Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 26, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

"About the year 1821, at a big fire in Brooklyn, which burned seven hundred bales of cotton and many barrels of tar, No. 5 Engine crossed the river on a horseboat. My feet became almost as big as my head while I was walking through the melted tar. Clots of burning tar floated out of the docks. Brooklyn then had a population of about six hundred, and on Brooklyn Heights snug little farms hung over the river.

"I remember buying a hunting horn, which we used when at the drag-rope on the way to a fire to call the boys to the engine. As soon as they heard it they knew the machine had left the house, and they crossed lots and ran over to us, thus saving a useless expenditure of time in getting to the engine house when the engine had already been taken out. A fire used to be like a battle to us. It aroused our spirits and made us eager to confront it. The deeper the mud and snow, the more we enjoyed it. My experience hasn't hurt me a bit.

"Did we ever have any fighting? Oh, no; there was nothing of that kind in our days, although we were all able to down our man. The only trouble the members of our company got into had more of a humorous than a serious side to it. Late one night I and ten or eleven of the company were returning home. We had been dining with our foreman, who lived up the Bowery. We were walking two and two on the sidewalk, and the foremost couple enlivened the march by singing. A watchman stopped us and raised his clud to strike one of the men. Another man grasped it to prevent trouble. Then the watchman insisted upon taking us all to the station, and like good citizens, we went. We all thought we had sufficient influence to get off. But what was our surprise to hear the policemen charging us all with conspiracy! A rough, crabbed, one-legged captain would listen to no explanation; and we were locked up. Imagine our chagrin. For the first time we found ourselves behind prison bars. Next morning we were taken to the City Hall and fined thirteen shillings and sixpence each. We were afraid to demur or demand a fair trial lest the affair should get into the papers.

"At the same time (1832) Pearl Street was the great store center, the buildings renting at from three to six thousand dollars a year. Fortunes were rapidly made. The heavy dry good imports were in Pine Street. The domestic commission houses were few and their sales moderate. The principal show and hat houses were in Water Street, and the grocers in Water and Front Streets up to 1840. Cortlandt Street, Dey, Fulton, Barclay, and Reade Streets were almost without an exception filled with dwelling houses. A steam engine or manufactory was unknown in any of the above-named streets. No country merchant would venture to buy his dry goods of any but a Pearl Street jobber. Nearly every bank was in Wall Street. Liberty Street was then all dwellings from Broadway to William Street. The old sugar house was then standing where once was a British prison, while the New York Ditch Church adjoining was once used as a riding school for the British cavalry. The Fulton Square Church was called the North Church, and Liberty Street Church was called the New Model Dutch Church.

"Looking back, I have witnessed the introduction of the steam engine, steamboats, railroads, the wonderful telegraph on land and across the sea, the daguerreotype, photography, galvanism, electricity, the increase of cotton from one bale to six millions. It was in 1820 that coal was discovered in Pennsylvania. I tool a specimen of it to England as a curiosity, and they did not know how to burn it. The first line of packets to Liverpool consisted of sailing vessels of only three hundred and fifty tons. Orders to merchants had to be sent six or nine months ahead to procure the goods in time for the spring or fall sales. Merchandise could not be sent to the interior after the close of navigation, from the ice. Hence New York was without much country trade from December to May, there being no railroads. We were about a month in getting an answer from New Orleans.

"When I was a boy muslin shorts were unknown, and coarse linens cost thirty to forty cents a yard. Better cotton has been sold for eight cents a yard, and savages can now be supplied with elegant printed cloths at from four to six cents a yard. I went out of business in 1865."

Mr. Spies had two children, and of his eight grandchildren one is dead.

FRANK PRINCE, of the old firm of Prince & Moon, ship painters in Lewis Street, near the old Mechanics' Bell, for nearly half a century, was a tall broad-shouldered, handsome man of light complexion, and as brave a fireman as ever carried a trumpet. He joined No. 32 Engine Company in June, 1849, and became foreman at the death of Jacob Cobanks in August, 1850, serving in that position until 1852. His name was a household word along the river front, when shipbuilding was at its zenith. While Prince was foreman of No. 32, Wm. M. Tweed was elected foreman of "Big Six," then lying in Gouverneur Street. Prince left 32 in October, 1858, and the same day joined No. 26 Hose. He served ten years as a member of Nos., 32 and 26, and thirty years as a volunteer. He was a warm friend of Dave Broderick. Asa Bogart and "Jim" Cooper, ex-foremen, did duty under Prince, as did John Nixon, who led a charge at Roanoke Island. Ben Wilt, a baker, succeeded Prince as foreman of No. 32.

ADOLPHUS BORST, better known to the "old timers" as "Bill Post" because of the variety of peculiar employment's in which he had been engaged, is perhaps as reminiscent of the old days of the Volunteer Department as any one who belong to it. He was born in the city of Strasburg, France, in 1820, and brought to America by his parents when he was seven months old. His father's brother was chief of the Strasburg Fire Department for thirty years, and his maternal uncle, Charles Kullmann, constructed the famous clock of the Strasburg Cathedral. Borst began his fire duty in 1835 as a volunteer of 12 Engine, which lay in Rose Street, and in the fall of 1841 regularly joined that company, then known as Knickerbocker Engine No. 12, having its quarters in William Street near Pearl Street. The engine, excepting the brass work, which the boys delighted in keeping highly polished, was painted green, giving it a rather unique appearance, and was built by James Smith, of West Broadway and Anthony Streets.

Borst went to France with his father in 1842, and returning in a few months joined 14 Engine, in which retained his membership until the disbandment of the Volunteer organization. In 1853 he was appointed special officer of the old Bowery Theater, and has many "yarns to spin" regarding the scenes and incidents which form part of the history of that noted place of amusement. This position he occupied until the building of the New Bowery in 1861, which he served in a similar capacity until it ws destroyed by fire in 1866. But during this period--from 1839 to 1866--he was engaged in many other employments, which oftentimes required him to put a substitute (in most instances his younger brother) in his steed at the theater for extended periods. In January, 1859, he was appointed a policeman, but resigned when the Metropolitan Force came in, having served only about a month. During the late war, he was special agent of the War Department and also Deputy U. S. Marshal under Marshal Robert Murray. Early in 1861 Borst captured, in New York city, Confederate bank note plates and with them over three hundred million dollars in Confederate notes of various denominations. The plates were destroyed, and a good sized bonfire was made of the notes in the yard of the U. S. Marshal's office. Shortly after this he arrested United States Senator Soule, of Louisiana, and had him imprisoned in Fort Lafayette for treason. From the corps of agents of the War Department, Borst was selected by Secretary Stanton for an important and hazardous mission, which may best be told in his own words.:

"I suppose it all am about," said old "Bill Post," "because I spoke both French and German--one about as well as the other--and both as well as an old rounder like me could be expected to do it. Besides, my life in the Bowery might have had something to do with having me selected for the job. To tell the truth, I didn't like the job for I saw that there was a chance at every turn of being tripped up, and once tripped--well, I wouldn't be chatting with you now. In some way--of course I don't know how--Secretary Seward got a commission for me from the Prussian Government. It bore my proper name, and I was actually working for the Prussian Government. Just now it occurs to me, however, that I never got any pay from Prussia all the same. Uncle Sam paid me and footed my bills. I was commissioned to visit all the Confederate Prisons, and as far as possible look after the welfare of the subject of Prussia, but, of course, that was only a blind. Our people at the North wanted to know how the Union prisoners were treated by the Confederates. I entered the Confederate lines at Fort Monroe--everything regular, you know, as an agent of Prussia--and, as carefully as I knew now, inspected every military prison in the South. I wasn't breaking my heart about the subjects of Prussia, although my papers came from their government. I got along remarkably well until I struck Andersonville. One day I went in there with a Colonel Lefevre of South Carolina, who at that time, I believe, was in full charge of the prison. I wasn't five minutes in the stockade until some of the old boys got on to me, and began shouting as well as they could, 'Hey, Posty, got you, have they? You'll have a jolly time, old man.' I couldn't, you know recognize, one of them. It would have been all up with me if my role had been discovered. Did I want to speak to them? You bet your sweet life I did. Of course, my report was a verbal one. I remember well when it was given in. Seward and Stanton sat together and heard it all. I began at the beginning, and gave it all to them in my own way. They listened. Finally, when it came to the toughest part--Andersonville--old Seward got up quite excited and put his fist on the table we sat at, mad as a hornet. He hadn't got seated until Stanton was on his feet,, and pounding the table (I'll always remember those words), shouted, 'We must--we must--retaliate!' Seward jumped up, and said, 'No, no, NO'--just like a fire alarm bell-'we mustn't get it to out to the world! It would never do." Now I'll just say this, although I'm not much on history, that was a big scene in the big affairs of a big country."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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