that the members of the Common council, engineers and fire Wardens, may be more readily distinguished at fires, the Mayor, Recorder, aldermen, and Assistants, shall each have on those occasions a white wand of at least five feet in length, with a gilded flame at the top, and each of the engineers shall have a leather cap painted white, with a gilt front thereto, and an Engine painted thereon, and have a good speaking Trumpet painted black; and each of the Fire Wardens shall wear a like cap with the City arms painted on the front and the Crown painted black, and have also a speaking Trumpet, painted white. And the names and places of abode of the members of the Common Council, Engineers, and Fire Wardens, shall from time to time be fixed up in writing in the Watch Houses by the Aldermen respectively in whose Ward the Watch House shall be.*** And, moreover, it shall be the duty of every Watchman, upon breaking out of fire at or near his Watch Station, to alarm the citizens by the crying of fire, and mentioning the street where it shall be on his way to the nearest Watch Station, "so that the citizens and firemen generally be made acquainted where and in what Street to repaid."

But if a chimney take fire after the watch is set, the watchman is enjoined to prevent the ringing of any bell, so that the firemen and citizens be not unnecessarily alarmed.

The former provision as to the placing of a lighted candle in the front window, is renewed here, and reappears in all ordinances down to the year 1860.

The hook and ladder men shall be divided into companies, which shall each choose a foreman, assistant, and clerk, out of their own number. They are required, under penalty of one dollar and fifty cents, in case of fire, to bring the necessary hooks and ladders to the scene of the fire ands to use the same, under the direction of the members of the Common Council and engineers, and after the fire is extinguished, to return them to where they are usually deposited. The capacity of the fire buckets is increased to two-and-a-half gallons.

The firemen (other than engineers, fire wardens, and hook and ladder men), shall be divided into companies, one to be assigned to each of the fire engines belonging, or that may hereafter belong, to the city, and each company shall choose a foreman, assistant, and clerk out of their number.

It became apparent in 1805 that the means employed for the extinguishment of fire required, and were susceptible of, much improvement. The increasing extent of the city and its population enhanced the possibilities of frequent and dangerous fires, at the same time that it supplied the means and indicated the propriety of putting the Fire Department upon a more effective and systematic footing. The utility of the floating engine had become fully established. But as it could not always be moved in due season to the place where it was wanted, it was proposed to procure another of the same kind. For a similar reason, and also because at some seasons the ice or other causes might wholly prevent the floating engines from being moved, it was recommended that two engines of like power be procured and placed on wheels, for service within the city. These latter were not intended as substitutes for the floating engines, but it was thought that four engines of the power specified were not more than could be usefully and profitably employed on many occasions. Certain of the engines then in use--Nos. 2, 5, 6, and 16--were both too small and greatly out of repair, and it was decided to sell them, and that in future uniformity in size and power in engines be attended to throughout the department. The screws of the leaders were of different sizes, which led occasionally to trouble at critical moments. Uniformity in that respect, too, was to be observed regarding engines of similar power, and every common engine should have at least four leaders of forty feet each.

In May, 1805, it was decided to build a new engine house in the Seventh Ward on a site offered by Smith Place in Rivington Street, between Third and Fourth Streets, and the chief engineer was ordered to furnish one of the best of the small engines for the company to be established there. On the thirteenth of the month the engine house in the City Hall yard was extended so as admit of the reception of the engine then stationed in Nassau Street on ground belonging to the Presbyterian Church. The chief engineer was authorized, in September, to station fire engines at Greenwich Street, and form a new company. Divie Bethune, Jeremiah F. Randolph, Hector Scott, Peter H. Wendover, and Samuel L. Page, Jr., were appointed fire wardens, of the Eight Ward. Engine No. 13, situated at the Fly Market, was given a new location at the head of Burling Slip, in December. In the spring of the following year a new fire engine house was erected on the ground of the New Dutch Church in Liberty Street. About the same time Hugh McCormick, of No. 2 Jacob Street, was appointed a fireman of Company No. 7, instead of John Minuse resigned; Nehemiah Ludlam, Philip Ruckle, and Water Whitehead were appointed to No. 15, instead of James Bertine, Jeremiah Woods, and Jacob Peterson, resigned; Abraham Dwyer, David Hubbs, John Gillmour, and Benjamin Haight, to Company No. 13, instead of John Heyer, Frederick Miller, Samuel Burtis, and John Cavanaugh.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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