Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 9, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie

Although the disreputable element in the Fire Department had been gradually growing less for some years, owing to the judicious and unrelenting weeding-out process in operation, still even at this date (the fall of 1850), there were disagreeable and emphatic evidences of the existence of a rowdy crowd, upon whom a writ of ejectment should be served. At a fire in Gransevoort Street on the afternoon of august 7, Engine Company No. 34 detached a hose of Hose Company No. 35. At a fire in University Place on August 14, Engine Company No. 4 hindered Hose Company No. 35 from attaching to a hydrant, and William Story, of No. 4, made a personal assault on the foreman of the hose company. Hose Company No. 16 assaulted Engine Company No. 19, and injured their apparatus whilst they were going to a fire on the morning of August 16. Hose company No. 13 was accused of several attacks on Hose Company No. 6; Hose company No. 14 was reported for attacking Hose company No. 26, and injuring their apparatus. Of these complaints the charge of Engine Company No. 19, implicating Hose company No. 16, was the most serious, disclosing circumstances of the most aggravating character, and showing the premeditated nature of one of the most dastardly outrages that had ever disgraced the Fire Department. The apparatus of both companies were nearly new, having been in use only a short time. The carriage of No. 16 had been accidentally run into, upset and much damaged by the engine on August 14. Two evenings, thereafter, as Engine Company No. 19 was proceeding up Third Avenue to an alarm of fire--doubtless raised for the express purpose--they were assailed by a large party of rowdies, several of their members seriously injured and driven from their engine, which was then wantonly upset and considerably damaged. Owing to threats made by persons connected to No. 16 there were good reasons for believing that the outrage had been perpetrated by them. Complaints were also made against Engine Company No. 16 by Engine companies Nos. 24 and 34. An investigation resulted in the disbandment of No. 16, and the Common Council expressed their determination to arrest the spirit of rowdyism which seemed to be spreading in the Department, and which had so great a tendency to impair its character and efficiency.

A new fire district was formed January 5, 1850, and included all that portion of the city north of a line drawn through the center of Twenty-second Street, from the East to the North river. An additional assistant engineer was also elected.

The act of March 29, 1850, restored the office of fire warden, which had been abolished by the act of May 7, 1844, and declared, "that such fire wardens shall be twelve in number, and shall be selected from firemen of the city of New York, exempted by law from duty, at the time of such selection, whether then in active duty or not, and shall be appointed by the Common Council upon the nomination of the representatives of the Fire Department, by the majority of the votes cast by them for that purpose."

The fire wardens were divided into three classes (four in each class), by lot, to be drawn by the president of the Fire Department, or in case of his absence, by the vice-president, or by one of the trustees, at a time and place to be notified to said fire wardens. The classes were respectively numbered One, Two, and Three, according to the term of service of each. Class One served one year, Class Two served two years, Class Three served three years, and until their successors were appointed.

Their duties were defined substantially as follows: they were to inquire and examine into any and every violation of any of the provisions of the acts preciously passed for the prevention of fires in the city of new York; to give, or cause to be given, a notice, in writing, signed by at least one of them, to the owner and builder respectively, of such dwelling house, storehouse, building, ashhole, ashhouse, wooden shed, wooden building, or frame building, which should, after the passage of the act, be erected, altered, or enlarged. It was their duty to report to the chief engineer the location of and particular circumstances attending any building constructed, or in the course of construction, deemed unsafe; also to report all cases where goods were improperly stored in any building, so as to hazard the lives of firemen, or where any building should from any cause have become unsafe. They should attend all fires in the fire districts respectively to which they were allotted, and to wear at such fires the usual fire cap, with the words "Fire Warden," and the number of such district, conspicuously painted thereon, on white, on a black ground. Their compensation, as fixed by the Common Council, was two hundred and fifty dollars per annum each.

This act also abolished the office of assistant engineer.

Chief engineer Alfred Carson, on September 30, 1850, submitted his yearly report to the Common Council, in compliance with the requirements of law. This report was charged with dynamite, and few of the leading city officials escaped unscathed, as its contents were scattered broadcast, hitting right and left, and sparing none. Members of the Common Council, police justices, aldermen, ward politicians, prominent firemen, and police captains, were fiercely and ruthlessly assailed. Chief Carson, to do him justice, seemed at least to have the courage of his convictions, but his discretion and judgment cannot be commended. That there were abuses, and very serious ones, in the Department, which called for remedial measures, none will deny. Many of these abuses struck at the very root of all semblance of authority of a long number of years of misgovernment and mismanagement. No one man or official was responsible, nor could the evils complained of by Chief Carson be remedied by the most enthusiastic reformer or powerful official effort, except by the most revolutionary method. In fact, these abuses had grown gradually, until they had become firmly rooted in the system and become a part, and a controlling part, of it. Firemen had inherited prejudices and resentments, and had come to regard themselves as possessed of exceptional privileges, and a large portion of the community, by their acquiescence or active support, helped to confirm them in this belief. The times, generally, viewed from a better ordered standpoint of the present day, were sadly out of joint. There seemed to be a less regard for the law,, and the administrators of justice often dispensed it with a very partial hand. Ward politics dominated the bench, and moulded all public action. It was time when mob rule was a power in the city. We had then no police force worthy of the name, and the rougher element had no wholesome terror of the law, for even if arraigned for trial the rough who had committed himself was sure to find sympathy for his misdeeds among the politicians who controlled primary elections, a class from which were recruited the police justices, and even higher judicial dignitaries. These police justices, it may be noted, had had a long time previously control of the police force, and they held their tenure of office more by protecting the turbulent element than by enforcing the laws and protecting law-abiding citizens. The firemen were a powerful and representative body of men. In pluck and daring we may not look upon their like again. They were both feared and respected. They could extinguish the political ambition of the most popular citizen as readily as they could put out the light of a blazing tar barrel. Their influence was far-reaching, and whenever they saw fit to indulge in a family jar, it was, as a rule, considered the safer course to let them severely alone and settle their difficulties among themselves.

Therefore, Chief Carson proved to be a reformer in a non-reforming age. No one wanted his reforming nostrums, or cared a straw about his charges, recommendations, or complaints. He was whistling against the wind, and was voted a crank. If Mr. Carson, it was argued, didn't like things as he found them, why did he accept office? The Department was no better or worse than it had been under his predecessor, who was a man of sterling integrity and strict official honor; but the intrepid--if bumptious--firemen found nothing to complain of; then why should Chief Carson? The chief's focal point of observation was sadly at variance with that of his colleagues and official superiors. There was a wide divergence in their views on these matters.

Mr. Carson's indictment was voluminous, and contained any number of counts. He found fault, for instance, with the method of appointing the fire-ringers from the police force, complained of the "gross neglect," their "utter irresponsibility," to the chief engineer, and suggested that the appointing power and control of these functions be taken our of the hands of the mayor and chief of police. He cited aggravated cases of neglect of duty of these fire-ringers, "which change and neglect," says the report, "not only shamefully jeopardizes property worth millions of dollars, but cause the firemen much unnecessary labor, through false alarms at the towers, and often lulling a whole district in a false security by striking the bells wrong, and giving no alarm when fire actually exists." The delay in the repair of the engine and hose houses was another source of unhappiness to the troubled soul of the censorious chief. The superintendent of public buildings, who had charge of such matters, came in for his share of the general fault finding, and Mr. Carson, as a remedy, petitioned for a transfer of the repairs and alterations of the different engine, hose, and hook and ladder houses, to the chief engineer.

Another evil against which the official soul of Chief Carson was up in arms, and against which he inveigled in the most emphatic and forcible terms, was the outrageous spirit of rowdyism of certain clubs of desperate fighting men, called 'Short Boys,' 'Old Maid's Boys,' 'Rock Boys,' etc., organized after the mode of the clubs of London and Paris, whose members were shot down like dogs by the firemen of the latter city, and finally suppressed, as were the clubs in London, some years since by the city authorities. Chief Carson was especially vehement in his references to the conduct of these "clubs." "these clubs," he repeats, "make deliberate and bloody attacks on our firemen while going to and returning from fire, destroying the apparatus, and often, by stratagem, putting certain companies in collision with each other, individual members against each other, and creating in every way endless broil and confusion in the Department. * * * I have had many of these villians, " the chief goes onto say, "arresting for upsetting our engines, cutting the hose, beating our firemen almost to death, etc., but they were no sooner in prison than the captains of police, the aldermen, and judges of police, would discharge them, to commit fresh attacks on the firemen the following night, and while reeking with a terrible revenge for their arrest and temporary confinement." Some of these "clubs' men Chief Carson dubs, "brutal looking monsters." * * * "The Old Maid's Boys," continues the chief, growing vehement, "a fearful and most deadly club, seized Hose No. 14, ran up alongside of Hose No. 26, attacked the firemen, upset the carriage, etc., doing considerable injury to the carriage." "But why," he asks, desperately, "recount these daily and daring outrages, when these bloodthirsty creatures are thus encouraged and liberated by aldermen, on who conscientious watchfulness and unsullied integrity the people rely for the incarceration and severe punishment of these abandoned and heartless fiends."

The remainder of this bulky report is mainly taken up with the troubles existing among certain inharmonious bodies of fire laddies. From this it appears that William M. Tweed, the one time boss, and then foreman of Engine Company No. 6, was expelled for leading an attack on Hose Company No. 31, and his company suspended for three months. The common Council, however, to the deep disgust of Chief Carson, failed to ratify this sentence, and Mr. Tweed was let off with a suspension of three months. These chief Carson calls "revolting facts."

There were in the Department twenty-five engines in good order, three in ordinary condition, and six building; thirty-two hose carriages in good order, thirteen indifferent, and two building; six hook and ladder trucks in good order, two indifferent, and one building; with forty-five ladders and seventy-four hooks; forty-five thousand three hundred feet of hose in good order, and nine thousand six hundred and fifty feet in ordinary condition, making in all fifty-five thousand nine hundred and fifty feet of hose; also thirty-four engine companies, forty-seven hose companies, nine hook and ladder companies, and one thousand eight hundred and ninety-eight men.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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