Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 15, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

After describing the emulation of the London firemen and their rewards, the Courier continues:

We are not prepared to say that it would be desirable to introduce a system of pay here at once, but that it will eventually be necessary we have no doubt. A gradual adoption of it would probably work best. Pay to the head engineer and to one or two men employed in taking care of the engine--by which the crowds of boys we now see about our engine houses would be avoided-- is perhaps now all required. Horses should assuredly be immediately used for conveying the engines to a fire. We learn that in London the fire engine is placed ready for use in a vehicle, to which horses standing in a stable close by are immediately attached on an alarm of fire, and it is strange that so obvious an advantage should not have been introduced here. The necessity for it becomes daily more apparent as the city increases.

On May 26, 1836, Richard S. Ritchie, a member of Engine Company No. 6, was killed at a fire. About four o'clock on the morning of July 19, 1836, a fire was discovered in the large four-story brick building, 117 Nassau Street, belonging to the American bible Society, and used as their printing establishment by Daniel Fanshaw. There were nineteen power presses in the building, together with type, which were destroyed with the building. Loss, one hundred and forty thousand dollars.

Once more, in 1836, was the Old Bowery Theater burned down. On September 22 at 4 A. M. smoke was seen to issue from the center of the roof, and in a very few minutes the whole building was completely enveloped in flames. So sudden and so rapid was the conflagration that it was impossible to save the building when the firemen arrived at the spot. The wardrobes, the valuable properties, in fact everything was swept away, except the clock, a piano, and the large mirror of the greenroom. A man, named Frederick, who was employed as a sort of janitor, slept in the building, and had a narrow escape of his life. The upper portion of he side walls fell on No. 40 and 44 Bowery, and crushed in the roofs. Mr. Hamblin, the lessee, estimated his loss at from seventy-five thousand to one hundred thousand dollars, not a cent of which was insured, the policy having expired three days before, and the negotiations for the new one had not been completed. The loss to the members of the company was very great.

At ten o'clock in the morning several people were standing in the portico of the ruins when one of the burned beams fell from aloft, striking Frederick Parsons, of No. 26 Reade Street, on the head, and injuring him severely. A boy, named Thomas Butler, living at the Bull's Head, was also struck on the shoulder, which was dislocated.

The following was the advertised programme for the performance at the Bowery Theater:

Fourth night of the New Drama entitled, "Lafitte, the Pirate of the Gulf," By Miss Louisa H. Medina, authoress of "Last Days of Pompeii," "Norman Leslie," "Rienzl," and a number of other pieces.  THIS EVENING, September 22, will be presented the Drama of LAFITTE, THE PIRATE OF THE GULF.

Seven days after this event fire was discovered in a brick building in the rear of Guppy's large sugar house on Duane Street, at about three o'clock in the morning. The flames communicated to the sugar house, which, with its contents, was entirely destroyed. Loss, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The adjoining buildings were touched by the flames, but the firemen saved them. At this fire several old citizens, who for years had been on the exempt list, manned the engines, and among them was the venerable ex-Alderman of the Second Ward. Soon after the fire began one or two interlopers, when they saw ex-Chief Gulick come along, attempted to raise a groan. They were immediately ordered into custody.

In the following year there was another melancholy occurrence. Fire was discovered at 4 A. M. at No. 109 Washington Street, and before the engines got to the spot the building was doomed. Hose Company No. 13 was nearest to the burning building, and the alarm was given that the walls were tottering. Thomas Horton, of No. 13, was the last to run, and was caught in the fall of the north gable end of the wall and instantly killed. He had been only a week a member of the company, and in the minute book the entry of his election was next to the record of his death. His funeral took place from No. 13 First Street, and a large number of firemen, including Chief Engineer Anderson, attended. Most of the companies carried banners draped in mourning, and on the banner borne by his own company was the inscription, "His death was occasioned in the discharge of his duty." Again, on February 6, 1838, a gallant fireman fell. At a fire in a row of buildings in Laurens Street (now South Fifth Avenue), between Broome and Spring Streets, occupied by peter Lorillard, tobacconist, the rear wall of one of the buildings fell. John Buckloh, of engine Company No. 19, whoa t the time was standing on a short ladder against the wall holding the pipe, was buried beneath the rubbish. He had a grand funeral, the mayor, the Common Council and a large body of citizens attending the obsequies.

It was at the fire in the stable of Laurens Street that a most thrilling incident occurred. The men were working away bravely and were standing on some well-filled bags. "Give them another wetting, boys," said Chief Anderson, as he was about leaving the scene. The men subsequently discovered that they had been standing over what might have been their graves--the innocent looking bags contained powder. They had been left there by a cartman, who had brought them from a packet ship late one afternoon, and, knowing that the store where they were to be deposited was closed, had taken them to his stable, intending to leave them there until morning. For some time after the firemen looked out for bags when they were called to a conflagration.

February 18, 1838, saw the ill-fated Bowery Theater destroyed for the third time. As on the other occasions, fortunately, at a time when there was no performance. It began about two o'clock on Sunday morning in a carpenter shop on the third story, and in a little while the large and handsome edifice fell. The iron safe, containing money and all the books and papers of the establishment, was saved. The wardrobes, valued at seven or eight thousand dollars, were lost, and the scenery, machinery, and stage property, estimated at fifty-two thousand dollars, were also destroyed. There was no insurance on the wardrobes, scenery and other properties. Insurance to the amount of thirty-five thousand dollars had been effected upon the building, which, it was supposed, would not cover one-half of the whole actual loss. Very few of the actors had any property in the theater. Of the origin of the fire there was but on opinion--it was the work of an incendiary.

Fire broke out in the soap factory of Baurmeister & Scheplin, situated in the rear of No. 160 Hammond Street, on august 1, 1838. Before the progress of the flames could be checked large portions of the block of buildings bounded by Hammond, Washington, Perry, and West Streets were destroyed. A very large number of families were by the calamity deprived of their homes and turned out upon the world with but little more property in their possession than they carried upon their backs. By this fire fifty buildings were destroyed, the loss aggregating many thousands of dollars. On July 25, 1839, a fire broke out in a paint shop attached to a wheelwright's shop on Sixteenth Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, owned and occupied by Mr.Martin, which with the contents was entirely destroyed. The fire communicated to the next building on Sixteenth Street, and to the rear of a range of buildings on Tenth Avenue between Sixteenth and Seventeenth Streets, all of which were burned. The loss was thirty thousand dollars.

One of the most destructive fires since that of 1835 broke out on Monday afternoon, September 23, 1839. The volumes of smoke rolling over the city and the general alarm created soon spread the news of its locality--the National Theater, corner of Leonard and Church Streets. The great combustibility of the material in the building explains the rapidity with which the fire marched in its destructive course. Three fine churches shared the fate of the theater. Some of the person employed in the latter discovered fire in the vicinity of the gas-room, which they endeavored to extinguish with a small force-pump, but in a few minutes they were compelled to beat a hasty retreat. Before six o'clock, or a little after the outburst of the flames from the roof of the theater, the fire had communicated to the French Episcopal Church, corner of Franklin and Church Streets, and to the African Church opposite, on the corner of Leonard and Church Streets. The Dutch Reformed Church in Franklin Street, between Chapel and Church Streets, the inside of which, together with the roof of the two story schoolhouse next adjoining, and belonging to the church, was also destroyed. It was a scene of great magnificence and splendor, and also a peculiar one. In the neighborhood of the churches were houses of ill-repute, and the unfortunate inmates of these dwellings rushed frantically out in the attire in which the alarm found them, to add to the terrific grotesquesness of the picture. Thousands of persons congregated in the vicinity, pushing and struggling from one point to another, shouting and cursing and swearing. Odd-looking stage properties were thrown from the theater, sacred vestments, and furniture hurled from the churches, and flaunting finery dragged from the temporary homes of the unfortunate. Carts and wagons were pushed here and there, the excited owners of property striving to save all they could. It was a scene worthy of a painter's pencil. The clamor of trumpets and voices, the steady working of the engines, the moving masses, the screaming of women, and the helter-skelter passage of every sort of furniture borne off or heaped upon the streets; bibles, prayer books, altar ornaments, and the sacred chalice, mixed up with gorgeous theatric costumes and tomes of Shakespeare, and librettos and scores of Rossini, Bellini, and Auber, houses of ill-fame on fire or threatened in the vicinity; the troops of actors orchestral performers, the retinue of supernumeraries and scene shifters running to and fro, mingled with the cries of the colored people, of French citizens, looking unutterable despair on the combined havoc of al that was dear to them as the source of their livelihood, or upon the temple where they worshipped--all these scenes--fearful realities--defy description. The whole spectacle, in fact, the blending of things sacred and profane below, heightened by the sea of flame and smoke above, presented a lively tableau--a serio-grotesque picture. But notwithstanding their efforts four hundred thousand dollars were swallowed up that evening.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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