Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 30, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie

HENRY J. OCKERSHAUSEN, who died in 1882 at the age of sixty-six, was for twenty years vice-president of the Association of Exempt Firemen. He was foreman of Hose Company No. 1, and assistant engineer of the Department.

MOSES F. ODELL filled many important offices outside of the Fire Department. He joined Engine Company No. 15 in 1841. From 1861 to 1865 he was member of Congress from Brooklyn, was a member of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and in 1865 was appointed naval officer. He died June 14, 1866.

JOHN R. PLATT was a member of Engine Company No. 5, then of Hose Company No. 36, of Engine Company No. 28, and of Hose Company No. 29. He was foreman of the last three companies and finally president of the Department. He received a handsome testimonial from Hose 36. Mr. Platt often rolled out the engine alone, being the first to get to the house. He was considered the beau ideal of the firemen.

JAMES R. STEERS, a member of Live Oak Engine No. 44, was one of the most famous shipbuilders of his time. In 1851 he and his brother built the celebrated yacht "America: which was unfairly ruled out of the race for the Queen's Cup at the annual regatta of the London Royal Yacht Club, yet started with the others and beat them all.

JOHN CORNWELL was born in 1829, and at an early age was apprenticed to a gilder. Having learned this trade, Mr. Cornwell worked at it but a short time, and since his early manhood has been a contractor. On June 15, 1846, he joined Hook and Ladder Company No. 4, whose quarters were in Eldridge Street. Young Cornwell lived just opposite to the truck house. Many a time his sound, boyish slumber was broken by the clang of the Fulton Market bell, and the ringing "Turn out there!" of his comrades in the street below. Peter N. Cornwell, John's brother, was foreman of the company. At the end of his six years' service Mr. Cornwell rejoined the company as assistant foreman. This post he held until peter was called to the Board of Engineers, when the younger Cornwell succeeded him as foreman. As though his duties did not keep him busy enough, the young man joined the Insurance Patrol as a private in 1852, still retaining his connection with Truck No. 4. Four years later he became captain, subsequently succeeded Alfred W. Carson as superintendent of the patrol. This office was no sinecure during the war, when fires in warehouses of the kind called "free stores" were very frequent. The merchandise stored in these places was generally cotton and flour.

Mr. Cornwell often urged the necessity for horses to draw the patrol wagons, and for tow months supplied teams at his own expense. The consequence was that patrol made much better time than the firemen. When he became superintendent of the Patrol, his force consisted of seventy men and three wagons. Superintendent Cornwell was expected to be present at al fires below Sixty-first Street. His heart and soul were in his work, and his success in saving property at big fires won for him the high regard of the insurance men. In addition to actual work at fires, Mr. Cornwell had a vast amount of routine business. For instance, a patrolman is stationed for ten hours in a building where a fire has occurred. His pay for that service is two dollars and fifty cents. Mr. Cornwell had to divide this amount among the several insurance companies, make out a bill for each, collect the money and pay the patrolman. In 1870 Mr. Cornwell left the Insurance Patrol, and Monmouth B. Wilson succeeded him. He had between 1846 and 1870 worked at all the large fires in the city.

When Mr. Cornwell joined No. 4, there were no bunks for the men on house duty, and they asked no more luxurious couch then the carpeted floor of the meeting room. The original insurance patrolmen walked the streets at night, and worked at different trades in the daytime. Mr. Cornwell was captain when Chittidere's dry goods store, at Broadway and Leonard Street, was burned. A few minutes after the fire broke out the walls fell inward. The loss was estimated at one million dollars, and the insurance presidents looked glum. They asked Captain Cornwell if he would "work" the fire and save what he could. He modestly asserted, and surprised the men in broadcloth by saying that he would give twenty thousand dollars for the ruins himself.

"You are dreaming," said the insurance man.

"We shall see," replied Capt. Cornwell.

At that time gangs had been working in the ruins for three days, but had saved nothing. Capt, Cornwell got men and derricks, and in a few hours had dug down to the iron doors of several big vaults under the sidewalk. The vaults were filled with cases of calicoes, ginghams, etc., which did not even smell of fire. Eighty cases, containing stock worth one hundred thousand dollars, were exhumed in a little more than two weeks. Mr. Cornwell was a valuable man at a cotton fire, and was frequently sent to Brooklyn, Philadelphia and other large cities, where the local firemen ruined more cotton than they saved. At his own request, Mr. Cornwell's bailiwick was limited to New York, by a resolution of the Board of Underwriters.

Mr. Cornwell is now a busy contractor. He belongs to the Veteran Firemen's Association, and says that he will never lose his interest in the Department.

ROBERT McGINNIS is among the best known members of the old Department, and is noted for his suavity and uniform courtesy. He was always prominent in social affairs, and use to be deemed quite a ladies' man, and in fact was called "Gentleman Bob." His father, Hugh McGinnis, came from Londonderry, Ireland, to this city in 1799 in consequence of the rebellion in his native land of the preceding year. Here he married and began business, and about 1820 joined the Fire Department as a member of No. 11 Engine, serving for 14 years. His son Robert remembers that his father's company had its engine house in Old Slip. It was quite natural that the subject of this sketch was early imbued with an irresistible desire to run "wid der machine," and for some ten years he did do so before regularly joining, on May 5, 1846, Southwark Engine Company No. 38. His promotions followed each other with great rapidity, affording a proof of his popularity among his companions, for on April 19, 1850, a little less than four year from the date of his original membership, he was appointed as assistant engineer. While in this office he was elected a representative from No. 38, and by his fellows was elected a trustee of the Firemen's Fund. Of that board of trustees, which consisted of eight, but two members are alive to-day--Zophar Mills and Robert McGinnis. In July, 1857, Mr. McGinnis's health began to fail because of the exposure and hardships incident to the service, and at the urgent advice of his physicians he resigned as assistant engineer. A series of resolutions of the most complimentary character, expressing regret at his enforced action, were adopted by his associates July 10, 1857, and formally presented to him.

Mr. McGinnis was elected by the voters of the Nineteenth Ward, of which he had long been a resident, as a trustee of the Fire Department, in which capacity he served for four years. In 1963 he ran for alderman on the Mozart Hall ticket, against Terence Farley, the Tammany candidate, who was declared elected by a majority of 300. In 1865, in the same district (the Nineteenth Ward), he ran as the Mozart candidate against Charles Devlin, the well known contractor, who afterward became Tweed's bondsman for a large sum of money, and defeated him by a handsome majority. During his term in the board he introduced a resolution returning thanks to Congress for its appropriation of $500,000 to purchase a site for a Post-Office in New York City, which led to his being made chairman of the Committee on Post-Office Site, and subsequently through his instrumentality the southerly end of the City Hall Park was sold to the Federal Government for the present Post-Office building. The same committee selected the site of the present Barge-office. Upon the expiration of his term, Mayor Hoffman appointed his Inspector of Schools for the Seventh district (an unsalaried office), and after three years' service he was reappointed by Mayor Hall, December 20, 1871. He is at present, and had been for a number of years, a well known resident of Harlem, and largely interested in building operations.

FREDERICK E. GILBERT, the well-known capitalist and philanthropist, was a distinguished fireman. He was born in Newport, R. I., of wealthy parents in October 11, 1810, and graduated from Columbia College in 1830. For many years Mr. Gilbert ws a director of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, of the Academy of Music, and of several prominent banks, and was also interested in the management of many charitable institutions. For twelve years Mr. Gilbert was president of the New York Club. He was for years foreman of Engine Company No. 4, and served as fire warden of the Third Ward. His services in the Department were characterized by intrepidity and unswerving devotion to duty.

On the occasion of the famous duel between August Belmont and William Hayward, of South Carolina, in 1841, Mr. Gilbert acted as second to Mr. Hayward. His subsequent relations, however, with Mr. Belmont were of the most friendly character. In May, 1882, Mr. Gilbert succumbed to an attach of pneumonia at his residence, No. 298 fifth Avenue.

ADAM P. PENTZ, for five years President of the Volunteer Fire Department, comes of a famous fire fighting family. His father was a member of the Floating Engine Company during the last years of the Revolutionary War, was subsequently a member of Supply Engine and foreman of Engine Company 11, was one of the original representatives of the Department at its organization in 1798, one of the incorporators of the Benevolent Fund, and one of the founders of the old Mariners' church in Roosevelt Street. His service in the Department covered a period of over twenty years.

Mr. A. P. Pentz was born in New York in the for his son tidings arrived of Perry's glorious victory on Lake Erie, and the father instantly determined that the boy should bear the name of the immortal commodore.

Mr. Pentz's first service was done with Hydrant Company No. 1, in which he was enrolled in 1836. Soon afterward he was chosen representative and was successively elected foreman of the Board of Fire Wardens of the Fourth Ward, treasurer of the Department Fund for four years, president of the Department for five years and secretary of the Firemen's Ball Committee. As trustee of the Benevolent Fund he served three successive terms of three years.

Other members of Mr. Pentz's family who rendered distinguished service as foremen were his uncle, Frederick Pentz, representative of Engine Company No. 11; his brother, Alderman David C. P. Pentz, of Engine 42, and George W. Pentz, of Engine 17; his nephews, Enoch C. P. Pentz and John H. Pentz, of Southwark Engine No. 38, and his cousins, William A. F. Pentz, General Frederick Pentz and John Pentz, respectively, of Hook and ladder No. 1, Hydrant Company No. 1, and Hook and Ladder no. 2.

Mr. Pentz was at one time a member of the Board of Education. In 1845 he was appointed by President James K. Polk naval storekeeper at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a post which he held during the war with Mexico, and from which he retired with great credit to himself and with the regret of all the officials and employees of the Yard.

For many years he was a member of the well-known house of Goin, Poole & Pentz, in Burling Slip. Mr. Pentz's reminiscences of fire matters in the good old times would fill a respectable volume. One of his earliest recollections as a boy is of seeing Molly, a slave of John Aymar, who was quite a character in her day, helping the firemen to drag old 11 Engine through a snowdrift in William Street in the winter of 1818. It ws Molly's boast that she belonged to "Ole 'Leben," and always ran with it. On one occasion Mr. Pentz ran with the old East River Engine No. 42, from Roosevelt Street to the Robin Hood Tavern, three miles up Third Avenue.

During the famous "June Bug" excitement Mr. Pentz helped to exclude the representatives of the bogus companies from the hall in which the regular representatives were in session. During the "Great Fire" of 1835 the warehouse of Pentz and Co., was blown up by order of General Swift to check the spread of he conflagration.

As in instance of the difficulties that old-time firemen has to contend with Mr. Pentz recalls the fact that at a fire in Hester Street water had to be pumped from the East river--a distance of over one mile.

EDWARD BYRNES, brother of Detective inspector Thomas Byrnes, was a fireman in the true and heroic sense. In the year 1859, at a fire in Canal Street, he saved the life of a little girl, who was almost suffocated in the attic. After removing her from her perilous position, he bought new clothes for her and took her to a ball of the company that was held shortly after the fire, at City Assembly rooms, where she was made the heroine of the occasion. Mr. Byrnes, in 1861, organized Company A of the Ellsworth Zouaves, and went to war. He was a good fireman and a gallant soldier.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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