Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 14, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie

The buildings beyond the theater were also consumed with much rapidity, being full of ardent spirits and other inflammable articles. At one period of the conflagration the gas in the pipes which supplied the theater became ignited, and the effect which it instantaneous combustion produced on the distant spectators was like that of lightning. Others supposed it was the explosion of gunpowder. Am individual was on the roof of the theater when the flames began to envelop it. He escaped with great hazard from his peril by letting himself drop from the eaves about twenty feet to the roof of an adjacent building. Part of the rear wall fell during the night and the remainder fell in the morning.

When the fire first broke out, there was great difficulty experienced in getting a supply of water, and it was not until a line of engines was formed, extending from the scene of the conflagration to the East River at Catharine Slip, and another line from the corporation supply engine at the corner of Leonard and Elm Streets, that the fury of the flames could be arrested. The engine from Yorkville was brought down by three horses, and the firemen of Brooklyn assisted with promptness and activity. It was not well until eleven o'clock that the fire was subdued. All the proprieties of the Bowery Theater were destroyed, and some person escaped from it with difficulty. Mrs. Gilfert, the wife of the manager, was to have had a benefit, and as a full house was expected, it was a fortunate circumstance that the fire broke out before the hour of admission. The roof of the building was sheeted with lead, which soon melted from the intensity of the heat. Sixty thousand dollars insurance had been effected which did not cover the whole loss. Five horses and several carriages and gigs were destroyed in the livery stable. The Shakespeare Tavern, kept by D. Scribner in the Bowery, was burned.

The Commercial Advertiser of May 28 (ten days after the fire) said:

It is very much to be regretted that the police, with the mayor at the head of it, should not be prompt and efficient on such occasions. The watch was not seen on Monday when the first fire broke out, and very few constables made their appearance on the ground. The consequence was that an idle crowd, with a whole gang of thieves and pickpockets, interrupted the operations of the firemen, and prevented property from being saved if they did not actually assist in its destruction. When the mayor was compelled to preside as a judge in the sessions, half the year round, we well recollect that the duties of the office, as related to the Police Department, were faithfully attended to by Messrs. Clinton and Colden, and that all the officers were required to attend on occasions of fire. Such was also the case with Mr.Hone after the judicial functions of the office were removed. He was indefatigable as a police officer, and generally among the first on the ground at a fire. The presence of the mayor is not only necessary to control the spectators, who can do no good, but to inspirit the firemen, to whose laudable exertions he should be a witness.

The Morning Courier of the day of the fire had the following notice:

BOWERY THEATER.--A CARD.--Mrs. Gilfert's benefit. Mrs. Gilfert respectfully announces to her friends and the public that, having recovered from her recent severe indisposition, her benefit, which in consequence of that event was postponed, will take place this evening, the 26th inst. Upon this occasion will be performed the TRAGEDY OF THIRTY YEARS; or the Life of a Gambler--heretofore received with the most distinguished approbation. The part of Georgette, for this night only, will be personated b y Miss Sophie Gilfert, being her first appearance. THE HUNDRED POUND NOTE will also be presented, the part of Billy Black by Messrs. Roberts and Chapman. Mdme, Labassee will dance her favorite pas seul, "I've been roaming," Mons. Barbere and Mad'slle Celeste will appear in a grand pas de deux. Seiltanzer Herr Cline will perform on the elastic cord, displaying many novel and highly effective evolutions. Seats may be secured at the box office.

The large number of fires previous and subsequent to the burning of the Bowery theater caused the various insurance companies to offer a reward if one thousand dollars for the apprehension and conviction of any incendiary. The following presidents signed the advertisement:

E. Lord Manhattan
T. R. Mercen Equitable
John Slidell Traders'
M. Muir Etna
Jacob Drake Fireman's
J. T. Champlin Farmers'
James Sword Washington
R. Whiley North River
Thomas Hertell Phenix
A. Bloodgood Contributorship
Henry Rankin Globe
Gabriel Furman Mutual
E. H. Laight Eagle
R. Havens Howard
J. Lawrence Merchants'
Noah Jarvis Mechanics'
John Mccomb Lafayette
Allen Clapp Jefferson
E. Tibbetts Franklin
J. C. Hart secretary of the Chatham

The year 1829 was prolific of misfortunes to the Department. There were many fires, but though not serious in themselves they proved disastrous to the firemen. At a fire in a dwelling house in Broome Street, near Sheriff, on April 23, a ladder had been raised to facilitate the efforts of the hosemen. On the ladder were Messrs. Conklin, Titus and Chappell, of No. 14 engine, and William Stoutenburgh, of No. 5 engine. Without any sign of warning the front of the building suddenly fell outwards, breaking the ladder in two and burying the men in the ruins. Their escape from death was miraculous. In a few seconds the firemen were extricated, and, strange, to say, only one was found to have sustained any serious injury. This was Titus, who soon recovered. Much the same kind of accident happened on July 9 to members of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. At a fire in a four-story store, No 28 south Street, some of the men were injured by the falling of a ladder, and several other firemen were buried in the ruins of the fallen gable end of the building. They were all saved from death, but some of them were so severely injured that at first it was thought they would die. Happily they recovered. A tremendous storm struck the city some few weeks after, on August 15, and at half-past three in the morning the lightning set fire to a house at the corner of Mulberry and Hester Streets. The Secretary of No. 21 Engine makes a satirical remark at the end of his report of this occurrence: "The engine was dragged to the fire," he says, "through one of the most severe storms of thunder and rain experienced for many years, the flashes of lightning following each other almost instantaneously, and the rain pouring down in torrents. It was also slyly reported (how true I know not) that some of the members--rather short, to be sure--had to put their swimming powers in operation to reach the fire."

Three fatal accidents occurred in 1832. On July 5, Cornelius Garrison, a member of Engine Company No. 32, was killed at a fire, and on September 25, Nathaniel Brown and James Hedges, members of Engine Company No. 42m met the same fate.

The City Hotel was burned on April 24, 1833. This vast structure occupied the whole block west of Broadway, between Cedar and Thames Streets. It was about one hundred feet in length by sixty feet in breadth. It was owned by John Jacob Astor, who purchased it about 1830 at a cost, including the land, of more than one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. It was one of the most exciting fires of the period, from the narrow escapes attending it and for the gallantry of ex-Chief Engineer U. Wenman. About ten in the morning smoke was seen issuing from the roof of the hotel, south end, read side. At first a barrel of water would have extinguished it, but the great height of the building rendered it inaccessible to the firemen, and the consequence was that in a short time the southern half of the roof was in a blaze, sending its immense volumes to the skies, and in half an hour the northern part of one roof shared the fate of the rest. As soon as the fire had descended within reach of the firemen's powers, they poured in upon it a flood of water from every direction, and finally subdued the flames, leaving the three lower stores uninjured, except by water. The upper story, as well as the attics of the roof, was destroyed, except the walls. In the attempt to check the progress of the fire, eleven person ascended the upper story, immediately under the roof. Among them Mr. Jennings, the keeper of the hotel, Mr. Uzziah Wenman, who the year before was chief engineer, Mr. Charles Baldwin, lawyer, Mr. Thomas Austin, a city auctioneer, Mr. A. S. Fraser, a clerk of Mr. Aaron Clark, and Mr. James Thompson. Absorbed in their work of trying to save the building they did not notice the progress of the flames. The greater part of the ceiling of the upper story fell, and the fire then rushed up the scuttle and cut off their retreat by the staircase. The structure was so high that no ladder could be raised to relieve them, nor even near enough to throw a rope by which they might descend. In this perilous situation, on the verge of the roof, and the raging element making frightful advances toward them, they had for some time a melancholy prospect of being crushed by the fall of the burning timbers around them. One or two exclaimed, "We are lost!" Long ladders were spliced, but for some moments all efforts to reach them were in vain. Calmness was recommended in this dreadful emergency. The ex-chief with an axe which he had brought with him cut away the skylight. Samuel Maverick, an exempt fireman, was in the story beneath, and, by extraordinary effort, with the assistance of a flag-staff, sent up the end of a drag-rope. Providentially it struck fast. Assistant Alderman Day, of the Eighth Ward, took this drap rope, which was very heavy, and about one hundred and fifty feet in length. Nevertheless, he made several coils, and ran with it along the gutter, where a slight inclination or false step would have dashed him to the ground. Mr. Wenman seized the rope and fastened it tot he dormer casement. He then began lowering his companions, beginning with Charley Baldwin, who was much larger than himself. The situation was watched with great anxiety. Broadway was lined with people from Rector Street to the Park, and the adjoining roofs, windows and balconies were filled with spectators. The work of destruction proceeded rapidly, and the flames burst through the roofing with such violence as to throw the tiles off in masses, which tumbled down upon the pavement below, to the imminent danger of the firemen and others beneath.

When all his companions had been relieved, a ladder was brought to the interior of the fourth story, which reached to the attic, and on that Mr. Wenman was enabled to descend. His hands had been much cut by holding to the rope while he was letting down the other men. One of these imperiled persons had given up all hope, but he manifested a great degree of coolness. He waved his hands to his friends below, biding them, as he believed, a last farewell. For a long time the rumbling of scarcely a cart or carriage was to be heard in that part of the city. Business seemed to pause while the work of destruction was going on.

There were some casualties, but not of any moment. One of the hook and ladder men of No. 2 was somewhat severely cut in the face by the falling of a tile from the roof. He had his wound dressed, and then manfully returned to his duty. Another man was badly scalded by the molten lead falling on him. Although the destruction of property was immense, yet it was calculated that, by the excellent supply of water from the hydrants, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars' worth of property was saved. The damage to the building was about ten thousand dollars; insured. The occupant, Chester Jennings, was also insured to a much greater amount than his loss. The hotel was crowded with guests, and for days before applicants had been refused.

The first trouble of any account between the firemen of the city of New York and the authorities was the "Bailey trouble," which occurred in 1828. John P. Bailey, who was the foreman of United State Engine Company before John Ryker, Jr., and who was a manager of the old Sugar House at the corner of church and Leonard Streets, was in command of his company at a fire, and refused to allow Thomas Shephard, the Assistant Alderman of the Fifth Ward, to go through the fire lines. Shephard left threatening vengeance, and on August 11, 1828, had Bailey dismissed. The firemen thought this unjust, and at the next fire, which proved to be at the Vauxhall Garden, which then ran through the Bowery to Broadway, after they had done their duty and put out the fire, they turned their caps and dragged the engines home by the tail ropes, and gave other evidences of their feeling in the matter. The affair created great excitement at the time, and Bailey was finally reinstated in his command.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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