Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 8, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



1835-1842. -- Frequency of Fires. -- Element of Rowdyism in the Department. -- Bitter Feuds between Companies. -- The Importance of the Services of the Fire Department Universally Admitted. -- A Proposition to Elect and Appoint Five Fire Commissioners. -- Efforts To Suppress "Volunteers."

Mayor Lawrence, in September, 1835, called the attention of the Common Council to the frequency of fires, and particularly the one in Fulton, Ann, and Nassau Streets, and also the fire in Water Street and Maiden Lane, by which a large amount of property was destroyed and lives lost. He expressed the belief that these were the work of incendiaries, and he suggested the propriety of offering a reward for such information as should lead to the detection and conviction of the criminals. The Council empowered him to do so in his discretion, and, accordingly, a proclamation for five hundred dollars was issued.

Not more than a fortnight after the issuance of this proclamation another large fire broke out in Franklin and Chapel (now College Place) Streets, bearing every mark of being of incendiary origin, and another reward of five hundred dollars was offered.

Then followed the terrible conflagration of December 16, which destroyed in one night twenty million dollars' worth of property, and dislodged more than six hundred mercantile firms. By that calamity the extensive resources and irrepressible energies of the citizens were developed, and it forms a proud record for the pages of history that not a single mercantile failure resulted therefrom, and many of the heavy sufferers were among the most active in aiding the widows, orphans, and inform persons reduced to poverty and dependence.

The element of rowdyism in the Fire Department hitherto referred to as being so pronounced that the citizens begged for the interference of the authorities, again manifested itself at a fire which occurred on the night of January 1, 1836, when alderman Purdy, representing the Tenth Ward, was set upon and mercilessly beaten by members of the Engine Company No. 10, who were also accused of abandoning their engine on that occasion. For the latter offense, nine officers and members were expelled the Department, and ten were suspended for not complying with the requisitions to appear before a committee of the Common council and testify in reference to the assault on Alderman Purdy.

With the opening of the spring of 1836, the number of fires in the city had increased to an alarming extent, and a proportionate increase in the number of firemen had become necessary. This increase was not attainable, by reason of the citizens being deterred from becoming firemen in consequence of the arduous and toilsome duties which the members of the Fire Department were incessantly called upon to perform. As the increase was absolutely necessary for the safety of the city, it became a duty incumbent on the authorizes to encourage citizens to join the Fire Department by lessening, as far as possible, the labors of the firemen, as well as removing such impediments to their exertions as existed.

Among those impediments, that caused by young men--who appeared at fires in the garb of firemen--was especially prominent. The engineers had no control over them, and their insubordination, utter lawlessness, and the confusion they created, proved a continual source of annoyance and serious hindrance both to the engineers and the regular firemen, a great majority of whom would gladly dispense with their precarious assistance if by doing so they could be freed from all suspicion of participating in riots created by these boys, and which, instead of being assigned to their true cause, were attributed to the members of the Fire Department.

To accomplish these two purposes, it was determined to appoint four person to each fire engine and hose company, and two persons to each hook and ladder company, to take care of the apparatus and assist generally, and making it the duty of all members of the Department to prevent persons not belonging to the Department, especially boys, from entering any house or handling any apparatus belonging to the Department, said appointees not to be considered as firemen, and to be paid at the rate of one hundred and fifty dollars per annum.

The Third Ward Hose Company, whose origin was traceable to the conflagration of December, 1835, tendered its services to the corporation in March, 1836, which were accepted, and they were recognize as a volunteer fire company, attached to, but not a part of, the Fire Department.

From the report of the chief engineer, John Ryker, Jr., it appears that the condition of the Fire Department on October 3, 1839, was:

Forty-nine engine companies, six hook and ladder companies, nine hose companies, with an active available force of nine hundred and thirty-seven men.

Half a century ago it was as honor to be an alderman or an assistant. They were elected by their fellow-citizens for their integrity and ability, and as a consequence, were entrusted and invested with privileges and functions of a magisterial nature. Hence it cam about that, net to the mayor of the city, their status as concerns fires, for to them (as the law prescribed) the marshals and constables, repairing immediately on the alarm of fire with their staves of office to the scene of the fire, should report and should conform to such orders as might be given them by the mayor, the aldermen and assistants of the ward, or by any one of the aldermen, for the preservation of the public peace, and the removal of all idle and suspected persons or others not actually or usefully employed in aiding the extinguishment of such fire, or in the preservation of property in the vicinity thereof, and if any marshal or constable should not attend at such fires or should neglect so to report himself, or to obey any orders that were given him, he should, unless he had a reasonable excuse. To be determined by the mayor, forfeit and pay five dollars for each offense.

Two persons were appointed to each fire engine and hose company (ordinance May 10, 1836), and two persons to each hook and ladder company within the lamp and watch district, their duty consisting of keeping all the apparatus of the companies in compete order and ready for immediate use; upon every alarm of fire they repaired forthwith to the house of the engine, hose, or hook and ladder company to which they were attached, and assisted the members in conveying the engine, carriage, or truck to the fire, and there assisted the company in getting the engine to work, or the hose ready for immediate action, under the direction of the officers of the company to which they belonged; and during the time such engine or hose carriage was employed at a fire, the two persons named in the ordinance took charge of the hose, and prevented any persons from treading on, or otherwise injuring the same. They also assisted the members, when the engine or hose carriage was discharged from duty, after the putting out of a fire, in taking up the hose and other apparatus, and assisted in conveying them, together with the engine or hose carriage, etc., to the house appropriated for it, and there washed and dried the hose, and cleaned and put in complete order all the apparatus, so as to be ready for immediate use, taking care, however, in no case to meddle with the works of an engine.

Those persons, similarly appointed and attached to a hook and ladder company, preserved the truck and apparatus belonging to their company from injury during the fire, assisted member in raising or moving ladders and hooks, and rendered assistance, after the fire, in getting the apparatus to the house, etc.

"Among the novelties of New York,." it was remarked by an observant writer (1887) "there is nothing perhaps which strikes a stranger with more surprise then the frequency of fires. There is scarcely a day from January to July, and from July to January, when there is not an alarm--a cry of fire--and a ringing of bells. But a single alarm, for each day in the year, would be too low an average. To say the bells were rung and the firemen called out five hundred times in the three hundred and sixty-five days, would not exceed the truth."

"Strangers are very often alarmed," continues the same writer, "as well as surprised, at the frequent cries of fires in this city, and fancy from the hideous outcry of the boys and the rueful jangling of the bells, that the fire is close to, if not with their very lodgings; and that New York is, every day, on the verge of a general conflagration. As soon as an alarm of fire is given they fall to ringing in all quarters with great zeal and force; and some of them continue their clamor for a considerable time after the danger is past, or after the alarm is ascertained to be a false one. The first in the field, the most vigorous in action, and the last to quit, is the bell of the Middle Dutch Church. Who the ringer of that bell is we do not know, but this we will aver, that he labors with a zeal and perseverance that are quite astounding. We fancy he, now and then, gets up in his sleep to exercise his vocation. At any rate, whether asleep or awake, he seems to have a remarkable fondness for pulling at the end of a rope."

Severe and bitter quarrels were often the result of placing two engine companies under the same roof. This was illustrated by the perpetual and bitter feuds between Companies Nos. 34 and 29 and Hook and Ladder Company No. 3, whose houses, on the corner of Hudson and Christopher Streets, adjoined and were connected. The residents of the Ninth Ward, in the immediate vicinity, were much disturbed by the disorderly conduct of the members of these companies, regular and volunteer, and they memorialized the Common Council for an abatement of the annoyance by the removal of the engine companies. An investigation was made on the part of the Council, and so well established was the fact that gross scenes of outrage and abuse had often been perpetrated that the corporation took possession of the engines and placed them in the public yard until other locations for them should be determined on. The hook and ladder company was completely exonerated by the investigation, being declared to be a well regulated, efficient, and valuable company. The upshot of the matter was that the house corner of Hudson and Christopher Streets was sold, and the bellicose engine companies were located respectively on Morton and Bank Streets.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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