Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 32, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

HUGH CURRY will long be remembered as one of the most enthusiastic firemen that ever lived. It is said of him that he was the only fireman who ever held on to his pipe till the nozzle was melted off. This, however, must be regarded as a pardonable big of exaggeration on the part of Mr. Curry's admirers, for he strenuously denies that he ever did anything of the kind. It is, nevertheless, incontestable that he was a skillful brave fireman. He joined Hose No. 35, lying in Mercer Street, between Bleecker and Amity, in 1847, and was subsequently a member of Hook and Ladder 14 and the Exempt Engine Company. He was an active member of the department at the disbandment, and is ready to do fire duty to-day. He is a member of the Exempt Firemen's association. His elder brother, Daniel, was a famous old-time foreman.

ALEXANDER MURRAY joined Engine Company No. 39 in the latter part of 1859. He served one year and then joined Hose Company No. 44. He continued in the service till the disbandment. He was foreman of Hose Company No. 44 from 1862 to 1863.

ANDREW ROGERS, of 40 Hose, made his first appearance as a fireman at the great conflagration of 1835, when, at the age of ten years, he attempted to run with Peterson engine No. 15, an exploit that earned him an acquaintance with the material slipper when he got home. After running with Hose No. 40 for several years he became a member September 21, 1849, and served as an active and honorary member until the disbandment of the Department. He was for a short time treasurer of the company. His brothers Joshua and William also belonged to the company. The latter was bellringer in the Spring Street tower. Mr. Rogers is a life member of the Exempt firemen's Association. He is employed in the Dime Savings Bank.

ABRAHAM MYERS joined 40 Hose on July 4, 1845, and successively served as secretary, representative, assistant foremen, and foreman. After serving out his time he retired for a year and then re-joined, and served for six years more. He was an honorary member of Hose No. 40 and Hose No. 19. Mr. Myers is one of the few firemen who achieved distinction who never ran a day as a "Volunteer." He is a member of the Exempt Firemen's Association.

JOHN W. TERHUNE joined Hose Company No. 40, then commanded by David Milliken, and lying in Barrow Street, between Hudson and Bedford, in 1850. After serving for twelve years he joined Hood and Ladder No. 14 in Charles Street, and served for two years. He was subsequently elected an honorary member of both companies. In 1862 he joined the Exempt Firemen's Association, of which he is now a life member.

CYRUS LORD, now seventy years old, was the youngest member of the Supply, and is one of the few survivors. He declares that he considers himself as much a fireman as anybody, and never tried to strengthen his position by running with a regular machine. The unwieldy contrivance in Centre Street was very useful, he says, and covered itself with glory when the old Brewery Theater burned.

SAMUEL G. SMITH, THEODORE S. SMITH, and ARNETT G. SMITH formed a family of firemen. They are, in the order named, grandfather, father, and son. The first was born in 1790, died July 4, 1866, was foreman of Engine Company No. 13 in 1820, having joined on July 5, 1816, served ten years, and was discharged on July 15, 1826. His son, Mr. Theodore S., was born in 1823, died June 19, 1867, joined No. 2 Hose on November 4, 1841, No. 21 Engine on July 13, 1847, and was afterwards an honorary member of No. 30 Engine from 1858 to 1865. Mr. Arnett G., son of the latter, joined No. 28 Engine in 1862, and served until the department was broken up, when he was secretary. He is now in business in Fulton Street, and has a very fine collection of "fronts" of the Old Department and many other interesting relics.

JOHN L. VAN WART, although seventy-five years old, is hale and rugged as many a younger man. He was born in the Ninth Ward, and learned the carpenter's trade. In August, 1832, he joined Union Engine No. 18, and served there two years. Then he tugged at the rope of Howard Engine No. 34 for eight years, when he signed the roll of guardian Engine No. 29. In this company he served until the disbandment of the Volunteer Department. He does not claim to e the senior survivor of the old regime, but believes that there are few of his comrades who served for thirty-three years with but one interruption--the strike of 1836. More than once Mr. Van Wart was offered an office, but he always declined, saying that he preferred to be a high private. From 1860 to 1865 he spent six hours a day in the bellringer's loft perch at Jefferson Market. Mr. Van Wart remembers answering fifteen alarms in one night. The little gooseneck engine was dragged downtown to work at the big fire in '35. She had already been to two minor fires, and the men wre tired when they ran to the aid of their comrades at the historic blaze. No. 34 was known as the Van Wart Company, and at one fire it was said that there was nobody at the rope except members of that family. John, his father, Isaac Van Wart, and his brothers Samuel and Lawrence were members. The Howard Insurance Company gave the boys a set of runners or this engine, which took the place of wheel in winter time. On one never-to-be forgotten night 34 was at the cistern at Bleecker and West Tenth Streets. There was a fire in West Eleventh Street. No. 48, which took 34's water, was soon washed. No. 16 took her place with no better luck and then No. 2, a new engine fresh from the painter's shop, tried her fortunes. On the back of this machine was a splendid picture of the unrivalled Forrest as Rolla. A yell of triumph went up from the Howard's in a few minutes, when they saw water trickling over the tragedian's features. "Who washed Rolla?" was for a long time the bitterest taunt that could be flung at No. 2. Mr. Van Wart says that during his long service there were not half a dozen important fires at which he was not present. He took part in all the large parades, including the one which celebrated the introduction of Croton water, and that in honor of the Prince of Wales.

THOMAS SULLIVAN, assistant engineer, was born in 1838. He joined Friendship hook and Ladder Company No. 12, April 7, 1858, after serving two years as private. He was elected assistant foreman, and served one year in that position. In 1861 he was elected foreman, and for three subsequent yearly elections the members of the company deemed a ballot unnecessary, and elected Mr. Sullivan by acclamation. In 1865 Mr. Sullivan's friends placed his name before the department as a candidate for assistant engineer. His merits were recognized, and he was triumphantly elected. This was the last election held by the Old Department, and Mr. Sullivan remained at his post until the new force was in working order.

In the winter of 1862 a fire occurred at a tenement house in Thirteenth Street, between Avenues A and B. A distillery occupied the lower floor. The inflammable nature of the stock caused the flames to spread rapidly, and, as usual, the stairs were burnt away, causing a dozen human beings to be left to the mercy of the devouring element. Fortunately Hook and Ladder Company No. 12 were promptly on hand, and arrived at a critical moment. Foreman Sullivan displayed his usual cool-headed judgment. The ladders were raised; a number of brave fellows, headed by Sullivan, mounted to the crazed occupants of the upper floors. They were all saved; the last one rescued was a woman on the top floor; she was desperately sick, and had to be tied in blankets, and tenderly lowered, round by round down the swaying ladder. As she reached the ground in safety the assembled throng gave vent to their feelings with rousing cheers for Foreman Sullivan and his gallant men.

When the Legislature passed the new fire bill creating "The metropolitan Fire Department," Philip W. Engs was appointed one of the Board of Fire Commissioners. One of his first official acts was the appointment of Thomas Sullivan as engineer, which position he held until May 20, 1873. A new act of the law-makers at albany was the cause of his being left out. On August 23, 1884, Fire Commissioner Henry D. Purdy reinstated Mr. Sullivan as foreman. He was placed in command of Hook and Ladder Company No. 11, stationed in Fifth Street, between Avenues C and D, where he is located to the satisfaction of his superior officers, and the safety of the public.

HENRY B. VENN, foreman of engine Company No. 14, a quite a prominent fireman. In 1851 he was defeated by Moses Jackson for the office of assistant engineer. Mr. Venn was a very active worker, and a devoted and enthusiastic fireman. No man was better known or had a larger circle of friends. He had been referred to already in several parts of this book, leaving but little more to be said. He died suddenly March 16, 1879. Mr. Venn, although not a very religious man in the strictest sense, at one period of his life, at least, interested himself in a religious assemblage held (1858) in the Academy of Music, Henry M. Graham and John J. Gorman also taking prominent part in the meetings. "Oh, for that Flame of Living Fire" was the title of one of the most popular hymns sung upon those occasions. His portrait will be found on page 167.

THOMAS RYAN, was well-know fireman, joined Mohawk Hose 39, may 10, 1859, resigned therefrom on the second of November of the same year, and joined Lexington Engine Company No. 7 on the same day. Mr. Ryan, whose portrait we print, has a most honorable record as a brave and active foremen of the Old Department. In common with a number of others of the Volunteer firemen, he cherishes old mementos and records of his company, a number of which Mr. Ryan has preserved with fostering care and an honest pride, because of the memories and associations they inspire, and of their historic value. Mr. Ryan pays as strict attention to his business as he ever did to the obligations appertaining to the duties of a fireman. Mr. Ryan joined the Masonic Order in 1865, and attained the Degree of Knight Templar. He is also a Knight Templar and a member of the Land League.

JOHN F. McGOVERN joined Mohawk Hose Company No. 39 on February 1, 1862, when he was twenty-one years old. An enthusiastic fireman, he made the company's house in Twenty-sixth Street, his home, and asked no better accommodation than the bunk-room offered. Though his term of service was short, it was eventful, including, as it did, the fearful days of the draft riots in the summer of 1863. Whoever remembers that awful time will not forget the gallantry of the firemen and the tests to which they were put. Hose 39 furnished her own quota of heroes, among them Mr. McGovern was one of the most conspicuous and most modest. To this ay he speaks of his exploit with reluctance, and only persistent questioning can draw the story from him. He can tell, if he will, of the days when his company did police as well as fire duty. When the lumber yards along the East River front were fired, the mob built a strong barricade of trucks, boxes, timber, stones, etc., across Fourteenth Street. But it needed a stronger barricade than this to keep back the Mohawk, and John McGovern was foremost as they grasped the ropes hard and dragged their carriage completely over the barricade.

Mr. McGovern's parents lived on the west side of Second Avenue, one door from Twenty-ninth street. In the rear of the row, between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth Streets was a courtyard upon which three frame houses opened. These houses were occupied by respectable colored people, who reached their homes by a narrow alley leading from the Twenty-eighth Street side. Back of the houses, on the north side of the court, was a small yard, separated by a high fence from the McGovern property. A gang of rioters entered the alley in the morning and set fire to the houses. Before the firemen could arrive the flames barred exit through the alley, and the negroes retreated tot he little yard already mentioned. Hotter and hotter grew the fire; nearer and nearer it came to the frightened group, who believed that they were staring a horrible death in the face. Strong, active men, unencumbered, might scale the fences, but for the old and feeble, and women with babes in their arms, and little ones clinging to their skirts, there seemed no hope of rescue. McGovern, with Dan Rooney and Joe Twombly, ran into the former's yard and heard, above the crackling of the fire, the vices on the other side of the fence. Some of the colored people called frantically for help--made "a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire." Others had lost hope, and meekly prayed that God would receive their spirits.

The voices steeled the arms of the firemen, who in a few moments had battered down the fence, and drawn the imperilled group into the McGovern yard. But they had now to face another enemy. Filling the streets, and pouring into areas and hallways, was the mob, a foe more cruel than the deaf and frantic fire. When they saw the black faces, the rioters ran toward them, howling like the wild beasts they were. Bravely the three firemen defended their charges. With their helmets like shields in their left hands, and their hydrant wrenches in their right, they struck out fiercely, knocking down every wretch who came too near. Rooney and Twombly managed o get all the negroes to a place of safety, except a mulatto child, four years old, named Reed, who clung to McGovern. Strong and brave as he was, the stalwart fireman could not fight the mob alone. He snatched the child in his arms and ran up the avenue, pursued by a yelling crown hurling sticks and stones at him. Near Thirtieth Street he ran into a brown stone house, and gained the backyard. The fences wre moderately high, and surrounded by a narrow ledge, upon which a cool-headed person might walk with safety for some distance. At an angle of the fence Mr. McGovern climbed, while the child clung to his neck. He heard the mob shouting as he walked cautiously along the ledge. Having passed three or four yards he dropped into one, and ran to a window, where he saw a woman's face. He explained the situation to her in a few words, and asked her to take temporary charge of the child. The woman consented, and Mr. McGovern rejoined his company. Early the next morning, he and Twombly borrowed a wagon of a German baker, named George Bauer. The disorder had partially subsided, and they had no trouble in reaching the house in which was David Reed. During the night the child had been restless. He had slept a little, then awoke weeping, and begging to be taken from the fire and the men in the street. Mr. McGovern wrapped a shawl about him and told him to be quiet, and he would see his mother. The child promised, and kept his word. He was put into a bread-box in the wagon, and a stick shoved under the corner of the lid for ventilation. Mr. McGovern drove to Police Headquarters, where he was told that several colored families had taken refuge. As he carried David to the top floor, he heard voices of prayer and lamentation. In a large room were many negroes. Mr. McGovern took the shawl from the boy and held him up.

"Whose child is this?"

There was a wild, half-savage scream of delight, as two women sprang forward. They were David Reed's mother and grandmother. With hysterical sobs and laughter they embraced the fireman's knees, kissed his hands and invoked on his behalf every blessing with which Heaven rewards those who risk their lives in defending the helpless. In a pamphlet written at the time, Rev. Stephen H. Tyng, Jr., mentions Mr. McGovern's gallantry. He called at the hose company's house to make the hero's acquaintance, and said he would be glad to serve Mr. McGovern at any time. When Henry Ward Beecher went to England during the war, he was quoted as saying that the instigators of the draft riots were mostly Irishmen. In answer to this a prominent Dublin journal spoke of the rescue of the Reed child, and suggested that there might be Irishmen on the side of law and order too, since McGovern was undoubtedly an Irish name. Mr. McGovern got an appointment as clerk in the Post-office, where his duties conflicted with those of a fireman. He resigned from the department December 5, 1864. Little David Reed never recovered from his awful experience, and died a short time later.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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