Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 12, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

"By the time these movements were effected another engine would come thundering down street, the foreman in charge of the first shouting at the top of his voice, 'Take our water, boys?' 'Yes,' would be the reply in most cases, when round would go that engine in position to 'take our water,' its hose reeled off and carried farther up the street to connect with the next engine coming along, and so on until the line was formed from the dock to the fire. The line formed and all being in readiness for the work in hand, the foreman of the engine on the fire (the one nearest the latter, would give the command to his company; 'Play away!' which was repeated all down the line to the engine 'at suction' on the dock, when the most enlivening and exciting scenes would be witnessed. Necessarily the suction engine had the longest stroke, from the fact that she had to draw the water before forcing it through her four lengths of hose, the two operations requiring great pressure upon the brakes. With the order to 'Play away!' the man holding the butt of the suction engine, assisted by two others who 'lightened up the hose,' would begin to brace his muscles and make ready for the coming of the rushing water. The force of water was immense as the stream poured into the receiving engine shortly after the commands of the foreman, 'Stand by your brakes, men!' 'Put in he butt' (to the holder of the latter), and play away, men!'

"The old-timer recollects well the music (enlivening to his ears) that followed these commands, and the young men of the present day can imagine how exciting it was to see twenty partially stripped man (ten on a side) manning the brakes of a short-stroke engine and dashing her down at the rate of sixty or seventy strokes a minute, some with their hair floating about their faces at every stroke, while that of others was confined by closely-fitting skull-caps of red or striped flannel. Then upon the front of the engine the foreman would jump, and through his trumpet, or without the mouthpiece, shout to his men such stimulating cries as these: 'Every one of you, now, will you work?' 'Work her lively, lads!' 'You don't half work!' 'Now you've got her!' 'Stave her sides in!' 'Say you will, now!' and so on, his body swaying to the motion of the brakes, and he giving up only when his voice was gone, when some strong-bodied and loud-voiced member would relieve him. The men who worked at the brakes were now tired out, and were in turn relieved in a minute or minute and a half, that being as long as a man could work on the brakes in that position, the labor being so violent and exhausting. But there were plenty on each side the engine ready to fall in when the exhausted ones fell out, and an expert thing it was to fall in and catch the arm of the brake, between which and the box of the engine many a finger has been crushed, maiming many a fire-laddie for life. I could go on talking about 'playing in line' for hours--how one engine would 'nigger' another by getting eight or ten strokes ahead before the water from the butt could be discharged, how the man holding the butt would get knocked down for not taking it out of the engine he was supplying soon enough to please other parties. I could dwell on the 'boiling,' 'slopping,' and final 'washing,' and how the discomfited company of the washed engine would, in many cases, go in for a free fight in order to vent their mortification in not being able to play the water out as fast as the rear engine had played it in, resulting in a 'wash.'

There were many fights, and hot ones, too, in the old department, but they grew out of a natural emulation and were not lacking in a certain rugged element of chivalry which promoted manhood, though somewhat at the expense of public order. The murderous revolver and assassin-like disposition which now mark its use were unknown in those days. The combats were fair hand-to-hand fights between man and man, and he who resorted to any other weapon than those which nature supplied was accounted a ruffian or a coward.

But when big fires happened all individual bickerings were sunk in a unanimous resolve to do their duty. This was notable in the great fire of 1811, which began on a Sunday, when all the firemen fraternized. Some unknown writer contributed to the papers across the ocean an original poem on what he called "The Clasped hands of the Fire Brigade." The first stanza read:

They came from the alter to face the flames,

From prayer to fight with fire;

And the flame which burns but never binds

Was a bond to draw them nigher.

On Sunday morning, July 26, 1846, a big fight occurred in Broadway between the runners of several of the companies. The companies involved were Engine companies No. 1, 6, 23, 31, and 36. The fight lasted a considerable time, and many of the combatants received more then they bargained for in their desire to have some fun. Subsequently, Andrew McCarty and Jeremiah Haley of No. 1, and Alexander McDonald and Daniel Davenport, of No. 5, were expelled. On August 5, all the companies concerned were disbanded by order of the Common Council. In view of the magnitude of the combat, the Alderman considered they could not overlook the affair. The battle had raged all the way to Canal and Hudson Streets, and attracted an immense crowd of citizens. After the disbandment, there was not a single fire company left in the Fifth Ward. Benjamin J. Evans, who first began to run with No. 31 in 1843, became its assistant foreman, and subsequently joined Hose company No. 5, on November 16, 1850, has given the writer the following particulars of this big fight;

"We were called out from our quarters in West Broadway on a still alarm, our foremen singing out, 'come, pull away, boys, for West Broadway's alive!' As we were returning home, opposite the Park, we met engine No. 6, and she commenced to bark. Then along came Equitable, and she thought she would help No. 6, but found that she was in a mighty pretty fix herself. No. 5, just then turned up near Ann Street, and the 'Short Boys' cry greeting their ears, they said, 'Let us go and help old 31, and make the Short boys feel sick.' Chief engineer Anderson was standing at the time on the Astor House steps. No. 6, which then lay in Reade Street, began to 'bear' at us, and a fight resulted. In the midst of it, No. 1 Engine, which lay at the foot if Duane Street, appeared and sided with No. 6. Then engine 23, of Leonard Street, turned up and sailed in with us. No. 36 followed quickly, taking Six's side. Pipes, axes, and any weapon handy, were used in the fight. It was a terrific fight, and lasted for a long while. At last, Anderson succeeded in putting a stop to it, and made us go down Canal Street instead of through Chambers, so as to avoid our foes. Foreman Jack Whitehead and Assistant Foreman Bill Whitehead were tremendous big men, whom nobody cared to tackle single handed. Before the fight No. 5 send their engine home in charge of a few men, and this precaution saved them from being disbanded."

Evans, one afternoon, while assistant foreman of No. 31,m was with engine No. 5, and got into a "muss" with No. 11 in Eighth Avenue. No. 11 wiped the street with him, and his chums, and at last the men of No. 5 made off and Evans was left with only Uzziah Wenman to stand by him. After 31 was disbanded he joined 14 Hose, and subsequently he organized new 31. Evans went to the war with the Twelfth Regiment, N. Y., in April, 18661, and was taken prisoner at Harper's Ferry. His was the first regiment in Washington on May 24, 1861. Evans crossed the Long Bridge at Washington, and saw the rebel flag flying on the Marshal House about four in the morning. About five o'clock word was brought that Ellsworth was shot at Alexandria. After the war he went back to No. 31. Mr. Evans is now fifty-six years old, and connected with the Fire Department in Jersey City.

A single combat as the result of the rivalry between Engine Companies Nos. 30 and 44 ("Old Turk"). No. 30 lay in Christie Street, and Jack Teal was the foreman. Jim Jerolomon was the giant of No. 44, standing six feet four in height. In chief Gulick's time No. 44 lay in Houston Street, near Lewis, and Bob penny was foremen. On a Saturday afternoon a fire broke out, in Milton Smith's Stables, at Avenue D and Sixth Street. No. 44 was the first to reach the fire, and took suction from the foot of Sixth Street. No. 37 engine, which lay in Delancey Street, was friendly to No. 44, and was on her way to the fire, when Penny ran down to Union Market and told No. 37 to go to Fifth Street, the object of this being to make No. 30 take No. 44's water and get washed. Soon No. 30 came in, and penny asked Teal, who commanded No. 30, to take Forty-four's water. Teal replied, in a sarcastic manner; "Take yer water? Ye-e-s; why wouldn't we take it?" No. 30 got into line, and 44 butted into her. The butcher boys of Christie Street were good men, and held their own for a time, but when Penny got the stout lads from the shipyards on the brake of Old Turk nothing could equal them, and in fifteen minutes No. 30 was boiling over. Penny asked Gulick to send an engine to take Forty-four's water. "Can't 30 take it?" asked the chief. Penny replied that a dozen Thirties couldn't take it. Gulick then ordered No. 30 away, and as Jerolomon took the butt out of 30 he squirted the water over "Thirty's fellers." Teal, who was a much smaller man, then struck Jerolomon, and a fight was the result. The next day Teal and Jerolomon net in Yorkville and fought. On the third round Teal claimed that Jerolomon was biting him, and on removing his shirt the print of teeth was found on his shoulder. The combat was then broken up. Teal was a joiner, and considered one of the best fighters of the time. Jerolomon was at another time a member of No. 17 engine, when she lay in Jackson Street, then Walnut.

In the year 1824 James P. Allaire, of the old firm of Allaire Bros., was foreman of "Black Joke" Engine Company No. 33. The name was given her in honor of an Albany sloop which distinguished herself in the war in 1812. She was painted a "nigger" black on the body, and had a gold stripe running all the way around. In 1832 her headquarters were in Gouverneur, between Henry and Madison Streets, and Malachi Fallon was her foreman. The company was known as a fighting one and "a pretty hard crowd." Fallon, after leaving No. 33, became Chief of Police in San Francisco, California. In 1842 James Burbridge was her foreman, and among the runners were two gigantic negroes, one named John Arno, alias "Black Jack," and the other was called "Black Joe." Those darkies made themselves very serviceable around the engine house, and felt themselves highly honored in being asked to do anything. They were not, however, allowed to bunk in the engine house. In the summer of 1842 No. 33 had a severe fight with No. 5 Truck and Hose Company No. 4. There had been a fire in Monroe, near Gouverneur Street, and these two companies combined to "lick" No. 33. And a terrible thrashing they gave 33, the fight lasting almost an hour; bloody heads, broken noses, black eyes, and torn clothes being plentiful. The fight originated in a supposition that while at work at the fire the men of No. 33 "splashed" water over the men of No. 4 and 5 while they were playing on the ruins. No. 33 denied that they had done so, but insisted upon having a fight, and they got it. In 1843 No. 33 was disbanded, but was reorganized in 1844, with ex-Alderman Peter Masterson as its foreman.

In 1832 No. 33 got into a difficulty with Engine Company No. 11. A fire occurred in Pearl Street, near Maiden Lane. No. 11 was taking water from the dock and supplied No. 33. Both companies were noted for their strength. No. 11 tried to "wash' No. 33, and failed after working all night. When daylight broke, the boys, tired out, went to breakfast, and then the runners or hangers-on of he engines took their places to keep up the supply of water. These "irregulars" were animated with the same sentiments that characterized the great men they were permitted to follow, and again it was sought to get No. 33 over, but in vain. Then No. 11 charged No. 33 with "niggering." This meant only working at intervals and compelling the supply engine to take out its butt. Hot words followed, and it was decided to settle the matter by a fight. As a rule champions were selected for the companies, and the rule was observed on this occasion. They engines were deserted, a ring was formed, and at it the gladiators went. In the midst of the fun the gigantic Gulick appeared upon the scene. He was the Chief Engineer. He settled the contest immediately. A blow from his fist was like a kick from a horse. He sailed right in and scattered the ring, the fighters in a minute.

No chief had ever so great a hold upon the fireman as James Gulick had. We refer in the chapter upon fires to the refusal of the men to work after the great fire of December, 1835, when the Common Council deposed him from office. Here is another instance of the affection the boys held for him. It was in the beginning of the same year, January 14, that a fire broke out in Centre Street, adjoining the works of the New York Gas Company, which destroyed two houses. Against the gable end of one of the burning buildings a large number of barrels of resin were piled. The firemen worked diligently to save these by rolling them into the street, and the night being intensely cold, some one kindled a small fire in the street with a part of the contents of a broken barrel. They were warned by the fireman to desist, and a big heavy fellow, who insisted on putting out the fire, was shoved away. Thereupon a large number of his friends attacked the few firemen around the fire. Other firemen flew to the assistance of their comrades, and a regular fight ensued. The laddies conquered. Gulick heard of this affair, and, hastening to the scene, exclaimed: "What does all this shameful conduct mean at this moment?" One of the workmen flew at him and struck him from behind over the head with an iron bar. His fire-cal, however, protected him from serious injury. Turning upon his assailant powerful Chief pursued him across the ruins of the fallen wall, and threw him down upon the bricks. Immediately some thirty or forty workmen surrounded Gulick. Then the cry was raised, "Men, stand by your Chief!" and in a twinkling the assailants were quickly routed and took refuge in the gas-house at the corner of Centre and Hester Streets. Gulick, by almost superhuman efforts, got into the gas-house first to prevent the excited firemen from entering. Amid volleys of coal-buckets he called upon the rioters inside to behave themselves and they should be protected. He was replied to by being rushed at with a red-hot poker; but, fortunately, his trumpet was under his arm, with its large bowl in front of him, through which the hot poker passed. He jumped from the stoop crying in stentorian tones: "now, men, surround the house; don't let one of them escape!" They were all, or nearly all,. Arrested and locked up after receiving a sound drubbing. The firemen got very excited, and it seemed that a big riot would ensue. They rushed into the gas-house and attempted to destroy the machinery, and a dreadful explosion was imminent. But the chief's firmness prevailed, and in a short time he quieted the men and restored peace.

One of the most famous fights of the old fire laddies goes by the name of "The Battle of the Boots." It is not a dignified name for a battle, still the conflict was a very heroic and very bloody one. There are several still living who participated in the affair. It took place in the summer of 1842, and was the result of an old feud between engine companies Nos. 27 and 34, and came off after extinguishing the fire in the New House furniture store, the shop attached to which is in Van Renwyck Street, which runs from Spring to Canal Street. That street is now called Renwick Street. Both companies were composed of smart men, both had made good records, and their rivalry was warm. The brave and unfortunate Dave Broderick was then foreman of No. 34. Mount was one of the gay and festive Butt Enders, an association around Clinton market, at the foot of Spring Street, who used to run with No. 27. Previous to this fire in Van Renwyck Street No. 27 was caught shorthanded and at a disadvantage by their opponents, and sustained a defeat. Although they laughed at it, and indeed seemed to regard it as a good joke, this severe check was brooded over by No. 27, and they determined soon to get even with their opponents. All the Volunteers went up and joined the roll of No. 27 and then looked out for the "enemy." No. 27 ran to several fires without coming in contact with No. 34 until this fire in Van Renwyck Street occurred. No. 27 was early on hand, took the dock, gave water to their hated rivals who in turn gas their water to some other engine. All the boys worked magnificently. The first duty was to the public--to put out the fire--and no private interests were supposed to interfere with this.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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