Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 13, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

One of the most remarkable acts of heroism known to the annals of the old Fire Department, says Mr. John A. Cregier, was done by James R. Mount. On March 17, 1852, a fire broke out in a paint and paper hanging store at 89-1/2 Bowery, cutting off the retreat of men, women, and children, who lodged in the third story. When Mount's company, No. 14 Hose, of which he was foreman, arrived, they found the inmates in a perilous position. Heartrending cries for help came from the windows. At one window a woman held a child, and was about to throw it into the streets, when Foreman Mount cried out to her not to do it, and that he would go up her. The gallant fireman started, but found his task no easy one. Under the stairs had been stored cans of paint, varnish, and oil. The stairs were partly burned through, and the flames and smoke were almost impassable. Fireman Joseph Skillman, who was afterwards killed at the Coffee Mills fire in Fulton Street, endeavored to dissuade his foreman, from going up the stairs. "You will never come out alive," said Skillman. But Mount felt it to be his duty, and could not be deterred. Wrapping his coat around his head he dashed through flame and smoke up the stairs. At the top of the first flight he met a girl. She was too dazed and frightened to let Mount assist her, and she fainted. The foreman picked her up and cried out to Skillman that he would throw her down. He did so, and Skillman caught the insensible girl at the foot of the stairs. The devoted fireman then mounted to the next flight of stairs, at the head of which he found a man lying in what Mount first thought was a state of insensibility. The fireman put his hand down and felt him. The man was dead. There was no time to waste, so the gallant man started up the third flight. At the top he found another dead man in his night clothes. This man had, on the first alarm, got out, but had returned to secure forty-nine dollars that he had left in his room. Next day the money was found clutched in his hand. His treasure was dearer to him than his life, and in foolishly striving o regain the former he sacrificed the latter.

Mount passed towards the front room through smoke so dense that he could almost shove it away with his hand. He opened the door, went in, closing the door after him, and found two women, two children, and two men, in a terrible state of excitement. Mrs. Muller was the woman who wanted to throw her child into the street. Mount calmed the frantic mother, and told them all to remain quiet for a few minutes, when he would return. Tying his coat about his head, he went back down the stairs, which were now almost burned away, passing on the landings the bodies of the dead men. He reached the street more dead than alive, but the fresh air revived him. In the meantime Skillman and his comrades had procured a ladder, thinking that Mount could not possibly get back by the flaming staircase. The ladder was reared against the side of the house, but unfortunately it reached only to the second story. Then they got a hogshead, and on this placed the ladder, which now reached within four feet of the windows of the third story. At this time the flames from the cans of varnish, oil, etc., etc., burst into the street, and the sidewalk appeared to be on fire. When the ladder was reared on the hogshead no one appeared anxious to ascend. Mount Said, "I will go," and directed them how to hold the ladder. The flames were now licking the rungs of the ladder, but up the brave fireman went. The first to make their escape were the two men, who lowered themselves from the window to the top of the ladder. Coward-like, they left the woman and children to die. One was the husband of Mrs. Muller. The first time Mount went up, Mrs. Muller handed him one of her children. On his next ascent he received another child. The third time he rescued Mrs. Muller and had great difficulty in doing so. He had to stand on the top rung of the ladder, holding on to the sill with his left hand. The woman clung around his neck. Then he felt for the top rung in making his way down, and slowly descended while the ladder shook as if it would fall. One mishap and death awaited them on the sidewalk. His comrades below held on for dear life. The last woman, Mary Koephe, weighed two hundred and twenty-five pounds. She was in her night dress, and sat on the window sill with her legs out, thoroughly frightened. Mount told her to hold on firmly to him, and she did so. When the gallant man had got down about two-thirds of the ladder, he fainted from over-exertion. His comrades instantly understood the situation, and ran to him; his burden fell into the firemen's arms. The enthusiasm of the spectators found vent in repeated cheers. Mount was taken to Harry Raveno's store, and the doctor found that he was suffering from the inhalation of smoke. When he revived, he vomited, felt better, and went home. His hands were burned, and his clothing, of course, was ruined.

Mr. Mount was also presented with a testimonial by the members of his company. The testimonial was a magnificent gold chronometer watch and chain, valued at two hundred and sixty dollars. The presentation took place at Moss's Hotel, corner of Broadway and Bayard Street, to which a number of prominent citizens and members of the Fire Department were invited. Mr. W. J. Williams presented the watch in a neat speech. Mr. Mount relied in feeling language. "Words," he said, "are but the sparking bubbles upon the ocean of feeling; but if you could look in the depth of my inner heart, you would see the pearls and diamonds of a gratitude which I am unable to express." In addition to Mr. Williams the donors were Messrs. Herman Krall, P. H. Cooley, Levy L. Lyons, William Mash, and James L. Clute.

This brave deed of Mount was subsequently the occasion of a fight in the Common Council, the humors of which were given in the daily papers of the period. A committee of the board of Aldermen reported in favor of appropriating three hundred dollars "to the purchase of some suitable testimonial, to be presented to Mount in recognition of his gallant services." On January 3, 1853, Alderman Wesley Smith (of the Eleventh Ward), who was the foreman of Hose Company No. 34, called up the report, moved its adoption, and was seconded by alderman Bard (of the Fourteenth Ward). Smith was remarkable for his great height. Alderman Sturtevant (of the Third Ward), one of the most pugnacious men in the Board, desired to know "whether Mr. Mount had done anything more than any other man would have done--any one sitting around that Board." "Yes, said Bard, promptly. " Anything more than the gentleman of the Fourteenth himself would have done?" superciliously inquired Mr. Sturtevant. Mr. Bard said he was not there. "Then more shame for you. Mr. Mount was there and had the opportunity------" Alderman Sturtevant was going on to say, when he was interrupted by Mr. Smith, who inquired whether the gentleman was speaking for or again the resolution.

Alderman Sturtevant:--"If the gentleman will have a little patience, or exercise what he is not distinguished for, a little civility and politeness, he'll find out what I am talking about. Here is a report before us in favor of awarding three hundred dollars, or three hundred dollars' worth, to Mr. Mount for doing what any true-hearted fireman would be glad to have the opportunity of doing. And I am sure my friend of the Fourteenth, with his fat, cheerful countenance, wishes he had been there and the tall son of New ----"

Here Alderman Smith jumped up to make a point of order. Alderman Sturtevant, he said, was personal, contrary to the rules of the Board. The president ruled against Sturtevant, but that irrepressible alderman continued his remarks in the same strain. Again he was interrupted, other aldermen joined in, and there was quite a hubbub. But Sturtevant managed once more to get the floor, and repeated "the Tall Son of York."

"Mr. President," cried Mr. Smith, excitedly, "if this is to be permitted I must ask your leave to throw an inkstand at his head, which I will do, so sure as I sit here, if he repeats those words."

The president interposed. The disorderly city father said: "I mean to do so. But neither the president nor any one else is to tell me what language I am to use, and when I say, without intending any offense, the tall Son of York-----" splash went the inkstand, but the other alderman promptly interfered to prevent hostilities, and the debate was resumed, Sturtevant arguing that they had no right to put their hands in the city treasury for such a purpose. Finally the testimonial was voted. This incident in the Common Council was long remembered. A year or so afterwards, when Brougham produced his burlesque of "Pocahontas" at Wallick's Theater, he referred to it in the following lines, "caught' the house:

"Shut up, dry up, or go to bed,

Or I'll throw an inkstand at your honorable head."


The old Volunteer fireman of the city of New York have the honor of bring the first to extend the right hand of fellowship to their Southern brethren. In the early part 1867 the members of "Independence" Hose Company No. 1, of Columbia, S. C., having had all their equipments destroyed during the war, appealed to the Northern firemen for old hose, and such apparatus such as they had cast aside, in order to re-establish their old department. Mr. Henry Wilson, who was president of the New York Fireman's Association, immediately called together the members, and steps were at once taken to see what relief could be afforded them. A committee was appointed to raise funds and in less than one week they realized over five hundred dollars. A new silver-mounted hose carriage, with ten lengths of new hose, was procured, one hundred fire hats, red shirts, belts, trumpets, and white hats for the chief engineer and assistants, were purchased, and shipped early in March of the same year on the steamer "Andalusia." A committee of fourteen was appointed to proceed to Columbia and make the presentation. This committee consisted of Henry Wilson, president; Alderman William Lamb, Trustee, Peter Y. Ridabock, Robert Wright, Lewis J. Parker, Thomas C. Burns, Peter Y. Everett, John Underhill, Joseph Lamb, Frank Burns, Abraham Clearman, Jones L. Coe, and J. W. Downing. At the earnest solicitation of Mr. Ridabock, the committee went by rail, which was no doubt the means of saving some of the lives of the committee, as the steamer, "Andalusia," took fire when twenty-four hours out, and with all its valuable cargo was totally destroyed, and twelve lives lost. The committee went by way of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Fortress Monroe, Norfolk, Wilmington, and Charleston, being received at all these places by the firemen of each city. While at Charleston, the mayor, Common Council, Chief Engineer M. A. Nathans, and the whole fire department, as well as the citizens, turned out to greet them. The following morning after their arrival in Charleston, the steamer "Manhattan," came into port with the sad news of the loss of the steamer, "Andalusia," and bringing the rescued passengers. The association had only one thousand dollars insurance on the carriage, the whole having cost over five thousand dollars. The committee were greatly dejected over their loss, and wanted to return home immediately, but the Columbia firemen insisted on their visiting the city, which they did, receiving a most cordial welcome. The committee resolved to duplicate their loss as soon as they got back to New York. On their return they were the guests of the fireman at Richmond, Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. As soon as they got back to New York, they ordered another carriage built, duplicated everything lost on the ill-fated steamer, and in June of the same year, shipped it on the steamer "Manhattan." Messrs. Henry Wilson, William Lamb, Thomas C. Burns, Abraham Clearman, and Lewis J. Parker, being sent to present the same. They reached Columbia in safety, the people turning out in mass to greet them. President Henry Wilson made the presentation in a most impressive speech. Governor Orr, General Barton, Mayor Starke, Hon. S. W. Malton, Chief engineer McKenzie, and the whole Fire Department being present, Captain Macky, of Hose No. 1 received the gifts.

The two carriages with all the equipment cost over ten thousand dollars, and the carriage still stands as a monument to the noble generosity of the Old Volunteer firemen of New York City.

Between 1855 and 1861 target excursions were a great feature throughout the city of New York. It was not an uncommon thing to see from ten to fifteen pass the Herald office every day, while on thanksgiving, and Christmas Day they would exceed one hundred in number. Most all emanated from some on engine, hose, or hook and ladder company. They were well drilled and put to blush some of the militia companies of the state. Among those that had their origin from the fire department were the Gulick Guards, named after Chief Engineer James Gulick. Oceanus Guards form Engine 11, Peterson Light Guards from Engine 15, Marsh Light Guards form Hose 33 and 40, Baxter Light Guards Hook and Ladder 15, Wildey Guards Engine 11, Washington Guards Engine 20, Union Guards Hook and Ladder 5, Atlantic Light Guards Hose 14, Live Oak Guards Engine 44, Americus Guards Engine 6, Columbia Guards Engine 14, Poole Guards Engine 34, Ringgold Guards Hose 7, Center Market Guards Engine 40, and many others that might be named. The Knickerbocker Guards from the Bowery and Lindsey Blues were also started by fireman.

In 1857 a general parade of all the target companies in the City took place, Fire Commissioner Henry Wilson, being Commander-in-chief. One hundred and twenty-seven companies turned out, which were divided into two divisions, the first being under command of William Wilson, at one time alderman of the First Ward, and, during the war, colonel of the Sixth New York Volunteer Regiment, stationed so long at Santa Rosa Island, and the second under command of John Creighton. Fernando wood was at that time mayor of the city, and he furnished all the muskets which were delivered to the several companies from the police-station houses by the captain of each ward.

It was on the twenty-third of April, 1857, that the parade took place, over twelve thousand men being under arms. On the staff of Commander-in-chief Henry Wilson rode Lloyd Aspinwall, Wm. H. Disbrow, G. Mansfield Davis, Dudley S. Gregory, Jr., and Samuel C. Thompson. On Col. Wm. Wilson's staff were Alexander C. Lawrence, William Mulligan, Alexander Mason, James E. Kerrigan, Captain James Turner, and Charles W. Waters. On the staff of General Creighton were Wilds T. Walker, Ald. Thomas McSpedon, Peter Y. Everett, Sam Suydan, Councilman Horatio N. Wild, and Alexander Ward. The several companies wre neatly equipped. In fact it was one of the most extensive parades ever witnessed in the city prior to the war. Business was suspended, stands erected all along the route or line of march, and the streets were crowded with thousands of people. Many of the companies wore red shirts, some blue overcoats, while others wore uniforms, not the state militia uniform.

The Knights of the Round Table were among the most noted organizations of the old Department. It originated among the members of Lafayette Hook and Ladder Company No. 6, located under Fireman's Hall, Mercer Street. It was organized in the fall of 1848, James P. Decker, Jr., being chosen the first president. The "Knights" convened once a year--Christmas Eve--and the occasion was one of great enjoyment. Among its members was a large number of the theatrical profession, as well as members of the Fire Department. A grand supper was the principle feature of the gathering. The supper took place at eleven o'clock at night, and was continued until the wee hours of Christmas morning. "Tom and Jerry" was the opening drink for the night's festivities. The tables were loaded down with all the viands of the season. Among its members were several firemen of Hook and Ladder No. 6. Among those who were at various times elected president were: John K. Evans, S. F. E. Kirby, Washginton Barton, George W. Williams, James K. Kellock, Augustus Hamilton, and Peter Y. Everett. At the head of the table could always be seen Daniel Carpenter, E. P and George Christy, old Blake, the actor, the Buckley Brothers of Buckley Minstrels, John Underhill, charley Dobbs, and Joseph R. Wheeler, of Hook and Ladder 6; Richard P. H. Able, of engine 28; Charles Ryerson, assistant foreman of Hook and Ladder 6; Col. W. R. W. Chambers, of Hose 22; Captain Turnbull, of the Eighth Ward police; James Moffatt, John H. O'Neil, and John K. Costigan, of Hook and Ladder 6. The feasts were always held in the basement of Fireman's Hall, the tables extending seventy-four feet in length, and on either side could always be found old Eph. Horn, Jerry and Dan Bryant, Tom Pendergast, Bob Hart, George Sherwood, Campbell N. Gole, Assistant Fire Marshal Henry O. Baker, John McCool, city register, and of Hose 24; Frank Raymond, Hose 5; James Timothy, property man of Wallack's Theater, and assistant foreman Hook and " fame; Nelse Seymour, Brown Atkins, Sandy Spencer, Judge A. A. Phillips, of Engine 40; Ex-Chief Engineer Elisha Kingsland, Assistant Engineers Timothy West and Charley Miller, of Engine 34. Wit and humor abound, intermingled with anecdotes, songs, ballads, and jokes, which kept the whole party in one continual uproar, the Knights of the Cork always endeavoring to outdo one another with all sorts of gags and puns. Among others who never failed to be present were Robert Wheeler, Frederick Melville, Fernando Wood, Jr., Charles Nesbitt, Harry and Joe Smith, James Turner, Oliver Lakeman, Jack Coburn, and a host of others that might be named. The last feast was held on Christmas Eve, 1880, Harry Wines, ex-captain of police, being the last president.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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