Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 11, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



Scenes and Incidents, Grave and Gay.--historic Memories.--Distinguished Firemen. -- Refreshments and Amusements. -- Morality and Temperance. -- At the Theater. -- Songs and Singers. -- Luxurious Furnishings of an Engine House. -- A Temperance Orator's Only Speech.

As time rolls on the interest in the old Fire Department of New York seems to deepen. There is nothing like the institution in the history of any other city of this continent or in fact in Europe. So, too, does the New Department stand head and shoulders above any fire department in the world. The doings of both make a chronicle more interesting than nay romance or novel. Apart from the dry record of fires attended by the old fire laddies, and the details of the establishment of the Volunteers, are incidents and stores worthy of the attention of posterity. Not only to the student of the manners and customs of bygone times, but to the general reading public are these matter full of interest, and which never weary in the retelling. These facts the writer has gathered from the most reliable sources. Men over whose heads the snows of eighty winters and more have passed have contributed their experience. Others whom we would call old, but whom the octogenarians consider youthful, have likewise added their quota of information. In these and the succeeding chapters we propose to place before the reader a picture of the life of the volunteers, and a graphic sketch of the paid Department. The fights, the songs, the brave deeds, and the social life of the firemen are here set down, we hope, in the plain and simple language of the impartial historian.

For more than half a century the Volunteers embraced the very best classes of the citizens of New York. Subsequently their numbers were augmented by "runners," unofficial firemen, in a different grade, who, though no less zealous in the performance of duty, were full of fun, frolic, and fight, making the history of their times decidedly lively. Among the distinguished names in the Mutual Assistance Bag Company, which was organized in 1803, and was the forerunner of the present fire insurance patrol, were those of the Bleeckers, Beekmans, Cuttings, De Peysters, Irvings, Laights, Roosevelts, Stuyvesants, Swartouts, and Ten Eycks.

Among other well-known names of citizens, highly respected, who were in the old Fire Department are those of Zophar Mills, George T. Hope, president of the Continental Fire Insurance Company, W. L. Jenkins, president of the Bank of America, Carlisle Norwood, president of the Lorillard Fire Insurance Company, Jordan L. Mott, the well-known merchant; Thomas Monahan, president of the Fulton Bank (of Engine Company No. 4, afterwards of Hose Company No. 1); Frederic E. Gilbert, capitalist and philanthropist , foreman of No. 4, founder of the New York Club and for twelve years its president. In 1841 Mr. Gilbert acted as a second to Mr. William Heyward, of South Carolina, when the latter fought a duel with August Belmont. Peter and Robert Goelet, the millionaire, belonged to Engine Company No. 9; Morris Franklin, president of the New York Life Insurance Company, was foremen of No. 25, (known as the "brass back engine"). And had several narrow escapes from death; James F. Wenman, ex-park commissioner; William H. Webb, the shipbuilder, ran with Live Oak No. 44; John R. Steers, who built the yacht "America," was also a member of Engine No. 44; John W. Degrau, who was born in 1797. At the time of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, it was proposed to send to that city a delegation of the veteran firemen, but not a man could be found who was not his junior. After the fire of 1835 Mr. Degrau raised two hose companies and one thousand sic hundred dollars for the purpose in one day. he could remember catching fish the whole length of what is now known as Canal Street, from Broadway to the North river. His playmates were the Roosevelts, the Goelets, the Irvings--Washington Irving's father kept a dry goods store on William Street--General Morris, Drake, the poet, and Mr. Hackett, the actor. Then there was Adam W. Spies, the successful hardware merchant, now eighty-six years old and wealthy. Mr. Spies was president of the Stuyvesant Insurance Company, had traveled over Europe, an amateur artist of no inconsiderable talent and full of information on a variety of subjects. He was a member of Engine Company No. 5, and a fire warden.

Some of the old firemen have found congenial occupation on Jersey Heights, such as Charles Merrill, formerly secretary of Columbia Hose Company No. 9; Larry Welsh, foreman of Howard Engine Company No. 34; James R. Tate, formerly foremen of Marion Engine Company No. 9 ("Old Rock"). In Hoboken, there was David Satters, formerly of Harry Howard Hose Company No. 55, now foreman of Hoboken engine Company No. 1; Gus Willis, of old Empire Engine Company No. 42, now of Hoboken Engine Company No. 1; E. Gilkysen, formerly of Neptune Hose Company No. 27; Sam Archer and James Kenny, now chief engineer of the Hoboken Fire Department.

Of the quality of the old firemen, Mr. William Brandon, speaking in 1884, remarked: "The majority of people have no idea of the number of judges, aldermen, prominent officials and millionaires they see and hear of in the city of New York who were firemen once, lithe, agile, and careless of themselves as they climbed the ladder in summer to the roofs of tall houses, handled the almost frozen hose in the depths of winter, when it was like sheet-iron, and encountered danger and death at all seasons." Thomas Coman, of engine Company No. 13, rose to be president of the Board of Aldermen; so did Alderman Kirk of the same company; of Hose company No. 60, were John Claney, editor of the Leader, subsequently county clerk; congressman Morgan Jones, Supervisor Walter roach, and Police Captain Edward Walsh.

James F. Wenman, the ex-park commissioner, later treasurer of the Veteran firemen's Association, whose headquarters are in East Tenth Street, was one of the most active of the old firemen. In 1876 he saved the life of a servant girl. It was at a fire at the New York Club House. The girl had endeavored to escape by going out on the broad ledge of the man cornice. The flames were behind her, and a step would have precipitated her to the pavement, seventy feet below. The firemen had reared an extension ladder, but it was found to be ten or twelve feet too short. Mr. Wenman, made his way to the roof, seized the girl, and half pulling her, half dragging her, firmly succeeded in getting her to the roof of an adjoining building.

The firemen's pride in his profession was demonstrated in a thousand and one ways, as also was his fond regard for the seemingly sole object of his affection outside of his domestic relations. As one of the numerous illustrations that could be given, it is related that Foremen Thomas Conner, of Clinton Engine Company No. 41, being compelled through illness to resign his office, expressed the hope in his letter of resignation, October 9, 1837,d that with their new engine soon at arrive, his company would be able "to cope with anything that runs on four wheels." "When you bring her home," he added, "I hope I will be able to help you escort her to the house. I am in hopes when the new machine arrives, at the first alarm at night to see that double rope, that you have been so long talking about, manned inside and out, with young Gulick ranged ahead with the old 'Skagg,' placing the animal in the most conspicuous style. I shall try to take her out the first night."

Benjamin Strong, whose term of service began as far back as 1791 and continued up to 1822, was one of the most enthusiastic volunteers. His heart and soul were engrossed in the pursuit, and his activity was unremitting. At the first stroke of the alarm bell, even at night and even when age was beginning to make its enfeebling influences apparent, he donned his fire cap and joined the hastening throng of his hardy and intrepid comrades. He communicated his enthusiasm to his sons and daughters, who took an honorable pride in their father's devotion to duty. Even after he had resigned from the Department, he was always disappointed not to be called from his bed when there had been a night alarm.

An amusing story is told of how a distinguished member of the Association of Exempt Firemen came to join the Department. It was about seventy years ago that the occurrence took place. An "Old Vamp," then in his prime, was sitting in an old tavern in Nassau Street, when he heard some of the boys talking about joining an association. He then thought he would like to belong to something or other. So, when he went home, he told his mother that he wanted to join a society, he did not much care what it was. There was a great revival going on in those days in the old Duane Street Church, and, like all good mothers, she told him to come along with her and join the church. "Well,: he said, "I don't particularly care what it is, but I must belong to something." So down to the church he went, but the minister told him he must go on probation for three months before he could join. When the three months had expired, he called on the "Dominie," but was still told he must wait two months longer. Some three months passed, when the deacon met our friend walking down Hudson Street, in a neat red shirt and a fancy pair of suspenders, bearing a number upon his back, and coat thrown over his arm. "Ah!" said the deacon, "you are the on I want to see. You have not been to church of late." "No, deacon, that probation was too long for me." "But," said the deacon, "your probation is at an end; you can now join the church." "Too late, deacon, too late. I've joined an engine company down here, and its going to take all my time to look after fires. I'm laying for one now. You see I was bound to join something, and these fellows let me in without any probation; all I had to do was to shake down my little two dollars and I was called a member. Call around and see us, deacon. We have got as bully a little engine as ever stretched into a fire."

Considering the superior class of men composing the Volunteer Department, the morals of the members must necessarily have been of a corresponding kind. This will be readily understood from some peculiar entries made in the minute books of the companies. For instance, in the book of Engine Company No. 21 is found the following: "Wm. A. Baker reports Mr. Crossthwaite as saying, 'Damn the odds.' The secretary reports Mr. W. A. Baker for saying to John E. Norris (during an altercation between the two), 'You be damned, you damned old Dutch hog.'" As nothing but the very gravest matter are recorded in the minutes, it is clear that the offense of using impolite language is the worst the fire laddies of that period (1810) can be accused of. It would seem that those old Volunteers had quite a profound veneration for their engine houses, from the rules and regulations they made for the maintenance of discipline. Under date of February 10, 1830, we find on the minutes of Engine Company No. 13, that Mr. Tonnele was find twice for swearing and once for chewing. Chewing! What would our valued firemen of to-day say if the commissioners passed such a resolution as the following, which appears on the book of No. 13, on November 28, 1829:

Resolved. That if any member be found smoking a segar or chewing tobacco

in the Engine House at any time, he shall be fined twenty-five cents for every offense.

Such an order would, undoubtedly, cause a conflagration to day. "What!" said a fireman to the writer, "Fire with smoke!" Never! It is against the laws of nature." Time after time were the me fined for a breach of this rule, the occurrence always being gravely recorded on the minutes. Poor Tonnele appears to have been a slave to the weed and forfeited many a dollar for the sake of a "quid." Swearing was regarded as heinous as chewing. One of the by-laws of Pearl Hose Company No. 28, in 1854 was: "If any member, while on duty or at meetings, shall persist in improper conduct, or in using profane or improper language, he shall be expelled, provided that two-thirds of the members present vote therefore."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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