Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 15, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

In this year (1836) we strike upon a portion of the history of the Old Fire Department, where its members allowed their personal predilections to overcome their sense of public duty. The trouble originated in the famous fire of the preceding year. The citizens, as well as the press, on the day after the December conflagration of 1835, laid great stress on Chief Engineer Gulick's ability as a fireman, y claiming that it was his fault that the fire had gained such headway and that so much property was destroyed. They never gave it a thought that the firemen had been up two nights before, or the lack of water. Gulick was a very determined, independent, outspoken man, and when his pride was piqued, especially as to his qualifications as a fireman, he was up in a jiffy. He stood six foot, two inches, was stout, and said to have been the finest looking man in the Department. The result of many rumors caused the Common Council, who in those days had control of the Department, to order an investigation to be made. The discussion continued until May, 1836, when the Fire and Water Committee held a special meeting, at which Alderman Paul, of the Fourth Ward, made a long speech in denunciation of Gulick, charging him with having done certain things at the fire that was the mans of aiding its extension in place of arresting its progress. Gulick was standing in the lobby at the time, while the room was crowded with citizens and firemen, all deeply interested in the proceedings. Gulick became quite excited over what old Paul stated, and he gave the alderman the lie, and left the room. At the conclusion of the meeting the committee went into secret session, and unanimously agreed to report in favor of removing Gulick at the next meeting of the Board, which was to be held on the following day.

About the time they were to convene (May 4, 1836) a fire broke out in Union Market, at the junction of Houston and Second Street. Gulick was not aware at that hour what decision the Fire and Water committee had arrived at, but while at work at the above fire, which consisted of two small brick buildings, Charles G. Hubbs, of Engine Company No. 13, whom it seemed had learned the secret intention of the Fire and Water Committee, came up to Gulick and told him what he had heard. Gulick would not believe it at first, and when assured by Hubbs that it was so, Gulick went away from the fire, turning his cap as he did so. The men saw at a glance that something was wrong. Several ran after him, and soon learned that he was to be their chief no longer. The fire had been nearly subdued, when the firemen started for home. About an hour afterwards it broke out anew, when all the firemen came on the ground with their apparatus, and their hats turned. They refused to go to work, when Charles H. Haswell, foreman of Engine Company No. 10, mounted the box of his engine and made a long speech to the men, contending that the removal of Gulick was an insult to the Department, and that his command should not go to work, let the consequences be what they might. So the firemen all agreed to side with Haswell. At this stage of the proceedings Carlisle Norwood, President of the Lorillard Insurance Company in 1875, came on the ground, and, seeing the state of affairs (the fire still raging at the time), went to Haswell and appealed to him not to create discord among the men. Haswell was unrelenting, and while Norwood stood conversing with him, John Coger, foreman of Engine No. 8, afterward assistant engineer, came up. Norwood appealed to Coger, to get his company to work, as there was no knowing where the fire would terminate unless some efforts were made to arrest its progress. Coger consented his men on the brakes, but has no sooner brought a stream to bear on the fire than his hose was cut in several places. Several of the leading firemen, with Mr. Norwood, now consulted together as to what was best to be done; when it was finally decided that the only hope lay in getting Gulick to return to the fire, and for him to get the men to go to work. Thereupon Benj. H. Guion, one of the Fire Wardens, went in search of Gulick, and succeeded, after repeated entreaties, in getting him to resume command of the Department until the fire was extinguished. As Gulick hove in sight cheer after cheer rent the air from the members of the Department. He marched down among the men, with Carlisle Norwood on the one side, and Mr. Guion on the other, and exclaimed to the members of the Department: "Now, boys, let's all go to work and put out this fire, and we will attend to the Fire and Water Committee afterwards." And so they did with a will, and the fire was soon extinguished.

Just previous, however, to Gulick's reaching the fire the last time, word had been sent down to Mayor Lawrence of the demoralized condition of the firemen, and the great destruction of property that was sure to follow. The mayor started post haste to the scene, and undertook to direct the firemen, but they paid no attention to his orders. They hooted at him, and cheered incessantly for Gulick. The result was that the mayor was finally compelled to leave and started for his office swearing vengeance on Gulick for the insults offered him by the firemen. On reaching the City Hall he found the Common Council in session; he at once made known to them the state of affairs at the fire, and urged the removal of Gulick at once. The result was that his wishes were complied with. The news spread like wildfire throughout the city--the Common Council having appointed, as Chief, John Riker. When the firemen learned that Gulick had been decapitated, they called special meetings and passed resolutions that Gulick must be reinstated, or they would abandon their engines. Efforts were made to induce Riker to resign, but without avail. The several companies kept on doing duty, but all the while urging the reinstating of Gulick. When they found that the Common Council would not accede to their requests, they marched up to the City Hall in a body and tendered their resignations. The course thus pursued by the men was in no way aided by Gulick, as he remonstrated against their withdrawing from the Department on his account.

Many of the old exempt firemen and citizens seeing that the city was now without a department, tendered their services, and took command of the several companies. The old members then organized themselves into what was known as the "Resigned Firemen's Association." Wm. Corp, foreman of Engine Company No. 4, and in after years paying teller of the Bank of New York, was chosen president. So matters jogged along until autumn, Riker remaining Chief, when the firemen got together and nominated Gulick for Register. They then appointed a committee to wait on the Tammany Hall Convention, to request them to indorse Gulick, nearly all the firemen being Democrats in those days. As Tammany would not agree to their demands they waited on the Whig Party, the latter having always been in the minority, and they were very willing to take up Gulick. The result was that he was elected by over seven thousand majority.

The following spring the firemen dovetailed with the Whigs again, and for the first time the Whigs got the control of the Common Council, each candidate, however, on the Whig ticket being pledged to remove Riker, if elected. As soon as they got in power they gave the chief engineership to Mr. Corp, President of the "Resigned Firemen's Association," but he declined the honor, so they made Cornelius V. Anderson chief. Then all the old members went back into the Department. During 1836 the Common Council passed an ordinance that the Board of Foremen and Assistants should elect the chief, this being the first concession made to the firemen.

To bring this subject to a close we must skip three years and cone to 1839, when the Democrats again got control of the city; they at once determined to remove Anderson. In order, therefore, to obtain a majority in the Board of Foremen and Assistants they got together twenty prominent men of the party, among them whom were Oliver Charlick and Superintendent of Police John A, Kennedy. Each of the twenty got ten men and formed twenty hose companies, which the Common Council agreed to confirm as firemen, thus sending forty new votes into the Board of Firemen. The meeting at which these twenty companies were legalized was not held until near midnight, the object being to get certain member to go home before the "job" was rushed through. David Graham, a well-known lawyer, then Assistant Alderman of the Fifteenth Ward, smelt a mouse, tarried and soon learned what was going on. As the members of the Council took their seats, just fifteen minutes before twelve, Graham arose from his chair, and, in his loud, stentorian voice, exclaimed: "At this dead hour of the night you are going to do the darkest deed ever perpetrated by human being." He then took his hat and left the Chamber. The "job" was, however, put through, and Edward Hoffmire, the Ring candidate for chief, was, by the addition of these forty votes, elected over Anderson by nine majority. None of these new companies had ever any location or apparatus. When Charlick used to be asked what company he belonged to he would reply, "I belong to one of these things that spins around in the middle (meaning the reel), but I have never been able to find out where she lays."

The day following Hoffmire's election the papers came out with long articles denouncing the action of the Common Council, while may of the leaders of the Democratic party saw that the successful scheme would eventually be a detriment to them politically, and, moreover, they found they were doing themselves no good by fighting the firemen; the result was that Hoffmire was never confirmed as chief engineer. Soon after the firemen passed a resolution at Fireman's Hall that no member could vote who had not been an active fireman three months, and thus killed the new Hose cart members--the "June Buggs," as they were called--not over a half dozen companies ever becoming permanently organized. Anderson remained chief until relieved by Alfred Carson. Gulick was for many years in the crockery business. After serving three years as register, he ran for a second term, but was defeated. His salary was from eighteen to twenty thousand per annum, but he lent and spent to such an extent that all he had soon vanished. He finally got down in the world, losing all ambition; in fact, he seemed humiliated at his defeat, and thought every friend had failed him, and he finally sank so low in life that he died in the most extreme poverty, and with a friend near at hand to administer to his wants.

Very many unimportant fires happened while the firemen were in this state of "passive resistance." Everybody took a hand in the discussion. In the daily papers of the period the fire engine companies published "cards" almost every morning, invariably beginning satirically thus: "Whereas the Common Council, in their wisdom, and ending by telling the public they, the firemen, has resigned because of the bad treatment by the aldermen of Chief Engineer Gulick. The Morning Courier and New York Enquirer of September 24, 1836, had the following paragraph:

This morning, at about three o'clock, a fire was discovered in the small wooden Church of the Nativity in Avenue D, one door from Fourth Street, which was entirely destroyed, and a brick building adjoining. The flames also extended to a number of small tenements in Fourth Street, which were burning when we went to press. We are sorry to add that a great number of the Fire Department were inactive lookers-on at the conflagration.

In reference to this celebrated fight the Morning courier and New York Enquirer of September 26, 1836, has along leading article, which we here reproduce in a condensed form:

A difference has arisen between most of the fire companies of this city, and the Corporation, in consequence of which many of the former at the fire which took place on Saturday morning early remained inactive spectators of the conflagration and have resigned . . . . . . . Our intention is to avail ourselves of this opportunity to point out the necessity that exists for the introduction here of a totally new system for the extinguishment of fires. In this respect, too, it is very evident that we have not kept pace with the vast increase of the population and extent of the city . . . . . . . . When fire companies were formed. the members composing them were known to the whole community . . . . . . But the case is now materially altered. The firemen are still generally, it is true, held to be a very meritorious body of men, but the individuals composing it are little known or cared for.

How, under this state of things, they have remained efficient so long as they have is A matter of astonishment. . . . . . .Of late years, however, a system of pecuniary rewards to a small extent has grown up; the Chief engineer and six assistants have had salaries allotted to them, and now the firemen generally work for nothing, though as there are loaves and fishes to be distributed they ought to have something to say in the distribution.

We are evidently at present arrived at that state of things that the best interests of the city imperiously require that a system for the extinguishment of fires should be introduced here to commensurate with its increased extent . . . . . In casting about as to what that system ought to be, the cities of the continent of Europe will afford us no guide.  There fires are so very rare, and fire insurance so little resorted to, that the cases are not at all similar.  In London, it is different. There fires are frequent -- though not as frequent as here--insurance against fires is generally resorted to.  Now we find in London that the measures adopted for the extinguishment of fires are under the control of the Fire Insurance Companies, and indeed that they cheerfully defray the greatest part of the expense...It is their duty and interest to investigate the causes of fire....The engines in London are chiefly built at the expense of the fire companies--they too pay the firemen.  These firemen are ticket-porters, watermen, mechanics, etc., who can readily quit their occupations when a fire occurs.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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