Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 16, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

The calamities of this fire were so unprecedented that a special committee of the Common Council was appointed to investigate the cause of the occurrence, and report upon the proceedings at that conflagration. The committee consisted of Messrs. Emanuel B. Hart, B. J. Meserole, James C. Stoneall, Geo. H. Purser, Archibald Macclay, Jr., and Joseph C. Albertson. In he course of their report the committee say: "If the person who had charge of the public bell on the City Hall had struck it, as was his duty, the fire would have done very little damage, not extending beyond the building in which it originated. But Mr. henry J. Ockerhausen, one of the engineers, who resided in Rose Street, states that a fireman, attached to No. 5, came from Fulton Street to his (Mr. Ockerhausen 's) house, to inform him of the alarm. Mr. Ockerhausen dressed himself, and had only run as far as Nassau Street when he distinctly saw the smoke issue from the fire. He heard no bell sounded until he had reached Fulton Street. There he perceived the blaze of the fire, and heard an alarm from the bell on the Post-office Building; but that it was not struck before he reached the fire."

Among the incidents of the fire was the destruction of the old bell which hung in the cupola of the old jail during the revolution. When the jail was remodeled into the present Hall of Records the bell was taken down, and placed on the Bridewell as a fire alarm bell. Among the old firemen it was cherished as a dear friend of bygone years, and during the chieftainship of John Lamb and "Tommy" (who was dubbed "Pleasant-faced Tommy") it was the principal means of giving notice of a fire. On the destruction of the Bridewell the old bell was placed in a cupola on the house of Naiad hose Company, in Beaver Street, a house longer devoted to its ancient uses than any other. But this disastrous fire silenced forever the brazen tongue that had for a century given forth its warning notes. Its old enemy at last prevailed, and one decisive victory compensated the fire fiend for many a defeat of yore.

On September 18, 1846, Niblo's Garden was burned again at four o'clock on a Friday morning, the whole building being consumed in two hours. The next evening Gabriel Ravel, of the famous Ravel family of tightrope dancers, was to have a benefit. The fire originated in the greenroom. One of the firemen, Thomas Boese, while holding a pipe went so near the flames that his clothing caught fire. Another pipeman, thinking he was doing well, turned a stream of water on him, but the stubbornness of the transition from heat to cold paralyzed Mr. Boese. Mr. Boese afterwards became clerk in the Register's Office. The old passion, however, was strong within him, and whenever the City Bell sounded an alarm, he would drop his pen, blotting his book, and rush in the direction of the fire. In 1872 he was appointed clerk of the Superior Court. The theater was rebuilt, and opened July 3, 1849, under the management of Chippendale & Sefton, with the Ravels, and with a dramatic company that included Mr. William Niblo (from whom it took its name) when Jackson was President. It was a house and garden of entertainment, and quickly sprang into popularity, becoming at last the house of the most distinguished artists. In 1837 Mrs. Watson, Mrs. Bailey, Mrs. Knight, Mr. Plumer, and Mr. T. Bishop appeared there in concert. Joseph Jefferson--father of the renowned comedian of "Rip Van Winkle" fame--produced musical farces there. Other noted players were Mrs. Maeder and Clara Fisher. Burton was the reigning star at Niblo's in 1839, and that year witnessed the first production of the Ravel pantomime "The Green Monster," which kept the stage for many years. In the fall of that year Mr. Wallack leased the house--his National Theater having been burned--and brought forward the renowned debut of E. L. Davenport, who on August 9 played Frederick Fitzallen in "He's Not Amiss." On the fifteenth of September the opera of "Lucia: was first given there, and in the company were Signoras Majocchi, Thamesi, and Miss Coad, and Signori Valtelina, Antognini, Albertazzi, and Maggiori. Mr. W. Corbyn brought out John Brougham in the autumn of 1844. The features of the season of 1846 (the year of its destruction) were H. Placide's haversack in the "Old Guard," Hackett's Falstaff, George Holland's Mr. Golightly, and a series of impersonations by Burton.

A fire that broke out in the Duane Street sugar house on the night of April 2, 1848, caused the death of three gallant firemen and sever injuries to two others. The front wall of the building suddenly fell into the street, burying George Kerr, assistant engineer, and Henry Fargis, assistant foreman of Engine Company No. 38. Mr. Jennings, of Hose Company No. 28, Mr. Robert Roulston, of Hose Company No. 38, and Mr. Charles J. Durant, of Hose Company No. 35, were severely injured by the falling bricks and timber. Mr. Durant was so severely hurt that he died a few days after. Mr. Kerr had charge of the Department on that occasion, and the owners of the structure, in defending the stability of their building, afterwards, claimed that Kerr and Fargis has rashly exposed their lives and those of their men. But it was proved that the edifice was of the flimsiest description. Chief Engineer Anderson, in a letter to the Common Council on this event, says: "As an evidence of the insecurity of the wall, I would call attention to the fact that when it fell outward, there was not the least appearance of fire in that story. * * * * Mr. Kerr, so far from being rash or imprudent, was one of the coolest, most experienced and judicious engineers that the Department has ever had. * * * Mr. Fargis was a young man of high promise in and out of the Department, and had won the confidence and esteem of all who knew him. * * * * The death of two such men in a public calamity, and if by care and proper precaution such melancholy accidents can be prevented hereafter, I have the fullest confidence that your honorable body will take every step to insure the consummation of a n end so desirable."

The joint funeral of these unfortunate firemen was the greatest public demonstration the city has ever seen. Fully fifty thousand persons witnessed the obsequies. The funeral service ws held on April 4 in Dr. Ferris's Church, in Market Street. Mr. Zophar Mills was marshal of the immense procession, the order of which was as follows: Exempt Fireman; the Fire Department in the order of companies; body of George Kerr; assistant engineers as pall bearers; relatives and friends; chief engineer; body of Henry Fargis; members of Engine Company No. 38 as pall bearers; officers of Fire Department; Common Council; chief of police and aids; jewelers and silversmiths; citizens.

The engine house of Engine Company No. 11 was injured by fire on April 18, 1848, which broke out in Wooster Street, near Spring, and destroyed twelve buildings, causing a loss of hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. A few weeks afterward, on May 26, a dreadful even happened. The large stables of Kipp & Brown, on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Twenty-sixth Street, were burned, when twenty-seven stages, one hundred and thirty horses, a large number of swine, three thousand four hundred bushels of grain, and forty tons of hay, were destroyed. Messrs. Kipp & Brown were old members of Engine Company No. 10, their names were household words in the city, and consequently much sympathy was expressed for them.

As great a calamity occurred on November 18 of the same year, when another stable, that of Messrs. Murphy, at the corner of Third Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street, was burned down. Indeed, a continuous series of fires spread dismay everywhere. All night, and till the dawn of morning, the warning bells rang incessantly. From the reflection of the fires every street in New York was filled with lurid light. The hearts of the citizens sickened at the sight of the whole city wrapped in the light of conflagration and with a high wind blowing. In Messrs. Murphy's stables were one hundred and seventy-five horses. They stood in their halters while the flames gathered around them. Firemen and Citizens had rescued about twenty-five of the poor brutes, when portions of the roof began to fall, and then no one dared venture again into the stables. It was an awful picture to look upon. The horses, held by their halters, reared and sent forth terrific shrieks and groans, but on by one they fell and perished in the flames. One animal broke loose and rushed out of the burning building, but before it could be secured it neighed in a frenzied sort of way and then rushed back into the flames. The fearful sounds emitted form the stables would have melted a heart of stone. But not alone was there solicitude for these poor brutes. The Flames had communicated to several small wooden buildings in the rear of Twenty-eight Street, occupied by needy families. Woman were running in every direction, seeking their children, and children seeking their parents. On of the most gallant rescues on record happened on this awful night. One woman, supposing that her child was still in the burning dwelling, with the frenzy of despair rushed into the house and ascended the stairs to the second story, but the heat was so great she was forced to return. But a noble fireman has been before her, and he soon appeared, bearing in his arms the object of the distracted mother's love. In a moment more the baby was in her arms, and, shrieking with joy and in an ecstasy of delight, she fell upon her knees and called down the blessings of heaven on the deliverer of her infant. It is such acts as these that endear the firemen to the citizens. Even amid that scene of confusion stern men were deeply affected by the sight they witnessed.

On the center aisle of the stable thirty-three stages were assembled and only seven were saved. In the rear of the building thirty very beautiful sleighs were destroyed. Behind the building the St. Barnabas Protestant Episcopal Church caught fire some time after and went down before the flames. Then the Rose Hill Methodist Church with its parsonage ignited and was barely saved. Next the Public Schoolhouse No. 15 adjoining was enveloped and was soon a pile of ashes.

Ding, dong, ding, dong, tolled the bells. Another fire at the corner of the Bowery and Broome Street. Here several buildings were laid in ashes, and the Baptist Church, No. 350 Broome Street, was much damaged. In this locality, Mr. Thomas Cochran, of Hose Company No. 9, was seriously hurt by falling from the roof of a back building. While these fires were raging, still another from large stable at the corner of Thirty-fifth Street and Eighth Avenue, with two wooden buildings, were razed through a conflagration. And as that grey dawn was breaking, still one more stable was ablaze in the rear of No. 103 West Seventeenth Street, and here four valuable horses were burned to death.

Mme, Adele Montplaisir, the celebrated ballet dancer, was to have taken a benefit on December 16, 1848, at the Park Theater--then the most fashionable resort in the city. At 6:15 P. M., one hour before the doors were to have been opened, while some members of the ballet were in the dressing room, smoke was seen issuing from the rear window in theater Alley. One of the young ladies had carelessly pushed a gas jet near some playbills. The result was that, for the second time, the theater was burned down. The building was owned by Messrs. Astor & Beckman, and was valued at thirty thousand dollars. It was the first fire at which Mr. Alfred Carson officiated as chief engineer.

The Park Theater was commenced in 1796 by Lewis Hallam and John Hodgkinson and others, all professional actors. The theater was situated in the center of the block, the entrance being on the north side of John Street, midway between Nassau Street and Broadway. The new theater was finished about the year 1798, at a cost of one hundred and seventy-nine thousand dollars. The exterior of the building was plain, but the interior was fitted up with much elegance. On the night of May 24, 1820, it was consumed by fire. The theater was rebuilt in April, 1821. It was not again rebuilt after the 1848 fire.

Abraham Brown, a fireman, effected a gallant rescue at a fire in the house of Mr. Ward, in Catharine Street, on April 11, 1849. In the confusion Mrs. Ward had left behind one of her children, a two year old girl. Brown heard the distracted mother bemoaning the loss of her child, ascended a ladder, and effected an entrance through the front window. He found the baby in the back room lying on a bed. He picked her up, and though flames and smoke barred his way he dashed through them and brought the child into the street at the risk of his life. Unhappily the babe was dead.

On a bright, pleasant, wintry morning, the fourth of February, 1850, at twenty minutes after eight o'clock, the citizens of the Fourth Ward, vicinity were startled by a loud explosion which rent the air, and caused many buildings in Pearl and Frankfort Street to shake from their very foundations, and shattered many hundreds of panes of glass, the fragments of which were hurled in every direction on the pedestrians who were wending their way to their places of business. A few moments, and the sad news spread like wildfire that a fearful explosion had taken place at Nos. 5 and & Hague Street, that both buildings had been blown into atoms, and that one hundred human beings were buried beneath the ruins. The report proved too true, for it was soon discovered that the two hundred horse-power boiler in the extensive press room and machine shop of A. b. Taylor & Co., had explored; that at the time over one hundred people employed by Taylor & Co., and St. John, Burr & Co., hatters, were at work on the premises. It was claimed by those that witnessed the terrible explosion that the building was lifted full six feet from its foundation, and then fell a mass of ruins. Instantly flames burst out in every direction, and here and there could have been seen legs and arms sticking out form the ruins, while the most piercing shrieks could be heard from those buried in their living tomb.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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