Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 49, Part I

By Holice and Debbie

Chapter XLIX

THE NEW DEPARTMENT SEVERELY CRITICIZED

Resignation of Commissioner Brown. -- Appointment of General Shaler, M. B. Wilson, T. B. Myers, and James Galway. -- The Board Exclusively Republican. -- A Manifesto of Much Interest. -- Bureau of Combustibles.  -- A reward for the conviction of Incendiaries. -- A board to Pass on The competency of Officers.

In the year 1867 it was seen that something was amiss with the New Department. In spite of honest endeavors to do better than the Volunteers, the Metropolitans were not fortunate at great fires, and insurance rates became higher. Citizens and the press grumbled, and at the assembling of the Legislature it was evident that action would be taken by it. A plea of scarcity of hydrants was ridiculed by some who said that the volunteers did better with fewer, and the insinuation that the ousted Volunteers were responsible for some of the fires was denounced as infamous. Some of the grumbling was odd. Persons wrote to the papers to complain that the horses attached to the apparatus were driven too fast, and Mr. Henry Bergh addressed a communication to the commissioners on the subject, in which he denounced such driving as reckless, and protested against it. The commissioners tried to stem the tide of public opinion by ordering an investigation of the condition of many of the buildings and warehouse of the city for evidences of their unsafe and improper condition. Steps were taken to organize the suburban companies as paid companies, and the complaint that the discipline of the force was bad was met by a resolution to make trials of delinquents public in order to "contribute largely toward disciplining" them.

But a disastrous fire in Broadway, known as the Chittenden fire, provoked a fresh outbreak of public comment. It was charged that the Metropolitans had there proved their inability to cope with a disaster, and an investigation was ordered by the commissioners, which ended in Messrs. Pinckney, Brown and Engs exonerating the Department, on the twenty-fifth of March. Mr. Abbe dissented. Meanwhile, on the twenty-first of February, 1867, the Assembly insurance committee met at the Metropolitan Hotel "to take into consideration the large loss of property by fire, and inquire into the means of extinguishment." The members were: Messrs. Younglove, Penfield, Frear, Lefevre, and Blauvelt. Mr. George W. Savage, of a committee appointed by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, then in session, first testified. He ascribed the losses, which were unusually heavy, to incendiarism, slowness of firemen to get to work, failure to enforce laws, want of proper inspection of buildings, and accumulation of combustible matter in buildings. He charged that Chief Kingsland was incompetent, and was in favor of a department organized with military precision, with a man of West Point training for engineer. Other witnesses were equally condemnatory. The committee made a report which resulted in several bills being passed with a view of ousting the commissioners. The newspapers which had lauded the new Commission turned against it, and one which had spoken very badly of the volunteers had severe things to say of their successors.

Commissioner Brown resigned on the thirtieth of March, 1867, because of the serious illness of his wife, who died shortly after. His act was the subject of unfeeling comment, but Governor Fenton subsequently appointed him Port Warden to emphasize his contradiction of the malicious reports. On the twelfth of April the Assembly passed Chapter 408 of the Laws of 1867, and the Senate passed it five days later. It required the Governor to nominate a fifth fire commission within a few days of the act becoming a law, said commissioner to hold office for ten years, and the successors of the present commissioners to hold office for ten years. Commissioner Pinckney's term was about expired, and Messrs. Engs and Abbe sent in their resignations. On the eighteenth of April Governor Fenton nominated and the Senate confirmed, Monmouth B. Wilson, captain of the Thirty-first Precinct, as the fifth commissioner, General Alexander Shaler in place of Mr. Pinckney Colonel Theodorus Bailey Myers, in place of Mr. Engs, James Galway in place of Mr. Brown (who would have been succeeded by Colonel Emmons Clark had he chosen to accept the position), and Me. Abbe, whose resignation was virtually not accepted.

In 1867, two years after the substitution of the Paid Department for the Volunteer, General Shaler was put at the head of the Fire Department. For three years he remained as president, and until 1873 as a commissioner. The results of the reforms and improvements made under that management were practically manifested by the stead reduction of the losses by fire, from $6,428,00 in 1866 to $2,120,212 in 1870. It was during these three years--1876-'70--that the Department was converted into a well-organized, disciplined, and successful institution, and it is conceded General Shaler was the controling master spirit of the commission, and that to him was due the establishment of the orderly and systematic methods, as well as the thorough disciplining of the force. During this period the Fire Commissioners had unlimited power over their subordinates, and could dismiss or reduce in grade at will, without the semblance of a trial. This power was, however, not arbitrarily exercised. During this period boards of officers were organized in the Department for the examination of candidates for promotion, and promotions were made for merit only. Candidates for appointment to the corps of firemen were also required to pass a rigid physical examination and to possess the rudiments, at least, of a common school education. These improvements, also suggested by General Shaler, not only stood the test of time, but the principles of good administration underlying the systems thus voluntarily introduced in an important branch of the public service, have since been made the basis of laws for the reform of the entire civil service, national, state, and municipal.

General Shaler and his colleagues in the Board of Fire commissioners during that period also had practically unlimited power in the matter of fixing the amount of the annual appropriations for the department, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment having them only nominally the authority to determine the amount of the appropriation for the Fire Department. this great power, it is easy to see, could have been much abused by unscrupulous officials. But the expenditures for this period show that no less attention was paid to economy than to the efficiency of the department. During the period of his presidency, General Shaler organized and taught classes composed of the officers and engineers in their respective duties. His next effort was to rid the department of the officers who unfortunately could or would not learn. The power of summary dismissal vested in the commissioners was even then not exercised, but all who were deficient were given further opportunity of passing a board of examination composed of their own officers, which finally decided upon the question of their fitness to remain. To General Shaler is also due the inauguration in 1867 of the admirable property accountability system in the Fire Department so frequently commended then and since in the public press and by public officials.

Until May, 1873, General Shaler remained as one of the commissioners of the Fire Department, continuing, though no longer president, to give all his energies to the performance of his duties.

THEODORUS BAILEY MYERS, when the Metropolitan Fire Department was created by the Legislature, was appointed by the governor as a member of the Board of Commissioners. Not soliciting the position, and having no claim as an active politician, this was probably due to his successful administration of the affairs of the Sixth Avenue Railway, of which he had been first executive officer, and subsequently president, and aided to restore it to its present prosperity. On the twenty-eighth of April, 18, 1861, he had left it, on a leave of absence, in the 'Baltic' with the Twelfth Regiment, one of the first that started for the capital, accepting, without compensation, the temporary position of quartermaster, and in charge of the supplies which had been intended to be thorn into Fort Sumter. After visiting Fortress Monroe, the day after the burning of Norfolk--the Potomac being closed--they proceeded to Annapolis. Finding General Butler, already arrived, in command, on reporting to him and turning over the needed stores, he was, although personally unknown to the general, selected as an aide de camp, and assigned to the duty of quarter master. He visited New York soon after, and raised, under a department order, two hundred and fifty men, without any expense to the government beyond their rations, the use of the park barracks, and their transportation. With these he proceeded to Baltimore with Colonel Kilpatrick, with the same number of volunteers for his mounted rifles.

When General Wool relieved General Butler, Mr. Myers was placed on his staff--a selection probably due to the circumstances that the general and his father, who had been crippled at Chrystler's Fields, in the Canada campaign, had been captain together in the Thirteenth Regular Infantry in the war of 1812. After much detail duty and some service in reconnoisances, but no regular engagement, he was, in the fall, imperatively recalled to his railroad by a sudden difficulty, which terminated his military service, with less regret because the country had become fully around and the material to supply official posts was abundant.

When he became Fire commissioner, his military experience was found to be invaluable, and he had an able co-laborer in General Shaler. Each company was placed on a basis of efficiency equal to that of a regular section of field artillery. Each man had his place and duty, which he was expected to perform. Rapidity in getting under way on an alarm, and progress to the points of service, system in conveying signals, and al the details for concerted action, first from the nearest port, the putting of an immediate cordon around the burning building to protect property from depredation and exclude unauthorized access; all these were rapidly formulated or improved and enforced. The bill for the storage of combustible materials suggested by the underwriters was one of the measures to which he gave particular attention. He prepared and furthered its passage at Albany. The act giving a half portion of the tax on foreign insurance companies, then held by the old organization, to the department, was also a subject for his attention. He afterwards represented the board as it volunteer counsel, for which his profession fitted him, often saving expense.

The board authorized a lyceum, and devoted to its use the large upper hall, in which he collected, by their authority as commissioner in charge, a collection of several thousand volumes, issued to the members as a circulating library, to occupy leisure time at their quarters. In this he also collected examples of old apparatus, emblems, trophies, and curious documents connected with the early history of New York. The librarian was the clerk allowed to him, the first being John R. Thompson, once editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, a poet of ability and a gentleman of admirable modesty, who, after serving as a secretary of the Confederate legation in London and Paris, returned to new York.

Commissioner Myers continued for a time to act as counsel to the Board after his duties had terminated; subsequently he declined a reappointment by Mayor Havemeyer, and has since devoted himself to study and literary pursuits.

This made a republican Board of able, pushing men, fully aware that to succeed they must, from the start, do away wit the cause that made the first commission less efficient and popular than it was expected to be. May 1 they met, and after electing General Shaler president and Mr. Abbe treasurer, provided for the reorganization of the committees, and the revision of the rules and regulations of the force, and the rules of the Board. May 8 the committees were formed as follows: Appointments, Discipline, Supplies, Apparatus, Finance, Telegraph, Buildings and Hose. The clerical force was placed under the direction of the secretary; appointments and promotions were to be under civil service regulations, and foremen, assistant foremen and engineers were to be promoted from the ranks and on grounds of meritorious conduct and qualifications. The system of appointments was first attacked and a new and better form of application was adopted.

Commissioner Wilson's first act was to condemn the inadequate protection given Blackwell's island; to suggest better protection for its six thousand inhabitants; to designate it by a fire signal, and to arrange for transportation of fire apparatus to it.

On the first of June the commissioners "declared their intentions" in the following circular to the force. Its ringing tenor drew a line between the present and the past, and no good member of the department misconstrued it:

OFFICE BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS
METROPOLITAN FIRE DEPARTMENT,
FIREMEN'S HALL,
NEW YORK, June 1, 1867.

TO THE OFFICERS, MEMBERS AND EMPLOYEES OF THE METROPOLITAN FIRE DEPARTMENT:

It has already been the duty of the Board of Commissioners (sitting as the Committee on Appointments), to pass upon several cases of violation of the rules. These complaints have been disposed of as leniently as possible, in consideration of the fact that the discipline of the Department had been heretofore less vigorously enforced than it will be in the future, and that an impression may have resulted tht the rules were prepared without an intention to enforce them. This will not, in the future, be the case. Members of this Department possess privileges, and receive a compensation from the authorities, far superior to those engaged by any other branch of the public service.

For the act of every member the Commissioners are responsible to the public, and it is their duty, when its rules are disregarded, to relieve themselves by promptly bringing the offender to justice. Neglect to do this, from sympathy or any other consideration, would be criminal in them. There can be no middle condition in any organization like this, whether civil or military. * * * *

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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