Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 13, Part I

By Holice and Debbie

CHAPTER XIII

MEMORABLE INCIDENTS

Running on the sidewalks. -- Attacked by Rowdies. -- Concealing a Hydrant. -- The Bunking rooms. -- Heroism of an Old Fire Laddie. -- A Gallant Rescue. -- Target Companies. -- Knights of The Round Table. -- Frank Clark, of "Old Turk." -- A Fireman becomes a Monk.

The weekly papers had published in 1854 articles reflecting upon the Department, and particularly referring to the rowdies who were permitted to run with the engines. On the twenty-fourth of January a special meeting was held at Fireman's Hall by the Board of engineers and Foremen, and a committee was appointed to investigate the charges. The committee consisted of John Lynes, Hose Company No. 9; Noah L. Farnham, Hook and Ladder Company No. 1; John D. Dixon, Hose Company No. 54; Julian Botts, Engine Company No. 38; and William Tappan, Engine Company No. 7. The alleged rowdyism was shown to be due to the irresponsible runners who tacked themselves on to the companies.

The firemen at all times naturally took the shortest cut to a fire and the easiest road. The easiest was the sidewalk, which they used to clear like a flash of lightning. It was alleged that there was a danger in this, and that it interfered with the liberty of the citizen. Nevertheless the boys thought it much better to run smoothly over the sidewalks than to bump along over the cobble stones. On May 20, the Common Council took the matter in hand. Alderman Smith proposed a resolution, notifying the engine companies that they would be dissolved if known to run on the sidewalks. In reference to this the Fireman's Journal, edited by Mr. Anthony B. Child, said on the following day:

"If Alderman Smith's resolution becomes a law we hope more attention will be paid by the authorities to the condition of the streets. In some of our principal thoroughfares it is almost impossible to drag an apparatus in the streets. Not only is there severe labor requisite for such an act, but there is also the risk of the apparatus breaking down and danger to the men. If our streets were kept in a passable condition the firemen would not be obliged to take the walk. The firemen have to complain, not only of the deep ruts in the street, but the manner in which they are lumbered up for building and railway purposes, thus giving the firemen but on resource--either to take the walk, or turn back and go six or seven blocks out of their way. Through the death of a man the Grand Jury took notice of the infraction of the ordinance.

Sometimes the firemen were exceedingly annoyed by gangs of ruffians. About twelve o'clock on Thursday night, October 15, 1860, the Twenty-second Street bell started an alarm in the third district. Engine Company No. 19 rolled out their machine and took the usual route, through Christie Street to Second Avenue, and then started up-town. Most of its members lay in the direction of Grand, Hester, and walker Streets at that time. Those who rolled out the engine generally had to take her all the way up to the fire alone, with the exception of such slight help as they picked up on the way. On this occasion there were only six persons in the house when the alarm was given, but they were augmented by three or four strangers. As they neared the corner of Nineteenth Street a hundred ruffians or more saluted them with a volley of heavy stones, brickbats, etc., knocking down and injuring severely two of the members and one of the strangers. The rest were assaulted with clubs, sticks, etc., and were forced to leave their engine. The blackguards upset the engine, broke her tongue, smashed the large silver eagle on the top of the machine, and left her. One of the firemen had his nose broken.

No. 19 was always friendly with other companies, and her friends determined to stand by her in this emergency. One night the fire bell as set going, and several companies lay in wait in the vicinity in which No. 19 had encountered the ruffians, and through which she would come now. The gang, however, seemed to be apprehensive, and was afraid to come out. A gentleman who wrote about the outrage said:

"Now if these gentlemen (the gang) wish to have a pleasant evening's sport let them try the same game when she (No. 19) is coming from a Fourth or Fifth District fire. The companies are determined to take the law into their own hands. If they find these gentlemen they will give them the punishment they deserve."

Foreman, J. J. Tindale, in reference to this letter, wrote that his company had no fighters in it, deprecated retaliation, but hinted pretty strongly that his men were able to take care of themselves.

At the great fire in New Street in 1845 the "innocence" of a fireman, or else the churlishness of a tradesman nearly caused loss of life. A fireman, named Sullivan, went into a grocery, kept by a German on the corner of Beaver and Pearl Streets, and had some refreshment. He told the storekeeper to charge the refreshment to his company, but the German, not relishing the idea, seized a large cheese knife, and striking Sullivan with it, laid open all one side of the fireman's head, inflicting almost a mortal wound. His comrades heard of the affair, and about forty of them hastened full of indignation tot he spot. They utterly demolished the store, and were nearly killing the German, when the police arrived and rescued the tradesman.

One of the companies that felt extremely proud of itself and its engine was Hose No. 9. It could fairly lay claim to the title of a "crack" company. No. 9 was known as the "Silver Nine," because of the silver mountings of its carriage. Among her best known foremen were Harry Mansfield. Silver Nine lay in Mulberry Street near Broome. It was customary with all the companies, upon getting their machines back after repairs or redecorating, to give a grand feast. On one occasion the Silver Nine came back resplendent from the repair shop, and the boys did the honors in grander style than ever. Towards the close of the feast they became somewhat boastful, and declared that no company in the world could pass them. Some of its rivals--for no good company was ever without a rival--heard the boast, and resolved to "take the shine" out of Silver Nine. This company was the first to introduce bells on its hose carriage, and was, in consequence, looked upon as foppish.

A compact was entered into between No. 19 (of which Uzziah Wenman was a member), Nos. 38, 15, and 3 Hose, to play a trick upon the boastful Silver Nine. It was determined that they should pass her four times in on night, and so forever dethrone her from her proud pre-eminence. A sham fire was to be started up-town about two o'clock on a Sunday morning. No. 9 would start out, the four companies in the conspiracy would lie in wait for her at certain points of the route, and each pass her in succession as she came along.

Hose 38 was to set fire to a lot of tar barrels about the corner of Seventeenth Street and sixth Avenue, and then the hose companies were to be with their men all ready and waiting for Hose No. 3 to come along. As each company would keep its men fresh for the race, while, of course, the members of No. 9 Hose would be running all the time, it was calculated that each one of the four companies, fresh, would be able to pass No. 9, exhausted.

In the earlier part of Saturday evening the rope of No. 9 was laid out on the sidewalk ready for instant use, when a real fire broke out about nine o'clock at the foot of Market Street. This fire was no sooner put out then another occurred about eleven o'clock in Elm Street. It happened that at each of these fires Silver Nine was passed by other companies. The boys were more put out then the fire, and they were chafing at their defeat, when the sham fire was started up-town. Silver Nine dashed out, hoping to be the first this time, but, alas, the plot was too well laid, and she was passed by each of the companies in the conspiracy according to arrangement. This was six times in one night she was passed, and such a series of defeats was almost unprecedented in the Department. The glory of silver Nine was gone forever, and she never boasted more.

It must be said for No. 9 that she did not resort that night to any of the customary tricks to avoid being passed. Sometimes when a company saw itself on the eve of being outrun its foremen would shout, "Round to, and go back for more men!" or, "Stop, and fix that wheel!" and in these cases there was no race. Occasionally, in trying to pass each other, engine or hose companies would be driven into piles of bricks, or holes, and men and machines would be injured. Companies used to hide behind walls, or piles of bricks, until rival companies came along, and would then rush out. This was a direct violation of the law, and was a common occurrence.

Once an engine company saw itself in danger of being passed in Dominick Street by a hose company, and it ran into the latter upon a pile of bricks. The hose company, however, again came gamely up to the scratch, and in Varick Street was nearly passing its rival, but the men of the latter cut the straps that held up its arms, which fell along the men on the rope of the hose company, endangering their lives. Conduct like this every one condemned as cowardly and unworthy.

Many a fight has occurred for the possession of a hydrant. If a hose company arrived early at a fire it might possibly get a stream on from its own hose. But the engineers did not care for this, as they considered it ineffective; they desired the more solid and telling stream from an engine, and not infrequently would order its hose company to back out of the line and give its water to an engine. On one occasion a very funny, but withal, fierce, fight took place for the possession of a hydrant. The survivors often laughed over it. Hose No. 14 was a popular company, and Henry A. Burr was foreman of it, and W. W. Corlies assistant foreman. One dark night there was a fire up-town, where the streets were then poorly paved and worse lighted--in fact, not lighted at all in some places. In one of these dark spots, not far from the fire, Burr, as the company dashed along, saw the outline looming up of a big hydrant. He instantly made for the hydrant, but found another man and other man clutching at it also, a member of a rival company that had come along. Burr and the other fellow contended for that hydrant in the darkness; then, finding the fight going against him, Burr, called for his men, who came. Then the other chap called out for his men, who came, and a fierce struggle took place in the dark for the supremacy and the hydrant. The fight was terminated in a curious way. One of the men, who was smoking while the rest were squabbling, lit a match at the end of his cigar and looked at the object for whose possession they were fighting all around him. Then he burst into a loud laugh, and no wonder; for what they thought was a hydrant wasn't a hydrant at all. It was a buried cannon, with half of it sticking out of the ground. This discovery ended the fight.

A volunteer, belong to No. 14 Engine, conceived what he thought a magnificent idea to become solid with the company. A new district had been opened up, and the firemen were not very well acquainted with it. But the volunteer, in rambling through the locality, noted a fire plug, and impressed its position on his memory. One night a fire occurred in this section, and the volunteer made a dash for the plug. He saw an old barrel near, clapped it over the plug, and sat on it. He began to smoke and assumed as graceful and careless an attitude as though he were an accomplished actor. An opposition company, dashing up and finding no hydrant, caused the volunteer to smile and chuckle. He was thinking of how proud Fourteen would be of him when they came along. He would then off with the barrel and reveal his treasure. But he didn't get the chance. Another company coming along saw the man on the barrel, and something about him made them suspicious. Perhaps he seemed too lazy and indifferent on the barrel. They rolled him off his seat, lifted up the barrel, and discovered the hidden hydrant. Alas, for that zealous runner and genius! He did not consort with No. 14 for a long time after. It was weeks before he was able to run, and more weeks before he could sit even on a chair. As for hydrants he never again sat on one.

The rivalry of the companies to get first to a fire originated the bunking system. The first companies to adopt its practice were the old rivals, Engine Nos. 5 and 14. The late Mayor Tiemann fought against the system because, he said, it would cause the ruin of many a young man. The Engine Companies Nos. 12 and 21 began bunking. Ex-Mayor Wickham, Charles E. Gildersleeve, of Hook and Ladder No. 1, organized a bunk room in order that the company when going to fires might not be outstripped by Hook and Ladder company No. 4. "Andy" Schenck, to be near the tiller of the truck--which was the post of honor--threw the floor carpet upon the ladders, and slept on it. The instant an alarm was sounded, he slid down the seized the tiller. Mr. Wickham took for his pillow the lowest of the steps leading to the room above. When the company moved into its new house, each member contributed twenty-five dollars towards furnishing it. Engine Company No. 33 made friends with the sexton of All Saints' Episcopal Church (afterwards turned into a machine shop) in Grand Street, near Pitt, the members lying in the pews, and using the ends of the cushions for bolsters. This was very nice and very comfortable, but 'ere long they were turned out and then hired the second story of a house in Scammel Street, one hundred and fifty feet from their engine house, and paid for it themselves. Some of the bunk rooms were remarkably orderly: no talking, for instance, was allowed in No. 38's after ten P. M. No. 36 would not permit card playing under penalty of fine or expulsion, or allow any drunken person to be brought to the house under the same penalties. When the city built engine houses the men were furnished with comfortable quarters.

When the new Department came into existence they used the old houses but as improvements were made in the machines, and steamers became general, the houses were altered to suit the new order of things, or more suitable ones were built.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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