Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 26, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



Adam W. Spies: One of the Most successful Merchants in the City. -- Adolphus Borst: Has Signally Served his Country. -- James F. Wenman: First Used a Trumpet When A Child. -- David Scannel: Soldier and Public Officer. -- Timothy Sullivan: Early Loved Fire. -- John B. Miller: An Efficient Assistant Engineer. -- John K. Costigan: A Gallant Veteran. -- Henry Wilson: His generosity and self-sacrifice.

Adam W. Spies, one of the oldest New York firemen now living, is eighty-six years old. He is one of the most successful merchants of the city. He was a member of Engine No. 5, and was made a fire warden. He and Thurlow Weed studied grammar together in 1817. Mr. Spies was born in the Second Ward, near Peck Slip, on September 4, 1800.

He is still quite vigorous in mind and body, and has lost none of his interest in fire affairs. Quite recently he surprised the members of the volunteers by entering their rooms in Eighth Street, and hailing those present in a cheery, hearty tone. After a pleasant chat, he went the rounds of the rooms and curiously inspected the many interesting fire relics on the wall. He makes it a point to drop in regularly to see "the boys."

The following interesting reminiscences of New York have been given by Mr. Spies to the writer:

"I was born on the spot of ground now occupied by Clinton Hall, the southwest corner of Beekman and Nassau Streets. At the time the place was occupied by twelve little wooden stores and houses, and considered then pretty nearly out of town. The city Hall was then at the head of Broad Street, where George Washington was inaugurated. The new City Hall was not then begun. Chambers Street was then the extreme limit of the graded streets, west of Broadway. Division Street was the extreme limit of civilization on the other side. I was sent to a madame's school in Ann Street in 1806, afterwards to S. Ely's and John Coffin's, in Nassau Street in the rear of the old Dutch Church on Maiden Lane. In 1810 my grandfather, Adam Bergh (the present henry Bergh is a sort of second cousin of mine), and J. J. Astor, and many of the old German residents, attended this church. German was regularly preached there in the morning and the afternoon of every Sunday. Wall Street was the great business street. Oswego Market then stood in Maiden Lane, running down from Broadway about two hundred and fifty feet, and surrounded by retail stores. At the foot of Maiden Lane was the Fly market, reaching from Pearl Street to the river to the ferry stairs. The sailboats to Brooklyn used to start from this point. How the hundreds of thousands of travelers of to-day by the big bridge and the capacious steamboats would smile could they have seen the ferry of my childhood's days! Nothing larger than a yawl boat was then used. Only one horse at a time was carried over, after having been taken out of the gig or wagon, and all tumbled into the boat together, passengers and baggage. But horses rarely crossed the river. Horseboats or steamboats were not known in my early days. Soon, however, horseboats came into use, and an astonishing improvement they were. These boats continued for many years till displaced by steamboats.

"In my boyhood the Bear Market stretched along Greenwich Street from Vesey to Fulton Street. The fish market stood in Vesey Street, reaching from Greenwich to where Washington Street now is, the end facing the water, there not being any streets further west. Both these markets have disappeared, and a new market built where then was water. This is Washington Market.

"About 1812, or during the war, Market Street on the east side was called George Street, after the King of England. It was a great place for loose women. The street was afterwards bought by a Quaker, and made respectable. The unfortunate women were driven up to Corlear's Hook, the chief residents of which locality were sailors and girls of the town. The place was called simply the 'Hook," and was away out of town. It was a broad, open, unsettled space, dangerous for decent people to pass through. At the foot of Catharine Street was located the only other ferry (besides the ferry from Maiden Lane) to Brooklyn. The ship yards began here, and the docks ceased. Division Street terminated among the hills of Rutgers Farm, as did also Harmon Street, now called East Broadway, leading to Corlear's Hook. From Grand Street to the foot of Thirteenth Street was a salt meadow, considered then entirely worthless. It was a mere quagmire and useless for any purpose.

"About this time (1812) the City Hall in the park was finished. The Wigwam in Little George Street, kept by Martling, was removed to Frankfort Street, and became Tammany Hall. When I was a boy there was quite a number of houses of this description about Wall and Pearl Street. Many of them were built of small yellow imported bricks. The sides of the fireplaces were faced with small China tiles, five or six inches square, with sculptured subjects on them, painted in blue.

"In 1810, there were many citizens still wearing knee breeches, shoe buckles and cocked hats. I was now a scholar of John Coffin at his school in Frankfort Street, in the rear of Tammany Hall. John and all his boys were Republicans, at that time, the Democrats of to-day. On the fourth of July we were conspicuous by wearing bucktails stuck in the front of our hats. The Fourth was then a great day. Our coppers were saved for at least two months ahead, and all our friends were levied upon for funds to buy powder and fire crackers. It was a grand sight to see four or five regiments, all with tall felt chapeaus, decorated with long stiff cocktail feathers, yellow leather breeches, and bobtail coats, marching through the streets, preceded by black musicians. The instruments were principally bass drums, French horns and cornets--heart-scalding music, but which to us was divine. The musicians were almost all French West Indies negroes, and by profession barbers. By the way, at this time nearly all the hod carriers in the city were West India negroes. After the military came the Tammany Society, preceded by a band of yellow-stained men, fantastically dressed as Indians. Then came a great car with a tall temple, upon which was a throne, and sitting on the dais an elegant female appropriately dressed, representing the Goddess of Liberty. The streets being rough and badly paved, it required all the skill of the Goddess of Liberty to keep her seat on her trembling, tottering throne. Strong ropes, attached to flagstaffs on either side, prevented the affair from fallings. Then came the big wigs, the professions, mounted ships, the firemen, and various societies. The fear of old Hayes and Sam Hazzard, who kept the Bridewell in the park, made the boys behave themselves. Thousands of flags hung from every conspicuous point.

"The Battery, Bowling Green, and Park were filled with booths, and there were sold principally liquors, hams, oysters in every style, pickled lobsters, mussels, pickled clams, roast pig, spruce beer, lemonade, and so on. It used to be a glorious holiday, and no one was found at home.

"At three o'clock in the morning, we young fellows were aroused by a bell in the street, and by four we were off. Horse pistols were mounted on blocks, and when the pistols wre exploded, the whole concern was kicked over and over again. By six A. M. we became hungry, and breakfasted at the booths at the Battery off pickled lobsters and spruce beer. By ten or eleven we were ready for dinner, when we dined off pig, oysters, pie or fish, spruce beer, and cherries. An alarm of fire would take us away from everything else. At five or six o'clock we would return home, thoroughly used up.

"From 1812 to 1815 almost all the merchants lived over their stores. Pearl Street was mostly composed of dwelling houses. Greenwich Street and the lower end of Broadway and State Street held the residences of the "aristocracy." The churches were in Garden Street (now Exchange Place), Wall Street, and the corner of Liberty Street. With the exception of St. John's, and the negro church in Church Street, corner of Anthony, there was not a church to the north of St. Paul's.

"The War of 1812 checked the growth of the city. The citizens that were drafted were drilled every morning in the park or in the forts newly built. All the New York boys were well drilled as soldiers. Hundreds of boys and mechanics turned privateers and returned home with three hundred thousand dollars as their share of the prize money. I remember the detachments of country militia who used to pass through the city into the encampments on Long Island and Staten Island. A long line of fortifications was built by the citizens, stretching across the island at Bloomingdale, commanding the approach to the city from the north. The heights of Brooklyn were fortified in the same manner. From Fort Greene to Gowanus Bay, for two miles, there were block houses and batteries. The work was performed by the trades, the professions, and citizens generally, foremost, among whom were the fire companies. Day after day lawyers, merchants, and others would assemble in the park, and, with flags flying and music and plenty of good cheer furnished by themselves, would march to Fort Greene or other forts, and would handle the pick and shovel like common laborers. There were to be seen digging, carpenters, tailors shoemakers, blacksmiths, the association of clerks, clergymen, actors, doctors, indeed all the trades and professions under their special banners. They all did this without pay, and they fed themselves.

"I joined Engine Company No. 5 on October 16, 1818, located in Fulton Street (then Fair Street), near Dutch Street. I had been running with the machine for some time. Foster Nostrand was the foremen, and Samuel J. Willis the assistant. Willis afterward became the chief engineer. Robert Thompson was the second assistant and secretary. All our members were first-class merchants, and well-to-do. Thompson was a hardware merchant; Bob Glender was a fruit dealer; Thomas B. ('Buck') Goelet was a brother of the rich Peter Goelet' Peter Vroom was the son of a bank president; there were also 'Buck' Gardiner, Sam Winterton, William Burger (afterwards a druggist), now living and whose age is eighty-nine; Wm. H. Smith (a partner of Henry Young & Co., hardware and military supplies), who died worth five millions of money. Other members of the company were R. Dunn, hatter; Hugh Taylor, a first-class fireman; Henry Lawrence, merchant; Thomas Vanderpoel; John Hyatt, jeweler; James Whitlock, merchant; Blaze Moore (his father was one of the best known chandler merchants); Isaac N. Townsend, merchant; James Bissett, Francis Hall, son of an editor; subsequently an editor himself; George Went, Robert Bage, hatter; and Richard Demill, merchant.

"Not one of these men has ever done anything to disgrace himself. Most of them were rich, and some of them very rich. For thirty years No. 5 maintained her position as a most respectable company. It was the crack company for duty and honor. We ran all over the city, but rarely had to go above Canal Street or Stone Bridge. Canal had not one house in it in 1819. We took our water from cisterns, pumps, or plugs. Our boys are so well posted that they could find any fire-plug, no matter how deeply it might be covered with mud or snow, in any part of the city. We kept memoranda books in which good cisterns and plugs wre carefully and privately noted.

"Fires were not so frequent then, even comparatively, as they are now, but still our work was very hard, because we had no Croton. Ten companies would sometimes form on line, and thus carry the water from a distance. The stream was kept up by constant work at the brakes, we all the time standing in water. After which we had to take up, clean up, and slush our own hose. I took her out as often as any one, and consequently held the rope oftener. The bell on the old jail was the fire signal. How well I remember its tone! How familiar they were! I resigned September 8, 1823, to go to England and travel in Europe as the agent of my firm. A peculiar thing happened to me in Liege, Belgium, in 1829. The voice of that bell on the old jail I knew as well as my mother's. Well, one night I was suddenly aroused from a deep slumber by the ringing of a church bell in Liege that had exactly the same tone as out old fire bell. I thought I was summoned to a fire in New York. The incident recalled pleasant memories of home. In 1831 I returned to this city and rejoined my company. I was made a fire warden and served until 1836.

"I remember the Crane Wharf fire (1820), which was where the Fulton Market now stands. I took out the machine and held the pipe that night. I was knocked off a ladder. It was bitterly cold, and my clothes were frozen to my back, so that I had to go home to thaw out. The North River was frozen for over a week, and we could walk to Jersey City. The mails were carried over the ice in sleighs. I sleighed from New York to Albany.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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