Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments
Chapter 13, Part III
By Holice and Debbie
Of the many "Liberty Poles" erected in the city the best known was, perhaps, "Tom" Riley's. It stood at the southwest corner of Franklin Street and West Broadway. It was the scene of many a gathering on holidays. These contests took place between rival engines, and these exciting trials attracted numerous spectators, besides members and friends of the Department. Each company was jealous of the reputation of the pumping power of its engine, often challenges were issued to decide the question, and Riley's Liberty Pole was most often selected at which to make the trial. The pole was marked in various places with figures indicating the number of feet high that the several companies had played. Its height has been given as one hundred and thirty-seven feet. Especially on Thanksgiving Day would crowds of enthusiastics gather to see the machines work. The judges sat on the roof of Mr. Riley's hotel and reported the respective heights. Among the trials at Riley's Liberty Pole was a notable on in 1855. The Exempt Engine Company had been organized on November 14 of the preceding year at the house of Mr. H. B. Venn, No. 298 Bowery. The company had procured the abandoned engine of No. 42, which, on account of its great weight, was called the "man killer." On the twenty-fourth of January, while the snow was falling heavily, one hundred and ten exempts marched with the engine to Riley's, and were watched by a big crowd. The trial was a great success, and the company celebrated the event the same evening by a cold collation at Brook's Rooms in Broome Street.
Riley's Pole was first put up in 1835, on Washington's birthday. It was a great day for the Democrats who erected it. There was a feast, there were speeches, and other appropriate exercises. Unfortunately it did not long remain standing. It was struck by lightning in the following year, and so injured that it had to be taken down. Another pole was erected, at the expense of the Democrats. It was removed in 1858, and long after "old timers" used to visit the spot where it had stood to talk over the memories of bygone days. Riley's hotel has since been torn down, and a six-story structure for business purposes was built on the site. The old hydrant near it was left standing.
As we have intimated elsewhere, "Old Turk," No. 44, was a famous engine. The most prominent of the old "Forty Fourers," and one whose name even to-day is a household word among all old firemen, was Frank Clark, one of the most remarkable men who ever ran with the "masheen." Clark was born in Paterson, N. J., in 1824, that same year that 44 was organized. He came to New York, and of his school days in fifth Street he says: "The first day we went to the school the gang tried to pitch the teacher out of the window, but instead for pitched out themselves." Clark was indentified with 44 from boyhood. According to himself he "jined" at eleven years of age.
In the early days of 44 the firemen were divided into two classes--regulars and volunteers or runners. While Sam Allen was foreman the volunteers bunked in a house directly opposite the engine house, in Houston Street, between Cannon and Lewis Streets. One night Allen locked the engine house, and going to the bunkers' quarters made an offer of a brand new suit of clothes to the first volunteer who would roll the engine in case of a fire during the night. The volunteers turned into their bunks with their trousers stuck into their boots beside their beds and ready to be jumped into as soon as the alarm sounded. At midnight the Union Market bell "came in" for a fire in the Sixth District. The volunteers jumped into their trousers and rushed across the street only to find the engine already in the street, and Clark on the tongue with neither boots nor trousers on. From that night until his death 45 and Frank Clark were synonymous terms among firemen not only in New York but in almost every city in the Union. He became a member of 44, and afterwards foremen, a position of honor and power in those days. He led "Old Turk" to Washington to see Pierce inaugurated, and to Philadelphia, where they were received by Bill McMullen's Moyamensing Hose and created a sensation. While foremen of Old Turk Clark married and on the night of the wedding escorted his bride home from the church. When within a few yards of the bride's house the bell struck six, and Clark left his bride at her door while he rushed to the house, seized his trumpet, and led 44 to the fire in his wedding suit, and for three days never saw his bride. This was at the great sugar House fire, which lasted three days. When called to account for his conduct, he replied:
"What wus a feeler goin' to do? Let the injin get passed?"
Volumes might be written about Clark and his exploits. He became prominent in politics, but was not suited for a leader. He was an "Old Line Democrat" of the most pronounced type, and this lost him place time and again. He was not a selfish man, and for forty years he was known to almost every man, woman, and child in the eleventh Ward, and was as much of a boy in his ideas at sixty as he was at twenty. He was "Frank Clark of old 44." And he gloried in his title. The proudest day of his life was when he led 44 on Evacuation Day parade in 1883. Old Turk turned out two hundred strong, and thousands flocked to see her. From far and near the old eastsiders who had moved away years before came back to their old stamping grounds. Clark with his red shirt and fire cap, and a silver trumpet covered with flowers, was a prouder man that day than any monarch on earth.
The affection entertained by the people for the men of Old Turk may be gleaned from a letter written to the Sun by Mrs. Edward Moynihan, of No. 298 Seventh Street, a few days before the parade. Mrs. Moynihan spoke in flowing terms of old 44 and said:
"They tell me that the old firemen may be short of funds for a band. If that is so, I will
freely contribute whatever may be lacking. All I ask is that they march past my window
so that I may once more see about all there is left in the Eleventh Ward to remind me
of the past."
The old ladies wish was gratified. Old 44 marched past her window. As Mrs. Moynihan, bent with age and resting on the arm of her son, appeared at the window, Clark lifted his hat and raised his trumpet, when two hundred of the flower of the old Fire Department raised their helmets and remained uncovered until they passed the old lady's window. It was a memorable day in the eleventh Ward, and there were few dry eyes among the men of Old Turk. The aged lady had seen old 44 for the last time.
At all demonstrations and at their funerals Clark was a prominent character. Attending a funeral of one of his old comrades he requested that, if he himself should die on Monday, he be kept in until the following Sunday, so that all the old boys might have a chance to go to his funeral. Two weeks from that day his wish was gratified. He died on Monday, May 4, 1884, and his funeral took place on Sunday, May 10. It was the largest demonstration every witnessed at the funeral of a Volunteer fireman not killed in the discharge of his duty, and among the floral tributes was the motto of the old 44:
Extinguish one flame and cherish another.
Old 44 was also remarkable for her six stalwart Pennys, who were known all over the city as "Old Turk's Big Pennys." Once a foreman of a rival company had a dispute with 44's foremen as to the relative merits of their respective companies, and offered to back his opinion by betting drinks for the two. In those "good old days" good old whiskey could be had for three cents a glass, and the rival foreman banged down six cents on his engine. He had a well-founded conviction that 44's foreman was penniless. Rueful 44 thrust his hands into his empty pockets and looked along the line. His sad eye lighted on one of the Pennys, and a ray of hope entered his thirsty soul. He whispered to this particular Penny, who whispered to his brothers, and at once each of the six namesakes slapped a penny upon the engine amid a roar of laughter from the spectators. The challenger laughed too and took the whole crowd over to "Johnny" Muldoon's, at Third and Lewis Streets, where they fraternized. As they drank each other's healths Nigger Shee sang the following refrain of the old song:
I went down town to see my posey,
John McDermott ("Old Time enough"), of Excelsior Engine Company No. 2, derived his "nickname" from a peculiarity, the cause of which he tells in this way: "Of course you know that in those days every other man in the Department had a nickname, and if he was at all prominent as a fireman, he was known all over the city by it every bit as well as his proper name. Indeed many knew him by his nickname who would have been puzzled if asked his right name. As secretary, foreman and in other positions, I always tried to smooth over the little quarrels which were sure to come up. One would present charges against the other for this or that offense, and insist that they be forwarded to headquarters. I knew that a little delay would in every case cause the parties concerned to forget all about them, so my customary reply--indeed it became stereotyped--was, 'Oh, time enough.' Perhaps I may have carried this thing a little too far, but it got me the nickname as my reward, and I suppose I'll bear it to the day of my death.
"Excelsior was known, as the Quaker company, because when I joined it a great many of the boys' fathers wre old Broadbrims. Most of the members--among whom I recall Mayor Westervelt's son; Ed. Knight, Librarian of the supreme Court; ex-Coroner Pat Keenan, ex-Alderman Bryan Reilly, Zophar Mills, and others--belonged to good families, so that we had none of the fighting element with us. It wasn't at all unusual for us to have a forty or fifty-dollar supper after a fire, and in those days forty dollars would buy a great deal of good grub. Some of the wealthier fellows belonged to it, as they did to other companies, to enable them to escape jury duty, and not a few of them would regularly pay as fines every month ten or fifteen dollars. When I joined No. 2 the house was at 21 Henry Street--I believe it is a butcher shop now--but in 1865 we moved to East Broadway, between Catharine and Market Streets.
"In the autumn of '52 a grain-elevator at the foot of Roosevelt Street caught fire on Sunday morning. It was only a few blocks from the house, and we happened to be on hand before the alarm was given. Jack Sloper--he was a sort of left-handed mascot to me always--and I had the pipe down in the hold of the elevator. We heard a noise and happened to back out just in the nick of time, for the machinery had given way. When the ships Great Republic, White Squall, and others were burned at the foot of Dover Street, the same Sloper and I were on one of the vessels. We had the pipe and were lying on our stomachs between decks, with half hatch on. The gas generating in the hold of the vessel exploded, driving the other half of the hatch up and knocking us heels over head."
Mechanics' Hose No. 47 had a member who history, though brief, is noteworthy. Daniel Kelly was born in the Eleventh Ward, hailing from the famous old Dry Dock, which has but recently become a thing of the past. Kelly joined No. 47 in 1859. He was a man of great strength, brave as a lion, but very quiet. He became foreman of Mechanics' Hose. About twenty-five years ago, on the Fourth of July, at a fire in Columbia Street, the foreman of a rival of No. 47 attempted to strike Kelly with his trumpet. Kelly simply grabbed the man, threw him across his knee, and spanked him like a schoolboy amid the roars of the crowd. When Kelly had served his time he resigned, and dropped out of sight.
Some years ago a visitor desired to see the monastery at Hoboken, and was referred to Brother Bonaventure. The brother and the visitor were passing through the house when the former suddenly turned and pressed the hand of the visitor, exclaiming, "How do you do, Joe? Don't you remember me?" Brother Bonaventure was Daniel Kelly, Mechanics' old-time foreman, and "Joe" was one of his former comrades. The monk told his friend that was the only way he could save his soul. Kelly was brought up within the sound of the old Mechanics' bell. Within the monastery was a bell which rang for prayers at midnight. The recluse explained that a special indulgence was granted to the monk who first responded to its peal. Brother Bonaventure's experience and practice in invariably being the first to answer the old fire bell stood him in good stead, and he gained all the indulgences.
Transcribed by Holice B. Young
HTML by Debbie
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