Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 14, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

On the eighteenth of December, 1804, the progress of the city was again impeded for a short time by a disastrous fire, which began at two o'clock in the morning in a grocery on Front Street. The air was cold, and a high wind was blowing, and the engines late in the appearance. The buildings from the west side of Coffee House Slip, on Water Street, to Gouverneur's Lane, and thence down to the East river, were swept away, and crossing wall Street, the houses upon the east side of the slip were burned. Among them was the old Tontine coffee House, so celebrated in its day, and which ad a narrow escape in the great fire of 1835. Most of the buildings being of wood, their destruction caused new and fire-proof brick edifices to be built in their places. About forty stores and dwellings were consumed--fifteen on Wall Street, seventeen on Front, and eight on Water Street--the value of the property destroyed amounting to two million dollars. The fire was supposed to have been the work of eleven incendiaries, from anonymous letters sent to a merchant previous to the event. A reward of five hundred dollars was accordingly offered by the mayor for the apprehension of the guilty parties, but no one was arrested.

On August 25, 1808, a general alarm of fire was given at 1 A. M. It began at the soap and candle factory of Edward Watkeys, in Nassau Street. The factory was surrounded by several large wooden buildings, which soon were all in flames. The Department struggled for at least two hours, and the fire was not subdued till six buildings were destroyed. The loss of life however, was great, for four persons perished in the fire.

The War of 1812 was a period of darkness and depression for New York, but the city's resources were additionally crippled by the terrible conflagration on May 19, of the preceding year (1811). The fire broke out on Sunday morning in Lawrence's Coach factory in Chatham Street, near Duane, and raged furiously for several hours. Mr. John W. Degrauw was than a small boy in a store in the Bowery with his uncle. Passing by at the outbreak of the disaster he ran down Chatham Street crying "Fire!" and soon got the old jail bell near the City Hall ringing. A brisk northeast wind was blowing at the moment, and the flames, spreading with great rapidity, for some time baffled all the exertions of the firemen and citizens. Between eighty and one hundred buildings on both sides of Chatham Street were consumed in a few hours. Mr. G. P. Disosway was than a Sabbath-school boy and a teacher in a public school room near by, at the corner of Tryon Row. The school was dismissed, and, as usual, proceeded to old John Street Church, while thick showers of light, burning shingles and cinders were falling all over the streets. That was the day of shingle roofs. When the teachers and scholars, their number very large, reached the church the venerable Bishop McKendall occupied the pulpit, and seeing the immense clouds of dark smoke and burning embers enveloping that section of the city, he advised the men "to go to the fire, and help in its extinguishment and he would preach to the women and children." This advice was followed.

By this time the scene had become very exciting, impressive, even fearful. The wind had increased to a gale, and far and wide and high flew the flakes in whirling eddies, throwing burning destruction wherever they lit or fell. The lofty spires near by of the Brick meeting Church, St. Paul's, and St. George's Chapel, enveloped in the flying embers, soon became the special objects of watchfulness and anxiety. Thousands of uplifted eyes were directed to these holy places, threatened with destruction. But there was no cause for fear. Near the ball at the top of the Brick Church a blazing spot was seen outside, and apparently not larger than a man's hand. Instantly a thrill of fear evidently ran through the bosoms of the thousands crowding the park and the wide area of Chatham Street. "They feared the safety of an old and loved temple of the Lord," says an old chronicler, "and they feared also, if the spire was once in flames, with the increasing gale, what would be the terrible consequences in the lower part of the city."

"What can we do?" was the universal question. "What in the world can be done?" was the query in everybody's mouth. The kindling spot could not be reached from the inside of the tall steeple, nor by ladders outside, neither could the most powerful fire-engine of the day force the water to that lofty height. With the deepest anxiety, fear and trembling all faces were turned in that direction. At this moment of alarm and dread a sailor appeared sailor appeared on the roof of the church, and very soon he was seen climbing up the steeple, hand over hand, by the lightning rod, a rusty, slender piece of iron. The excitement became intense, and the perilous undertaking of the daring man wa watched every moment, as he slowly, grasp by grasp, foot by foot, literally crawled upwards by means of this slim conductor. Many fears were expressed among the immense crowd, watching every inch of his ascent, for there was no resting place for hands or feet and he must hold on or fall and perish. Should he succeed in reaching the burning spot how could he possibly extinguish it, as no water, neither by hose nor bucket, could be sent to his assistance? At last he reached the kindling spot, and firmly grasping the lightning rod with one hand, with the other he removed his tarpaulin hat from his head and by blow after blow beat out the fire. Shouts of joy and thanks greeted the noble fellow as he slowly and safely descended to the earth again. Who was the hero? He was the father of the Rev. Dr. Hague, pastor of the Baptist Church at the corner of Thirty-first Street and Madison Avenue, who died about 1871. The "Old Brick" was thus preserved from the great conflagration of that Sunday morning. The gallant sailor quickly disappeared in the crowd, and, it was said, immediately sailed abroad, with the favorable win then blowing. A reward was offered for the generous act, but it was said an impostor succeeded in obtaining it.

The cupola of the Old Jail which stood on the spot now occupied by the Hall of Records also took fire. This was extinguished through the exertions of a prisoner "on the limits." This was the famous institution where unfortunate debtors were confined and deprived of liberty, and with tools, book, paper, or pen were expected to pay their debts. It was a kind of Calcutta Black Hole, and the inmates, having no yard, had to use the top of the building to take exercise. Her they might be seen every hour of the day. Generally discovering fires in the city, they gave the first alarm by ringing the Jail bell. This became a sure signal of a conflagration, and on this occasion they saved the legal pest-house from quick destruction. If the building had been destroyed, and its inmates saved, there would not have been much public regret at the loss, for it had been a veritable dungeon to American prisoners of war during the Revolution. After General Washington's success, in the year 1777, in New Jersey, a portion of these poor prisoners were exchanged, but many of them, exhausted by their confinement, before reaching the vessels for their embarkation home, fell dead in the streets. These are some of the historical reminiscences of the "Old Debtors' Prison" which so narrowly escaped burning in the fire of May, 1811.

"The dependence for water at this fire," says Mr. Engs, "was entirely upon street pumps, private cisterns, and the Manhattan Works. These were plied with all the then existing means, and even the assistance of numerous females was volunteered to pass the buckets. The short supply of water and the strong wind baffled all exertions, and resort was had to pulling down some houses before the progress of the flames could be arrested. In two hours and a half 102 houses were destroyed. Scudder's Museum, situated in Chatham street, opposite Tryon Row, prevented it spreading father, in that direction, flakes had caught in forty-three places quite away from the great scene of the conflagration, and this maybe accounted for, to a large extent, from the fact that the buildings were nearly all of wood, filling the air with sparks and cinders, which the heavy wind sped on to mischief. In the opinion of the engineers a stop could not be put to this conflagration without applying the hooks and razing the houses of Tryon Row and elsewhere to the ground. The Recorder, Mr. Van Wyck, had the power by law and forbade it, threatening the commanding engineer with expulsion if he gave such orders. It was no time to hesitate, and Engineer Roome, indignant at the interference, cried out, 'Come on, Hook and Ladder! And you, Pierre Van Wyck, stand on one side, or we will bury you in the ruins!'"

The fire was long remembered in the Department on account of a fatal accident. William Peterson, foreman of Engine Company No. 15, was one of the bravest and most devoted of firemen, and had often signalized himself by his exhibition of courage and zeal. While the Chatham Street fire was at its height Peterson was suddenly stricken down, overcome by his too great exertion and by exposure to the heart. He was carried home in an almost lifeless condition, and within a few hours he died. The last solemn rites wre attended by the whole Department, and the chiseled marble at Greenwood tells to posterity the story of his worth. There was another accident also at this fire. Chief Engineer Thomas Franklin while attempting to pass from one street to another, both sides of which were swept by flames, was overcome by the heat, and this clothes took fire. At once he was drenched with water from the engines, and in a exhausted state was taken home. He soon recovered from his injuries.

On August 3, 1813, an accident occurred at a fire in Ross's buildings in Fulton Street (then called Fair Street), near Broadway, which for long after gave work for the lawyers. Jeremiah B. Taylor, who had no connection with the Department, and, it is said, was not a citizen, was looking on at the burning building, standing near the pipe of Engine Company No. 21. Suddenly a wall fell upon him, burying him and killing him, and cutting off a length of hose. The pipe man escaped without injury, but foreman Howe suffered from a severe blow on the head from a falling brick. The generous-hearted firemen at once set on foot a subscription to relieve the Taylor's family, and raised between seven and eight hundred dollars. His funeral was attended by the whole Department, and the expenses paid by the men. Subsequent discoveries, however, showed that the firemen's charity was misplaced, and the fund was then held for thier own benevolent purposes. Taylor's heirs, however, began suit, and for years the litigation dragged its slow length along, and finally became a dead letter.

The next few years have a record of accidents. On august 31, 11815, William Meekleworth, our old chronicler P. W. Engs and A. Lent were knocked down by the fall of the cornice of Zion Church in Mott Street, and Meekleworth was very much hurt. On December 3, 1816, George Herrick fell from the loft of Mr. Allen's store in Water Street, while on duty at t a fire, was buried under some fallen bricks, and had his leg broken. On June 22, 1820, Charles W. Abrams, of Engine Company No. 18, died in consequence of injuries sustained at a fatal fire in Broadway, and was buried in Trinity Church yard. The fatal fire in Broadway began at Cram's distillery, and thirty-six houses were burned. Early in the present century turpentine distilleries were allowed to be erected on and about the old Collect, between Orange and Rynders Streets, considered in 1820 to be the upper part of the city. These distilleries would burn out two or three times a year, calling fro machines to be drawn to them from the distant parts of the city without being able to do any good, as it was impossible to arrest the flames by water, and there were no houses so near as to be much in danger. The nuisance became so great that fireman and other citizens applied tot he authors to forbid their location within the "lamp and watch district." And the distilleries were finally driven out. On January 24, 1821, at three A.M., an alarming fire broke out in a house in Front Street, near Crane's Wharf, which destroyed twenty-four buildings and did much injury to seven others. A number of vessels at the wharf were also injured. The weather was so cold that the hose was with difficulty kept from freezing.

The Department suffered a loss at a fire at the shipyard on March 24, 1824. It occurred in the yard of Adam & Noah Brown, bounded by Stanton Street, Houston Street, Goerck Street, and the East River. There were two steamboats and two ships on the stocks, under cover of the ship-house. Early as was the hour, half the city seemed aroused and hastened to the scene of the conflagration. The firemen rapidly put their engines to work, but their enemy had got a good way ahead of them. The steamboats on the stocks wre nearly finished, and Mr. Adam Brown, who was present, determined to make an attempt to launch them. A strong force of workmen and citizens was got together, and the effort was made. They were aided by the firemen, especially by Engine No. 33, under Foremen James P. Allaire, and Assistant Foreman Ebenezer Worship, who endeavored to check the flames at that point. But in vain; the conflagration spread so rapidly that the workmen were driven from the vicinity of the stocks, and the attempt had to be abandoned. Engine No. 33 stood her ground bravely; but, unfortunately, was in a moment almost surrounded by fire. "Jump for your lives!" cried hundred of spectators who saw the peril of the men. Some of the firemen were able to get away, but Charles Forrester, Philander Webb, Jeremiah Bruce, and Harry Esler had to jump into the river to escape the flames. They were quickly rescued, but their engine was destroyed, nothing remaining of it but a blackened scrap-heap. The fire now raged furiously and unchecked, and in the space of an hour every vessel and all the property in the yard were burned.

A still sadder event occurred on March 8, 1827, when two firemen were killed. It was during a fire at Bowen & Co.'s store in Maiden Lane. A ladder had been placed against the building to enable the firemen to get their hose to play into the interior. David W. Raymer, of No. 40 Engine, stood at the top, Assistant Foreman Francis Joseph, of No. 1 Engine, under him and just below a third man. Smoke and flames that poured out of the windows obscured the top of the building so that no one perceived the wooden cornice was tottering. Without the slightest warning down it crushingly came, smashing the ladder and burying the three men. There was a simultaneous rush of firemen tot he spot to extricate their unfortunate comrades. Quicker than it takes to write the words, the blazing cornice was removed, flung aside and the wounded men lifted tenderly out. It was found that Raymer and Joseph were very severely injured, but that the third man had escaped with trifling hurts. Raymer and Joseph were conveyed to hospital, but the former survived only an hour, and the latter died before morning. There was universal mourning fort hose brave men, for they were well known and liked for many estimable qualities. The two were buried on the same day, the fire Department attending the joint funeral in a body. The department collected a handsome sum of money for Raymer's destitute widow and orphans. Fifty years afterwards Mr. Charles Forrester, of No. 33 engine, which was destroyed in 1824, was giving reminiscences of the old days, and remarked that firemen were more reckless in those times then in later years. "They didn't care so much for their lives," said Mr. Forrester, "they ran up slate roofs, for instance, in a most careless fashion."

In reference to the deaths of Raymer and Joseph the Commercial Advertiser of that date had the following pertinent remarks: "Thus we have lost two valuable members of the society by the careless manner in which buildings are suffered to be erected in this city, and until we have a law clearly defining the manner in which houses should be constructed the lives of our firemen will be endangered not only by overhanging wooden gutters and cornices, but in many other respects. One of the morning papers speaking of the melancholy accident of yesterday suggests the propriety of the more general use of copper gutters which are secured in such a manner to the building as to prevent their falling in case of fire."

In May, 1828, many fires had occurred in the upper part of the town, and it was supposed they were the work of incendiaries. The greatest of them occurred on the twenty-sixth, when the Bowery Theater was destroyed. A colored man was apprehended on suspicion, and he confessed to having been hired to set fire to the building. The fire originally broke out in Chambers & Underhill's livery stable in Bayard Street, about a quarter before six o'clock in the evening. The wind blew freshly from the southwest. The firemen could not prevent their progress, the buildings being full of combustible materials. The fire soon communicated to the Bowery Theater, both in front and in the rear in Elizabeth Street. The flames were driven by the wind full upon the play-house, whose side wall was fire proof, with iron shutters tot he windows. At length the wooden cornice took fire. The flames singing the ends of the rafters were driven violently into the interior of the building. A pyramid of flame rose from the burning roof to an immense height with a dazzling intensity of brightness, and heat that drive back the bystanders, and shed over the city a light like that of day. The roof, chimneys, and the west wall shortly after fell, and the fire raged inside about three hours. But when the cornice fell it brought down death with it. John Bradshaw, of Engine Company No. 21, was at work beneath it and was crushed to death. It was impossible to rescue the body, and it was not until weeks after that the mangled remains could be dug out. A young man, Benjamin Gifford, Jr., who lived at No. 139 Madison Street, and who used to run with the engines, was also supposed to have perished in the ruins. Bradshaw's funeral at No. 2 Liberty Street, was attended by his company. The Rev. Mr. Feltus officiated and delivered a very appropriate and felling address to the firemen.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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