Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 7, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie


The city in 1832 embraced a population of one hundred and eighty thousand souls, a collection of about thirty thousand houses, a tonnage of three hundred thousand four hundred tons, exclusive of ten thousand five hundred tons of steamboats, and an assessed value of property, including thirty-seven millions of personal estate, of one hundred and fourteen millions of dollars. Her lighted and paved streets, lined with houses, extended to Thirteenth Street on the North river, to the dry docks on the East riverside, and to Thirteenth Street on "Broadway and Bowery Streets." All the modern streets were straight and wide, graduated to easy ascents and descents; and where formerly very narrow lanes existed, or crowded edifices occurred, they had either cut off the encroaching fronts of houses, as in William Street and Maiden Lane, or cut through solid masses of houses, as in opening Beekman and Fulton Streets. The bounds of the city had been widened both on the North and East River by building up whole streets of houses at and beyond Greenwich Street on the western side, and at and from Pearl Street on the eastern side.

The proviso in the law forming a hydrant company approved July 16, 1831, was repealed in May, 1832, and thenceforth is was ordained that no individual could be eligible for appointment as hydrant man unless he had served as a fireman for at least three years.

Although quasi officers of the municipality, it was charged that certain firemen frequently exhibited much indifference to the injunctions of the authorities as might be looked for only from the lawless class. Hence, in July, 1832, it became necessary to promulgate a law ordaining that any firemen found guilty of an offense against the ordinances of the Common Council, and having thereby resigned or been expelled, should not be eligible to an appointment to any office or trust, in any company, nor reappointed a firemen in any case.

Also, it was not uncommon for the foreman or engineer of an engine company to hire out the engine, and to lent it, on his own responsibly, which was subversive to all semblance of discipline, and impaired the efficiency of the particular company. Consequently, a provision was incorporated in the law of July, 1832, that no fire engine should be let out for hire, or lent, in any case, without permission from the alderman or assistant alderman of the ward wherein it was wanted to be used, and the chief engineer, in default thereof, and the fireman so offending, would be removed from the fire Department.

During the prevalence of the epidemic of cholera in 1832 the working force of the Department as much weakened by reason of sickness and death. Very often not enough men, nor even supernumeraries, boys and youths who loved to linger in the shadow of the engine house and be permitted to mingle with the hardy fire fighters, could be mustered to dray the engine to the scene of the conflagration. Horses had to be brought into requisition, as is attested by the fact that in November, 1832, the comptroller was authorized to pay the bill of James Gulick for eight hundred and sixty-three dollars and seventy-five cents, for horses "to drag the engines and hook and ladder trucks to the fires during the late epidemic."

The custom was in those days, upon the outbreak of fire, to ring the church bells we well as the fire bells, and when the fire happened during the night, the watchman in his tower should ring the alarm, and hang out of the window of the cupola a pole with a lantern on the end pointing in the direction of the fire, so that that firemen and citizens could readily know the whereabouts of the fire. Further, the watchmen (the police) were obliged to call out the street or between what streets the fire was located. The laws of the municipality regarding these observances were inflexible, delinquency on the part of the bellringers or the watchmen being visited with severe penalties.

The cost of supporting the Fire Department by the city varied considerably. In 1830 it amounted to twenty-two thousand nine hundred and sixty-two dollars. The actual number of fires that happened in that year were one hundred and nineteen; false alarms, one hundred and twenty-five; and the loss of property, one hundred and fifty-seven thousand one hundred and thirty-five dollars. In 1831 the expenses of the Department amounted to twelve thousand nine hundred and eighty-four dollars.

Careful calculations showed that although it cost in 1832 only eighteen thousand dollars to maintain the Fire Department, the individual firemen were taxed in their services two hundred and eighty-four thousand five hundred dollars annually. It is true their labors were rendered voluntarily, and they had an equivalent, but it did not render it less imperative on the city authorities, as the common guardians of this great community, to diminish the labors and personal exposures and risks of that meritorious, skillful and patriotic class of citizens.

The melancholy tidings of the death of the illustrious La Fayette, the friend and companion of Washington, the adopted son of America, the brave and faithful defender of liberty in both hemispheres, reached New York on June 19, 1834, just one month after his demise in Paris. Suitable honors were of course to be paid to the memory of this splendid character by the municipal authorities, and, in these days, no civic parade would be complete without the participation and presence of the members of the Fire Department in the usual and formal manner, a meeting was called whereat the following preamble and resolution were adopted, and programme for the parade agreed to:--

Whereas, We have learned of the death of General la Fayette, the tried patriot, the firm and devoted friend of America and her free institutions; he, who forsook the blandishments and east of a luxurious court, who gave his fortune and risked his life for the independence of our happy Republic, therefore, Resolved, That we, the firemen of the city of New York, will unite with our fellow-citizens on Thursday, the twenty-sixth instant, paying such tribute of respect as the eminent virtues and patriotic services of one of America's dearest sons demand of a grateful and affectionate people. The exempt firemen also attended in a body.

The Department assembled at Hospital Green, and the line was formed under the direction of the Grand Marshal, James Gulick, assisted by his aids, in the following order:

First, Fire Department Banner.
Second, Grand Marshal and Two Aids.
Third, President, Vice-president, Trustees, Treasurer, Secretary, and Collector of the Fire Department.
Fifth, Exempt firemen.
Sixth, the banners and implements equally distributed through the line, under the
direction of the different marshals. The Brooklyn and Williamsburg firemen in the center.

After the ceremonies, the procession reorganized and proceeded up Greenwich Street to Canal, through Canal to Broadway, up Broadway to Grand Street, through Grand Street to East Broadway, down East Broadway to Chatham Square.

The alleged improper and riotous conduct of the members of several companies of the Department, and the congregating of idle and dissolute persons in the engine houses, had been for several months the subject of complaint from residents in the vicinity of the engine houses. Boys and young men, too, obtained very ready access to the engines, and made it a matter of amusement to raise an alarm of fire as an excuse or cover to get the engines out and have a run. Evidently the engine companies could prevent these scenes. But in care of fire the companies desired some assistance from these boys and young men, which induced them to countenance the assemblages. The Common Council investigated the complaints, and in October, 1834, reported that the members of some of the companies could not be depended upon to prevent the engine houses being entered and frequented by persons other than those belonging to the Fire Department, and suggested the enactment of a law providing a remedy.

That a prompt alarm of fire might be given, a watchman was stationed at all times in the cupola of the City Hall. The law so providing was approved by the mayor, April 1, 1835. The chief engineer, by and with the consent of the mayor, was empowered to appoint a competent number of persons to perform the duty of such watchmen, day and night, subject severally to removal by the chief engineer. These bellringers, nevertheless, were amenable at all times during the might to the rules and regulations of the Watch Department. On the occurrence of any fire, the City Hall bell should be rung by the watchman on duty in the cupola, and the ringing thereof maintained during the continuance of the fire. Notice of the locality of the fire was given by ringing said bell in a manner prescribed by directions given by the committee on fire and water and the chief engineer, and by hanging out a light in the direction of the fire. For neglect of any of the duties required by this law, the penalty imposed was removal from office by the chief engineer or captains of the watch.

Upon the happening of any fire, the several watchhouses and market bells were rung, and also all other alarm bells, and the same was done whenever any one alarm bell should ring, and the ringing thereof continued until the city bell was stopped.

It will be seen from these facts that the Fire Department kept pace with the growth of the city. The people were quick to recognize the importance of keeping up, both in numbers and efficiency, a body of men so necessary to the welfare of the growing metropolis. Year by year, nay, almost month by month, additions to the Department were made, and alterations effected to improve it. The enactment of the new building laws was a great help to the firemen, and its enforcement gave them a great advantage over their natural enemy--an advantage which prior to this they did not possess.

It will also be noted how eager the firemen were to maintain and esprit de corps. Before the period we are just concluding efforts had been made to diminish the number of the hangers-on of the Department. As the city grew these parasites increased, and the difficulty was all the greater to keep them off. We have shown how persistently and honorably the firemen endeavored to abate this nuisance. They could not wholly dispense with the services of outsiders, but those whom they did employ they took care should be of the best quality attainable.

It was only natural in the period we have just discussed that the Department should complain of the insufficiency of water. That was not a matter that could be attended to until science had a greater play than she experienced in those days. Indeed up to the present there has been a constant cry that New York has not all the water she needs. In the past as in the present the firemen did the very best they could to utilize what was at their disposal for the benefit of the city.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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