Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 46, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



George Washington An Active fireman. -- His Great Interest in Fire Matters. -- The Growth and Progress of the City. -- Some Quaint Fire Ordinances. -- Fires and Fire Bugs. -- Life Saving Firemen. -- Gallant and Devoted. -- Brave men: Honest men. -- WE May Not Look Upon Their Like Again.

If we have carried he reader along with us thus far he will have noted that our assertion at the beginning--that the history of the Volunteer Fire Department meant the history of the rise and progress of New York--has been borne out by the facts we have presented. We have brought to light, among other important things, one interesting fast that had been forgotten or not generally known--the fact that the Father of his County had enrolled himself as a Volunteer fireman. George Washington, who was as zealous in the discharge of his duty as a private citizen as he was eminent and efficient in public life, became an active fireman in the Alexandria, Virginia, about the year 1870. He was then about eighteen years of age, and resided with his brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon, several miles from the town, which he visited, "on horseback as often as ten times a week."

As a young man he took and active part in all the affairs of the growing place until it became an important colonial city. Besides his firmness of character, his love of active pursuits, his passion for horsemanship and all manly sports made him a natural leader among the young men of the town. It is related tht he was always one of the foremost to assist inputting out fires, riding even from Mount Vernon to be present at one. As Alexandria increased in size, the principal citizens began to organize for protection against fire, and the own record shows that they each agreed, out of "mutual friendship," to carry to every fire "two leathern buckets and one great bag of oznaburg or wider linen." This was the primitive colonial mode of extinguishing flames.

The watchmen were also enrolled as firemen, and sounded an alarm by sending forth a blast from a huge trumpet which they wore slung about their shoulders. Instead of billies they carried quaint-looking weapons called spontoons, something between a spear and a halberd. These antique weapons were left behind in store at Alexandria by General Braddock's troops in 1755, when they marched on their disastrous expedition to the West. The spontoons were appropriated by the municipal authorities, and, strange to say, were still in use by the watchmen when the provost guard of a Michigan regiment in the summer of 1861 relieved these obsolete guardians from further duty.

The Friendship Fire Company of Alexandria, which still survives, was organized in 1774. At that time Washington was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, but the members of the new company evidently remembered his former services as fireman, for at one of their first meeting they unanimously elected him as honorary member, and forwarded him a copy of the minutes. To show his appreciation of the compliment , he at once made a thorough inspection of the different kind of fire engines in use in Philadelphia, and upon his second return there, in 1775, he bought from one Gibbs a small fourth-class engine for eighty pounds and ten shillings, and just before he set out for Boston to become Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, he sent this little engine as a present to the Friendship Fire Company.

The great Chieftain did not lose his interest in fire matters through his elevation to position and power. Upon his retirement to Mount Vernon, after his second term as president, and when his fame spread round the world, he continued to take an active interest in the municipal affairs of Alexandria. It is related that in the last year of his life he was one day riding down King Street, when a fire broke out near the market. He was accompanied by his servant, also on horseback, and noticed that Friendship Company engine was poorly manned, though a crowd of well-dressed idlers stood about. Riding up to the crowd he employed very vigorous language in rebuking their indifference at such a time. He ended by calling out, "It is your business to lead in these matters," and throwing the bridle of his horse to his servant, he leaped off and seized the brakes, followed by a crowd that gave the engine such a "shaking up," as it never knew afterwards.

Washington voted for the last time, in Alexandria, in 1799, a few weeks previous to his death, which occurred just before the dawn of the nineteenth century.

How the Old volunteers of new, York would have enjoyed the spectacle! The great General pulling on a rope! The survivors must feel a greater pride in their profession, knowing that Washington had been one of their number.

The rapid rise of New York is unprecedented in history. Nearly two centuries and a half ago the island was a wilderness north of the Battery. In 1651, Indians, in canoes, paddled about the waters of the Hudson and the East River. About twenty years before, the whole island had been purchased from the Manhattans for the sum of twenty-four dollars. Think of it, ye rich New Yorkers of to-day, who willingly pay thousands of dollars for a few yards of this same land! Two hundred and fifty years back a fire alarmed the colonists, and because it destroyed much of their property, set them thinking about finding ways and means to prevent such occurrences. Wooden chimneys and thatched roofs were often the cause of fires, and in 1648 there was no lack of water for the extinguishment, for all the buildings comprising the city were confined to the neighborhood of the Battery. Proper appliances alone were needed to use the water for putting out the many fires that occurred. Some time elapsed before even the rudest machinery was obtainable for the primitive Fire Department. Naturally buckets were the first things thought of, and, as we have seen, had very little effect upon a fire.

But as New York extended, the water supply diminished, or, in other words, was inadequate to meet the needs of the people. This was one of the most puzzling problems the inhabitants had to deal with. We have laid before the reader the schemes of individuals and corporations to remedy the evil. No sooner had a system been elaborated and adopted, than the still further growth of the city, in a few years, rendered the new system obsolete. Then another plan had to be devised to satisfy the firemen and the citizens, and when matured, became, like the preceding, in a short time, antiquated and inadequate. This struggle with a difficult question has continued right up to our own day. At last a gigantic project has been undertaken, and when accomplished, will, it is thought, solve the difficulty. The new aqueduct, as it is described in this book from official sources, will, to all appearances, satisfy the mind of the investigator that, at last, the city is furnished with a water supply that will prove ample for all purposes for many and many a year to come. But, if we bear in mind the lessons of the past, we may argue, from what we find in them, that our children will be looking upon the new aqueduct as an old system, unable to furnish the still greater New York with all that it wants for the Fire Department and other purposes. We have seen how New Yorkers have, at various times, prided themselves upon their splendid wells, have rejoiced over the opening of the Erie Canal, celebrated the introduction of the first stream of the crystal Croton, and view, with immense satisfaction, the construction of the new aqueduct. Mayhap, some other grand water scheme will, ere the lapse of another half century, occupy the attention of the citizens, and give occasion for another display to honor the event. Who knows? The growth of New York is held to be almost illimitable.

The rise of our city is one of the astonishing fact that strikes the mind of the inquiring foreigner. Nay, there are hundred and hundreds of old firemen still living, who, though natives, are no less impressed by what they have seen and contemplate. We have men still with us who have known Chambers Street to be the northern limit of the city--men who have wandered among the fields and meadows which are now the centers of the busiest neighborhoods in the world. These veterans are, to the younger generations, objects of veneration. These "old boys" are living links between the generation that tumbled buckets of water into what were little better than tubs worked by cranks, and the generation that mans the finest fire machines tht modern science can devise. Let the reader turn to the illustrations we have given of those quaint boxes worked by firemen in pig tails, and then take a glance at the magnificent engines of to-day, manned by athletic fellows in neat fitting and appropriate costumes, and he will first be amazed, and then smile, at the thought of those bygone appliances could ever be of the slightest use. We have grown visibly.

Step by step the Volunteer Department became a great institution. Year by year it advanced in public estimation. Its every act was noted and placed on record. As an illustration, in addition to what has already been said on the subject, we give a few quaint extracts form the aldermanic proceedings:

At a meeting of the Common Council held Friday, October 23, 1789, "It being represented to the board of alderman that the law of this corporation to prevent the danger of fire is inadequate, especially with respect to the danger arising from the use of iron stoves in joiners' workshops and other places, be it ordered that the recorder be requested to revise the law in the matter of fires, and to prepare a law with such further provisions as he may deem necessary."

At a meeting of the Common Council held Wednesday, December 5, 1787, a petition of Archibald Kesler was presented on behalf of himself and several of his neighbors in Cherry Street, setting forth that they had purchased a fire engine, which they were willing to appropriate to the use of the public, and to erect a house and purchase a piece of ground for its reception, and they "pray the board to take charge of and to work the same." It was ordered that the engineer return the names of ten proper persons to be appointed to said engine.

At a meeting of the Common Council held Friday, November 13, 1789, a petition of the foremen of several of the small fire engines, praying that the number of men to each of said engines may be ten, as formerly, was read and referred to Alderman Stoutenburgh and Messrs. Elsworth and Curtinius, and on reading a petition of the company belonging to Engine No. 13, in favor of Nicholas Brevoort being appointed to their company, it is resolved "that the resolution of this board of August 12, that no person under the age of thirty years be appointed to the office of a fireman of this city, be repealed."

On reading a representation of the company of Engine No. 5 by Frederick Echert, their foreman, that Francis Arden and George Peck, members of that company, "had neglected their duty as firemen, and hoping that this board would order their names to be struck off the list of firemen," it was ordered "that said Francis Arden and George peck attend this board at the next meeting to show cause why the request of said company should not be complied with, and that Mr. Echert also attend to support the accusation." The firemen in those days were very particular as to their companions.

The first Fire Department numbered fifty members. In 1865 it had swelled to about four hundred. Year by year its members grew to keep pace with the requirements of the city. When the British took possession of "New Netherlands," the fire question was agitated. The fire wardens demanded more implements. Ordinances were passed compelling every citizen to furnish one bucket or more. Long after the introduction of fire engines, buckets were in general use. Towards the close of the seventeenth century a night watch was instituted to guard against fires, and a strict supervision of hearths and chimneys was maintained. Then bells were brought into use for the purpose of giving the alarm, and finally watch-towers were erected. When Newsham's engines were brought form London in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the whole town heaved a sigh of relief--now it had really something scientific and effective to protect property from the ravages of fire, so it thought. Now were formed the first fire companies, and now began the fireman's manifestation of his love for the machine--a love which became so conspicuous in after years.

Very soon the Board of Aldermen began to take an active interest in fire matters, as the following facts will show: At a meeting of the Common Council, January 12, 1801, a petition of Thomas Howell, praying for the reasons mentioned therein, that the board would grant him an additional sum of money towards indemnifying him for his loss on the importation of the few fire engine for Company No. 24 from London, and lately sold to the board, was read, and it was determined that no further sum ought to be granted. He had been allowed five hundred and fifty dollars for the engine, which appears a high price for the old-fashioned engine of those days. It was ordered that "Matthew West, fireman, heretofore belonging to engine No. 23, be removed to do duty with Company 1, and that Abm. Moore, Sixth Ward, carpenter, David Secor, Sixth Ward, carpenter, be appointed additional firemen to the same company, and that the following persons be also appointed firemen, viz.:

Name Ward Position
John Westervelt Fifth Ward sailmaker
Henry Brevoort Sixth Ward coach painter
John Leacraft Sixth Ward cordwainer
Joseph Ogden  Sixth Ward Cordwainer, to Engine No. 8
Isaac Parker Seventh Ward shipwright, vice
Thomas Drahadee - to No. 22
George Burras First Ward shoemaker, to No. 3, vice
 Thomas Gosman - resigned

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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