Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 49, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

The Bureau of Combustibles was organized June 22, 1867, under Chapter 873 of the Laws of 1866, with Commissioner Wilson at its head. Its personnel were:

John H. Wilson, Clerk, at one thousand five hundred dollars a year; and the following inspectors at five hundred dollars per annum;

John A. Cregier, Surveyor Mercantile Fire Insurance Company
A. P. Moore, Surveyor, Manhattan Fire Insurance Company
Theodore Keeler, Surveyor, Lorillard Fire Insurance Company
John H. Forman, Surveyor, International Fire Insurance Company

Operations against persons who illegally stored dangerously inflammable articles and explosives were begun immediately. A step toward grading the force was made in the middle of July, when Commissioners Myers and Shaler, in reporting to their colleagues on the estimates for 1868, the increase in expenditures and the necessity of economy, presented the following resolution:

Resolved, That the appointment of firemen hereafter shall be of acting firemen, at a rate of compensation not exceeding seven hundred dollars per annum, such active firemen to be in the line of promotion, and to have precedence, as candidates for appointments as firemen, whenever the means at the control of the commissioners justify the further increase of that grade, provided that the number of acting firemen shall not at nay time exceed six in any company.

Then plans were discussed for the placing in commission of a boat to be used for fires on the river front, and the rules for ringing the alarm bells were amended so that the post-office bell rang for all fires south of Seventy-ninth Street, and the other bells rang five rounds for the first alarm, and seven rounds for the second alarm for signals in the various districts. Rewards were offered for the arrest and conviction of incendiaries, and the public were invited to note suspicious circumstances at fires and communicate information. Violations of law, especially in regard to the proper protection of openings in roofs, having resulted in the death of firemen, and fires having rapidly become uncontrollable because of hatchways being left open, the attorney was directed to frame amendments to existing laws. Stringent regulations for the storage of fireworks were adopted.

On the eighteenth of September a resolution was adopted to improve the intelligence and moral tone of the department by establishing libraries in the several quarters of companies. The scheme resulted, three months late, in the formation of the Firemen's Lyceum at Fire Headquarters under Commissioner Myers. Charles E. Gildersleeve was treasure, and Charles De F. Burns, now secretary of the Board of Park commissioners, librarian. The lyceum is now scattered among the battalion headquarters and in several company quarters. The first donations were;

American Fire Insurance Company, $100
R. J. Livingston, $50
Spott & Hawk, $25
John Jay, $25
Phelps, Dodge & Co., $25
Fire Underwriters, $250
Vestry of Trinity Church, $200
William Tilden & Nephew, $50

The library soon had two thousand five hundred volumes. The Metropolitan Fire Department Mutual Aid Association was started in October, 1867.

A breeze was created in the Board the same month, by a resolution which was offered by Commissioner Wilson, and which was adopted, to the effect that no member of the department be permitted to be a delegate or representative of any political or nominating convention; and later the Citizens' Association, through Peter Cooper, attacked Mr. Abbe's right to act as a commissioner because he had been nominated for sheriff on the republican ticket. John H. Martindale, the attorney-general, advised the fire commissioners to appoint another commissioner; but Mr. Abbe, in a communication to his colleagues, denied receiving notice of his nomination, and asserted that he had declined it, so that the other commissioners accepted his statement and declined to act. The first department surgeon, Dr. Charles B. McMillan, was designated chief at the end of November, 1867. Assistant Chief Engineer Perley was appointed chief of the repair yard in Elizabeth Street, and H. A. Gilbertson, superintendent. Hitherto so little had the Volunteer system been changed tht few members of companies rode on the apparatus, but ran with the horses. On the fourth of December, 1867, alterations were ordered on all apparatus to enable officers and men to ride. New York, on the first of January, 1868, had no longer companies on a semi-volunteer basis. On the Twenty-eighth of December 1867, the eight suburban engines and hook and ladder companies, Engine Companies Nos. 36, 37, 38, and 39, and Hook and Ladder Companies Nos. 13, 14, and 15, were ordered to be disbanded and the following Paid companies were established:

Metropolitan Engine Company No. 35, located on One Hundred and Nineteenth Street, between Second and Third Avenues; steamer third size, built by James Smith, New York City, and four-wheeler tender.

Assistant foreman (in command), William Frost; engineer of steamer, Albert Stone; firemen, Phillip Ramee, John C. Post; hosemen, Rufus E. Russell, William H. Taylor, Oscar A. Stowe, John J. Wilson, Robert h. Black, John J. Murphy.

Metropolitan Engine Company No. 36, located on Fourth Avenue, between one Hundred and Twenty-sixth and One Hundred and Twenty-seventh Streets, steamer third size, built by James Smith, New York City, and four-wheeled tender.

Assistant foremen (in command), John A. Cowie; engineer of steamer, George Jarvis; firemen, Adam Jacoby, George A. Campbell; hosemen, James Crowley, Henry C. Mount, Thomas B, Morris, Michael Daily, John Brodie, William O. Seaman, William Johnson, Henry L. Nunns.

Metropolitan Engine Company No. 37, located at Manhattanville; steamer third size, built by Lee and Larned, new York City, and four-wheeled tender.

Foreman, William H. Young; engineer of steamer, Henry Blessing; firemen, James B. Pettit, Michael Herity; hosemen, John Murray, Samuel H. Waugh, John McKibbin, John Ferris, Patrick Sullivan, George Graff, Valentine Smith, Patrick Casey.

Metropolitan Engine Company No. 38, located on Tenth Avenue, between one Hundred and fifty-fourth and One Hundred and fifty-fifth Streets; steamer third size, built by R. M. Clapp, New York City, and four-wheeled tender.

Foreman, William Simpson; engineer of steamer, John A. Munger; fireman, James Dunn, Henry M. Ahrens; horsemen John Watson, Abram Cornish, Edward Clearwater, James Hueston, Richard Van Varick, Peter H. Hunt, Gardner Conklin.

Metropolitan Engine Company No. 13, located on Eighty-seventh Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues; truck built in 1865 by Charles E. Hartshorn, New York City.

Foreman, Jacob Van Orden; firemen, Charles M. Moore, John H. Van Tassel, ladderman, Alvin Buckbee.

Metropolitan Hook and Ladder Company No. 14, located on One Hundred Twenty-fifth Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues; truck built in 1856 by John H. Sickles, New York City; rebuilt in 1862 by James P. Conk, New York City.

Assistant foremen (in command), Henry M. Jones; firemen, Samuel Hunt, Jeremiah Kelly; laddermen, Joseph Saxe, Mathias Schweppenhauser, William Hahn, Frederick Newbauer, Peter Hoffman, John Paul, Harry Graham, Joseph Murray, George W. Bush.

Metropolitan Hood and Ladder Company No. 15, located on Tenth Avenue, between One hundred and Fifty-fourth, and One Hundred and Fifty-fifth Streets; truck built in 1859 by William Williams, New York City.

Assistant foreman (in command), John Coyle; firemen, Thomas H. Brannigan, Patrick Conaghan; laddermen, J. Wallace Stickney, James Veitch, Isaac O. Woodruff, John F. Cunningham, Robert M. Hutchinson, Joseph McEvoy, Michael Howe, Peter Brady.

The new companies' hosemen were paid three hundred dollars a year each, and the laddermen a like sum. Both were under the rules of the department, but could follow their avocations when not on fire duty. The changes necessitated others in the assignment of the engineers. Assistant Engineer Perley commanded all the fire organizations north of Twenty-third Street; District Engineer Banham, all the companies above Eighteenth Street; Rhodes, all between Twenty-third and Eighteenth Streets, east of Sixth Avenue; and Shannessy, all west of Sixth Avenue, between these streets.

The commissioners were eager to acquire knowledge from those who had had experience with Paid and partially Paid Fire Departments, and an examination of the systems in operation; and in November, Messrs. Shaler and Myers visited Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, and made useful and interesting reports. These advocated a semi-paid system for the upper part of the city, and prudence in adopting a new telegraph system. One of the results of offering rewards for the conviction of incendiaries was the sending to prison of two incendiaries, Gaetano Castagnetto and Thomas A. Lambert, and the payment of the rewards offered Fire Marshal Baker and Policeman Charles Van Duzer, who were pensioned in 1885, shared one reward of the one thousand dollars.

The year 1868 saw the commissioners surrounded with interference from Albany, and embarrassed by the gradual increase in the pay of the force. By Chapter 408 of the Laws of 1867, the salaries were:

Chief Engineer


Assistant Engineer


District Engineers




Assistant Foremen






The estimate of the year was $893,600, of which sum $716,770 was for salaries. The citizens' association took the department in hand, and after a conference with the commissioners , and a searching investigation, reported that its workings were marked by the greatest efficiency. The report was signed by William Wood, chairman, William Bloodgood, S. S. Constant, Nathaniel Sands, R. M. Henry and T. J. Powers. But the opponents of the commission the Paid Department system, and Innovations, continued their attacks in the press. One of the organs said:

"At Albany, in the Assembly, after sweeping resolutions of censure and broad charges of corruption and inefficiency, the following committee was appointed to "investigate" the Fire Department; Alexander Frear, chairman; Christopher Johnson, of new York; William Bristol, of Wyoming; and Jacob Worth, of Kings. The committee held four sessions, and the testimony adduced was such as to call for the following sarcastic resolutions, which were offered at a meeting of the commissioners by Mr. Myers:

Resolved, That the Board feels gratified for the recent searching investigation by a committee of the Honorable House of Assembly into the system on which its business is conducted, into the efficiency of this Department under their control, into the economy and fidelity with which the public money is disbursed, and into the benefits derived therefrom, directly or indirectly, by individual commissioners, beyond the amount of their salary.

Resolved, That without anticipating the report of the said committee, it is matter of pride for this Board to know that this evidence has established the fact that this Department has been so managed as to prove upon such investigation an exception to the theory of many citizens, that to hold public office in New York is necessarily to be incompetent, dishonest, and corrupt.

The committee only reported the testimony taken. The investigation was generally regarded as a political scheme, and the evidence upset the charges of inefficiency, political "dickering," favoritism, extravagance, and corruption. But a bill was sent to the Democratic Assembly to increase the force and its pay, and the Republican Senate ask the commissioners if such were necessary or proper. The commissioners replied in the negative, and Messrs. Galway and Myers went to Albany and fought the bill, which Mr. Abbe favored, and it failed to become a law. Its defeat saved the department an aggregate of expense amounting to eight hundred and eighty-three thousand eight hundred and sixty dollars and twenty-four cents. Senators Crowley, Palmer, Banks and Kennedy were largely instrumental in defeating the bill, which contained several "ring" schemes, among the a "back pay grab" in the interest of Thomas C. Fields.

In June, 1868, through the stupidity, or worse, of Engineer P. W. Hand, who was punished by dismissal from the department, the Amoskeag engine of Company No. 1 exploded at a fire at No. 53 Broadway with fatal results. The disaster was caused by the strapping down of the safety valve, which leaked.

On the thirtieth of July, 1868, Assistant Engineer Perley, a district engineer, the medical officer and a foreman were constituted a board to pass on the competency of officers of the department, and in August the president of the commission was authorized to take command at fires as the highest office of the department. Nothing in this action was intended to deprive Chief Kingsland of his power and authority.

Commissioners JOSHUA GROSVENOR ABBE died of pulmonary disease at Windsor, Ct., on the Twenty-first of September, 1868. His memory was honored in suitable resolutions offered by his associates, and his funeral was attended by District engineers William Brandon and Robert V. Mackey; and foremen as follows:


John H. McNeil

Engine Company No. 3

William H. Wilson

Engine Company No. 14

George A. Erlacher

Engine Company No. 13

N. L. Chamberlain

Engine Company No. 17

Samuel Yates

Engine Company No. 27

George McLoughlin

Engine Company No. 32

John Moore

Hook and Ladder Company No. 1

Charles O. Shay

Hook and Ladder Company No. 5

Robert King

Hook and Ladder Company No. 7

James H. Monroe

Hook and Ladder Company No. 9

Christopher H. Reynolds

Hook and Ladder Company No. 11.

Mr. Galway succeeded Mr. Abbe as treasurer of the department, and a code of telegraphic fire signals from Station 2 to Station 727 was adopted. The engineers were redistricted, the rules for sending out alarms were amended, the telegraph system was brought near to the present day, and the first inspection of the companies was made in October.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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