Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 47, Part VI

By Holice and Debbie

Mr. Philip W. Engs, afterwards a member of the first Paid Department Board, resented the attacks on the Volunteers. In a speech at Firemen's Hall, on the fourteenth of February, 1865, before the board of the New York Fire Department, he said:

"You have been contending with the Legislature of the State regarding the conduct of the firemen of this city. Instead of meeting that issue, we should go before them with this ordinance, which as have passed for the better regulation of the department. They have now become the rules for the government of this department, and we propose by these rules to avoid all the objections that are made against the character of the department. Then all that matters is at an end, no matter what Mr. Acton or anybody else days. It appears to me that we should appear at Albany once more in some shape, and show to these gentleman that here are the rules under which we propose to act, and under these we can keep the Fire Department together, and still sustain our noble charitable institution, which has such an important bearing upon the proper conduct of the department. I hope that some means will be adopted here to-night by which we shall have this opportunity, and that the chief engineer, the chairman, or some one else, will be authorized to telegraph to Albany, and say that on a certain day we will meet them and see whether we cannot be able to settle this matter. I am very pleased with the disposition manifested by Mr. appeared before these gentlemen, as did certain gentlemen who went from Washington recently to meet certain other gentlemen from Richmond, not pretending to be clothed with authority, but merely having a friendly conference with them, with the expectation and hope of bringing about some compromise in the affair. I do not see that it can be done here. We want to go to the fountain head at Albany. That is the place where the mischief commences, and this bill will be carried through--for what? To give four certain gentlemen somewhere four places; and I did not see, as I read the bill, but they will have to fix the salaries. It appears to me to be about as improperly prepared a bill, apart from its principles, as I have ever seen. It is not calculated to carry out the object they have in view, and this fact maybe made known to these gentlemen if you appear before them. Again, look at it operation upon the jury box, but more particularly upon the militia. It proposes to discharge the whole body of the firemen of the City of New York, if they think best, after they have served but three months, from military service in New York during their lifetime. There ia another thing to which I wish to call your attention. Suppose that the firemen of New York, feeling the insult that is put upon them, should say to gentlemen, 'We'll resign today; we cannot submit to these charges and slanders upon us.' What would be the feeling of the insurance companies? What would be the feeling of the owners of the property in this great city? These appeals ought to be made to them; and so far as concerns the character of the department, I, for one, should be ready to compare the department with the police, taking from the head down. I would not for a moment stand in the halls of the legislature and hear a man say what was said by Mr. Acton, without bringing the thing home to himself. As an old fireman, I have a good deal of feeling upon this subject and am quite stirred up about this matter. I desire that we should all stand by our integrity, and show to these gentlemen at Albany that the Fire Department of this city has a character and integrity, and is equally entitled to honorable mention as any public organization of the kind in this city or elsewhere."

Richmond had fallen, and New York and the entire country were excited over the death struggle of the Confederacy, but the news of the final passage of the bill renewed interest in the fate of the "fire laddies." Much that was harsh and foolish was said and printed. A few hot-headed Volunteers said they would not run to fire, but second thought and the proverbial adaptability of the citizens of the metropolis to circumstances prevailed over rash utterances. It was seen that "de Masheen" was no more, and the "Mose" element had gone with it. There was much gathering in the company quarters and debating, but the sentiment in favor of the new system, provided it was declared constitutional, was overwhelming, and Chief engineer John Decker, in a communication to the common Council, asked for instructions. Mayor Gunther said with law and order in spite of his preferences, and urged the Volunteers to turn a deaf ear to "suggestions which may be made by ill-advised or designing individuals, but faithfully to obey the laws of the land and the direction of the officers of the department and others in authority."

The Board of Aldermen passed the following:

Whereas, The Legislature of this State has just passed an act which substitutes the Paid system in place of the present Volunteer organization of the Fire Department in this city; and

Whereas, Some time must necessarily elapse ere this new system can be properly or efficiently placed in a position to meet all tht would be required therefrom, in respect tot he full protection of the lives and property of the citizens; and

Whereas, In the interregnum that must exist between the present time and the arranging of said system, in such a way as to be at all equal in efficiency to the present Volunteer organization, much suffering, and ,it may be, loss of life, would ensue in case of a disastrous conflagration, nine-tenths of the community living and having their little all in places peculiarly subject thereto, unless the present Volunteer organization still continues in active service, therefore,

Resolved, The common Council o the City of New York would most earnestly urge upon the officers and members of the new York Fire Department, the public necessity of their still continuing their former energetic and humane efforts in arresting on all occasions, as heretofore, the progress of the devouring element, thereby not only preventing thousands of helpless women and children from being rendered homeless and destitute, but wreathing around the memory of the Volunteer organization of the new York Fire Department a record of fame and usefulness, of which both themselves and their children in after time may well be proud.

John Decker strenuously urged the firemen to continue to do duty, and although some company quarters were sarcastically placarded and decorated, a revulsion in feeling occurred so quickly that companies which had been represented to have shown signs of insubordination or resentment, contradicted the reports so that the newspapers began to praise the conduct of the Volunteers, and one of them in a laudatory editorial say, very justly:

"this 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, and that whatever may have been alleged against the body was the result of the disturbing element which hung upon its flanks in the shape of rowdies and disturbers of the peace, who were t this gallant army of brave, self-sacrificing men, what camp followers and plunderers are to the regular army. The course which the members of the department are now pursuing entitles them to the highest praise which is due to the law-abiding citizens, and although the Volunteer Firemen's organization is no longer to comprise one of our local institutions, to have been a member of it will be a lasting honor."

A newspaper, sketching the social features of the Volunteer organization, said:

"What now shall we have in the city to supply the annual balls given by the various companies so numerously that they occupy nearly every dancing night of the winter? What will take the place of the jovial surprise parties continually occurring during the winter at the fire-houses, where the sisters and sweethearts and wives of the laddies enjoyed themselves so genially and hospitably, as there was no opportunity in all other social assemblies of our working classes, and which were to our most aristocrats, richest, and best educated young men an absolute relief from the stately balls and stiff-backed parties of the upper ten? What will become of the excursions, the clam-bakes, the country jaunts, with music and dancing, that the fun-loving firemen indulged in all the summer long? Mayhap there were rough fellows among the fire boys; but they were generous and honest, anyhow, they claimed; and though they had once and awhile a little fight among each other, they were always orderly as a body, they always subserved the good of the city, they were the pride of all great parades, they were the pet institution of he metropolis. The city can never cease to gratefully remember that the draft riots were rendered abortive because of their efforts; tht by their exertions, hand in hand with the police, New York was saved from desolation and utter horror, and the mobs were finally quelled. It was certainly not inappropriate to remember those things last night, even though it should be hinted that they might be written in the same spirit as the epitaphs of dead men, in which their faults are consigned to the dust and forgotten for all time.

"Probably the social organization of many of our fire companies will be continued for a long time. There are old companionships, not of the "bunk" and the "run" alone, but of the family, of the ball room, of the festive circle, of the summer excursion company, of the young folks' associations, that can not be broken up. Most of the companies have on hand private funds of their own, the disposition of which has not been decided, but which it has been proposed to adopt as the fund of social clubs to be established, which may possibly in time--who can tell--rival the "Century" or the "Athenaeum." Some of the companies, indeed, have now social organization comprising their members, though under distinct and separate rules, and these will probably be continued."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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