Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 47, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie

The remaining sections of the Act provided for officers and employees, a salary of three thousand five hundred dollars a year for the commissioners, the selection of firemen and employees, as far as possible, from the active and exempt members of the Volunteer Fire Department, giving the right of way to the fire apparatus over all vehicles except the United States Mail, the raising of money by the board of Supervisors for the annual expenses of he New Department, the transfer of all apparatus, etc., to the New Department by those having it in charge, the surrender to be to the Mayor, Aldermen, and commonalty of the City of New York, the designation of all real estate occupied by the Volunteers and not needed by the new Department, the return of all members of the Volunteer Fire Department to the County Clerk, the same to be honorably discharged as exempt firemen if they continued to do duty until discharged by the new commissioners into whose control they passed by this Act, the guarantee of all benefits from the New York Fire Department Fund to those who up to the time of the passage of the Act were entitled to them, the continuance of the functions of the trustees of the fund, the return by the Clerk of the Common Council of the rolls of the Volunteers to the new commissioners, the punishment for those wearing without authorization, or interfering with its apparatus, the adoption of a common seal, the power to institute and maintain suits in the name of the president for the enforcement of its right and contracts, and for the possession and maintenance of the property under the control of the department, and the recovery of fines and penalties under Chapter 356 of the Laws of 1862; the transmission of an annual report to the Governor of the State of the condition, management and progress of the department, setting forth its needs, the selection of uniform and insignia, co-operation in case of need between Brooklyn and New York, and the continuance of the Volunteer Department until the new commissioners organized and entered upon their office.

During the debates in both houses comparatively little acrimony was exhibited. Those in favor of the bill, which was at first a municipal measure and was changed to include Brooklyn to avoid a quibble in regard to its constitutionality, evinced a disposition to treat the committees fairly, and the understanding that such of them as desired to become members of the New Department could do so, if eligible, was carried out eventually. In making the Senate report, Mr. Andrews said:

"The majority of the members of the new York Fire Department are men whose connection with it is prompted by a laudable devotion to the public interest, stimulated by that love of adventure and fearlessness in the face of danger, which would be accepted as the type of the loftiest heroism."

Senator Andrews also said he had not an unkind work for the New York Fire Department. One of the strong arguments, and in favor of the bill, was the reduction of rates of insurance in Baltimore under a paid Department of from twenty-five to thirty percent. The opponents of the bill were denounced as prejudiced, and it was represented that the New system would cost but little more than the Volunteer system, for which nearly five hundred and fifty thousand dollars were spent in 1864. Some harsh language was indulged in against the laxity of discipline in certain companies of the Volunteer Department, and habitual violation of rules, notably that against persons not members of a company "bunking" in their quarters; and the number of men in the Volunteer Department, four thousand, was ridiculed as excessive. The new measure was called "a dangerous though interesting experiment." Brooklyn was put in the bill to avoid any constitutional objection. One of the opponents of the innovation said it was "a blow to the liberties of the people of New York." The presence of Police superintendent John A. Kennedy, who favored the bill, in Albany, was signal for all sorts of comment, on the interference of the police with the privileges and traditions of the public. Advocates of the Paid Department said tht New York was no longer a village or a town. It had outgrown its former tastes, and its citizens should no longer be disturbed at all hours by "the rush of thousand of excited men and the clangor of bells and apparatus." Senator Andrews' harshest comments were: "It cannot de denied * * * * * that the luster of its early days has been tarnished by a spirit of insubordination and violence, which has so often led to a breach of the public peace." The advocates of the change were alive to the heroic nature of the measure. One of them admitted "It is the great change of the times if it becomes a law. Out goes the institution of an age so great that only Mr. Valentine can excavate it out of the dust. It is a revolution." It was "a revolution," in face of the sentiments of Mayor C. G. Gunther, as expressed in his message of January 9, 1865:

"The apparatus of the Fire Department is under the supervision of the street commissioners, together with the numerous houses for its accommodation. No city in the world possesses a more complete fire organization in the number of engines, the effectiveness of the recently-introduced steam machines, the copious supply of water, or the gallant army of volunteers that direct these means, for the preservation of property. No one appreciates more highly than myself the generosity and public spirit of out firemen, and nothing can efface the glorious records of their past history, so full of instances of heroic daring and unselfish toil. Many of its friends are of opinion that the system so admirably adapted to a small city is not suited to a metropolis, and that economy, as well as new machinery, will compel a change. On one will cling to the old associations more firmly than myself, or surrender them with more reluctance, and nothing but the welfare of the city, and especially of that class whence our firemen are recruited, would reconcile me to the adoption of new ideas.

The last scene in the Assembly was a charge by Mr. Turner that he had been offered five hundred dollars for his vote in favor of the bill, but the accusation was withdrawn, and was without foundation.

It is just as well not to repeat here what was said in the Assembly and Senate when the bill came before the committees. Prominent among those advocating its passage were A. R. Lawrence, for banks, insurance companies, merchants, and property holders; Dorman B. Eaton, Superintendent John A. Kennedy, and minor police officials, and Messrs. Rankin, Norwood, McLean, Stansbury, and Curry, from the New York Board of Fire Insurance Companies, and Le Grand B. Cannon. Arranged against the measure were John Sedgwick, who supported the Ordinance Bill got up by Chief Decker and committee from the Volunteer Fire Department; Chief Decker, John R. Platt, of the Volunteer' Committee' Assemblyman T. J. Creamer, Senator Luke F. Cozans, and others. The police gave the strongest testimony. It did not appear fair, as the broadest of the charges made were not properly substantiated. Once, on the fifteenth of March, 1865, in the Assembly, it appeared as if the Paid Bill would be killed, as an adverse report on the Ordinance Bill was laid on the table by a vote of seventy-six to thirty-five. Twenty-three banks, one hundred and nine insurance companies, and thirteen thousand citizens petitioned in favor of the Paid Bill. Sweeping charges of bribery were made. Most of them were based on such incidents as this: Chief Decker was in Congress Hall bantering James M. Rankin, of the Underwriters' Committee, and said: "See that safe? I've twenty-five thousand dollars in there to beat your bill." "Pshaw," replied Mr. Rankin, "I've two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in my vest pocket to push our through." How many votes were bought will probably never be known. It is as certain that both sides used money for some purpose, so that no member of any committee profited financially by his efforts, or the provision of a corruption fund.

There were other schemes for a Paid Fire Department. The insurance companies were ready in case of emergency to sustain a fire brigade is they could have its appointment and management, and the police commissions were prepared to take control of the paid firemen and the Croton Board. The newspaper suggested that the Croton Board, having the water, should enter the list, petition for the empty engines, and with as much justice and consistency as was entrusted them, prevail on the superintendent of the police to have an effective force to work them.

The Police commissioners, in advocating a Paid Fire Department, said:

"Steam engines with a small force to manage them are the best Fire Department. The voluntary system is unjust, oppressive upon its members, and not entirely trustworthy. The members do good service, perform prodigious labor, and encounter risks and dangers of the gravest character to save lives and property from destruction by fire. For this they formerly enjoyed some degree of compensation through exemption from militia service; but even this has ceased, and the public has no right to demand or enjoy their services without pay. They should be paid like other public employees."

Some of the newspapers were very severe. The following savage and intemperate attack, in which not a few truths are buried in abuse, appeared in one of them:

"The Fire Department ought to be reorganized for the following reasons:

"1st. Because, though a voluntary organization, it is unnecessarily expensive, and because the public do not know how expensive it is. Parties who render valuable public service ought not to be expected to render it without condensation, and will not do so for any considerable period without some motive; if the motive is not the compensation, it will be a less laudable one--say the interest of a political party or indirect benefits of an even less reputable character.

"2d. Because being a voluntary organization there can be no penalty imposed greater than dismissal for misconduct. That merely deprives them of the right of serving the public for nothing.

"3d. In effect, the rank and file of the Department appoint all the officers; therefore the officers have no legal or practical authority. The conduct of the officers must be satisfactory to the men; their tenure of office depends upon that. This is a fatal obstacle to all discipline and subordination. Every legislator should have known that a Fire Department so constituted would become, in time, unmanageable, vicious, and dangerous. It is a wonder that it did not become so much earlier.

"4th. Because associations of young men from the class that supplies volunteer firemen in a great city are removed from the restraints of family and well-ordered society; become proud of vices, and popular with their fellows because they possess them. Being organized and acting under a semblance of command, they feel a great degree of strength that impels them too often to defy the law and disturb public order. Their calling as volunteer firemen requires the to turnout at any hour of the day and night, and is incompatible with any steady pursuit of industry, and renders impossible the earning of an honest support by labor. For this reason they are driven by their wants to exercise their wits to supply the deficiency of wages.

"5th. They are four thousand strong; inevitably they will control a political party or a political party will control them. Having sufficient numbers and ample unoccupied time, his body is able to control all of caucuses of the party. There is not a man in that party so strong to resist them in party nominations. They are therefore able to dictate terms to the city officials who hold the keys of the treasury; and it enables those who stoop low enough to be popular with the firemen to control and override the better members of the their party. The effect of this is to reduce the grades of men that hold the public offices of the party. Being, to a large extent, without homes, they are able to vote early and often, without regard to the penalties for fraudulent voting. This may explain why so large a share of firemen are in the Common Council.

"6th. Because it involves an immense waste of time and labor. Four hundred men would be more efficient than four thousand can be. The time of three thousand six hundred men would be saved by a reorganization, and might be, if the men were willing, devoted to valuable productive uses.

"7th. the present system involve the awakening and alarming of a whole city by unnecessary bell ringing, and by the charge and rush of firemen and their ragged followers through the streets; again, the bringing of the fire bells is a signal to every robber in the city that there is an opportunity for him to ply his villainous calling--an opportunity he never omits to improve; all this will be completely remedied when a telegraphic apparatus calls the organized and disciplined firemen to the point of duty.

"8th. Every fire is a mob and a riot under the present system.

"The remedy is in the hands of the Legislature!"

These extracts afford an intelligent insight into the temper of the times. Every passion was running high. The volunteers died hard. They fought to hold their Organization with that tenacity of purpose and grim resolve which so characterized them as firemen.

While the matter was being pushed through at Albany, a newspaper undertook to estimate the cot of the Volunteer Fire Department, and compare it with other systems, as follows:

"the city furnished one hundred and twenty-five engine houses at an estimated cost of $10,000 each. This is entirely too low an estimate, but taking it as correct, tht is an investment of $1,250.000, on which no interest or taxes are paid to the city, as it cannot tax its own property.

The interest on $1,250,000, and loss of taxes, are a part of the annual expense, say


The chief engineer estimates the expense for the present year for new apparatus, repairs, hose, salaries, etc., at


New buildings and repairs ordered by the Common Council


For bells and bell towers


For bellringers


Supplies of gas: $9,500; Wood, etc., $15,00; Supplies, $15.000




"There are a number of smaller items, some arrearages, etc., not reckoned in the above, but which properly belong to the expense of the department, and the Common Council takes the liberty of ordering our expenditures at its pleasure, whether there be an appropriation or not, so that it is difficult to say what the service will cost in any year. The item of fitting up kitchens, drawing rooms, etc., in the engine houses, now very fashionable, at $1,000 each, is an example of frequent occurrence.

"Take now the expense of paid Fire Departments in other cities:

In London, with a population four times greater, it cost


Cincinnati, with 161,000 population, expense of Fire Department


Baltimore, with 212,000 in 1864, expense of Fire Department


Boston, with 178,000 population, expense of Fire Department


St. Louis, population of 160,000, expense of Fire Department




"All these five great cities, including London, cost less for paid services by nearly $200,000, than this one city of New York, where the firemen work for nothing, yet the service here is so defective that insurance is double what it is in Boston, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, and four times the price of London. We speak, in the above comparison, of the ascertained or publicly vouched for expense of the New York Fire Department. But there are drippings and contributions and stealings, which, if fully accounted for, would, in the judgment of person who ought to know, swell the total from a million to a million and a half annually.

"Then the enormous waste of human exertion and life is against the voluntary system. We have four thousand regular firemen and six thousand or seven thousand runners and hangers-on, engaged in this exciting and wearying work. Baltimore employs one hundred and twelve officers and men seven steam engines, and thirty-four horses. Cincinnati, one hundred and fifty-five officers and men, eleven steam engines, and seventy horses. Boston employs thirty-nine men constantly, and two hundred and fifteen who do duty on alarm. St. Louis employs fifty-nine men and seven steam engines. In all these cities less than five hundred and fifty men, while in this city seven thousand or eight thousand men care called out at every serious fire."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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