Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 27, Part I

By Holice and Debbie

Chapter XXVII

TALKS WITH SOME WELL-KNOWN VETERANS.

Alonzo Slote: Enthusiastic and Liked to be Near the Pipe. -- William A. Macy: Extravagantly Fond of the Life of a Fireman. -- John A. Cregier: Rich in Reminiscences. -- Carlisle Norwood: A Veteran with a History. -- Zophar Mills: The Nestor of the Volunteers. --  Thomas Boese: Crippled in the Discharge of Duty. -- Christopher Johnson: Has Seen Exciting Times. -- Henry J. Ockershausen: Believed in Energetic Work. -- John W. DeGrauw: What He Considered the Pleasantest Part of a Fireman's Life. -- James F. Wenman: Looks Back to His Fire Days as the Happiest of His Life. -- Theodore Keeler: Felt as if He's Like to See the Boys Again. -- W. L. Jenkins: Gives him Pleasure to Recall the Old Days. -- John S. Giles: Not Deserted by His Friends. --  Peter R. Warner: True to his Post: Edward Wood: Why He Never Became an Alderman. -- W. B. Hays.

Alonzo Slote, of the firm of Tredwell & Slote, is another of the many members of the Volunteer Department, who have attained commercial prominence and high social standing in the community. He was born in the Tenth Ward, on the corner of Orchard and Broome Streets, on September 13, 1830. In March, 1851, though not having quite attained his majority, he enrolled as a member of Hose Company No. 36, then located at No. 205 Madison Street. His brother, Daniel Slote, a very estimable gentleman, who died four years ago, was a member of the same company, as also were W. D. Wade, John R. Platt, William A. Woodhull, Elanson Tredwell, Lawrence Turnure, and Richard B. Ferris, president of the Bank of New York, and son of the distinguished Chancellor Ferris, of the Presbyterian Church. Messrs. Wade, Woodhull and Platt severally became presidents of the Fire Department, and altogether "Oceana's" crew were an exclusive set, who prided themselves upon possessing one of the finest looking carriages in the Department and in being able to make the most attractive appearance on gala occasions. Not unnaturally they were regarded with jealously by some and with a feeling akin to contempt by others, who dubbed them "the quills," because they were mainly merchants and merchants' clerks. They were the "dudes" of the Department. Nevertheless the records shoe that for effectiveness and strict attention to the line of duty the exhibit of Oceana Hose Company No. 36 is not excelled by any.

"We did everything up in style regardless," says Mr. Alonzo Slote, "on the principle that what was worth doing at all was worth doing well. At a parade we south to excel, and we contended in a manly way for superiority in the line of duty. I liked the business. Even now I am full of it. Afraid that I might miss a fire I would not leave the hose house evenings to go to the theater or other place of amusement. Yet I never missed a day from business. I was a fireman in opposition to my uncle's wishes--in whose house I was a clerk--and my pride would not allow me to offer fire duty as an excuse for absence from business. I was enthusiastic and liked to be where the pipe was--nearest the fire, where the hardest work was."

Mr. Slote did fire duty for eleven years.

WILLIAM H. MACY, president of the Seaman's Bank for Savings, exclaimed: "Extravagantly, yes, I was extravagantly fond of the life of the volunteer fireman. I was born in Nantucket in 1806, and came to New York in April 1823. On the 8th of February, 1830, I joined the Department, enrolling in the Supply Engine Company and remained with her until 1836, when I went to Europe and ceased my connection with the Department. The most startling event during my career as a fireman was the big fire in December, 1835. Gulick was then chief, and he and I entered the second building which caught fire. Subsequently I was stationed on the Tontine steps, corner of Water and Wall Streets, to assist in preventing the spread of the fire in that direction. The heat was so intense that my great coat was burnt through and the leather on the inside of my cap was crisped. Then it was found necessary to have Engine No. 13, which was at the corner of Wall and Pearl Streets, to play on me, although the thermometer was below zero, to keep me from being completely burnt. That was a terrible night. When I got home the next morning my fire clothes, which I had hastily pulled on over my business suit (and fortunately too) actually stood up stiff when I took them off. I suffered considerably from the exertion and exposure that night, and it was on that account I was obliged to take a trip across the Atlantic."

My Macy bears his eighty years with amazing vigor. He has been vice-president and president of the institution over when he presides since 1851.

JOHN A. CREGIER, who is not in his seventy-first year, comes o a race of firemen, and it would be unnatural if he did not follow in the footsteps of his many generations of intrepid ancestors. He was born in the Fifth Ward on November 30, 1815, in a two-story and attic frame house on Chapel Street, which is now known as West Broadway. Notwithstanding the tearing down and obliteration of the antiquated structures, the very frame house where Mr. Cregier was born still remains, nearly opposite Lispenard Street. At the age of twenty John Cregier joined the Fire Department, being enrolled as a member of Engine Company No. 9, which was located in Beaver Street. Henry B. Cook was then foreman, and the members, twenty-six in number, were all unmarried men, principally cabinet makers, carvers, gilders, etc.

Speaking of the effectiveness of that company with a manifestation of pride, Mr. Cregier remarked: "I have seen that company with twenty men on the rope before she reached Wall Street. The way those men piled out of their houses was a caution--quick as a flash and ready for action. The jail bell was the principal alarm bell at that time, and we could hear it distinctly above every other bell. The fire of 1835 was the biggest I remember. No. 9 was stationed in Beaver Street, near Broad Street, and was called upon to do some lively work. I believe that Rynier Vechte, now residing at Plainfield, N. J., and myself are the only living representatives of the company as it then existed. About 1840 I retired Engine Company No. 9 and joined No. 12, which was located in William Street, near Pearl Street. James Jackson was the foreman, and when he retired Alfred Carson took his place. No. 12 was called 'The Knickerbocker,' and its members, who were a very respectable class of men--merchants and mechanics--were regarded to a great extent as typical new Yorkers. In 1842 I retired from No. 12 and came up here to Greenwich Village, as this part of the city (the Ninth Ward) was then called. Old and young ladies made such a fuss in those days about taking a trip to 'Greenwich Village' as people nowadays would undertake for a trip to Europe. Omnibuses ran regularly twice a day from Niblo's Coffee House in Pine Street to the 'Village.'

"Assisted by James L. Miller, who had been an engineer for many years, I organized Hose Company No. 40, of which Mr. Miller became the first foreman. I succeeded Miller, and after me came David Milliken, John Kettleman, and other men of prominence. I remained with 40 Hose until 1847, when I was appointed assistant engineer. We had no circumscribed limits of duty. The whole city was our sphere, and was not too extended for our enthusiasm. Why on one occasion, seeing the red glare in the sky to the northward, we started in search of the fire. We brought up at One Hundred and Tenth Street and Ninth Avenue, where the Lion Brewery was ablaze.

"I retired from the Department in 1860. I contemplate now with pleasure my term of service in the Department, and remember the many happy hours I spent in the company of those with whom it was my privilege to share the trials and dangers of a fireman's life.

"The chief feature in the effectiveness of a company was the alacrity with which the men responded to an alarm. No matter where they were, whether in church, in bed, visiting, or elsewhere, as soon as the bells rung out the warning notes all else was forgotten, and their hearts and souls seemed afire with enthusiasm to hasten and perform their duty. I knew a man belonging to Engine Company No. 9 who was taking his ladylove to Niblo's theater one evening. When they reached the corner of Prince Street and Broadway, a watch-house bell struck an alarm. Off the fireman started, leaving his astonished companion, who was a stranger in New York and had come from Elizabeth, N. J., standing on the corner. After being about two hours at work, his thoughts reverted to the lady when whom he had so unceremoniously abandoned. He hastened to the place, and there, trustful that he would return and fearful to move, not being acquainted with the neighborhood, he found the fluttering damsel, who would no doubt have overwhelmed him with reproaches but that she divined he must have been upon an errand of mercy and daring.

"I took my wife to Jenny Lind's theater one evening. A policeman during the performance whispered to me that here was big fire up-town. Hastily telling my wife to wait for me, I darted off to the fire--a big factory on East Twenty-ninth Street. After being two hours at the fire, I said to Carson, 'Chief, I left my wife at the theater two hours ago.' 'Go and take her home,' he replied. When I reached the theater it was closed.

"It appears to me now, when I look back, to be wonderful the endurance these men manifested and what deprivations they would willingly undergo in order to keep up their ends, maintain their superiority or claim thereto. There were two companies--No. 9 in Beaver Street and No. 5 in Fulton Street, near the Middle Dutch Church--between which great rivalry existed. The members lived in different parts of the city, and on Saturday nights they would come from different quarters and bunk in the rear of the grocery store kept by Miles Hitchcock, on the northwest corner of Liberty and Nassau Streets. Upon an alarm of fire the fun commenced. They rushed for their engines, and then raced to the fire. Every Saturday night there would be an alarm, and a watch was established in the cupola of the Middle Dutch Church to notify the boys. At time No. 9 would have a string of men stretched along Broadway to give the alarm, which was done by clapping the hands three times, which was repeated from one to the other. A careless fellow one night thought to scare off an unpleasantly attentive wandering dog by clapping his hands. He soon brought a host of contending companies around him, whose anger was only appeased by a genuine alarm which took place soon after.

"In 1833, 1834, and 1835 the personnel of the Department consisted of men whom it was a pleasure and a pride to known and be associated with. But beginning, say, in 1846, the class of men began to deteriorate. The proposition to introduce steam engines was perhaps a chief cause, as those who were opposed to the steamers, and they were many, regarded their introduction as the beginning of the end of the Volunteer Department. This tended to bring on demoralization and a good many of the best men retired. The ambition to wear a red shirt and be a fireman seemed to pervade the young men thoroughly, although it was the ruin of many of them physically, and of not a few morally, because at all times the associations and the excitement led to excesses. Happily the instances of the latter effect were few. I endured a good deal of hardship; so did every man in the service, more or less. It was incidental to the life we led. Yet, although I was now suffering from the results of want of care at times from having got soaking wet and other self-neglect, if by some potent charm I could take forty years off my life, I would not hesitate a moment to undergo the same manner of life again. I remember some of the pranks the boys played after the engine for the fun and exhilaration that came of it. Hook and Ladder No. 1 lay alongside No. 9's house in Beaver Street. Gabriel P. Disosway was foreman. In order to relieve his men and expedite their getting to a fire, he bought a powerful black horse, which was stabled in Mill Street. When an alarm was given one night for a fire in Chatham Square, Mr. Disosway was astonished upon the arrival of his coal-black steed to find that the harness was missing from the collar. The harness was resting at the bottom of Old Slip. On another occasion the horse's tail and mane were shaved; and on another the sight of his black horse with a white-painted stripe the length of his back, and his ribs all indicated with white paint lines, astonished and disgusted the enterprising foreman."

Mr. Cregier in 1861 assisted Colonel Ellsworth in raising the celebrated regiment of Fire Zouaves, as fine a body of men as appeared in the service of the Union, and accompanied it to the theater of war.

CARLISLE NORWOOD, president of the Lorillard Company, said:

"In old times, say 1820, and for a good while before that period, there was a bell in the cupola of the City Hall for ringing alarms of fire, and also one on the top of the jail which is the building now used as the Register's Office in the City Hall Park. The latter bell possessed a peculiar tone so that it could be distinctly distinguished above and among all the other alarm bells in the city which might be ringing simultaneously. It was taken from the jail and placed on the roof of the Bridewell, a prison for criminals which was on the Broadway side of the park, nearly opposite Murray Street. Thence it was taken to and placed on top of the house occupied by Hose Company No. 16 in Beaver Street near Broad Street. Delancey Barclay was at one time foreman of that company--one of the distinguished Barclay family--and the company was mainly composed of the sons of old and respectable New Yorkers--the Schermerhorns, the Callenders, the Nelson, and others of that class. There was no sacrifice that the firemen were not ready to make in the line of duty, and their discipline was perfect. For that matter it might be said that from the time of its organization up to 1840, when it ran down after the resignation of Anderson, the condition of the Department was most satisfactory, creditable alike to the city and to the members thereof who took pride in maintaining its efficiency and morale. Every chief engineer was a man of character and of undoubted respectability. Among them I will mention Ellsworth, Thomas Franklin, Jamieson Cox, Uzziah Wenman, James Gulick, John Ryker, and Cornelius V. Anderson.

"The first serious trouble in the Department arose during the career of Alfred Carson, who succeeded Anderson as chief engineer. He picked a quarrel with the Common Council, supposing that he could so with them as he pleased. He procured the publication of articles attacking the Common Council, and in his reports to that body, written by an eccentric and altogether untrustworthy character names Steve Branch, flung epithets and made insinuations again the Council which caused an angry rupture, and brought the Department into antagonism with them. About this time people began to move up town, which caused a thinning of the strength of the down-town fire companies, to offset which almost anybody with discrimination as to character or other fitness was accepted into the companies. Those persons became the rowdy element in the department and helped to give it the character of a rowdy institution. Indeed so marked was their misconduct that good citizens generally wished well to the project for disbanding the volunteers and establishing a paid department. The politicians began to use the Department for their ends, and the people and even the press were afraid to denounce them. The disagreeable duty of abolishing the offensive thing it was beginning to be was therefore undertaken by the Board of Fire Underwriters."

Speaking of the great fire of December 16, 1835, Mr. Norwood said: "James Gulick was chief engineer at that time. There was a good deal of feeling against him in the Common Council, who considered him to blame for the great destruction of property. It was a bitter cold night, the coldest we had had in New York for very many years, and thus the efforts of the firemen were badly handicapped, and the only way to prevent the spread of the fire was that which was finally adopted--by blowing up adjacent buildings. The Common Council determined to remove Gulick and passed a vote of censure upon him. They had no right to do that, for he did all that mortal man could do."

ZOPHAR MILLS was interviewed on his connection with the Volunteer Fire Department, and said:

"As a boy I began to run with the engines in 1820, and became a member of the Department in 1832, attaching myself to Engine No. 13, which was located in Fulton Street near Gold Street, and wa afterwards in Dover neat Pearl Street. The company consisted of twenty-six men, of whom eighteen are dead, three I cannot trace, and five are living: Hy. W. Flewry, at Prescott Arizona; Josiah G. Macy, at Nantucket, Mass.; Cornelius T. Nostrand, living in Connecticut; John T. Hall, Brooklyn, and myself, the only one living in this city. In 1835 I was foreman of No. 13 and acting at the great fire on December 16. We were stationed in Wall Street opposite the Merchants' Exchange (now the Custom House). We did great service. In 1838 was assistant engineer and served until 1842, when my business compelled me to sever my connection with the Department. I was a bookkeeper, and it was exceedingly severe on me, after serving for hours at a fire, to be obliged to go back to the office and post up all my books.

"In 1845 we formed the Exempt Firemen's Company for the purpose of assisting in cases of the greatest emergency. We had two steam fire engines and one hand-engine (large size). These were, with one exception, the only steam fire-engines in the city; and they did greet service, saving millions of dollars worth of property. It was the opinion of Philip W. Engs--no mean authority--that at the burning of Barnum's Museum, corner of Broadway and Ann Street, one of these engines, the "John G. Storm," had saved a quarter million dollars' worth of property. Judge John J. Gorman was a foreman of that company. The engines were self-propelled. We never got credit for what we did because there was a prejudice in the Department against that class of engines. But in a short time the other companies began to clamor for them. I lived in Rutgers Street in 1864, and in 1865 removed to Lexington Avenue, where I now live, and resigned from the Department.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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