Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 12, Part I

By Holice and Debbie




Racing Rivals. -- A Tragedy in the tombs. -- The Tea-water Pump. -- Celebrated Combats and Champions. -- The "Battle of the Boots". -- The Big Bowery Fight.--Old 'Mose.' -- Chivalry of the Firemen. -- Foraging for a Supper. -- Hard Work at the Fires.

The way they used to do things in the Forties is told by an old fireman of Hook and Ladder No. 4. "I joined Hook and Ladder No. 5." He said to the writer, "in the spring of 1845. She was called the 'Screamer,' and we were so proud of her as some of the survivors are now (1886) of their certificates on their walls. I was a youngster then, and used to lay awake at nights fearful I should miss an alarm. We used to have fine times at the station house. One fine nights we used to sit around the door and sing. I was mighty fond of music, and was so taken with Big McCollum's singing that I joined Truck No. 4 just to hear him. That was in 1860. She was known officially as Eagle Hook and Ladder No. 4, and lay in Eldridge Street, near Canal. Just above us in Christie Street was Peterson Engine Company No. 31, and we had many a muss with that company. We got up a song of them once like this:

The silver hook and ladder,
The pretty, golden Four,
To make Thirty-one the madder,
Wash the paint from off her door.

"The youngsters in the street used to take sides, and when one crowd met another, and heard this song sung, a fight was sure to result. One night there was a row in front of our house, and our foreman, Jack Halligan, thinking the lads had done each other enough damage took the hose and washing them off the street. At that time there was another big rivalry going on between Americus, nicknamed 'Big Six,' of which Bill Tweed was a member, and Engine Company No. 41, called the 'White Ghost.' They were always looking for each other at a fire, and washing each other. Well, Big Six got an assistant secretary, and a 'White Ghost,' boy heard of it. At the next meeting of his company he got up and said:

"'Mr. chairman, I move we have an assistant sec. I don't know what an assistant sec. Is, but No. 41 has got one, an' I'm hanged if we ought to let them pukes lay over us.'

"All the other fellows thought just as he did, so they voted themselves an 'assistant sec.,' without in the world knowing what he was to do. They also got up a song which ran something like this"

Number Six has come on deck
With a new assistant sec.,
A new assistant sec.,
Do you mind?
He's as dirty as its water,
Tho' he thinks himself a snorter,
But he really hadn't oughter,
Do you mind?

"Oh, the races we used to have with the boys of No. 31! Either company first at the brow of Chatham Hill, where Chatham Square is now, would wait for the other, and then there would be a tight race down the hill to the fire. It made a good deal of bad blood. Some time in 1861 a fire broke out one night in the lower part of the old Eighth District. We went down the hill with all the boys hanging on to the ladders, except two at the tongue and one at the tiller. Engine No. 31 was right behind us. She crowded us mighty tight, and when she saw her chance at Mulberry, she jumped into us and upset the truck in the gutter. We lay all over the street, as if knocked over in battle, and the others went right on with yells of derision. Out truck was wrecked. But we got our revenge, when they came back, and many of them went home with broken jaws and sore heads. Next Sunday there was an alarm from the Seventh District. We had fixed up the old engine, and we had her to the top of the hill in a jiffy. Thirty-one met us, but we left them behind. When they arrived they turned the hose on us, and we had to sail right in and take it away from them, and washed three or four of them across the street. We fought all the way back, and 'laid out' several men before we got to Eldridge Street. Then the populace took a hand in, and for about four hours there was the biggest riot seen before the war. Bricks and stones were going around without owners, and half-a-dozen shots were fired. One fellow held his revolver in his coat-tail pocket, and fired her off at random. The police arrested five fireman and several runners, but through political influence they were never brought to trial."

In early days, before the introduction of the telegraphic system, notice was given of a fire by the ringing of bells. In 1835 it was ordered that a watchman be stationed constantly in the cupola of the City Hall to give the alarm. The bell was rung during the continuance of the fire, the locality of the blaze being indicated by ringing the bell in a prescribed manner, and by hanging out at night a light in the direction of the fire, and by day a flag. The watchhouses and markets had bells which were utilized for the same purpose, and the churches also rang their bells. Then watchmen were stationed in the cupolas of the Halls of Justice, the Reservoir, and Center, Essex, and Jefferson Markets, and received one dollar and seventy-five cents a day. In 1842 the city was divided into districts, and each district into sections, and a certain number of strokes for each section indicated the location of the fire. Each bell had its peculiar tone which a fireman soon learned, and could tell at once where the conflagration was. In 1844, the watchmen were legislated out of office, and three exempt firemen, appointed by the mayor, acted as ringers in each district. Their salary was six hundred dollars a year, increased in 1864 to one thousand dollars. At various times the regular bell towers were located at the City Hall, Essex Market, Center Market (afterwards Marion Street), Washington Market, Macdougal Street, Jefferson Market, Union Market, Twenty-second Street, and First Avenue, Thirty-third Street, Fifty-first Street, Mount Morris, Yorkville, the Postoffice and the Tombs.

Connected with the last-named cupola is a dramatic story, which we have referred to in a chapter on fires of the old Department. Alderman Clarkson Crolius, of the Sixth Ward had long urged the desirability of a belltower on the tombs prison for fire alarm purposes. At last, in 1842, he succeeded, and in November of that year it was completed save for a few finishing touches. The finishing touches, however, were not given, for on the eighteenth the cupola and a part of the roof were destroyed by fire, and the building threatened. The rumor that the fire was started for the purpose of rescuing John C. Colt, who was to have been executed on that day, was unfounded. Mr. Crolius made a thorough investigation and wrote a long report to the Common Council. On the previous day the alderman had inspected the tower. The watchman's room was built of pitch pine, and was to have been lined with tin. Alderman Crolius warned the watchman not to light a fire till the tin had been put in. But his warning was disregarded. The man made a roaring fire which, in the early hours of the morning of the eighteenth, ignited the woodwork and destroyed the structure. While the fire was blazing and the engines rattling outside, colt, within his cell, took his own life and cheated the gallows.

Colt was a bright young man, well-connected and with numerous friends. By profession he was a teacher of bookkeeping. He was born at Hartford, Connecticut, where his father possessed a manufactory of silks and woollens. His brother was the renowned Samuel Colt, the inventor of the revolver, who had a checkered career. John got into financial difficulties in this city and had to borrow money. One of his creditors was Samuel Adams, who dunned his debtor. Colt was then living at No. 11 Elizabeth Street, a house owned by James R. Mount's father-in-law. One day Adams went to John colt's office and annoyed him. They quarrelled, blows were struck, and the hot-headed Colt struck his adversary on the temple with a stone pitcher. The blow was instantly fatal, and Adams fell dead. Colt rushed out, thoroughly alarmed by his rash act, and walked about in a terrible state of excitement. No one had seen this deed. The thought struck him that he could quietly get rid of the body and save his reputation. He packed the body in a barrel and had it conveyed at night to the skip Kalamazoo, lying at the foot of Market Street, but the contents of the barrel were discovered, and this secret means of getting rid of the corpse told against him and helped convict him of wilful murder. On the night previous to the day set for his execution he was visited by Alderman Crolius and Sheriff Monmouth B. hart, who was a friend of his. Colt had had a love intrigue, and the woman with whom he had been living was young, handsome, and of respectable family. He asked that he be allowed to be united in marriage with her. She was then in the warden's room, for she had been a constant visitor during the young man's imprisonment. Colt's request was granted. At twelve, midnight, the Rev. Dr. Lampson arrived, and the ceremony was performed. Upon its conclusion the convict prayed that he might be left alone for a few minutes with his wife. It was done, and then, so it was supposed, the devoted but unfortunate girl passed him a dirk knife which was to save him from the disgrace of a hangman's halter. Colt concealed the weapon in the waste pipe of the closet. The parting with his wife was an agonizing one. Each knew that by the act of the other they would never meet again alive in this world. Next morning, when the excitement of the fire had subsided, and his cell door was opened, young Colt was found dead, reclining on a settee, with a dirk knife in his bosom. About in inch of the blade had penetrated his heart. A few days before he had asked for and been given a work on anatomy, presumably to learn how most easily and effectively he could compass his own death. The knife was given by Mr. Crolius to chief of Police Matsell. Two or three days previously his brother, Samuel, had exploded an invention of his, a torpedo, in the North River, and this circumstance gave rise to the rumor that he had been concerned in the conflagration to effect John's rescue. But it was untrue.

Chowder parties were often given by the companies, and these were notable events for the district. A large number of guests would be invited, and, of course, the big wigs. Lots of fun was to be had at these gatherings. After the eating and drinking, dancing was indulged in, not the modern waltz, with its ungainly and vulgar variations, nor even the regulation square dance, but the good old-fashioned gymnastic exercise known as the step-dance. The accompaniment was often a banjo, sometimes a fiddle, and sometimes a flute, but whatever the music the enthusiasm of the dancers and the enjoyment of the spectators were always the same--superlative. Then, again, songs were sung and amusing stories told--stories about fires and firemen--but speeches were tabooed. Even in the slow-going days (slow in comparison with our own) people thought life was too short to indulge in or listen to the "long talk." Nearly ten years ago an old fire laddie, John Rogers, of Hose Company No. 39, gave his reminiscences in a pamphlet, and in reference to these parties said:

"About one a week we would procure a chowder pot, and with a halibut's head and 'fixin's' get up a chowder as was a chowder, the wherewith to pay for the same being collected by one of the boys going around with the hat. We did not eat the chowder in the dark, but had the engine house lighted on chowder nights with candles purchased at a neighborhood grocery. Many of the boys lived near by, and these furnished from their homes plates and spoons sufficient to go round, and I venture to assert that no game supper with brilliantly lighted halls and music was ever enjoyed more than our chowder."

The engine house was their sanctuary--their loved sanctuary-- and no priest could have a greater regard for his than the fireman for theirs. The inducement must have been exceedingly strong to get the boys away from it. All the amusement they wanted they got there. Indeed, in those times, their wants were few and their indulgences moderate. They did not even aspire to three cent cigars, one or two cent furnishing a weed satisfactory to their tastes. "One of the boys," said an old timer, "induced us one night to go a short distance from the engine house, to a raffle for a stove with dance accompaniment, but we did not feel at home. I remember if there were some good looking girls present we could enjoy ourselves better in the old engine house in the dark a good deal. 'Our house' was not quite so large or so well appointed as the engine house of the present day, being, I should say, about 30 by 14 feet, our engine, standing in the center. We had no gas in the house, and, in fact, no lights whatever at our gatherings, being allowed so much oil a month from the Corporation yard, barely sufficient to supply our torches and signal lanterns while going to and at a fire, consequently we could use none in the engine house, except in setting things to rights after a fire, and at our monthly meetings. When gathered o' nights in the dark knowing each other by the voice we would talk on the passing topics of the day until we had talked out, when some of the boys would call for a song. Dick Flannigan, our fine singer, and still living, was generally called upon first, and would respond to the call with 'Red Robin,' 'angel's Whisper,' or some other popular ballad of the day, when it would be his 'call,' with a response immediately from the member called upon, and so, in free-and-easy fashion, without lights and without beer, so much in vogue to-day, we passed away the evenings when no loud alarm rang out to call us forth to stay the flames. What with our score of singers and yard-spinners (many of the latter had learned to spin yarns on shipboard), the hours passed pleasantly and innocently albeit rough, (and ready) mechanics, with little worldly polish. Not infrequently were these sittings interrupted by shaking at the door and the cry of 'Turn out, her! Fire! Fire!' when all would start to their feet on the instant, the doors be flung open, the rope paid out, and forth we would dash in the direction of the fire, our 'souls in arms and eager for the fray.'

But these routine amusements were broken in upon by the grand chowder parties, as we have said. Among the companies who were famous, in those later days of the Volunteers, for these suppers, were Hose Company Nos. 33, 36, and 38, and Engine Companies Nos. 42 and 44. Even under the new regime the old boys kept up the practice of giving Saturday night "chowders," especially the Warren Hose Company No. 33, which had merged into the Warren Association. These were times, however, when the firemen yearned for something a trifle more toothsome than chowder, and would go al little way out of the straight moral path to obtain it. A story is told of Hose Company No. 60 (M. T. Brennan). The editor of the old Leader, John Clancy, was for many years its foreman; he was the only journalist in the old department who ever held that rank. On one occasion No. 60 decided to treat themselves to a banquet. They went to the tremendous expense of buying a bushel of oysters, and clapped them in the kettle on the stove of the engine house, then in Elm Street. Martin J. Keese, who was once foreman of the company and later custodian of the City Hall, happened to drop in, viewed the preparations for the feast, and then thoughtfully informed the boys he had seen two magnificent chickens hanging out of the window of one of the members.

"What!" cried Clancy, "one of our boys with chickens, and we not invited! Let us have them here and then invite the churlish fellow."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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