Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 11, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

The Temperance societies of 1840 made an effort to win over the firemen, and in a measure succeeded. Almost all the members of Engine Company No. 18 signed the pledge, and became ardent propagandists. They were encouraged and rewarded by the Ninth Warders, who presented them with a silken banner. The presentation took place in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Bedford Street, and it was a great day for the boys. The banner was presented by Miss Downey, sister of Captain Jack downer (afterwards of the Fire Zouaves). The fire laddies enter the church in their uniform, and were seated in the front pews. Among the members were Henry Wilson (subsequently a merchant at No. 113 Bowery), Samuel J. Gillespie, nelson D. Thayer (who was given charge of the banner), Charles W. Cornell (who later on went to live in California), John Boyd, David Milliken (a president of the Fire Department), John Ayres, John Kettleman, and Leonard De Cline. The church was thronged with young ladies, wearing red ribbons with the number of the company attached--their attachment, by the way, to several members of the company being a well-known fact. Mr. Wilson returned thanks on behalf of the company. "Why shouldn't we join the temperance movement?" said Mr. Wilson. "Are we not of all men the most steadfast believers in the efficacy of water?" Why, we could not get along without water. It is our native element, and may we always have enough of it."

Among the other companies who joined the teetotalers were Hose Companies Nos. 13 and 5, Engine Companies Nos. 27 and 41. The Common Council, as a recognition of this still further sacrifice on the part of the firemen, presented to each of the companies a brass trumpet. On one occasion in 1842, after temperance services in the Forsyth Street Methodist Church, Hose company No. 2 had a grand teetoal "blow-out" in its house in Eldridge Street, to which it invited Engine Company No. 18. The boys were got up in magnificent style in red shirts and shows suspenders with wonderful needlework. The deacons of the church were also there, and, of course, all the pretty girls, wearing red roses. Tea and coffee, hot rolls and cake, and so on, were dispensed with prodigality. Speeches were made in public and in private,--the private ones being made to the young ladies--"The Learned Blacksmith," "On Old Long Island's Seagirt Shore," and other songs were sung, and generally a splendid time was had. The fire laddies for lots of fun out of their temperance proclivities. A comical story is still told by John J. Mount, of Hose Company No. 2. The Sackett's Hall Temperance society in Division Street was one of the great centers of teetotal propagandism. Young Mount, now a police captain, and the brother of James R. Mount, was here a constant attendant, but a remarkably silent member. It was the custom to have impromptu speeches made. At length John Mount, inspired by what others did, conceived the idea of making an off-hand speech. He had another brother, George, now dead, who had a literary gift, and to him he applied to write him an "impromptu" speech. George wrote it, and at great length. For weeks and weeks the gallant fireman applied himself to its study until he had every word of it by heart. Then on a certain night, when the hall was crowded he modestly took a seat among the audience. After several orators had got through brief exordia, others speakers were called for by the chairman. Now was the supreme moment. Up jumped Mount to the intense astonishment of all who knew him, and, with his heart going pit-a-pat, he proceeded towards the platform.

"Hullo! Jack, what's the matter with you!" cried one. "Come off!" sarcastically, said another. "Are you going to sing!" observed a third, while the girls tittered.

But the bold firemen knew the power he had acquired, and, ignoring the quizzical remarks of his friends, mounted the rostrum. He began timorously, but in a few moments caused the audience to open its eyes as well as its ears. Such a flood of rhetoric it had not been accustomed to. Close argument, flights of fancy, stirring appeals, and picturesque descriptions, followed each other in swift order. The meeting was roused to enthusiasm, and when, after an hour of this kind of thing, he took his seat in the middle of the hall, he was cheered again and again, and congratulated on all sides. A great orator had appeared. A genius had been discovered. Managers of other societies gathered around him anxious to secure dates. Young Mount engaged himself to speak at nearly a dozen places. But, alas! for the morrow. He could not deliver the same speech again, and had no other ready. Consequently that was his last as well as his first appearance on the teetotal platform. Rather than "give himself away" he abandoned the temperance movement, and it knew him no more. But he had made himself famous--for the time being.

One of the queer characters of the old days was "Rooster Kelly," who used to run with Engine No. 30. He was remarkable for the tall stories he used to tell, and for the interesting way he had of making them appear truthful. Years after the disbandment of the Volunteer Department, he related the following story about "Old Mose:" "Mose ran with the old Forty. He keeps a billiard saloon in Honolulu now. I kin remember the night him and Orange County--he was our foreman--had it nip and tuck. They were both bully boys, but Orange County kinder got the bulge on him after a few hours' tussle. One night, Orange County, Mose, and me, Tom Hyer, Captain Tom reeves, and Alick Hamilton, were down in Bob Wanamaker's saloon, corner of Reade Street. Just after he got there, somebody threw a stone out of the third story window of the house next door to the fire. Well, that stone struck Orange County on the shoulder, bounced off, and struck the rooster that was standing next to him handling a bucket, and killed him deader'n a door nail."

Moses Humphrey, or "Old Mose," as he was called, was the typical "Bowery Boy," whom Frank Chanfrau, the actor and fireman, caricatured in his famous play. "Mose" belonged to engine 40 (Lady Washington). Chanfrau's impersonation was not pleasing to the majority of firemen, who regarded it as a libel upon themselves. America's Own, or the Fireman's Journal, of which Anthony B. Child was the editor, took the actor severely to task. By the way, it was in this paper that Maggie Mitchell received her first notice at her debut in the Bowery Theater. The Journal praised Chanfrau as an actor, but added: "It is ridiculous to attempt to make a part out of such a character as Mose is represented to be. His benevolence, and the clap-trap maneuvers of the stage, are all sham. The effect of this character upon the juveniles who visit the theater is plainly visible, as they take every opportunity to imitate the character. Its effects upon the Fire Department are serious, in the estimation of those who are not acquainted with its members, as they set every fireman down as a 'Mose,' degrading to youth."

One of the arts cultivated by the old firemen was the art of music. As sailors work best when they have some one to sing to them or fiddle to them, so the fire boys worked with a greater will when they heard a song. How vigorously they used to dash down the brakes when a good chorus was being sung around them! One of the singers of the olden times was James Hurley, an old Fifth Street schoolboy, who was known as the "Sweet singer of the Dry Dock." Hurley belonged to old Forest Engine No. 3, and at every fire he encouraged the boys with his songs. Once, at a fire that broke out at Houston Street and the Bowery, a thousand men stood around and heard one hundred fire laddies of No. 3 take up the burden of Jimmie's song, which was the old pathetic Irish ballad "Shule, shule, shule, agra." A few weeks later Hurley joined the Ellsworth Zouaves, and was one of the first to fall by a southern bullet among the mountains of Virginia.

Live Oak engine No. 44 was known as "Old Turk," and the "Singing Engine." William H. Webb, the shipbuilder, was a member. The early members were mostly shipyard men, and the greater part of them good vocalists. Chief among them was Frank Walton, a tall sawyer, who was called the "Minstrel Boy of the Sawpit." One evening in April, 1849, a fire broke out near the Eagle Tavern, and a rival engine to "Old Turk," did so badly that the members have hissed. A young lady opposite, standing at her window, heard Walton sing, and after the fire invited him into per parlor, and accompanied him on the piano while he sang her a fireman's ditty. After this, he became a constant visitor, and finally married one of the belles of the eleventh Ward.

But Walton could sing anywhere. Coming home from the old Chatham Theater one night Walton and a companion sat down on a stoop in East Broadway to rest. There were no railroads in that neighborhood then. Walton sang "Napoleon's Dream," and soon every window for blocks around was filled with admiring nightcaps, and even staid old Quakers from henry Street listened to the song. Walton took the gold fever in '50 and went to California. Being unable to pay his way on board, he sang his way to 'Frisco. To the astonishment of the new Yorkers who thought Walton was in New York, he made his appearance in the mines with a slouch hat, coast on his arm, and a red shirt, on which a badge of "44" shone resplendent. He sang his way to the hearts of the miners, and in one week was the best known man in the mine. But the tide turned; reverses met him at every step, and far from home, and the scene of his early exploits, Old Turk's Mocking Bird one cold winter night folded his fire coat around him and slept his last sleep. The winter winds of the Nevadas sang to sleep the "Minstrel Boy of the Sawpit."

Opposite the historical Tea-water Pump (of which mention is made elsewhere) stood the Tea-water Tavern, where the boys also quenched their thirst quite as often, but with a more dire effect. It was in this old hostelry when rivalry first grew strong between the engine companies, that No. 3 gathered in solemn conclave over a bowl of steaming punch, to decide the momentous question of painting their new engine. The old Tea-water Pump had been given that day a fresh coat of pea green, and an honest fireman coming to the meeting had noticed the pretty contract with the white snow piled all about it. So, rising in his seat and speaking with sincerity and profanity, he addressed the chair; "I don't care a d-------, fellers, what color yer paint the old gal, if ye'll only listen to me an' paint her green." This speech got abroad, and when No. 3 afterwards extinguished a fire it was reported that she had "painted it green." Indeed, so proud did the boys become of the expression that they embodied it in a rude ditty which they never failed to sing, to the frantic rage of their rivals, when returning from a fire;

We are coming back rejoicing,
The liveliest boys you've seen;
We've beat them other fellers
At the fire we painted green.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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