Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 47, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

Police Commissioner Acton and Superintendent John A. Kennedy furnished the committee with police reasons for a change. The underwriters' committee had for legal advisors Dorman B. Eaton and Abraham L. Lawrence, and much of the legal work was done by Mr. William C. Whitney, Secretary of the Navy under President Cleveland. The police contribution was in the form of affidavits from Captain Helm, Speight, Cameron, Williamson, Jordan, Todd De Camp, Davis, Mount, Sebring, and others, who told of the disturbances, Sabbath desecration, pilfering, and general nuisances, of which they accused the Volunteers and their following. The underwriters' committee mastered the legal feature of the proposed change, shaped a course from reports from Baltimore, Boston, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, and the first draft of the Paid Fire Department Bill was made by Mr. James M. Rankin, in his house at Second Avenue and One Hundred and Twenty-fourth Street. The late Senator William Laimbeer, who was to father the bill in the Senate, did not trust to theories or reports, but visited the cities in which Paid Departments existed. He was accompanied by the Hon. Hugh Gardner, and profited not a little by that sturdy Scot's shrewdness, common sense, and practical views. The Volunteers got an inkling of what was contemplated, and to offset the iconoclasts, and to put the Volunteers in a better light before the public, and to render them independent of many alliances that had militated against their prestige and usefulness, concurred--rank and file--in the drawing up of the ordinance of the thirty-first of December, 1864, which was intended as an offset to action at Albany. It was entitled: "An ordinance for the better regulation of the Firemen of the City of New York." It provided for a chief engineer, to be elected every three years by the votes of the members of the Volunteer Fire Department, the firs election to be in February, 1866; but the election was simply a nomination to the Common Council for "appointment," and the salary was fixed at five thousand dollars per annum. No chief engineer could serve a second term. Nineteen assistant engineers, two for each district, except the Ninth, which was to have three, were to be elected in a precisely similar manner in February, 1865, and to serve three years. Vacancies were to be filled by ballot within thirty days. The working force of the department was to consist of "such members of fire engine men, hose men, and hook and ladder men * * * * as now are or hereafter may be from time to time appointed in the manner required by law." Thus the department was left in the hands of the voting firemen and the dominant Common Council, and the system that had been the bane of the Volunteers was continued. Apart from these provisions, the ordinance pursued the best features of the old regimes, and introduced some new regulations calculated to improve the efficiency of the Department. Discipline and deportment were insisted on. the assistant engineer were to chose one of their number as senior, and he was to take the place of the chief in the event of disability or a vacancy. The Board of Engineers and Foremen had the power to make elections for holding and conducting the elections. The companies chose their own foremen, assistant foreman, and secretaries, by such means and at such times as they considered proper, but the commissioners of the Fire Department decided in cases of irregularity and dispute. Stringent rules were in the ordinances against the admission of person not members of the department entering company quarters, and boys and disorderly characters lounging in their vicinity, and no boys or improper person were to be allowed to take hold of the drag rope. No racing was to be countenanced. The fire commissioners could reprimand, suspend, or disband any company, and any company could vote for the expulsion of a member, while the fire commissioners could reverse, modify, or confirm such act. Sections 37 and 38 provided as follows:

"Any person who may in future be elected to fill a vacancy to any of the fire company shall present to the Chief engineer within thirty days thereafter a certificate of such election, signed by the foreman and secretary of the company in which he has been elected, stating his name, residence, and business; and said candidate, before the Chief engineer presents his name to the Commissioners of the Fire Department, shall make affidavit that he is a citizen of the United States, is twenty-one years of age and upwards, that he is physically able, and that it is his intention to perform active and actual duty as a fireman with the company in which his name is enrolled, and that he will promote subordination in the Fire Department and the company to which he belongs, and it shall be the duty of the Chief engineer to certify on every return whether a vacancy exists in the company. Applicants for appointment as members of the Fire Department must be of good moral character and actually engaged in some lawful business, and must be recommended to the Fire Commissioners as honest, sober, and industrious men, by their employers and three citizens of known respectability, and the Commissioners may confirm or reject any or all such applications."

Proper returns of duty performed were expected from all officers. The chief engineer was given authority to remove any apparatus or Corporation property to the Public or Corporation Yard. Such removals were to be made if the company was short-handed, was not useful, or became disreputable or riotous. In case of disbandment, facilities were given for members of a company to join another. The Chief engineer, President of the Department, Board of Trustees, Fire commissioners, and Board of Commissioners of Appeal were made a Commission of Construction and Repairs of the New York Fire Department, to inquire into applications for change in locations, for apparatus, or for new companies, or new houses, or for alterations or repairs of houses, or for new apparatus, or for alterations or repair to apparatus, costing seventy-five dollars or more. The police were required to report any fireman or company violating any law or ordinance of the Fire Department, and it was made their duty to wake up members of the Department who might reside on their beats on a fire alarm being given at night, and the firemen were to supply the police with their names and residences. It was also the duty of the police to form lines at fires and prevent unauthorized persons from invading the territory thus environed. The mayor was empowered to select three bellringers for each signal station at one thousand dollars a year each. Engineers for steam engines were to be appointed by the Board of Engineers on the recommendation of a majority of the members of the company in which the appointee was to serve. Such appointees were to be competent and properly recommended. The uniform of the different members and officers was designated, and the wearing of it insisted on. The following section will be read with interest by the present generation:

"If any of the fire companies shall embellish their apparatus by painting, silver or other plating, polishing or any other embellishment, the chief engineer or other authorities of the City of New York shall not have replaced at the expense of the said city any such embellishment n any fire apparatus which may need rebuilding, alteration, or repairs, but shall only have such apparatus put in good working order without such embellishments, and when any embellishments is placed on any fire apparatus by any person, or fire company, so that the same shall become a fixture to said apparatus, the said person , or persons, or fire company, shall not displace or disfigure said embellishment, and the said embellishment shall belong to the Corporation of the City of New York."

The ordinance embodied such regulations as are not within the province of the Superintendent of Combustibles and the Bureau of inspection of Building. It prescribed the amount of fines for various breached of discipline and violations of its provisions, and how they should be disposed of.

Chief John Decker, throughout the excitement caused by the legislation at Albany, the testing of the constitutionality of the law, and the merging of the Volunteer System into the Paid System, while he never for an instant swerved from his allegiance to the comrades whose votes place him at their head, displayed qualities that characterize the law-abiding citizen and conscientious official. The "Ordinance for the better regulation of the Firemen of the City of New York," which became a municipal law on the thirty-first of December, 1864, was prepared at the instance of commissioner John J. Gorman, with a view to improving the Volunteer service. The first steps were taken at Firemen's Hall, on the twenty-seventh of September, 1864, when the Board of Representatives, Fire and Appeal Commissioners, Trustees, Engineers, Foremen, and Assistant Foremen met, discussed the reorganization of the Volunteer system, appointed a committee of twenty from all branches of the Department, of which President Gorman was chairman, and left it to devise a plant to meet the requirements of the law, and satisfy the Department and the public. Over his own signature Chief Decker said that this ordinance was all that was necessary for the government of the Department. he went on to say that neither the Department not its officers were, until the passage of the revised ordinance of December, 1864, responsible for the expenditure of its money, and he yet says that Tweed, Cornell and others, killed the ordinance bill, which was taken to Albany to be passed as a state law. Nearly all the funds charged to the Fire Department, he said, were disbursed lavishly by the Common Council and Street Commissioners' Department, of which he was a subordinate, without consulting any officer of the Fire Department. It was acknowledged by the officers of the Fire Department that two-thirds of the hose companies could be dispensed with; but until the ordinance of 1864 was passed this could not be done, unless the companies violated a law or ordinance. In five years and a half only three of fifty-seven hose companies were abolished, but under the new ordinance, in Chief Decker's opinion, more than forty could have been done away with in a year. When the presentation of the Fire Department Bill was announced, Chief Decker did all he could for the Volunteers; and he says that the arguments in their favor before the Assembly committee were so powerful that the Metropolitan Bill would not have been passed had not "some of the insurance companies of this city submitted to a tax on their capital amounting to fifty thousand dollars, and placed it in the hands of a committee who were urging the passage of the Metropolitan fire bill, after which arguments were in vain."

The legislation which created a Paid Fire Department was in stirring times. It was while all who could think or read watched the end of the struggle between North and South, and the proceedings at Albany attracted less of general attention than would have been paid to them had they been before the legislature a year later or a year earlier. Had the measure been introduced in 1864 it is hardly possible to estimate what the result would have been had it become a law. A year later might have seen the innovation put off to another or a still later session by lobbying and influences of various sorts. But the Senate and Assembly were Republican; Reuben E. Fenton was Governor; Thomas G. Alvord, Lieutenant-Governor; and G. G. Hoskins, Speaker. James Terwilliger was Clerk of the Senate; and Joseph B. Cushman, Clerk of the Assembly. The Hon. William Laimbeer, on the fourth of January, 1865, gave notice in the Senate of a bill to incorporate a Paid Fire Department for New York City, and in the Assembly a week later Mr. Thomas B. Van Buren gave notice that at an early day he would ask to introduce a similar bill. On the sixteenth of January Senator Laimbeer introduced "An Act to create a Metropolitan Fire District and establish a Fire Department therein," which was read a first time, and referred to the Committee on Cities, and Villages, which consisted of Messrs. Laimbeer, Strong, Shafer, White, Dutcher, and Andrews. Mr. Thomas E. Stewart, on January 20, gave notice of the bill in the Assembly. It was introduced there January 23, and read a first time. On the thirty-first of January, on motion of Senator Laimbeer, and Committee on Cities and Villages was empowered to send for persons and papers to aid in considering the bill, but next day an amendment to send for the clerk of the Fire Commissioners and such books, papers, etc., as he might have in charge, prevailed. The committee heard testimony from all interested persons. On the seventh of February Senator Laimbeer presented a petition for a Paid Fire Department from Exempt Firemen, and two years later the bill was taken from the Senate committee on cities and villages--because of the resignation of six of the members, who were disgusted with Senator Field's eccentricities--and referred to the following Select committee: Dennis Strong, G. H. Andrews, William Laimbeer, John B. Dither, Ira Shafer, Andrew D. White and Saxton Smith

On the fifteenth of February Mr. Andrews reported in favor of the bill, and it was referred to the Committee of the Whole. On the twenty-fourth of February, in the Assembly, Mr. S. C. Reed presented a petition for a Paid Fire Department from residents of Brooklyn. Next day Senator Laimbeer's motion to make the bill the special order for March 2 was adopted. That day Senator Allen reported in favor of passing the bill without amendment. Senator Chrystie's motion to recommit the bill to the committee on Municipal affairs, and to strike out the enacting clause, was lost, seven to twenty-one. Senator Cozans moved as a substitute, "An Act for the better regulation of the Firemen of the City of New York," Chief Decker's Volunteer measure; rejected, seven to nineteen. After a little more filibustering, the bill was ordered to a third reading. Next day Senator Fields moved that the Supervisors of New York assess on the capital stock of the insurance companies (the framers of the Paid Fire Department measure) a sum sufficient to pay the expenses of the Fire Department. This motion was buried, as was a motion from the "Torpedo" to pay each fireman one thousand dollars a year, and each engineer one thousand five hundred dollars a year. Henry C. Murphy moved that at the next general election four Metropolitan Fire Commissioners be elected, but this and several minor and dilatory motions were lost, and the bill was read a third time and passed.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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