Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 26, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie

JOHN B. MILLER, one of the assistant engineers of the Old Department, was born September 12, 1817, his parents residing at the time on the corner of Chatham and Orange Streets (now Baxter). In his younger days he ran with Jackson Engine Company No. 24--his liking for that peculiar life very early developing itself. He was at home in any position, whether on the rope, with the pipe, at the head of his company, or assistant engineer. He was elected a member of Engine No. 32 (Bunker Hill), located in Hester Street, back of St. George's Church, in 1836, and resigned at the time of the Gulick strike, he morning after the Bowery Theatre fire, in September of the same year. He rejoined in May, 1837, was elected foreman and served until 1841, when he was elected engineer on the ticket with Chief Engineer Cornelius V. Anderson and Engineers Zophar Mills, Wells, Wilson, John Kenyon, Alfred Carson, Wm. A. Freeborn, George H. Rampen, George Kerr, and John T. Rollins. Later he became president of the Board of Fire Underwriters. At a fire in Grand Street, near the Bowery, Mr. Miller rescued an old man (a German) from suffocation. At the great fire of 1845 he discovered a fire in a large brick storage warehouse in Stone Street. A line of hose was stretched through to the roof, and at his direction Edwin Coe, of Hose Company No. 9, and a most daring man, was placed in charge until water could be obtained. Finding the line all broken up on account of the explosion and no water to be had, and fearing for Coe's safety, Mr. Miller returned to the burning building, found it full of smoke, and Coe in the upper part unable to get out. Determining that Coe should not suffer alone, he crawled up the stairway through the blinding smoke, calling loudly for Coe, but received no answer. On reaching the third story, he found Coe nearly suffocated, and with difficulty got him out of the building to a place of safety. Soon after this, the building fell, a mass of burning ruins. In 1850 he was elected President of the Board of Fire Wardens under the new law. In 1857 Mr. Miller organized Adriatic Engine Company No. 31, and was elected foreman. In 1859 he was one of the organizers of C. V. Anderson Hook and Ladder Company No. 10, and remained with her till the disbanding of the Department in 1865, after twenty-five years of active service. For the past thirty years Mr. Miller has been surveyor of the Old Fireman's Insurance Company.

When Mr. Miller resigned the office of assistant engineer on the ninth of April, 1851, owing to business arrangements, it was determined to present him with a testimonial. On January 12, 1852, the principal firemen of the day assembled at Odd Fellows Hall, corner of Grand and Centre Streets, and presented him with a splendid service of silver in token of their esteem for him as a man and a fireman. Then the company sat down to the banquet, Robert McGinnis, assistant engineer and formerly foreman of old Southwark Engine Company No. 38, presiding, his assistant being Daniel D. Conover, of Amity Hose company No. 38. Mr. Miller had a brother, J. L., who also did good service in the Fire Department.

JOHN K. COSTIGAN joined Lafayette Hook and Ladder No. 6 in 1857 and continued a member until 1862. At the outbreak of the civil war he, with other members of the company, enlisted in Company A, Ninth Regiment, New York State Militia. Mr. Costigan had been a member of the Volunteer Firemen's Association since its inception, treasurer of the New Haven delegation and secretary of the last barbecue and picnic committee, and is at present a member of the Board of Directors.

MR. HENRY WILSON was born in New York City September 10, 1810. He began running to fires at an early age, and on arriving at manhood was captain of a very large roll of volunteers connected with Union Engine Company No. 18. He joined the company June 20, 1832, but, with the volunteers declaring that they could not succeed except under his leadership, he resigned and resumed his position as their captain. He shortly afterwards rejoined the company, becoming its foreman in 1834 and continuing until 1838, when he went to the South. He returned in 1839 and was again elected foremen, serving until 1844. He also served a term with engine companies No. 3 and 31. In 1849 Mr. Wilson, with James Booth, Isaac T. Redfield, and others, organized Niagara Engine Company No. 4. This was at a the time one of the best organizations in the city. The members were nearly all old firemen and started under the most favorable auspices. Mr. Wilson was its first foreman and served the company faithfully until it was on a fair footing, and then retired to make way for the younger men. In 1859 Mr. Wilson was elected Fire Commissioner to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Andrew Craft. His election was unanimous, and he gave the greatest satisfaction in the performance of the unpleasant duties connected with the office.

In 1860 Mr. Wilson declined a re-election; but the firemen, knowing his worth, refused to receive it, and by a flattering vote again elected him. Mr. Wilson greatly benefited the Department. There was no meeting at which he was not present, and no fireman who had any complaint to make went away unheard.

Mr. Wilson id not give his time to the fire business only--the soldiers who enlisted from the Department has as much of it as he could spare. His work with the two regiments bearing the name of "Fire Zouaves" was beyond praise.

The "Harrington Guard" was a volunteer organization from Union Engine Company No. 18, and henry Wilson was its captain. This volunteer company was in existence for a number of years, and one act while Mr. Wilson was in command should not go unrecorded. We allude to their noble conduct toward the first of the New York Volunteers who died after that regiment returned from the Mexican War. The late Sherman Brownell was called upon to deliver the address at the dedication of a monument placed in Greenwood by the Harrington Guard. That gallant fellow George Struthers was one of the first to enroll his name in Company 1 of the first regiment of New York State Volunteers. With them he went to Mexico, and remained among them until disbanded. He was one of the comparatively small number of the originals of the regiment that returned, and, although he escaped the ravages of the battlefield and returned to his friends, he was, like most of his companions, prostrated with the climate and exposure. He found, by disease contracted in Mexico, that he was fast failing. He went to the hospital, where his friends gave him all the attention that could be paid him. After remaining in the hospital for some time, he was called from his sufferings on earth. His sister hastened to the hospital, and wished the body of her brother to be kept two or three day, as it was cold weather, that she might send word to her sons, who lived out of town. The sons arrived, but to their inquiries for the body of their uncle at the hospital they were informed that he was buried at Randall's island in the Potter's Field. Struthers died on the eleventh of January, 1849. Some ten days after his death the circumstances came to the ear of the Harrington Guard. They immediately called a meeting of the company, and passed a resolution to appoint a committee to recover the body, if possible; and that they would invite the volunteers and give him a soldier's burial. The committee, headed by captain Henry Wilson, started on the mission, after surmounting many difficulties, and giving sureties to replace the bodies as they found them. They commenced on the Twenty-third of January, 1849, at the morning's dawn. Captain Henry Wilson had two men, who were employed for the occasion, removing the dead in search of the body of the volunteer, and there they labored in this noble act until the day was almost finished, when, after removing and opening some three hundred and fifty coffins and returning them again, the body was found, and was brought to the city to Captain Wilson's house; re-coffined, and preparations were made for the funeral, which took place on the Twenty-eighth of January, 1849. The funeral was a large one, and caused great excitement in the city at the time. Thomas Starr, the ex-foreman of 29 engine, knew poor Struthers well, and a little anecdote in which his name is connected will not be out of place. Captain had worked very hard to get the body, and, as the bodies of paupers were then buried in ditches or pits, the job was no small one, and had he not known the deceased it would have been impossible to have gotten the right one. After the body had been carried to his house and laid out in the best manner, Mr. Wilson looked again at the face, and a doubt arose in his mind as to the identity. It was a terrible thing! A mistake was possible--yet, although he felt almost certain, the doubt was there. He had not called in any of the relatives of the deceased, and as the day began to fade he grew more nervous. He went to the door and watched f or some one to whom the deceased was known, when who should come along in his butcher cart but Tom Starr? Wilson hailed him, and Tom stopped short. He went in the house on Wilson's invitation. "What's the matter here?" said he; "there ain't nobody dead, is there?" "Yes, Tom; look and see if you know him." The coffin lid was raised and tom exclaimed, "Why, its George Struthers!" Wilson said afterwards that those were the most refreshing words he had heard in a year.

When henry Wilson was president of the Board of Fire commissioners he and his colleague, Thomas Lawrence, were summoned to Washington by Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, and consulted in regard to the protection of the vast amount of Government stores at fortress Monroe from fire. They visited the fortress, and reported to the Secretary, and the result was the detail of Engines Nos. 16 and 31 to the duty of protecting the Government property, and these engines, under the command of John Baulch, senior assistant engineer, were sent to Fortress Monroe on April; 17, 1862. They remain there to this day, and look very familiar to an old-time fireman.

Mr. Wilson continued in the Board of Fire Commissioners until 1864, when he retired. He is a thorough New Yorker, and proved his friendship for the Old Fire Department by years of active service, as well as in the honorary office afterwards held by him. He bears his years lightly, stand full six feet, and his eyes are still full of the old-time fire.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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