Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 47, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



New York Overtakes the province in 1864. -- Paving the Way to a Paid Department. -- The Only Way to Rescue the Volunteers was to Reorganize Them. -- The Police, Insurance Men and Citizens Take a Hand to this End.

The establishment of Paid Fire Departments in several cities of the Union, notably Boston, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Baltimore, and their success and advantages had been watch and noted not only as a matter of business by fire insurance underwriters, and citizens whose property was exposed to accident or crime--for near the close of the war arson was resorted to by allies of the South--but by the Volunteers and their friends and the general thinking public. The way to the establishment of the Paid Fire Department in New York City had been often paced, but the time for its legalization had not come and the schemes were abandoned when only partially planned. Still it was a striking commentary on New York's pre-eminence in advanced municipal affairs that, in methods of dealing with criminals--the management of the streets, the care of the indigent and criminal classes, etc., she was faithfully copied in every large city of the Union. A few cities, whose population was comparatively a fraction of hers, had looked ahead and provided for the time when building should be higher and more numerous, and when little less than a quasi-military organization would be suitable. Citizens had wearied of the noisy enthusiasm of the camp followers of men wedded to an old, slow system, with inadequate apparatus--often so old as to be venerable. It necessitated the services of an average of fifty men to a company, and the firemen, without fee, or hope of other reward than the gratification of a desire for excitement and muscular exercise, and the performance of their duties as citizens, did service that well merited substantial recognition in the shape of pay and permanent employment. Volunteer fire duty, it is true, was done as well as possible under the circumstances, all cavil and innuendo to the contrary notwithstanding. It is just to say here that, as a whole, the Paid Department of this city has not, in heroism, intrepidity, or disinterestedness, excelled the active Volunteers, when all things are taken into consideration. The same company rivalry, which, under the old system led to racing and sometimes brawls, still exists, and despite iron-clad rules and public sentiments, crops out now and then, showing that, after all, all firemen are human. The very rivalry which existed between the Volunteer companies was in the end an advantage. Had they been apathetic, few apparatuses would have reached a fire in time to prevent serious loss. The racing was based on a point of honor, a test of endurance, skill and strategy. It kept up the esprit de corps, and left laggards in the rear. The anxiety in running to a fire to prevent a rival company from passing was that of an English or American university crew of oarsmen to avoid getting "bumped." The system of competition taught firemen that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and that the alert and fleetfooted get to the goal first. So that in these days the company which has the "hitching up" drill well mastered, and leaves the quarters the moment a home signal is ticked off, may reach the station indicated before a less well drilled and not so wide-awake a company much nearer to the rendezvous, and so shame the laggards into better performance of duty another time. The Volunteers, one the members of the company assembled and the rope manned, made as good time as bipeds could. Taken as a whole, the active members of brave, honest, efficient and earnest, without pay, and with antiquated apparatus, as are the active members of the present Department, who are well paid and have the best fire extinguishing appliances that science and mechanical ingenuity an devise or that money can command. Such Volunteers, or such of them as would, for proper remuneration, do what they did gratuitously out of a sense of the highest duties and obligations of citizenship, apart from any love of excitement and peril, were worth saving from politicians and the rabble, and the only way to save them, it was asserted, was to destroy the Volunteer organization.

This enigmatically assertion is based on facts. Putting aside the question of the injustice of permitting able-bodied men, the majority of them working for their daily bread, to abandon work and risk their lives and expose themselves to the elements and severe toil, to save municipal and private property, and protect the lives and limbs of the community, without substantial reward--the time had come when a line had to be drawn between the Volunteers, who were already cursed with political manipulation from the camp followers and the dry rot of expediency which, to serve the purposes of a few intent on using the Volunteers as political factors, had discountenanced the introduction of steam fire apparatus and the consequent and inevitable reduction in the number of companies and the working force of such as were retained; the system saddled on the Volunteers was virtually at an end with the introduction of the first fire steam engine. This and many which followed were not built as strongly as those of later years, but--taking the complement of a hand engine at fifty men--it pointed a way to relieve six-sevenths of those doing duty with the hand engine, if horses were employed to draw the engines. At the same time, the time required to take an engine from quarters to a fire was so reduced that the necessity of having many companies in each district was obviated, while the employment of an engineer at a salary, although he was elected by the company, insured the strict and interested attention of at least one member of such company to details on which depended the prompt starting of the apparatus from quarters when a signal was struck. The old hand apparatus, made as light as possible to permit of quick hand transportation and elegance of construction, had to hug a fire to permit of a proper stream being thrown on the flames by ordinary exertion, which, as a rule, was no light work, under extraordinary exertion, and the stimulus of rivalry with the iron-lunged innovation, streams were thrown which equaled, if they did not excel, those thrown by steam power. But it was at once seen that as a rule the steam machines could take a remote hydrant and do as good service as a hand machine, until the men who manned the brakes became exhausted, and then continue to do equally good service as long as fuel lasted. Besides, it was evident that the resources of science and mechanism had not been exhausted in the construction of the first steam fire engines. The horses attached to the engine did away with the rope, and with it the yearning of the rabble to take a hand and "jump her," and the horses did not yell and urge each other to exertion on the way to a fire, but attended strictly to business and left the camp followers who were not the fleetest of foot in the lurch, so that the pranks and depredation of the "sidewalk committee" were done away with. The horses, too, had no fancy for hurrying to rush past a rival company, or halt and fight out a rancorous sentiment, partly jealousy, partly rivalry, while the fire which had started was getting ahead. If the naked truth were told, few outside the Department were gravely anxious about them at all times. To many it appeared that until New York paid for fire service it would be impossible to have such service at all efficient without at least winking at the competition which pitted one company against the other, and resulted generally in a gain in point of speed in reaching a fire. Men who did their utmost to create a Paid Department were members of companies whose reputation for zeal in distancing or vanquishing rivals by feet or hands was the best or worst, as the partisan or critic may determine, and were as eager as their comrades when the apparatus was rolled out and the race began, or when to goal was reached and others were found to have the ground of vantage. How many staid citizens of the Volunteer time who yet live will affirm that, even on Sunday, when the races either on genuine or false alarms, were along Broadway or the Bowery, and the ragamuffins ran to see them, and the often consequent unpleasantness between companies, they did not gird up their loins and become interested spectators? And how many, under the pressure of conscience, will fail to admit that at a pinch they vented their preferences, antipathies or interest in a shout or an exclamation, if they did not take a hand in the results of a collision after a war of words? Few citizens but had a tie or an interest in some sort of some engine, hose, or hook and ladder company. Many were impelled to vexation, and so on to exasperation, when their ox was gored, tht is to say, when, often for trivial cause, such as a chimney fire or a false alarm, the streets in the neighborhood of their houses or counting rooms were invaded by apparatuses and crowds of excited, wrangling men and the hangers on at the company quarters, and business and traffic stopped until excited passions were calmed and temper improved. Storekeepers grinned, shouted and lost themselves in excitement in the business avenues until an apparatus cleared the sidewalk, as the malicious practical jokers who followed the regulars upset the goods displayed in front of stores, and made havoc of them, if they did not plunder. It is to be doubted if the enemies of the Volunteer firemen proper, the active members of companies, were legion, because men of all ranks belonged to it, and persons of all walks in life did duty as "bunkers," "home sleepers" and "Exempts." But those who had dealings with the insurance companies , whose rates were high, were financially interested in any scheme which would put the Fire Department on any footing which would make it independent of those who were beginning to turn it into a political factor, and enable it to squelch the hangers-on or "runners," who were mainly an undesirable class, from the boys to depredators who waited for a fire alarm to run with the apparatus for no good purpose. In this and other ways the Volunteers had a bad name with the Paid Police Department, whose members lost no opportunity to exaggerating wrangles or brawls, and making insinuations or flat charges when property was damaged or outrage occurred. The patience of the police, it must be admitted, was often sorely tried. There were few alarms of fire that did not call for action, from especial vigilance to interference, and now and then a policeman got hurt in an encounter, and the blame was always laid on the volunteers, although in the majority of instances the rabble had a hand in the melee, and it was fair to infer would be more likely to surreptitiously injure and policeman than an active fireman. The Hon. Thomas C. Acton and the late John A. Kennedy, superintendent of police, were prepared to encourage any plan to put the volunteers on n independent footing or create a new Department in which Volunteers who chose to devote themselves to the service for proper remuneration could be enrolled. The chief engineer of the Volunteers in later days was but little better than a creature of the street commissioner, and had to mind his P's and Q's. the district engineers were in a worse predicament, as has the chief engineer been a martinet, a crank, or a rascal, they could have been harassed between him and the companies over which they had jurisdiction. The Commissioners owed allegiance to the companies because of their suffrage, and the Common Council's supreme influence was baneful. Proper discipline was out of the question. For excellent political reasons, any black sheep expelled or disciplined could, if he had "a pull," be reinstated, and snap his fingers at discipline.

Such was the condition of affairs in a department whose members had shown what stuff they were made of, and their leaning towards law and order against mob rule and anarchy in the riots of 1863, when it became certain that in the Legislature of 1865 an opportunity to pass a Paid Fire Department measure would be seized upon.

Preparations of the legislative campaign of 1865 were begun early in 1864. On the seventeenth of March of that year the following resolution was passed at a meeting of the Board of fire Underwriters:

Resolved, that the subject of promoting the greater efficiency of the Fire Department be referred to a special committee to inquire into the same, and report to a subsequent meeting of this Board.

The committee was James M. McLean, president of the Citizens' Fire Insurance company; Carlisle Norwood, president of the Lorillard; James M. Rankin, secretary of the Fulton; Rudolph Garrigue, Richard A. Reading, T. J. Glover, director of the American. All were me of the greatest experience in fire matters, not only because the majority of them had been members of the Volunteer Department, but because they were experts in insurance business, and has studied European fire extinguishing methods, and the Paid Department as they were successively established in this country.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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