Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 24, Part V

By Holice and Debbie

CHIEF JOHN DECKER, for over a quarter of a century prior to 1866, attended fires as boy and man. To-day he is still stalwart, and seemingly as active as when in palmy days he was the proud leader of one of the finest bodies of men New York has ever seen, or, perhaps, will ever see again. He is a born fireman, is just as full as ever of the enthusiasm of his younger days, and will in all probability so continue to the end of his life. For it is a marked peculiarity or a distinguishing characteristic of such veterans as Chief Decker that to be a fireman once is to be a fireman forever. He was born next door to a fire house. Chief Decker was the last of the old Volunteer Chief engineer. After him came the deluge that ingulfed the galant boys who served for glory and the love of the thing. The revolution found him an irreconcilable, and with his fellows, sooner than serve under strange masters he stepped down and out, relinquished his trumpet and retired to private life, to nurse thereafter as a cherished legacy the memory of those eventful and exciting times when to be a fireman meant heard knocks, plenty of work, scant thanks, and the sole recompense the consciousness of discharging a noble and humane public duty.

Born in this city, (May 15, 1823), after passing through the evolutionary period of probation as a "Bunker," in 1840 he joined the Department, but did get "time" for four years after. In 1848 he was promoted to be assistant foreman, serving in that capacity until 1852, when he was elected foreman, and one year later went a step still higher--assistant engineer. He was re-elected in 1856, and again in 1859. He attained to the highest honor in the Department on the 7th of February, 1860, when he became Chief Engineer, serving as such until August 31, 1865. "I locked the door at 12 o'clock on that night, " said Chief Decker, "because the commissioners did not appoint a man in my place when I was asked to be relieved. I was appointed by the commissioners with the stipulation that my successor would be speedily appointed. This was about the end of June, and I served under the new regime until the last day of August, and, my successor not yet being appointed, I left in the manner I have stated. The commissioners and I could not get along together. They wanted to take the command our of my hands when at a fire, and I would not consent to this, for I desired to act independently of them, and in that way to be personally responsible for my action. There were four commissioners, and those, counting me in, would make five, whose authority would be supreme at a fire. I considered that five captains were enough to sink any ship, so I would not go on their craft. After I had locked the door at midnight, considering that my last official act, there came an alarm of fire in Mott Street. I turned out without my fire cap and put out the fire. That was my last official act as Chief Engineer."

Chief Decker has many exciting experiences to relate, but is reticent withal except when among his set. In the rooms of the Volunteer Association in Eighth Street are an oil painting, and an engraving of Chief Decker, which the "boys" cherish as the counterfeit presentments of the John Decker who in many fiery foray has led and cheered them onto battle. Having his attention drawn to these portraits quite recently, the sturdy veteran said with some degree of pardonable pride: "Yes, that is what I looked like some thirty years ago. I then weighed one hundred and ninety pounds, and was safe man to be let alone. I would hold my own with the best of them. And that is no mean boast."

Chief Decker's experience at fires goes back tot he big fire of 1835. Since that memorable time he has attended every fire of note or otherwise in the city for thirty years. In referring to the fighting proclivities of some of the firemen of those days, Chief Decker said: "I never courted a fight and never shrank from one. Each and every member of the company," he added, "felt about as I did, and we were hard men to down." While Chief Engineer, Mr. Decker had to contend with the Draft Riots of 1863. Early in the month of July in that year, he and his command were summoned to the corner of Forty-sixth Street and Third Avenue to quench the flames that were devouring the Provost Marshal's building. The rioters had begun their operations here, supposing that I was the source from which all their troubles emanated. Upon the arrival of Chief Decker his passage was blocked by the rioters, who refused to let him or his men approach the burning building. He appealed to the frenzied mob--told them to consider the consequences to innocent parties if the flames were permitted to spread to adjoining houses. Realizing the force of the argument, the mob gave way and allowed the Chief and his gallant boys to come forward with their apparatus, and thus valuable property was saved from destruction. The mob, as if repenting of their lenience, proceeded to Lexington Avenue and Forty-fourth Street and fired a building there. Here again they were met by the intrepid fire laddies. The mob was led by a man nabbed Hunter, who incited them to all kinds of deviltry. Baffled here also, they next fired the Arlington house, and followed this up by burning down the colored Orphan Asylum. Meanwhile the Volunteer Fire Department, in fighting the flames that the rioters had left in their path, had worked around to the Colored Orphans Asylum. They found the mob assailing the doors with axes, forcing an entry.

The chief did his best to stop the fiendish wreckers. Boldly thrusting himself among them, he snatched from the hands of those nearest him the implements they were using to demolish the doors. A blow of a cart-rung stretched him senseless. When consciousness returned he found himself in the hands of half a dozen infuriated rioters, who were firm in their determination to hang him from the nearest tree. That the miscreants meant business and were prepared to execute their threat was made evident by the fact that one of them carried a stout rope which he shook in the face of the partially stunned but undaunted Chief. A short shrift and a long halter, truly. It was a tragic looking group: the intrepid chief held in the grip of brawny hands; the waving arms of a gnarled tree overhead; the rope, the victim, the executioners: a back ground of smoke and flame, and human demons holding their saturnalia of crime: fleeing children, partially concealed by the clouds of smoke arising from the destruction of their common house, reared by philanthropic hands and sustained by charitable hearts--their swarthy faces lending to the general suggestiveness of pandemonium broke loose:--these were the startling accessories which, it need hardly be said, were sufficient to strike terror into the stoutest heart. How did it affect the man who life was trembling in the balance? His nerve and mother wit alone saved him. Turning to the man who was adjusting the rope into a noose, Chief Decker carefully remarked, drawing his hand suggestively across his neck:

"What good will it do you to hang me? You will only stop my draft, not the Government's." The pun saved a good and a brave man's life.

Chief Decker took a leading part in the formation of the Fire Companies that went to the war. He was instrumental in recruiting the First Fire Zouaves, and assisting in raising thirty-one thousand dollars in the Fire Department to equip them. He also recruited and maintained for several weeks at his own expense the Second Regiment of Fire Zouaves. He often visited the men on the battlefields, and never ceased to look after the interest and welfare of the brave soldiers at the front.

On one occasion he visited the battlefield of Williamsburg, Va., recovered several bodies and removed them to their friends in this city. In a similar manner the graves of others wre identified. Chief Decker was a most ardent Union man. The Chief says that the members of the Fire Department wre the most loyal body of men in the country, the Department sending over two thousand seven hundred active members to the war.

The New York Herald, at the time, thus referred to the action of our firemen during the draft riots: No class of men are more entitled to praise for heroism and self-sacrifice, as  displayed in the recent uprising against the draft ordered by President Lincoln, than than the firemen of New York, in extinguishing fires and saving valuable property that would have destroyed had they not interposed their objections and determined to execute their functions at every hazard. * * * * Hundreds of thousands of dollars were placed in jeopardy, and only saved by the prompt interference of the firemen. * * * *

Chief Engineer John Decker is especially entitled to the gratitude of the owners and occupants of real estate in the upper section of the city. That he absolutely saved to them their homes and contents is conceded by everybody. Never since the days of Gulick and Anderson has the Fire Department been managed with so much signal ability as during the time it has been controlled by Mr. Decker, and we sincerely believe it will be a great while ere the firemen will dispense with his valuable services.

In his last report (1865) to the Common Council Chief Decker protested against the contemplated abolishment of the Old Department, and the substitution of the New. "The firemen of this city," he said, "are as intelligent, honest, sober, and industrious as any other body of nearly four thousand men in the world." Some of our best merchants, bankers, mechanics, and tradesmen have been and are at present members of the Fire Department, and are proud to have it known in their social and business circles, and will always be pleased to remember that they belonged to the Volunteer Fire Department of this city."

At the fire in the Duane Street Sugar House, where Kerr and Fargis were killed, Mr. Decker held 14's pipe, and was talking to Mr. Fargis when the wall fell in and crushed him. "When the wall came," he says, "it came with a thud and a hissing. I looked up and saw steam and shavings pour out of the round windows of the top floor. Instantly a part of the cornice dropped beside me, killed Fargis, and broke part of 38 Engine. Fargis had started to run into the archway, and had just got to the sidewalk when he was struck on the head. You have no idea of the extent to which even business men of high intelligence who were firemen carried their enthusiasm. Fire duty was their religion; they sacrificed to it health, wealth, strength, wife's society, everything."

Chief Decker is president of the Volunteer Firemen's Association.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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