Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 46, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

A petition of the firemen for the appointment of a person as chief engineer "in the place of the person now exercising that office," was read and referred to the alderman of the Sixth Ward, and the assistant of the Second and Fourth Wards, to inquire into the facts state in the said petition. At a meeting of the Common Council, may 23, 1803, a resolution was passed that "Alderman Barker, Morris and Stevens be a committee to confer with the engineers and firemen of the respective engines in this city respecting the best mode of keeping the fire engines in good repaid from time to time as the same may be required, and also to confer with them and the fire wardens jointly, whether some more effectual means cannot with propriety be adopted than the present rules and order for the government of the Fire Department, and the compulsion of the citizens to assist on such occasions., under proper penalties for neglect or refusal when thereunto required, and the same committee be directed to report with all convenient speed."

A report to the inspector and a letter to DR. Browne on relation to a big fire in 1804, recommending measures proper for the prevention and extinguishment of fires, was received in Common Council on December 24, De Witt Clinton, Mayor, being present. It was ordered "that such part of the said papers as relates to future improvements in the Fire Department be referred to alderman Van Zandt, King, Mr. Bloodgood, Mr. Mott, and Mr. Hopkins. Ordered that the mayor be authorized and requested to issue a proclamation in behalf of this board, and to offer a reward of five hundred dollars for the discovery of any conspiracy to set fire to the city, and a like reward for the discovery of any person who may have willfully perpetrated the fire on December 18, and also a like reward for the discovery of any person who may have set fire to buildings since that period, and that such reward be paid on the conviction of the offender or offenders respectively." It was likewise ordered "that all officers be vigilant and attentive, as well in the detection of offenders as in preventing the execution of their designs, and that all persons be requested to communicate such information which they may possess in relation to the origin of the late fire, or in regard to future attempts, at the inspector's office. Ordered that the augmentation of the city watch directed by the mayor be continued until the further order of the board, and that the captain of watch of the First District be directed to be particularly attentive to the neighborhood of Burling Slip,"

The corporation of the Presbyterian Church, having requested in the latter part of 1805 that the engine house standing on their ground in Nassau Street may be removed, it is ordered that the engine house in the City Hall yard be extended so as to admit the deposit of the engine of the said ground belonging to the Presbyterian Church."

In Common Council, march 23, 1807, the chief engineer represented the necessity of moving Engine No. 29 from the house of that number, standing on ground heretofore allotted to that purpose, "but now rented to Mr. Francis DeFlyn, who wishes for the removal of said building." It was ordered "that the alderman and assistant of the Eighth Ward do provide some proper place for Engine No. 29." The following were appointed to firemen: George Griffin to Engine No. 14; Sewell Dodge to Engine No. 8; Ely Emmons to Engine No. 11; John Shaden to Engine No. 32; John h. Fisher to Engine No. 30.

The early engines were located in structures little better than sheds. Bye-and-bye, the corporation voted sums of money to provide better accommodation, and it was not long before very respectable houses were provided. It was not till about the period of 1840 that regular dwellings were provided for the men who lived at a distance from their engine. At first the expense was borne by the men themselves. The "bunking" system enabled the firemen to have a watch all night, and the consequence was that a quicker service was obtained.

Never at any time was there the slightest intimation of a desire for a remuneration. The men gloried in working for nothing. "The Voluntary system" wrote ex-Judge Charles P. Daly, "was upon its introduction a most desirable one, and continued to be so fore more than three-quarters of a century. For alacrity, intrepidity, skill, and courage, the men who composed it would compare with any body of firemen in the world. At its institution, and for many years, it consisted almost exclusively of the most influential and prominent citizens, who discharged their arduous labors at a great sacrifice of time, and frequently of health, from a high sense of public duty, and the example they set infused into the whole community a zeal and willingness to lend their aid and assistance upon the breaking out of a fire almost without precedent in the history of cities. The effect upon the rising generation was especially marked, and the young were made to feel that to be a fireman was an honorable distinction."

The old engines moved with difficulty, and were cumbrous and rude in construction. They, however, gave place to the better machines, and the service improved as the demand upon it grew. The dangers of the work were obvious, and a courage and daring which has gone into history began to leave behind it men who were maimed and crippled in the public service, and widows and orphans deprived of their natural protectors and reduced to poverty and want. The firemen themselves were the first to see the growing difficulty, and with characteristic unselfishness sought to provide a remedy.

It took the firemen a long time to find out that their beloved hand engine was not the most perfect machine possible. Really they had done excellent service with it, and no wonder it was hard to wean them from their darling. Steam fire engines were introduced in London in 1832 with a marked increase in efficiency and economy; but it was nearly thirty years afterwards before they were introduced in New York. The influence of the firemen on public officials postponed the adoption of the steam engine long after its practicability had been established. In like manner horse had long been used in London to transport the engines and other fire apparatus more expeditiously. This, too, was regarded as an innovation by the volunteer firemen of this city, who had a strong preference for dragging the engines themselves by hand. But steam and electricity, twin giants, could not long be put down by such puny efforts. They had taken a front place in the van of civilized life, and were soon to revolutionize the world. The Fire Department, it is true, were slow to appreciate these potent facts. Many held that New York was by far more progressive than the Fire Department. It had grown, and was growing apace, while the firemen, seemingly unconscious of this self-evident fact, had stuck to the old time methods of fire extinguishing in vogue when the city was comparatively a village. "When the city," says ex-Judge Daly, "was embraced within moderate limits, the occasional duty of acting as a fireman was not a very onerous one, but when the city had expanded miles in extent it exacted an amount of time which few were able to give who had their business to attend to, and consequently this class was gradually withdrawn from the department, which was filled by those who could give mote time to it. The increasing extension of the city demanded, moreover, a constant augmentation of the force of the department, and as it increased in numbers it degenerated in quality."

A newspaper writer, with a spice of humor, once began his account of the old firemen with the remark: "We don't mean those redoubtable old chaps who had inserted in the by-laws of their company a clause to the effect that it was legitimate for a member, upon arriving at the engine house, after hearing an alarm of fire, to grease his boots at the expense of the corporation before he rolled the machine, or endeavor to catch her if she had rolled." Bu those "old chaps" nevertheless, were brave as lions. We have given many an instance of the bravery of the Volunteer firemen. Saving lives at fires was characteristic of them, and it is to be regretted tht more records of their daring acts have not been preserved. Many gallant deeds in the cause of humanity have been forgotten, for no note was made of them at the time. The activity of the firemen in this respect, considering the facilities they possessed as compared to those of to-day, was remarkable. The assistance they rendered operatives and inmates of burning buildings, and the desperate chances they often took to save lives, seem to belong more to the days of knights-errantry than to an era of dollars and cents. In July, 1855, the Tribune has the following:

GALLANT CONDUCT.--About twelve o'clock on Wednesday night, the fourth instant, a fire broke out in the building, No. 138 Prince Street, occupied by J. C. Stone on the first floor as a store for the sale of fancy articles and fireworks and dwelling, upper part as a dwelling by Jas. Nagle and family and Mr. Beebe and family. The fire originated among a quantity of fireworks, and in a short time the building was densely filled with smoke. The flames spread rapidly, and for some time defied the efforts of the firemen, who were promptly on the ground after the alarm was given. A large crowd gathered in the street, among whom the greatest excitement prevailed. The occupants of the building had not yet made their appearance, and it was not known whether or not they had escaped, although it was rumored that they were still in the building. A ladder was soon brought and placed against the second story window, when Thomas O'Brien, Charles Wilson, Levi D. White, of Hose Company No. 56, and Gardner Van Brunt, of Engine Company No. 2, four daring souls, made their way through fire and smoke into the second story. Crawling upon their hands and knees over the floor, they at length found the beds in the different apartments, all of which were occupied. They sought to arouse the occupants, but they were unable to do so, as nearly all of them were about half suffocated and unable to help themselves. No time was to be lost, as the smoke was becoming denser and denser every moment. The gallant fellows seized Mr. Beebe and his wife, and carrying them to the windows, passed them down the ladders to the street. They then returned and brought three young women, Margaret Nagle, Ellen Nagle, and Mary Ann Shannon, a niece of Mr. Nagle, also two sons of Mr. Nagle. Margaret, half crazed by the smoke, leaped from the firemen's arms through the window and fell heavily upon the sidewalk, injuring her back and ankles. Mary Ann was badly burned upon the head and shoulders. Ellen Nagle, while being lowered to the street, had her ankle sprained, and was somewhat burned. Mr. Nagle and his wife were almost gone, and it was only by the kindest attention that they recovered. The sons were also somewhat injured. The parties were conveyed to the Eighth Ward Station House, where they were attended by several physicians. Mr. Stone and his wife escaped by the rear door, first floor. Mrs. Stone, on reaching the door, missed her child, and returned through the smoke to her room, where, recovering her child, she succeeded in escaping without injury."

Indeed, the words courage and fireman were synonomous. The bravery and devotion of the Department amply compensated, in the opinion of the public, for whatever shortcomings it had. The companies had quarrels, to be sure; but they were quarrels arising from a noble rivalry to be the first at a fire or a rescue. In later years the Department was an immense organization. What wonder that evil-disposed persons--big and little--took advantage of it, either to discredit or use it for their own purposes. It was seen that a new era was dawning--that the city wanted a simpler, more effective, and more compact organization. New York was immensely rich. It could afford to pay for this arduous service, and it was resolved to do so. Good citizens generally wished well to the prospect of disbanding the Volunteers and establishing the paid Department. The politicians began to use the Department for their ends, and the people and even the press were afraid to denounce them. The disagreeable duty of abolishing the Volunteers was therefore undertaken by the Board of Fire Underwriters.

The work of disbanding went on slowly at first. The new regime was not yet organized, but the transfer of authority was effected with very little friction, all things considered. The disbanded volunteers, by their dignity and forbearance, and their adherence to duty during the last trying hours of their organization, sustained this historic and well-earned reputation as brave men and devoted citizens. The New York Herald, editorially (April 3, 1865), said:

"The conduct of the firemen under the present circumstances--which must be regarded as a great crisis in the history of their organization--is worthy of all admiration. There were many who supposed that upon the passage of the bill abolishing the Volunteer Department, there would have been resistance, and perhaps, riotous conduct, on the part of the firemen. So far from that, they have exhibited the finest spirit, submitting cheerfully to the change, and consenting to fulfill their duties to the last in the protection of property and life. Their action proves, what we have always believed to be true, that the Fire Department proper was composed of a gallant, fearless, and honorable body of our citizens. The course which the members of the Department are now pursuing entitles them to the highest praise which is due to law-abiding citizens; and although the Volunteer Firemen's organization is no longer to comprise one of our local institution, to have been a member of it will be a lasting honor."

On the twenty-ninth of July the work of retiring the Volunteers was begun, and by the first of November three thousand eight hundred and ten of their number were stricken from the rolls. Tht they had "continued faithfully to perform the duties which their obligations imposed," was their crowning glory. Their services could not be entirely dispenses with, however, and the services of the leading officers--engineers and foremen--were retained by the new Board.

At last the hour drew nigh. The volunteers were to be numbered with the past, but their great services were not to be forgotten--they had made history, and they will live in it. Sorrowfully, regretfully, notwithstanding the promise of better things to come, the city said farewell to their old protectors. This book is a tribute--though an insufficient one--to the memory of their gallantry. Take them for all in all, they were brave men, honest men, devoted men--we shall never look upon their like again.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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