History of the Fire Department of the City of New York

Chapter 6, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



1811-1899. -- Two Sailors and a Prisoner Distinguish Themselves. -- Laying of the Corner-stone of the New City Hall. -- Extension of Fire Limits. -- Enactment of Laws fore the more Effectual Prevention of Fires. -- Duties of Firemen. -- The Use of Fire Buckets Superseded by Hose.

One of the most important events of this period (1811) was the adoption of a plan for the future city, to which we owe the parallel streets and broad avenues of the upper part of the island, which contrast so strongly with the narrow streets and crooked lanes of the down-town locality. This plan was due to Simeon DeWitt, Gouverneur Morris, John Rutherford, and S. Guel, who had been appointed by the legislature in1801, as commissioners to lay out and survey the whole island to Kingsbridge into streets and avenues. By the proposed plan, the streets beginning with the first on the east side of the Bowery above Houston Street, numbered upward to the extreme end of the island. These were intersected by twelve avenues, numbering westward from First Avenue--the continuation of Allen Street--to Twelfth Avenue upon the shores of the North River. As avenues were afterwards laid out to the eastward of the former, they were designated by the numbers of the letters of the alphabet A, B, C, and D. By this plan, the island was paid out with admirable regularity, while the squares and triangles which were formed by the junction of those time-honored thoroughfares which could not be removed, were converted into public parks for the adornment of the city. The despised Potter's Field became the beautiful Washington Square; the Bowery and Broadway met amicably in Union Square; Madison Square was formed from the union of the Old and the Middle Roads; the great salt meadow on the eastern side of the city was drained, and Tompkins Square, with hundreds of city lots, sprung up from its depths; valleys were filled up, hills were leveled, and art seemed destined to surmount the difficulties of nature, and to make every inch of New York island habitable ground.

In the nineteenth of May, of this year, the Brick Presbyterian Church took fire, and two seaman distinguished themselves in an especial manner, and at the imminent hazard of their lives, by ascending the steeple of the church which was on fire, and, by their exertions, arresting the progress of the flames until the leader of one of the engines could be brought to play upon it. The cupola of the jail became ignited from flying embers, and a debtor imprisoned therein proved so exceedingly active in helping to extinguish the flames that the Common Council directed their clerk to procure the issuance of a warrant in his favor for sixty dollars, thus restoring him to liberty and fame.

The corner stone of the City Hall was laid September 26, 1803. It was completed in 1812 at an expense of five hundred and thirty-eight thousand seven hundred and thirty-four dollars.

Fire bugs again made their appearance in January, 1811, when they burnt down the ropewalk of Peter Schermerhorn, on Orchard Street, and the mayor offered one thousand dollars reward for their apprehension.

The principal difficulty in extinguishing fires was to procure a sufficient supply of water. In the central part the pumps and cistern, which were principally relied, became soon exhausted, and before a line composed of engines and leaders could be formed to the rivers, the fires too often had gained considerable headway. To remedy this defect, it was suggested in June, 1811, that two reservoirs of stone, sufficient to contain two hundred hogshead of water each, to be built and located at or near each wing of the City Hall, to be supplied from the roof thereof, and the water to be used for no other purpose than the extinguishment of fires. It was recommended also that the difference religious societies in the city be requested to cause to be built a reservoir adjacent to their respective places of worship, to be supplied with water from such places of worship, the water to be used only at fires. Thomas Brown, chief engineer, resigned his office on November 11, on account of ill health. On the eighteenth of the month the foremen of thirty-six engines petitioned the Common Council to appoint Thomas Franklin as chief engineer. And the prayer of the petitioners was granted. Among the appointments made on the twenty-seventh of this month were

Peter Simons, silversmith, 275 Pearl Street, to Hook and Ladder No. 3, vice
Simeon Fawcett, resigned.
Mordecai Homan, merchant, 97 Fair Street, to engine Company No. 3, vice
Charles I. Field.
William Pulis, butcher, Mott Street, to Engine Company No. 15, vice

A patent for a newly-invented fire engine, more powerful in its operations and less expensive in its construction than the existing engines, was granted to Richard Crosby by the United States in the latter part of this year; and the Common Council authorized him, in January, 1812, to construct such an engine for the use of the city.

The frequent fires occurring in the fall of 1811 from no cause that could be reasonably ascribed, left no room to doubt that incendiaries were at their villainous work, and the mayor of the city again offered a reward of three hundred dollars for the apprehension and conviction of the offenders.

The fire wardens in December communicated to the Common Council that as the use of hose has in a great measure superseded the use of fire buckets, the ordinance requiring owners and occupants of houses to furnish buckets, should, in their opinion, be repealed, and also an application should be made to the legislature for an extension of the limits within which wooden buildings should not be erected.

In the following month the Council committee reported upon that communication that, notwithstanding the advantages arising from the use of leaders, cases might arise in the interior of the city when, by a speedy collection of buckets, the fire might be extinguished ere the line by engines and leaders the number of buckets required to be kept, might, however, be reduced by one-third, to lighten the burden on the citizens.

The condition of affairs in the city during the summer of 1811, whilst the national government was prosecuting the war against Great Britain, had become most critical. There were fears of commotions and riots fomented by evil disposed people, which, if allowed to pass unnoticed, might lead to serious and alarming consequences. At this juncture (July, 1812), the members of Engine Companies Nos. 39, 35, and 8, volunteered their services to the chief magistrate, to assist in quelling any riot or disturbance that might arise, reserving to themselves, however, any privilege of being commanded y their own officers, without interference of any military officer whatsoever.

An act for the more effectual prevention of fires was passed April 9, 1813. This act made it obligatory that dwelling houses, storehouses, and other buildings, thereafter to be erected within the following boundaries, should be made and constructed of stone or brick, with party or fire walls, rising at least six inches above the roof, "and shall be covered, except the flat roof thereof, with tile or slate, or other safe materials, against fire, and not with board or shingles," within that part of the city to the northward of the point of the Battery, and a line beginning upon the East River, opposite Montgomery Street, thence through Montgomery Street to Cherry Street, thence down Cherry Street to Roosevelt, through Roosevelt to Chatham, thence down Chatham to Chambers Street, through chambers to Broadway, up Broadway to Canal Street, thence, commencing again at Chambers Street and running to Hudson's River, including also the lots of ground on the northerly and easterly sides of the said streets through which the above-mentioned line runs, and including, also, the lots of ground fronting on both sides of Broadway, between Chambers and Canal Streets.

The above-designated portion of the city also constituted "the Watch and Lamp District."

Section 66 declared it to be unlawful to store gunpowder, "except in the public magazine at the Fresh Water," and then only in certain designated quantities. Other sections prohibited the storage of sulphur, hemp, and flax, except in certain specified quantities, "in any one place in the city of New York, to the southward of the Fresh Water, nor to the southward of Rutgers Slip, under the penalty of twenty-five dollars. Pitch, tar, turpentine, rosin, spirits of turpentine, linseed oil, or shingles, were similarly quarantined.

The mayor, aldermen, and commonalty, were re-invested with the power "to appoint (as often as it shall be necessary) a sufficient number of strong, able, discreet, honest, and sober men, * * * being freeholders of the city, to have the care, management, working, and using the fire engines, and the other tools and instruments * * * for extinguishing of fires within the said city," which persons are to be called the firemen of the city of New York. During their continuance in that office, and no longer, they shall be exempted from serving in the office of constable, and from being impaneled or returned upon any juries or inquests, and of and from militia duty," except in cases of invasion or other imminent danger."

Upon the breaking out of any fire within the city, the law required the sherifs, deputy sherifs, constables, and marshals, upon notice thereof, to repair immediately to the scene of the fire, with their rods, staves, and other badges of authority, and aid and assist in the extinguishment of the said fire, and cause the firemen in attendance to work; prevent any goods or household furniture from being stolen; to seize all persons found stealing or pilfering; and to give their utmost assistance in removing and securing goods and furniture. They were subordinate to the mayor, recorder, and aldermen, or any of them.

In case of fire, they mayor, or, in his absence, the recorder, with the consent and concurrence of any two of the aldermen, might order buildings to be pulled down.

The Common Council was authorized to pass ordinances for the extinguishment and prevention of fires; and also to regulate the keeping, carting, conveying, or transporting of gunpowder, or any other combustible or other dangerous material, within the bounds of the city; also to regulate the use of lights and candles in livery and other stables; to remove or prevent the construction of any fireplace, hearth, chimney, stove oven, boiler, kettle, or apparatus, used in any manufactory or business, which might be dangerous in causing or promoting.

Jameson Cox, baker, 15 Charlotte Street, was appointed a member of Fire engine Company No. 21, on June 7, 1813, place of Joseph Vail, who had enlisted in the regular army. Cornelius W. Lawrence, merchant, of No. 174 Water Street, who, in after years, become mayor of the city, joined Engine Company No. 18, on July 12 following.

From the proceedings of the Common Council (November 29, 1813), it appears that their chief engineer (Thomas Franklin) proposed an amendment to the law, establishing a uniformity in caps of firemen, which was agreed to, and the law directed to be amended accordingly.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

You are the Visitor to this USGenNet Safe-Site´┐Ż Since March 9, 2001.

March 2001

[Firefighters Index][NY AHGP][NY ALHN]