Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 17, Part I

By Holice and Debbie




Great Loss of Life at the Jennings Fire. -- Charity's Compassionate Hand. -- "Andy" Schenck's Marriage and Untimely Death. -- The Crystal Palace Conflagration and Destruction of Engines. -- Joseph Stillman's Death.--Fires Through the Draft Riots, and Heroism of The Firemen. -- Exciting and Perilous Times. Alleged Southern Plot to Burn Hotels in 1864.

About 3 A. M. on September 3, 1849, the noble packet ship Henry Clay, lying at the foot of Fletcher Street, was discovered to be on fire amidships. The alarm was given by the Fulton Market bell, which struck as the first glare of light shone up, and although the firemen were promptly on the spot some delay occurred in starting the various hydrant streams. Hose companies 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, 15, 18, 21, 25, and 28 were on hand and furnished water to Engines Nos. 5 (which was the first to work), 20, 38, 14, 2, 13, and 21. No. 13 was obliged at first to use suction in consequence of the small number of hydrant lines.

A fearful loss of life in the Fire Department occurred on Tuesday night, April 25, 1854. It broke out at eight o'clock in the clothing store of William T. Jennings & Co., stood the American Hotel, and on the north the establishments of Meade Bros., photographers, and of Mr. Batchelor, hairdresser. John A. Cregier was standing on the roof of Meade's building in company with another engineer, Noah L. Farnham. They let down to the street the halyards of the flagstaff, and with great difficulty succeeded in drawing up one end of a length of hose. Scarcely had they begun to play on the fire when the rear wall of Jennings buildings suddenly toppled over backward upon the extension, letting the upper floors fall upon thirteen or fourteen firemen who were in the second story of the burning store. There was, it seems, a huge iron safe in the upper story, and this dashed through the several floors to the basement, instantly killing two firemen. The scene around that fire, when it was known that over twenty firemen were buried beneath the ruins, beggars description. It required but a moment's though and then the members of the Department rushed into the building, regardless of their own lives, to rescue those of their comrades. Cregier directed the pipe of his hose toward a part of the building roof that hung over the spot where the men were buried, and which seemed about to cave in.

"Stop that water!" called a voice from below, "it is scalding the men"---not the buried men only, but the gallant fellows who were trying to extricate them.

More perilous, however, than the scalding water were the heavy rafters on the eve of falling, and Cregier cried out in stentorian tones, while still flooding the place with water: "It can't be done; the roof will go;" and by his decision he saved many lives.

All night long they worked, braving danger at every turn, and not until they had taken out the lifeless remains of eleven of their comrades, with some twenty bodily injured, did they retreat from the ruins. Of those who fell in the discharge of their duty were John O'Donnell, of Engine 42, a son of Coroner O'Donnell. He was in the ruins over eight hours, and conversed with his friends until rescued. He died in the New York Hospital the same night. James McNulty, of Engine 29, Andrew C. Schenck, of Hook and Ladder 1, John A. Keyser, of Hose 8, two brothers, Daniel and Alexander McKay, of Engine 21, a boy named Michael Flynn, a runner of hose 53, James E. Deegan, of Hose 18, an old man named Wilson, a runner of 21 Engine, and one John Reinhardt. Some of the ruins having been reached by cutting holes through the basement walls of Meade's buildings, "Andy" Schenck was seen to be dead, and young O'Donnell so bruised that the top of his head, as an old fireman expressed it, was "as big as a stove and just about as black." Dr. O'Donnell had been anxiously pacing in front of the ruins waiting for his son to be brought out. Hugh Gallagher, of Engine Company No. 23, was found pinned against a wall by a heavy safe, which had fallen from the floor above.

Of poor Andy Schenck it is related that when the alarm for the fire sounded that night he was calling at the house of the young lady to whom he was engaged to be married, and who earnestly urged him to stay. "No," said he, after some hesitation. "I'll go to this fire, and this is the last fire I will go to." It was indeed his last, for there he found his grave. Among those who miraculously escaped being killed were Zophar Mills, Jacob Larrick, of Hook and Ladder No. 6, ex-Comptroller Brennan, then captain of the Six Ward Police; Chief engineer harry Howard, and Timothy L. West.

The following are the names of the wounded: Matthew Gilligan, Engine 21; Hugh Hart, Engine 21; E. Gillespie, Engine 21; Patrick Feeney, Engine 21; Patrick Waters, Engine 21; John Newman, Engine 21; Joseph R. Wheeler, Hose 5, Charles Kratz, Hook and Ladder 11; Robert Brewster, Engine 6; Philip McHugh, Engine 15; Charles Parks, Hose 25; Charles Daly, Engine 20; Patrick Gorman, Engine 15; John J. Shaw, Hose 8; Hugh Gallagher, Hose 25; Timothy Shinley, Engine 15; Peter Curran, Engine 10; Charles Wheeler, Hose 25; Augustus Hoyt, Hose 10; William Basset, Hose 54; Thomas Flennan, Engine 15: John Lewis, Hose 21; John Atkinson, Hose 40; William Moran, Engine 21.

When the sad news was announced in the journals of the following day, thousands upon thousands congregated around the ruins and at the dead-house in the hospital yard to view the mangled remains of those brave but unfortunate men. The firemen of Brooklyn jersey City, and Newark held meetings of sympathy, while at the Common Council alderman Blunt presented a series of resolutions upon the death of the firemen, and one thousand five hundred dollars was appropriated to defray their funeral expenses. The Board of Foremen and engineers met and passed resolutions, presented by timothy L. West, and it was agreed that the Department turn out in a body to pay the last tribute of respect to their deceased brethren.

The citizens also came forward with donations to the families of the deceased, among whom were Barney Williams, Drumgold & Proch, and Coleman & Stetson, of the Astor House. The remains of the brothers McKay, James McNulty, John A. Keyser, A. C. Schenck, John R. O'Donnell, and James E. Deegan were buried in this city. Engine Company No. 40 carried the department banner, and the whole Fire Department, and the City council, headed by Mayor Westervelt, turned out. The line of march was up Chatham to the Bowery, then through Astor Place to Broadway, and down Broadway to the South Ferry. Alexander McKay was killed while endeavoring to rescue his brothers Daniel, and McNulty died soon after being conveyed into Rushton's Drug Store, under the Astor House. It seems that there was an iron arch in the rear of the building extending from one side of the edifice to the other which supported the rear wall; this became red hot, and the effect of the water from the pipe of Engine Company No. 22 cracked it, thus letting down the whole rear wall. A coroner's jury was impaneled, with John N. Genin, the well-known hatter, as foreman, and it was decided that the place was set on fire by thieves, three of whom were afterward send to State prison. The loss at this fire was estimated at seventy-five thousand dollars, and to this day the old "vets" talk of that lamentable event.

Harry Howard, then Assistant Engineer, testified as follows before the coroner's jury: "At half-past eight o'clock the two upper stories were on fire. I think there were than about fifty persons in the store, firemen and others. Engine Company No. 21's pipe was throwing a good stream of water towards the staircase into the third story. I then discovered a skylight, and ordered the men to get out on the roof of the extension (in the rear of the building) and play water into the front building, * * * * but I had no conception of the building falling at this time. If the men had reached the point where I ordered them they would have been saved. Some of them did as I ordered them, and they were not killed; others had not time." The jury censured the builders for the flimsy character of a portion of the structure.

At noon on July 1, 1854, a fire broke out in a furniture store, No. 371 Grand Street, at which Mr. John W. Garside, a member of Columbia Hose company No. 9, rescued three persons--two women and a boy fourteen years old. Mr. Garside climbed up the gutter, being helped up by one of his assistants, and, hanging on to the window, succeeded in passing them to safety to the adjoining building. As the last one was being taken out, the window sash, which was held by a button, fell on his arm, and the glass cut his hand severely, and while he was having it dressed at a drug store opposite, the building from which the people had been rescued fell in with a great crash, not standing five minutes after they had been taken out. Mr. Garside carries an elegant extra jeweled Liverpool gold watch and chain which was presented to him with a box containing two hundred and fifty dollars in gold at a dinner which was given to him at Odd Fellows Hall shortly afterwards. Soon thereafter the Common Council adopted a resolution appropriating one hundred and fifty dollars for a gold metal to be presented to Mr. Garside as a token of reward for his heroic conduct. Mayor Fernando wood in March, 1855, was deputed to present Mr. Garside with the gold medal. A number of Mr. Garside's friends were present to witness the presentation. His honor the mayor, in his address, highly complimented the gallant fellow on being the recipient of such a well deserved tribute.

The Latting Observatory on Forty-third Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, two hundred and eighty feet high, was destroyed on August 30, 1856. A few months afterwards a fire in Sixth Street, between Avenues B and C. engine Company No. 44 and Hook and Ladder Company No. 13 rescued twelve persons, and among the bravest of the rescuers was Joseph L. Perley, who subsequently became President of the Board of fire Commissioners. The laying of the Atlantic cable was commemorated on August 17, 1858, by an exhibition of fireworks at the City Hall. At midnight the roof was found to be on fire, and the cupola, with its clock, was finally destroyed.

The Crystal Palace in Reservoir Square was burned on the fifth of October, 1858. It was opened on July 24, 1853, for the exhibition of the industry of all nations, and was located in the vicinity of the aqueduct at Forty-second Street. "The fairy-like Greek cross of glass, bound together with withes of iron," says a writer of the period, "with its graceful dome, its arched naves, and its broad aisles and galleries, filled with choice productions of art and manufactures, gathered from the most distant parts of the earth, quaint old armor from the Tower of London, gossamer fabrics from the looms of Cashmere, Sevres china, Gobelin tapestries, Indian curiosities, stuffs, jewelry, musical instruments, carriages, and machinery of home and foreign manufacture, Marochetti's colossal statue of Washington, Kiss's Amazon, Thorwalden's Christ and the Apostles, Power's Greek Slave, and a host of other works of art besides, will long be remembered as the most tasteful ornament that ever graced the metropolis." Beautiful, however, as was this fairy-like palace it vanished in smoke in the short space of half an hour, and fell, burying the rich collection of the American Institute, then on exhibition within its wall, in a molten mass of ruins. The Crystal Palace contained one thousand two hundred and fifty tons of iron, and thirty-nine thousand square feet of glass. A grand concert, which fully ten thousand persons were expected to attend, had been arranged for the evening. The total loss was estimated at two million dollars.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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