Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 27, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

"At the fire in Haydock's drug store in Pearl Street near Fulton, on July 1, 1834, two men were killed. I had a close call myself. The building had burnt down to the second story, and while four of us wre engaged on that floor one of the side walls fell in, carrying us down to the cellar. Eugene Underhill and Frederick A. Ward were killed. I was foreman of Engine No. 13 at that fire. Wm. E. Crooker, who had formerly been one of the company and who was present giving assistance, was found buried amid burning bricks and his life was saved by Chief Gulick, who ordered one engine to play water on the bricks so that they might be cooled off, and the men could handle them and pick them off and another engine to pump in air. Crooker was buried up to his neck in the bricks. He was crippled for life, and was afterwards employed as bell-ringer at the City Hall. Two other men were in the building with us, but seeing the wall tottering they saved their lives by jumping out of the second story window. I saw the wall falling, recognized that I could not escape by running, and before I could think further down it came upon me, carrying me into the cellar. How I escaped unhurt, beyond a few bruises, was miraculous. When the dust had cleared away I came to consciousness, and, finding myself free, crawled out with only the loss of my cap, which, was not found until after the men had been engaged in the work of rescuing Crooker and recovering the two dead firemen, a period of twelve hours.

"Eleven men were killed at the burning of Jennings's clothing store on Broadway, near Barclay Street, which took place on April 25, 1854. I was not a fireman at the time, but went to give assistance. The fire was burning furiously, and Harry Howard, who was in command, ordered the men who were in the second story of an extension building in the rear to the roof. I intended to help them, and was climbing up a ladder, when down came the greater portion of the back wall of the main building, burying all who were in the extension building in the ruins. I got out I know not how, minus my cap. While I went around to 42's house, which was not far away, the remainder of the wall fell. The casualties numbered eleven killed (the greatest number killed at any fire in New York--of firemen I mean) and several wounded.

"Well, the fireman's work nowadays is mere child's play to what it was thirty years age; for he rides to the fire, his engine is drawn there by strong fleet horses, and steam plays the most important part, while in olden times all, everything, was done by main strength and wonderful endurance."

THOMAS BOESE, now clerk of the Superior Court, was maimed in the performance of duty as a fireman. "Ah!" said Mr. Boese, "how difference the system now from what it was in my time! Then our engines took suction from the docks and cisterns. On the roofs of buildings there were tanks containing water, which were utilized in cases of fire. When the ordinary supply failed the firemen, they used to break down the palings around the houses in their efforts to get at the tanks on the roofs. When the Croton was introduced it was a boon, but it was soon found that there were not hydrants enough for the fires. I remember the introduction of the famous Philadelphia engine, large and powerful machines that required three times as many men to work them.

"At one time, I am sorry to say, our Department became somewhat demoralized, and charges wre made against members. A Paid Department was suggested, the Volunteers were dead against it. All the insurance companies were in favor of it. At that time I was secretary to the Board of Education, and at the instance of Mr. McLane I drafted the bill for the new Department subsequently as it was passed. It was framed on the plan of the old Metropolitan Police Force. It was proposed to appoint a commission to see that the Department should conform to the Constitution of the state. So great was the influence of the Volunteers that no city official dared openly assist or countenance the scheme. One modification of the original draft was a clause requiring the new Department to attend fires our of the city limits. Reuben E. Fenton was then governor. The insurance people wre very anxious about the bill. They very much desired to have the old engineers appointed in the new Department, as they were reliable men who thoroughly understood their work. Governor Fenton, however, disappointed them, by making it a political machine. In the second year of the new Department great loss was caused through incompetent management; the loss by fires, indeed, wre greater than under the Volunteer system. This state of things was soon altered by better appointments and a change in the law.

The present chief justice of the Superior court--Justice Sedgwick--was counsel against the passage of the bill creating the paid Department, while Judge Abram R. Lawrence, now of the Supreme Court, was the counsel in favor of it. Mr. Acton, chief of the police, rendered great assistance in getting the bill through; so did Mr. Seth C. Hawley.

JOHN T. AGNEW is one of the best known survivors of the Volunteer Department, formerly of Hose company No. 1. "Our company," said the veteran with just pride to the writer, "was a crack company as to time. We were as quick as lightning. We lay in Duane Street, and were always on the jump. Dud we adopt the bunking system? Oh! no. Our men were of a different stamp, and we all lived within east access of the engine house. Our rules were very strict. We had assistance to take down and put up our hose. Our foreman was Henry J. Ockershausen. Our company's reputation was such that we always had a large number of applicants on the list waiting for membership. Vacancies, however, were rare; at that time the Department was fully adapted to the requirements of the city; now, of course, it would not do at all. We had no such buildings then as to be seen in the New York of to-day.

"In the same street with us was No. 13 Company, composed, like ourselves, of merchants and business men. We were friendly rivals, and though we beat them, so often we never had a quarrel at a fire. Although some of the companies on the east side used to quarrel, yet, take the Department altogether, it was composed of a respectable body of men. To be exempted from jury duty was a consideration. I was at the famous fire of 1835 all night. Two or three who helped to put the powder under Bailey's store to arrest the conflagration. After that night of terrible work I was compelled to rest for two or three days.

"At the fire in King Street I took a crippled woman out of the house. I remember well it was a very cold night. I carried her down from the second story. I was also lucky enough to get a child out.

"I never cared for military tactics, but it seemed to come natural to me to join the fire Department. I never took cold, and could run up a ladder and along a gutter with much more nimbleness than I could now," added the old gentlemen smilingly. "I was present at the disastrous fire in Duane Street, and I held the pipe at the Mulberry Street fire. We were in an alleyway and we were ordered to back out. Just as we did so the building fell, and one of our members was struck on the head and badly hurt.

"When I joined, it was understood that I should not go to fire in the day time unless they were big ones. At night, of course, I attended all fires."

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, ex-member of the State legislature, connected with the Exempt firemen's Association for the past ten years, and at present a member of the executive committee of that association, says: "I joined the Department in December, 1858, and was attached to Oceanus Engine company No. 11, located in Wooster Street. The foreman was John Wildey, who afterwards became coroner, and the strength of the company was sixty men, mostly all mechanics of the best class. After being six months in the company I was elected its treasurer. In 1860 I was elected assistant foreman; and in 1861 foremen. We had quite an exciting time in 1864, when John Wildey contested the formanship with me. He was then a coroner, and well versed in all the political maneuvers that could be brought into play; and how successfully he worked his points was shown by the fac that I beat him by only six votes. It was a tight race, and the majority small, but my victory was none the less one to feel proud of. I remained with the Department until it was mustered out in September, 1865. There was no rowdyism to speak of in the Department in my day. There were friendly rivalry among the companies for excellence in running and efficiency, and that was to my mind a commendable spirit. Now, as between the Company 11, I was foreman of, and Engine Company 16, located in West Broadway, we never ceased to contend with each other for the mastery, and the approval and recognition of the people. It was a sight worth witnessing to see these two double deckers hastening upon an alarm of fire. Often, I may say very often, on Sunday afternoon, a false alarm would be given on purpose somewhere on Eighth Avenue, so that 11 and 16 would be seen running in response. The people looked for these trials of speed and endurance, and lined the avenue on both sides, encouraging their favorite. They congregated there just as lovers of horse-flesh now assemble on the upper avenues, to see the trotters speeding. But, while at times some loud talk and angry words wre bandied about, and threats perhaps indulged in, there were never any blows inflicted."

Mr. Johnson, besides being connected with the Exempt Firemen's Association, is also a member of the Volunteer and Veteran Associations.

MR. A. B. HAYS, cashier of the North river Bank, a few days before his death, in 1882, said: "I look with pleasure upon my connection with the Dire Department. I often thought of proposing a meeting of Volunteer Firemen to celebrate the days of Auld Lang Syne."

HENRY J. OCKERSHAUSEN assistant engineer in the Department is credited with the aphorism that firemen generally gave the machine more praise for what was accomplished then themselves. "This fact," he said, "is evidenced by the minutes of the transactions of the engine companies, among which are to be found such entries as these:

Dec. 14, 1808.--The engine was taken to the place of action, etc, etc. No. 13 did her part this night.

July 5, 1819.-This morning about half past ten o'clock there was an alarm of fire, said to have originated in a house in Church Street. The engine was, with great expedition, taken out and made a fine display among the military, who, with the politeness inherent in soldiers, quickly made way for us, having perhaps an idea that No. 13, by coming too close to them, might spoil their "marking time' for a season.

Aug. 30, 1825.--Our men never worked better than they did this morning, and were well satisfied with the machine (No. 41).

Oct. 1825.--No. 41 took water from the river and gave it to 29, who [played on the fire. Of course, our machine (No. 41) gave more water than she (No 29) could make use of.

Mr. Ockershausen believed in energetic work. "I had rather go to a fire than anything else," are his words; "and when called out I was always a little vexed if we hadn't a good fire." Of Mr. Ockershausen it is said that he once ran all the way from the City Hall to the House of Refuge (Where the Fifth Avenue hotel now stands) to attend a fire; and on another occasion to Rose Hill (Twenty-seventh Street and Third Avenue).

JOHN W. DEGRAUW, for twenty years a fireman and once President of the Fire Department, expressed his estimate of the qualities necessary to be a fireman in this sententious sentence: "To be a fireman one must have a love for arduous duty." Hence it is not astonishing that as a corollary to that opinion he should remark: "And the pleasant est thing about being a fireman was to have a big fire and to go to work and put it out."

JAMES F. WENMAN said: "My life as a volunteer fireman was the happiest part of my existence. My service extended over a period of twenty years, and the associations then formed are among my pleasantest recollections."

THEODORE KEELER, surveyor of the Lorillard Insurance Company, was attached to No. 12 engine when about fifteen years old, and subsequently became connected with Fourteen, Twenty-one, and Thirty-eight, in succession. Referring to older days in the Department, Mr. Keeler said: "Twelve engine lay in Rose Street. The house, now tenement house, back from the street, is there yet. I often go there and stand and look at it, and feel as though I'd like to see the boys again." His death took place Monday, May 10, 1887.

W. L. JENKINS, President of the Bank of America, and at one time foremen of No. 13 Engine, said: "I can't explain why we were carried away with a desire to do fire duty. I don't see where the fine times came in, for there was a great deal of hard work to be done, and not a little a risk to be undertaken. Yet it gives me pleasure to recall those days when, with commendable rivalry, we contended for the palm for doing the quickest and most effective work in saving life and property from the destructive element."

JOHN S. GILES, first treasurer of the exempt Engine Company, said: "A fireman thought as much of his engine as he did of his family. He spoke of in the feminine gender. He liked to see her look well, and hence his readiness to spend his money on the decoration of his engine. Mr. James N. Phillips lost all he had by being a fireman. He spent so much of his time attending to the affairs of the association that he failed in business. But the firemen did not desert him. They caused the creation of the office of Inspector of Unsafe Buildings, to which Mr. Phillips was appointed."

PETER R. WARNER, who was foreman of 23 Engine fifty-four years ago, ascribes the motives of the majority of men who served as firemen to a sense of public duty, and not as arising from a desire to get rid of jury or militia service. "Mechanics," he said, "who upon an alarm of fire would throw down their tools, leaving them exposed where they fell, lost half a day often, or a whole day, without remuneration. Frequently they ruined their clothes at a fire, and were compelled to buy new suits at their own expense. A large proportion of the expense of keeping engine and engine house in repair, and the entire expense of decorating them, fell upon the Volunteers. My company was allowed by the city one gallon of oil per month for torches, signal lanterns, and ordinary lamps, and we had to provide extra oil, which was often needed. Yet I would rather have lost a dozen teeth than resign from my company, or be rendered incapable of doing duty with it."

EDWARD WOOD, president of the Bowery Savings Bank, enrolled in Engine Company No. 2 (which had been organized out of Hose Company No. 21) in 1846. She as then located in Henry Street, near Catharine Street. The company name was "Excelsior," as distinguished from "Chatham" No. 2, which had been disbanded a short while before the organization of the "Excelsior."

"I was born in the Fourth Ward," said Mr. Wood, facetiously adding, "and that is the reason perhaps that I never became an alderman, as would inevitably have been the case if I had been born elsewhere. When I served my full term I retired from the Department. Although I had two objects in view in joining the Department, namely, to avoid military and jury duty, I was, nevertheless, all in love with the fire business. I was fond of the excitement ands the fun. But I had no ambition to be other then a high private. I did not interest myself in the politics of the Department. I tried to attend strictly to my duty, and for the three years never had to pay a fine for absence from a night fire. But when the old Essex market bell cracked, upon which I used to depend for alarms, I got frequently mulcted. During my career John Barry, Asher C. Havens, John H. Macy, and George C. Baker were at different time foremen of No. 2."

WILLIAM B. HAYS, a popular member of Hose Company No. 24, has the honor of being the man who first discovered the great fire of 1835. "I was at that time, says Mr. Hays, "a member of the city watch, one of the old 'Leatherheads,' as they were called. I remember it was a bitter cold night, one of the coldest I ever remember to have experienced. As I was passing the corner of Exchange and Pearl Streets I smelled smoke, and summoned several other watchmen. We found that the building on the corner was on fire, and together we managed to force open the door. We found the whole interior of the building in flames from cellar to roof, and I can tell you we shut that door mighty quick. Almost immediately the flames broke through the roof, and in less than fifteen minutes I believe fully fifty buildings were blazing. It was the most awful night I ever saw."

Mr. Hays joined Hose No. 24 in 1843, and served with that company for seven years, the last three as foreman. Having finished his term of service, he was elected fire warden, and served six years. As a member of the Governor's guard, Mr. Hays did good service during the trying times of the abolition riots. Sprung from a sturdy New Jersey stock, his father having been a soldier in the war of 1812, while his grandfather carried a musket during the Revolution, he is still stalwart and hearty, at the age of seventy-five years. He is a member of the Association of Exempt Firemen.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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