Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 11, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie

But alas, poor No. 3! The day came when three small fires broke out within twenty-four hours, and as ill luck would have it No. 3 was last at all of them. Then were there great rejoicing among the enemy, and a terrible battle fought by the chagrined members of No. 3. Some one wrote a poem of praise over this event, beginning:

There is an engine house
Not far away,
Where they are last at fire
Three times a day.
Oh, How the boys all scream,
When they see Three's put on steam,
For the fires they can't paint green
Three times a day.

Even the stage was invaded by the old firemen, as the following entertaining facts will show. Engine No. 27 was located east of the Bowery. Its volunteer members were principally mechanics, such as ship-carpenters, calkers, shipsmiths, boatbuilders, riggers, and the like. They would all drop their tools at the screw dock, at the foot of Pike and Market Streets, on the instant a fire alarm was sounded in the daytime, oftentimes to the disgust of the "bosses." They were a hardy lot, who had their headquarters at the Sawdust House on Walker Street, kept then by Yankee Sullivan. The old Chatham Theater was only five minutes' walk from the engine house. One of twentyseven's boys was John J. Mount, a boatbuilder, afterwards captain of the Nineteenth Precinct police, already referred to as the temperance orator. Mount had a taste for the stage and became captain of the "supes," at the Chatham Theater. One Saturday night on his return to the engine house from his histrionic labors he imparted a piece of news to the boys. On Saturday nights very few of them went home, having all Sunday to sleep in, provided there were no fires. The supernumerary captain told the lads that on the following Monday, "Cherry and Fair Star," was to be brought out at the Chatham in grand style, with Mrs. Harrison, an English importation, as Fair Star. He told them an alluring story of the armor, shields, spears, banners, all the most gorgeous description, in the play, and said that the management required thirty or forty extra "supes" to don the habiliments of pageantry and war, and give eclat to the spectacle. The captain was empowered to enlist the force required, and naturally offered the good thing first to the boys. They jumped at the chance to immortalize themselves on the boards, and nearly every man joined at once. They were required to be at the theater at eleven o'clock the next morning (Sunday) for rehearsal. As their engine and the theater bore the same name the firemen felt they had a sort of affinity with the latter. Their engine was somewhat theatrical. On it back it bore a painting by Quidon, eminent in those days, representing Rolla holding Alonzo's child at arm's length for protection.

On Sunday morning between thirty and forty of the boys entered the back door of the Chatham, some trembling with excitement, some doubtful how they would succeed, and others brave and confident. All was bustle on the stage as they entered for the first time behind the scenes. Jimmy Anderson, an excitable Irishman, was stage manager. Of course, he had been accustomed to bully the "supes," but the new men were made of sterner stuff, and it would have been risky to have bullied them a great deal. Mrs. Harrison, the star, stood talking to some of the actors at the wings. The boys remarked her round cherry face, and thought that she liked her brandy and water. Captain Mount was not a little nervous, for he had undertaken a great responsibility. The firemen were untrained "supes." And would not stand much nonsense in the drilling. Mount marshalled them in line, armed with old sticks and spears. They marched up and down, across, in and out and around the stage, until some of the boys thought it a serious matter, but others thought it great fun, and skylarked occasionally. The skylarking excited the ire of the stage manager, who frowned, and fretted, and swore, and threatened to pull the offenders out of the ranks, which was still greater fun for the boys. One he threatened to throw out of the theater, but it was well for him he did not try it, because the menaced fire laddie was one of the "lightning boys," and the manager, had he tackled him, would have thought a mule kicked him. However, they did very well, and remained at the theater until dark, there being no alarm of fire that day. Had there been they would have left pell-mell, for "running wid der masheen," was paramount to business and everything else. Indeed, there were cases where firemen lad left the altar, half married, to attend a fire.

After relating their experiences to the few they had left around the engine house, the "supes" went home, more fatigued than if they had worked all day at a fire. The scene on the stage next night was a strange one to them. Scene shifters, stage carpenters, property men, and others, were up to their eyes in business. The firemen were taken to the supernumeraries' dressing room under the stage, and there accountred. Their jokes at each other's expense were bandied about, such as "Scotty, your gal ought to see you now!" "Nosey" (to one who had a decided Roman nose), "take a reef in your bugle, so the audience can see your helmet!" "Jimmy, if your mother knew you were her and dressed up so wouldn't she be proud of you!" Mount was busy showing the men how to put their stage clothes on. They went on in the grand pageantry scene, and the stalwart firemen certainly looked well, and marched well, as the audience warmly applauded them. The sea of faces before them, and the tumultuous cheering, had a novel effect upon the new "actors." After the grand tableau, which concluded the piece, the firemen doffed their gorgeous dresses. While taking off their harness, Captain Mount went to them, and said he wanted four of them to go on in civilians' dress in the next piece, "the Hazard of the Die, or the Ruined Gambler," and that he rest might go in front and see the play. He began to select the best dressed in the party. John Rogers was attired in a resplendent blue coat, English cloth, long and square-tailed, with velvet collar and fancy gilt buttons--very fashionable in those days. Rogers would not have gone on in his own dress for any amount of money, and would rather forfeit his week's salary-twenty five cents. However, he lent his "nobby" coat to one of the boys, taking his in exchange. The scene was opened with the gambler's throwing dice. The four firemen took a hand in, and were saluted by their comrades in front with such remarks as these: "Johnny, don't let him cheat you!" "He's fingering the dice." "Who'd you borrow that coat of?" etc., etc.

When the piece was over they all left the theater. Just as Rogers was exchanging coats again, an alarm of fire was sounded, and away the late "supes' went helter-skelter to the engine house, meeting the engine as she was coming into Chatham Street. It was an all-night fire, and they thought no more of theatricals. Only five of the men went through the "run" of the piece, which lasted two weeks. It was lucky for the management that there was no alarm of fire on the opening night, for assuredly the firemen 'supes," would have dashed off in their stage attire to attend to the fire, and leave the play to take care of itself.

On January 27, 1854, Mr. J. Purdy of the national theater paid a graceful compliment to Clinton Engine Company No. 41, in having his band serenade them. The boys wee suddenly attracted by the sweet sounds that greeted their ears, and soon the denizens of the neighborhood turned out to listen and to applaud. The company subsequently passed a resolution of thanks in the following words:

The members of 41 greatly appreciate so tasteful a compliment. Our best

Wishes accompany the manager of the national Theater and his talented company

in the career of eminence and prosperity which they so well deserve.

A party of four, consisting of William M. Tweed, Adolphus Borst ("Bill Post"), William Drew, and John Garsight ("Dandy Gig"), sat in the house of 12 Engine in Rose Street on the evening of the famous 1835 fire. The corporation was supposed to furnish the engine houses with coal for heating purposes, but for various reasons they were often without it, and the members had to make shift as best they could, sometimes purchasing fuel out of their own pockets, oftentimes receiving it as a donation from neighbors, and not infrequently "foraging" for it. The quartette above named found that their supply of coal had been exhausted. Tweed suggested that they forage for it, and, accompanied by Borst and Drew, carrying a couple of buckets, paid a visit to the nearest coal yard, at the corner of Dover and Pearl Streets. Tweed, hardly as fleshy then as when he imperiously controlled the politics of the metropolis, scaled the fence, astride of which perched Drew, while Borst kept a lookout for the leather heads," as the police were then termed. The buckets were passed to Tweed, by him filled with coal, and returned to Borst on the sidewalk. The party managed to get back to the engine house with out being detected, and lit a fire in a small sugar-loaf stove, and set about making themselves comfortable for the evening. On the previous night they had been called to a small fire. The engine was of the goose-neck pattern, and the men were in the habit of jumping sidewalks with it. In doing so the king bolt was been broke, and the apparatus had been turned in, tongue first, being unfit for duty until repaired. Tweed and his companions were just beginning to reap the reward of their raid on the coal yard--for, as has been said, the night was bitterly cold--when the alarm for the great fire was given. The party, leaving their damaged engine in the house, hurried to the scene of the conflagration, and were there continuously on duty of for the subsequent forty-eight hours.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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