Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 17, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

For several years from 1858 there was an absence of great fires, but still there were many lively and many sad nights of conflagration for the Department. No. 5 Engine was buried by the fall of a wall, and some of the men injured, on December 29, 18959. Daniel Scully of Engine Company No. 40, with members of his company, rescued six persons at a fire in Elm Street on February 2, 1860. He climbed to the third story by means of the leader, and handed the tenants down to men at the windows, one after the other. The Common Council presented him with a gold medal. James R. Mount, at that time foreman of Hose Company No. 15, distinguished himself on this occasion by saving two persons. About twenty persons were suffocated or burned to death. This calamitous fire led to the Common Council passing an ordinance compelling the placing of fire escapes on all tenements. For the first time their attention was turned to this necessary adjunct of such buildings. Hook and Ladder Company No. 4 saved several persons at another fire in Doyers Street. July 26, the same year, Thomas Cox, of Hose company No. 50, was killed at a fire in Broad Street. On December 3, several persons were saved by firemen in No. 203 Division Street. Fifteen days later the new steamship "John P. King," was burned at Pier No. 4, North River. Several members of No. 33 Engine were playing on the flames in the engine room. The vessel was cut loose and towed out into the stream, to the astonishment of the firemen. Two or three jumped from the blazing steamer and were picked up by boats. Thomas R. Smith, who was rescued by the police boat, was much less concerned at the danger to which he had exposed than at the loss of a new length of rubber hose and a brass pipe belonging to his engine. He almost wept over the loss.

Very disastrous was the fire that broke out in the lower part of the city on December 29, 1959. About five o'clock in the morning the Second Ward police were alarmed by observing smoke issuing from Black, Gramm & Co.'s store, No. 53 Beekman Street. In the meantime the flames spread rapidly, and in the course of half an hour extended to No. 61, only one door from the police station, and occupied by several parties. The large paper warehouses of Bulkley & Co. and Cyrus W. Field & Co. were adjoining, and caught fire. Admirable efforts were made to stay the fire, but in vain, and it reached the other side of Ann Street, catching Nos. 90 and 92, and sweeping onward until it reached Nos. 83 and 85 Fulton Street. A wall unexpectedly fell into the street, burying Engine No. 5 and some of its members were injured, but no seriously.

Joseph Skillman, of Hook and Ladder Company No. 15, was killed at a fire in Fulton Street, on February 8m 1861. The sold was intense. The members of No. 38 protected their engine from the cold wind by building around it a thick wall formed of bundles of wrapping paper. A number of small fires occurred in 1861 and 1862.

A very destructive fire occurred on January 1, 1863, in Fulton, Gold and Beekman Streets. The cracker bakery of John T. Wilson & Co., and other business and manufacturing establishments at Nos. 66 to 79 Fulton Street, Nos. 56 to 79 Gold Street, and Nos. 69 to 79 Beekman Street, were damaged or destroyed. The firemen had not experienced such a fearful conflagration for some time previously. In a building adjoining the bakery there lay the body of a man who had died the day before. Some of the members of Pearl Hose company No. 28 went in and found the body laid out on a board, near a window in the second story. Strange to say, above the chamber of death there were signs of jollity--a table was set for New Year's callers.

At another cracker bakery fire (Goodwin's, No. 209 Cherry Street) on February 3, 1863, loss of life occurred. Three firemen--John Slowey and George w. Badger, of Engine Company No., 19, and Thomas Sweeney, of Engine Company No. 6, were buried by a falling wall. Slowey and Badger died of their injuries. Every company passed resolutions of sympathy and sorrow. Hose Company No. 36 eulogized Mr. Badger for his "correct, manly department and many sterling qualities which have endeared him top all." His funeral took place from the Stanton Street Baptist Church, the services being conducted by the Rev. Dr. Hiscox and the Rev. Dr. Armitage. The Fire Department, with its banner (carried by Phenix Hose Company No. 22), escorted the hearse to Fulton Ferry on its way to Greenwood. The Board of Foreman acted as a guard of honor. Mr. Slowey entered the Department in 1849 as a member of Engine Company No. 15. He afterwards joined Engine Company No. 19, when it had but seven members, and became its foreman. His friends raised six thousand dollars for the benefit of his widow and three orphans. At the firing of the Colored Orphan Asylum, at Forty-third Street and fifth Avenue, during the Draft Riots, July, 1861, the chief engineer, with his own hands extinguished the burning brands. The desperate ruffians threatened to kill him if he persisted in thwarting their diabolical purpose. Standing upon the steps of the building the bold fire chief appealed to the infuriated crowd of two thousand half-drunken wretches. The mob again set fire to the building, and Decker and his gallant little band extinguished the flames. This thoroughly exasperated the shameless crew, and the scoundrels advanced upon the chief engineer. His men determinedly closed around him, and the cowards were afraid to carry out their intent to injure the chief. But they eventually succeeded in burning down the Asylum. Some twenty of the poor little orphans were seized by the mob. A young Irishman, Paddy McCaffrey, with four stage drivers of the Forty-second Street line and Engine Company No. 18, dashed in upon the fiends and rescued the children from their grasp. They struck right and left, and in triumph bore the little ones off to the Thirty-fifth Precinct Station House.

The heroism of the New York firemen in those days of danger was the theme of the public press and of all well-disposed citizens. While some buildings were burned at Fourteenth Street and Avenue C, Assistant Engineer Elisha Kingsland tried to remove a wagon in the street to make room for the approach of a carriage.

"If you touch that wagon I'll blow your brains out," cried a ruffian, who was backed by hundred of his kind.

The engineer got upon the wagon and shouted, "If this fire continues, it will cross the street and burn the houses of your friends."

"Get down from there! Shoot him! Mangle them!" were the responses.

Nevertheless Mr. Kingsland gained his point. Again, st the corner of Twenty-ninth Street and Broadway, Chief Engineer Decker, Assistant engineers William Lamb and Elisha Kingsland had a hand-to-hand fight with a big crowd. Lamb was knocked down, but his comrades set him on his feet, and they finally succeeded in arresting three of the ringleaders who were stealing bales of silk.

The New York Tribune, of July 20, 1863, says: "During the progress of the fire on the corner of Second Avenue and Twenty-first Street, on Monday afternoon (July 13) Lafayette Engine Company No. 19 were threatened by the mob that if they attempted to extinguish the fire, or in any way endeavored to save the building, they would be instantly stoned. Nothing daunted, the brave and energetic foreman, Mr. James G. W. Brinkman, urged his men to instantly stretch their hose and make preparations to save the building. Thereupon the mob cut the hose and endeavored to break the engine; but being assailed and driven off by the company with the assistant of the police, they carried out their destructive propensities in other directions. At the burning of the lumber yard, corner of Avenue C and Fourteenth Street, on Wednesday morning, pretty much the same scenes above described were enacted. The company worked at the fire for six hours and succeeded in saving a considerable amount of property. The police of the Seventeenth Precinct speak in great praise of the members of this company, who, led by their foreman and Assistant Engineer Kingsland, assisted, in conjunction with the members of the precinct, in dispersing mobs and saving the dwellings and property of the residents of the ward. * * * * In the absence of the police of this precinct (they being stationed in the more riotous parts of the city), these firemen actually patrolled the ward day and night, and thus rendered a service which will not be soon forgotten."

In some portions of the city the firemen organized themselves into patrols for the protection of their respective neighborhoods. The firemen in the Seventh Ward placed themselves under the command of Captain Rynders and John McDermott, foreman of the Engine Company No. 2. The members of Engine Company No. 20 and Hose Company Nos. 8, 18, and 49, organized a First Ward patrol. Hose Companies Nos. 26 and 31, Engine Companies Nos. 7 and 12, and Hook and Ladder Company No, 19 are mentioned as conspicuous in this service. Escaping and terrified negroes found protection in the engine houses of Engine Company No. 13, in Duane Street, and Engine Company No. 2, in Henry Street.

Some idea of what the firemen had to contend with may be gathered from the following estimate, made by Fire Marshal Baker:

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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