Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments
Chapter 12, Part II
By Holice and Debbie
At once a delegation was sent out to bring in the fowl. Keese tenderly unhooked the chickens while his companions saw that he was not interfered with in the transfer, and the triumphant party returned, and put in the chicken with the oysters. The delicious odor that floated out on a gentle breeze brought heads to many a window and water to many a mouth. Right opposite the engine house lived a Mrs. Hogan, who was attracted by the aroma.
"Arrah, boys," said the old lady, "what in the name of goodness have yes there? It's like a hevenly drame."
"It's a pot of elegant soup," said the genial John, and filling a bowl with the mixture he took it over to the good dame.
When he returned he heard a yell from Mrs. Hogan. "Oh! Bad 'cess to yez, ye bastes, yes have cooked chickens widout takin' out the enthrails. Och! I'm poizened."
A shout of laughter from the engine house caused Mrs. Hogan to use more rhetoric than she had intended.
But supper-parties and dancing-parties were not the only amusements indulged in by the fire-laddies. Some of them were addicted to that form of amusement which modern slang calls "mashing." To be sure, there is no reason why a fireman should not have an innocent flirtation as well as other citizens. Among the unfortunate flirtations was this one: A well-known actress, remarkable for her pretty face, was staying with a married friend in a cross-town street. She was in a habit of writing in one of the back rooms, and right opposite the window at which she sat was the abode of a young fireman. He had straw-colored whiskers, a sad-looking eye, and a flat face, but he thought himself handsome. Day after day he used to stare out of window at the handsome actress, till she came to regard him as a curiosity. Mistaking her glances, he felt emboldened to waft her kisses, and blushed while he did it. Then he made inquiries among the servants, and learned that the front room was occupied by Mrs. Smith. Upon this he squared his elbow and wrote a missive full of respectful love and devotion to Mrs. Smith. Unfortunately, Mr. smith was a man of an extremely jealous disposition, found the letter on the hall-stand, opened it, and turned pale with rage when he read the allusion to the supposed flirtation. He caused one of his work-girls to write an answer. The young fireman responded, more love-missives passed to and fro, and at last an appointment was made. Mr. Smith was convinced his wife was false, and determined to destroy her lover before her face. The interview was held, and its uproarious character attracted the attention of the actress. She rushed in, found the wife dissolving in tears, her husband accusing her while flourishing a revolver, and the young man in a corner stupefied by the reception he met with. An explanation followed, laughter took the place of tears, and the machine runner raced off quicker than ever he did to a fire.
The engine was, so to speak, the apple of the eye of the old fireman. Once a fireman was seen to publicly hug and kiss his engine, after she had got the best of a rival company's engine. Again, a fire laddie, who would not have shed a tear for any trouble of his own, cried like a child when his machine was 'washed." The public took an amazing interest in Fire Department matters. The "mysterious disappearance" of the picture on the back of Engine No. 14, about 1850, kept the whole city talking for days. She was a "crack' little engine and a great favorite. Harry Venn and Peter Ottignon (the Jolly Butcher), two of the most popular firemen of the city, had been foremen of her. When Ottignon was foreman the boys had the engine painted regardless of expense. The "engine artist" of the time was Quidor, who put what was regarded as a fine painting on her back, representing a handsome Indian and his squaw. One day, however, they got into a fight with another company, and as a punishment their engine was sent to the corporation yard--the greatest disgrace that could befall a company. The boys were naturally very down-cast, but before the corporation truck had arrived to take away the "beauty," the painting was removed from her back, and hidden in a cellar. The lads wee resolved to have some memento of her. When the Fire and Water Committee, however, found out what was done, hey were indignant, and set detectives to work to look for that Indian and his squaw, and the daily newspapers were full of the accounts of the search. Only a few of the men were in the secret. In time No. 14 was reinstated in her old house, and then suddenly and mysteriously one bright morning the missing back was found and attached to the engine. In the meantime the Indian and his squaw had traveled six thousand miles. This is how it happened: One of the old members of the company was Jim Lyons, who afterwards became a mate on board of one of the Havre Line of packets. The back was taken to his boarding house one night, and next day Lyons sailed for France, and, when he returned, brought back the engine plate with him.
This pretty little engine once had a terrific struggle at a fire with No. 34 (Old Howard). It was one of the most exciting contests known in the old Department, and is thus graphically described by an eyewitness, John D. Brower, one of the "vets." Who subsequently went to San Francisco; "A fire had occurred in 'Mackerelville.' No. 34 had come from Christopher and Hudson Streets, her suctions running out about level with the box of the engine. There were several other short liners at work, passing the water from a pond nearer the fire, but as it threatened to be a big fire before it got through, and the 'Rovers' knew they had a good thing. Thirty-four remained at its original place. Pretty soon the engines from away down-town arrived, and among them No. 14 from Vesey Street. When hailed by No. 34 to take their water, the boys cried 'Yes, yes,' for it was considered as showing a mean spirit or the white feather to refuse an offer of that kind. So after dragging her over several little hills and valleys, 14's boys turned her round to 34's butt, and made ready to take her water. No. 34 had already been working slowly, 'charging the hose,' as they called it, and when No. 14 gave the word in went the butt, and to work they went in good earnest, and the drumming of the engine in that line was music to the ear of the fireman, and tended to hurry him on to the scene of the fight, or the fun, when blocks away. It was a damp, drizzly night, with a cold wind from the east, but there were men surrounding those two engines, the pride of the Department, stripped to the buff, and working as they never could or never would work at anything else. There were around No. 14 Pete Ottignon, foreman at that time; Harry B. Venn, who had just resigned the position; Phil Jonas, Johnny Baum, Jim Johnston, Alf Chancellor, boss Talliant, Dick Logan, Sam Baisley, Alex. Dunscombe, John Decker (a Volunteer at that time), and others, cheering, working, and striving, as though their lives were at stake to prevent one drop of water from running over 14's box. The first encounter lasted nearly ten minutes--a long time if a watch was held over men working as they were, when the order 'vast playing' came down the line, an order which was quite welcome to No. 114, but not quite so welcome to No. 34; for when the butt was taken out the water was found to be up to the bend. Then the friends of 34 became deeply concerned as to the duration of the fire; 14 was also by no means a disinterested party as to its continuance; in fact 14 would have hailed with joy about that time the order to 'to take up,' and those of 34 would prefer seeing another cowshed or old stable go rather than miss this glorious opportunity at one of the most energetic and efficient companies in the old Department. Then came a lot of 'chin,' criticism, opinions, as to whether 14 could or could not take the water, and in justice to her brave fellows, it must be stated that it was thought at the time that the soft ground she stood on, made worse by the water from 34's butt every time it was taken out, helped in a great measure to being on the misfortune that at last befell her for while she stood fairly up so that the men could get at their work, she rattled the water out after it got to the bend as fast as it came in, making it rather lively for the engine ahead. But no quarter was given or taken in such matters' 'Up to the bend,' did not frighten anybody. Those little engines could not get a good hold of the water until it was about there, but when it rose over that particular place, then look out for squalls. And in justice, too, to 'Old Howard,' and her heroes, it was acknowledged that her butt on this occasion was not one to be trifled with. Drawing the water as she did with a level suction, it came from her butt almost as solid as a board, and to those not acquainted with the qualities of those little engines, it would seem almost impossible for one of them to throw the stream 34 showed that night, or for one of them to take it as long as 14 did.
By this time the position of the engines was breezed around, and the friends of both came hastening to their aid, until quite a crowd has assembled around both the contestants.
"At length the word came again for water, and all went to work with a will. They stood in rows of three or four deep, and as fast as a man would drop off the brakes he would pass to the rear, and another would instantly take his place. When next the order 'vast playing' came down the line, the water was a trifle lower, and it was barely perceptible, but it gave encouragement to 14's crowd for the time, and delayed the hopes of those at the engine behind her, who were inwardly wishing for the fire to last a while longer. By this time 14 had settled in the soft ground almost up to her hubs, and therefore made much harder work of it. However, 34 was in pretty much the same condition, so it was also as far for one as the other. The word again came, and never did the fire laddies work with better spirit and energy than they did that night. They worked with a will known only to those who have been placed in the like 'hole.' The water began to rise--slowly, to be sure, but it was rising. Then it was a sight to see the brave fellows of 14 and her 'crowd' exert themselves in order to keep her free. Harry Venn, towering like a chief among heroes, stood on the rope-reel waving his trumpet over those at work on the brakes, and cheering them on by all sorts of endearing appeals. It soon became evident, however, from the dull heavy sound of the brakes, that it was as Johnston said, 'beginning to look dusty;' the water was rising, she was nearly full. Then a cheer around 34 told of confidence restored on her side. And then both sides stopped again, when the word was passed up the line, 'three-quarters full.' The hair on Logan's head stood straight out now, and Baum, Dozey, Baisley, Johnston, and Jones were all more or less grouty. Anything but a 'wash' for them. Venn looked distrustingly at the settled condition of the engine in the ground, examined the chains, and surveyed the scene like a man who felt that at any rate he was doing his best. All this time 34 had kept on working moderately, to keep the hose well charged, and when the word came again, at the first stroke of 14 in went the butt. This 'round' was of long duration, and, despite the heroic efforts of those willing hands to saver her, the water, gradually rose. One would have expected to see the brakes fly, as they did, that they would tear the little engine to pieces. Just so with 34. They were hammering the wood with a will, while a long drawn cheer from the crowd around her told those at the brakes they were not striving in vain, and made the cold, damp night air ring with life and animation. And when the word passed down 'she's up to the rabbits,' followed soon after by the two single words, to delight or dismay, as the case might be, the firemen of long ago, 'She's over!' one would have thought that a Malakoff or a Gibraltar had been successful stormed that night at Mackerelville.
"But there she stood, plucky little 14, when the order came to 'take up,' full and dripping over. Her 'boys' had done their best, and there was no fault to find with the engine, yet she had received a stain upon her fair fame that would follow her for years, or until such time as the doubtful favor might be returned, if ever there was a possibility.
"yes, there stood 14, pretty as a picture, even in her defeat, just out from the painter's, with a finely polished surface of black, ornamented and striped in gold, her silver-plated work shining with care, her burnished levers glistening in the torchlight, while her members and volunteers, and in fact the whole crowd around her appeared like men who had not been invited to take anything for a week. All old firemen know how galling it was in such cases to let water out by the way of the tail screw that they failed to pass over the leader bow. All the vets have been there. But so particularly hard did the result of this encounter at Mackerelville grate on the feelings of the members of 14 that the very next afternoon they sent a delegation to 14's house, with a request to measure her cylinders. Of course, it was granted, and they were found to be like all others, except 38 and 42, in the department, just six and a half. It had been a fair and square tussle, engine to engine, fireman to fireman, pluck had been the same on both sides, but the luck was this time all on 34's"
The John Rogers already referred to has given reminiscences of rivalry in the old days. "The machine I 'run' with and thought the world of, " said Rogers, "'laid' east of the Bowery, near Division Street, and was of the little goose-neck pattern, with six-inch chambers, and capable, with our crew at the brakes, of 'taking the water,' of any neighboring engine and no favors asked. The sounding and inspiriting calls consequent upon forming a line in those days may yet remember. To me the grandest and most exciting affair that could be improvised was the various engines working in line at a fire when the flames were aggressive. I can see the line now, hear the stentorian shouts of the foreman, the uproar of voices generally, the pounding of the rapidly-moving brakes, and other noises incident to a fire. A fire breaks out in Beekman Street, above Cliff. The bells sound the alarm; out rolls the engine, and down they go, the first making for the dock, where they are wheeled about, the wheels against the striking-piece of the dock. Two men jump to each side of the engine, unbuckle the suctions (of sole leather, the baskets of brass) and screw them to the tail of the engine. By the time this is done, the 'butt' is unbuckled and the hose reeled off by two or three members, who start with it up street, dragging its length (two hundred feet) not slowly along by any means, the man first at the engine house and the first man at the tongue being entitled to hold the butt into the engine which is to take the water from the one on the dock, a rule with all companies.
Transcribed by Holice B. Young
HTML by Debbie
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