Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 43, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

"My earliest recollections of the department carry me back to the time when the bright calmness of a Sabbath morning was interrupted by the shrill sound of the old Bridewell bell, and the thickening smoke which gathered over the city, blocking the origin of that destructive conflagration which, in a few short hours, laid waste upwards of one hundred buildings in Chatham Street and vicinity, causing a vast amount of suffering among the poorer classes of our population, who at that time occupied that section of the city. Upon that occasion many of our valiant firemen, under the oppressive heat of the weather and continued exertion and exposure during the entire day and part of the succeeding night, became utterly exhausted, and were carried to their homes by their more fortunate companions, and some of the laid the foundation for a premature and early grave. It is true that at that time I was but a child, but it is impressed upon my memory by the fact that my venerated parent was among the number of those who, in the hour of their enthusiasm, forgot everything connected with personal safety in the faithful discharge of an arduous duty, and who, in an effort to pass through one of the narrow streets, the buildings on either side of which were then on fire, fell exhausted in the attempt and must inevitably have perished had not some kind and faithful friends rescued him from impending death by conveying him safely from the scene of danger and laying him upon h is ouch at home. In looking back upon the past, fond memory recalls to mind the names of some of those who, having occupied prominent positions on the front ranks of the department, and performed well their parts, have been gathered to their father, where no bell disturbs their sleeping and no alarm breaks upon the stillness of their graves; some have passed away by the gradual decay of nature in a good old age, some have prematurely ripened for an early tomb, and some have fallen victims at the post of danger.

"We can sigh over the mouldering remains of a Brown, a Franklin, a Strong, a Hobbs, and a Cox, and drop a tear or two over the too early graces of a Ryker, a Hoffmire, and a Williams. We can refer to the sad calamity which caused the death of Peterson, whose banner, dedicated to the memory of departed worth, yet hold a prominent position in every parade of the department; to the period of 1827, when a Raynor and a Joseph fell; to the fires of 1832 and 1834, which resulted in the sudden deaths of Garrison, Brown, Hedges, and Knapp; to the sad disaster when an Underhill and a Ward were buried beneath the ruins of the Pearl Street fire; to 1835, 1836, and 1837, when Ritchie, Horton and Bucklow were numbered among the victims of those years; to the excitement of 1840, when Wells and Glasgow sacrificed their lives; to 1845 when Cowdrey died; to 1848, when the deaths of the lamented Kerr, Farges, and Durant cast a solemn gloom over our city, as in the one sad procession we followed two of them to the tomb; to the times when Evans and Trenchard swelled the number of victims at the shrine of duty; and I might lift mangled remains of those who were so recently sacrificed at the falling of the Broadway building, but I will not open afresh the yet bleeding wounds of the survivors, who will never cease to remember the agony of that dreadful night, and who should hold to strict accountability the authors of their calamity. The names and the memory of those who have just fallen while in the service of the department are perpetuated upon the marble monument which stand as a conspicuous object upon the heights of Greenwood. Among the many interesting incidents connected with the early history of this department, the mind dwells with peculiar pleasure upon one which those who were witnesses of the scene will never cease to remember--I refer to the visit of the venerable and beloved Lafayette, who frequently recounted as among the gratifying circumstances of that visit his review and examination of the firemen and apparatus, and I well remember as he walked with slow and measured step along the line, leaning upon the arm of our chief, and receiving the cheers of those who are arranged around the park in anticipation of his approach. The tear of affection kindled in his eyes as he grasped the hands of those who stood in advance of their respective companies, and bade him welcome to our shores. When the review was ended, and the gallant general retired from the ranks, the cheers of the united multitude made the welkin ring, while streams from every engine presented a hydraulic display worthy of the occasion and the man. Carry your thoughts back, my friend, but a few short years and visit the field in which this department has been called upon to operate in contending with some of the most disastrous fires recorded in the annals of our history. Among the temples dedicated to our holy religion which have been swept away by the devouring element even within our own time, you may remember the fall of the Beekman Street Church, the burning spire of Wall Street, Zion's Church in Mott Street, the South Dutch Church in the memorable fire of 1835, the French in Franklin, the synagogue in Canal, the Baptist in Oliver, Christ Church in Anthony, the Methodist in John Street, Thomas in Broadway, and recently the Central Presbyterian in Broome Street. Among the favorite and popular places of amusement, too, the fires within our recollection have been disastrous. Most of us can remember the destruction of the Mount Pitt Circus, the Laurens Street Theater, the Bowery upon several occasions, the Park, twice Niblo's, the most new and splendid opera house on the corner of Church and Leonard Streets, and though last, not least, the favorite temple within whose walls astonished thousands have so often listened to the sweet warbling of the Northern Nightingales. Besides these, and many others which may have escaped my recollection, almost innumerable have been the fires against which the department have had to contend, and how well and effectively they have performed their duty the universal applause of an appreciating and grateful people most abundantly testifies.

It is true that instances in which the help of man seemed almost powerless for a time to arrest the progress of destruction and to stay the fury of the devouring element, but they have generally been owing to a combination of peculiar circumstances over which the firemen had no control, and for which they could not be held responsible; for its not too much to say that there is no class of fellow citizen to which we are more largely indebted for the preservation of our firesides and our homes than to these most valuable of men who this day celebrate the laying of the corner-stone of a building to be devoted to the services of the Fire Department of our city. Previous to the introduction of Croton water, in 1842, our only resource was to the very inadequate supply of the fire-plugs, which were scattered throughout the densely populated portions of the city., and connected with the old Manhattan Works in chambers Street, d subsequently with the reservoir in Thirteenth Street; the comparatively small cisterns in front of many of the public buildings; the old supply engine upon that part of the grounds now occupied by the Tombs; the float at the foot of Roosevelt Street, and our two noble rivers. In those days no district bell announced the location of the fires, and no boundaries short of the entire island marked the calls of duty; but when the alarm was sounded the whole department was aroused. And from one extreme of the city to the other, from the Battery to Harlem, and from the North to the East Rivers, they were required, promptly, to respond, frequently running many a weary mile, and exhausted long before arriving at the cause of alarm, for then no index but the pointing from the City Hall and the cupolas of the few remotely scattered watchhouses guided their nightly wanderings, and during the day they were obliged to rely upon the best information which could be obtained, oftentimes very contradictory and uncertain. Then, as was not infrequently the case, it required nearly one-half of the strength of the Department to force a single stream upon the fire, and now I recollect one instance in which water was conveyed, through a lone of about fifty engines, from the East river tot he vicinity of the Bowery, calling into requisition the services of nearly one thousand men, and requiring an immense amount of labor to stay the progress of destruction. It was in times like these, and during the intense cold of a December night, that the destructive fire at Crane's Wharf, the present site of Fulton Market, swept with fury the buildings in that neighborhood; and many of you may remember that the large and valuable stock of good old Bloodgood's wines furnished fuel for the flames. The burning of the cotton stores on South Street was also in the midst of winter, requiring nearly thirty-six hours' labor of the firemen before the entire department was dismissed. The ropewalk fire, in the far suburbs of the city, broke out during the meridian sun of a summer's Sabbath day, and many who started at the alarm fell exhausted ere they reached the scene. The chemical works in Broadway, then far beyond the limits of our thickly populated streets, the Exchange Buildings on William Street, and many others which might be referred to, will call to your minds an association of ideas which neither time nor the occasion will permit me to dwell or enlarge upon; but they will tend to show the impediments under which the firemen labored before the organization of the present system. The more recent conflagrations of 1835 and 1845, the burning of the Harper's mammoth establishment, and the sad destruction of the 'Joseph Walker' and the 'Great Republic,' and the yet more awful tragedy at Jennings', are of such comparatively recent occurrence that I need only refer to them to recall vividly to your minds the circumstances connected with the disaster. But it is not only in the hour of danger that the department is the subject of comment and admiration, for in all the prominent civic proceedings for which this city is justly celebrated, it has always formed a prominent and important part, and is relied upon by the municipal authorities to swell the pageant and increase the enthusiasm upon such occasion. Among the many thousands who participated in 1825 in the celebration of the completion of the Erie Canal, no class of our fellow citizens entered more ardently into the popular feeling consequent upon the complete success of that mighty work, which mingled the waters of the ocean with the lakes, and none contributed more to give an eclat to the occasion than the firemen of our city. When in 1842 the waters of the Croton were introduced into our metropolis, all classes of its population participated in the celebration of an event so intimately connected with the prosperity of our city; but to none did it present more pleasing anticipations than to those who had so often realized their entire dependence upon a full and permanent supply in the prompt and efficient discharge of their hazardous and important duties. It was, therefore, justly expected that, upon such an occasion, not only the strength, but the beauty of the department, would occupy a prominent position in the line of the procession, and such expectations were more than realized, for the mounted engines, handsomely decorated, drawn by horses richly caparisoned--the numerous appropriate banners belonging to the various companies, including the one which had been presented them for the occasion, the bands of music dispersed throughout the line, but above all the general appearance and perfect order of the men, presented a display which was the admiration of strangers and the justly boasted comments of our citizens.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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