Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 50, Part V

By Holice and Debbie

The question of protecting what is termed the "dry goods district," which may be said to cover the territory bounded by West Broadway, Spring Street, Crosby, and elm Streets and Chambers Street, had become a burning one. Mr. Purroy made a comprehensive and above report which favored a system by which water could be pumped into portable tanks from the rivers to points of vantage by the fire-boats, and taken from the tanks by the land engines. In 1883 double companies were established in the quarters of Engine Companies 12, 13, 16, 31, and 33, and Hook and Ladder companies 6 and 9. The prominent fires of the year were the Inman Pier fire, February 1; loss $391,000; and mercantile property, at Nos. 537 and 539 Broadway, September 18th; loss, $435,721.

The "dry good district' is the richest in the city. In one block of it, bounded by Worth, Thomas, Church Streets, and Broadway, the property (including buildings and contents) is worth $25,000,000. From 1877 to 1882 the total losses by fire in the dry-goods districts amounted to $6,490,496; the fire insurance premiums received (less expenses) were $2,345,000; losses over receipts, $4,145,496. No wonder the companies declined to insure fully, and the merchants tried Europe in vain. More water was wantd to induce the insurance men to accept more risks. Chief Bates instanced Ridley's store from Orchard to Allen Streets, and also Lord & Taylor's, each taking in a large space, that were in danger of destruction by fire from a lack of water. "If ever a fire gets hold of these places," said he, "it will burn pretty smartly. In that neighborhood all the pipes are small, and the water pressure is very light. For ordinary uses, it run well enough, but not for extraordinary fires."

In 1882, there were 2,001 fires in the city, which damaged or destroyed 942 buildings.

Loss on buildings and vessels


Loss on contents

3, 217,828

Total loss


Estimated insurance on buildings and vessels


Estimated insurance on contents


Total Estimated Insurance


"Take the line of church Street," said Mr. Pollak, then of the North British Mercantile, now of the Niagara, "and you will see buildings from 60 to 100 feet in height full of flammable material. They contain costly silks, averaging in value in single buildings a million of dollars. Church Street is not over forty feet in width, but there is hardly a warehouse on that line from Vesey Street up that has an iron shutter above the first floor. There is nothing to protect one building from its neighbor opposite in case of fire. In Leonard Street, near Church Street, there is a high building containing enormous wealth. Though t is what we call a brick and stone structure, yet a fire opposite would reach it and cause it to burn down in a very short time. If the wind blew that way, everything would be against the Fire Department. the water in that district is at the very lowest pressure."

"For the better protection of the vast property in the dry goods district," said President Van Cott, of the Fire Commission, "the question of the water supply is a very important one. There is no doubt that it is entirely inadequate on the line of West Broadway. The Fire Commissioners think that stationery cisterns should be placed at all important points in the district, and direct communications made with the Croton water mains. These cisterns could be placed under the sidewalks and properly covered. Then, in the event of a great fire, we could raise the cover and turn on the water to the cistern, into which the suction pipes of half a dozen engines could be placed at once. Then we would have an abundance of water which cannot be obtained from the hydrants."

"Tanks would be required," said chief Bates, "at such places as Ridley's in Grant Street, Claflin's, and in Nassau Street. At these points there is danger of a very serious fire. The main water pipes are laid four feet from the surface of the ground, and if the cisterns were put five feet under, they could easily b filled with water. There could be stopcocks to shut off the water from the cistern when full. When an engine has a solid body of water to draw from, she an throw a stream of enormous height and force,"

On this subject Lieutenant Kensehan, of Engine No. 31, said: "some years ago, at the big fire on Grand Street and Broadway, where two of our men were killed, we had about twelve lines on the roof. But there was a fatal lack of water. It would just spurt out and then go back. tht was a $3,000,000 fire, destroying five buildings. Some companies get into a main where there is enough water; there are other pipes which won't give any. When these companies get into a min, the best engine gets all the water."

Mr. F. C. Moore, Second Vice-president of the Continental Fire Insurance company, said: "there are two things which tend to keep alive the apprehension of a great fire in that district which will extend from river to river. One is the fault of the construction of the building, many of them being above the height which the Fire Department can reach with their steamers. The other is the lack of water. The great fire in Worth Street in 1876 proved that there were faults in the division walls not known to the underwriters."

The proposed tank system has obtained great favor in all quarters, and may be carried out. When the aqueduct is finished, the Fire Department will have all the water necessary for coping with the greatest of conflagrations.

Mr. Purroy's suggestion in regard to a portable water tank to protect the dry goods district had not been forgotten. Chief John McCabe, in charge of the repair shops carried out the idea, and in February had built a tank on Mr. Purroy's design, on the 25th of February, the Board ordered a test of it.

The test was entirely satisfactory, and the tank was put in service on the 15th of March in 1884, under the following general order:

"A portable water-tank to furnish water from the rivers to the land engines, after being supplied therewith by the fire-boats, and a four-wheel hose-tender with 600 feet of new rubber 3-1/4-inch hose, will be put in service on the 17th instant, and pending the preparation of the quarters of Engine company No. 20, where they are to be permanently located, they will be temporarily placed in the quarters of Engine company No. 27. The following rules will govern their use:

  1. At any time occurring within the distance of a half a mile from the river-fronts where there is either a failure or scarcity of water, the officer will, if in his discretion he deem it advisable, call for the tank, the tender and a fire-boat by means of the special call 18-1, followed first by the number of the station on the river front nearest to which the fire-boat is required to report as for example; the fire being at Worth Street and West Broadway, the call will be 18-1 (the preliminary signal or notice that the tank, tender and fire-boat will be required), 82 (the station at Washington and Jay Streets, where the
  2. When the special all is sent, the officer in command will at once dispatch a disengaged team of horses from among those at the fire, or elsewhere available, with a detail of two men, to bring the tank to the point designated.
  3. Upon the receipt of the special call, the tender designated to co-operate will immediately proceed in advance of the tank to the point indicated for the latter, and stretch its hose by the nearest and best route towards the point on the river-front where the fire-boat lands.
  4. The fire-boat at the time designated to respond to alarms from the last station indicated in the call shall at once proceed to the nearest available landing place thereto, and immediately stretch sufficient hose to connect with the hose from the tank.
  5. When the officer in command determines upon sending that call he shall at once make all necessary arrangements by detailing officers and men, obtaining additional hose and making such other dispositions as will secure prompt connections between the fire-boat, tank and hand engines, and guard against interference with and damage to the lines of hose.
  6. Nothing contained in Section 1 of this order shall be construed to prevent the use of the tank, tender, and fire-boat at a greater distance than a half a mile from either line or in any other that may be deemed proper by the officer in command at the fire.

In March, commissioner Purroy studied, under the authorization of the board, fire extinguishing methods at Milwaukee, Detroit, and other cities, and made a report thereon. On the 9th of April, the Board recognized the bravery of Fireman John Binns, Thomas F. Barrett and Michael E. C. Graham, who rescued Louis Castaign at the fire at the St. George's flats, Nos. 223 and 225 East Seventeenth Street.

April 23d, 1884, Chief of Battalion, John W. Miller, was retired on a pension of $1,250 a year, and on the 29th came the retirement of Eli Bates, Chief of the Department on $2,350 a year on the report of the medical officers of disability caused or induced by the actual performance of the duties of his position. Their retirements led to the following promotions and changes: Charles Oscar Shay, Assistant Chief to be Chief of the Department; Hugh Bonner, Second assistant Chief, Assistant Chief; John McCabe, Chief of Battalion in charge of the repaid shop; Second Assistant Chief, Foreman Charles D. Purroy, Engine Company No. 1, and foreman Thomas Lally, of Hook and Ladder Company No. 12, Chief of Battalion, and Foreman John Castles, of Engine Company No. 18, in charge of repair shops. Up to this time Christopher Hoell, who had instructed the classes in life saving had furnished scaling ladders and belts to the Department under the contract, but foreman Castles began to make them on models prepared by chief McCabe. In May, the office of Superintendent of horses was abolished, and Superintendent Joseph Shay ws appointed a foreman with supervision of the Training and Hospital Stables and the selection of horses for the Department. June 10, 1884, the Board offered advancement to any member of the force below the rank of Foreman, and suitable recognition if above that rank, or to a uniformed member who should invent a proper means of casting a life line to the top of a building from a distance of not less than 300 feet within thirty days. October 10th, the estimate of the expenses for 1885 was fixed at $1,774,773. During the year resolutions were adopted that applicants for promotion must have passed through the classes of the school of instruction, and that promotion to the grade of engineers and assistant engineers must be made from men who had attended the repair shops thirty days. It was also provided hat men once detailed to one branch of the service should be not be transferred to another except in cases of emergency.

In May, the improper and unlooked for uses which persons holding badges put them to caused their recall, and for the use of citizens and the press, officers and members of the uniformed force and the un-uniformed officials and subordinates of the Department three badges were designed.

February 4, the board received the resignation of Mr. William P. Esterbrook, Inspector of Buildings. Mr. Esterbrook's integrity, energy and zeal were conspicuous, but he was independent of office and the severance of his connection with the Department was due to controversy about the putting of fire escapes on the flats of John H. Sherwood at Forty-fourth Street and fifth Avenue. The act of resignation was considered hasty and unnecessary. The same month a plan of lightening the labors of the horses and men of the Department by having alarms sent so as to pass by a number of company quarters remote from the fire signalled was suggested, but so far it has not ripened.

February 16th, 1885, Mr. Esterbrook was succeeded as Inspector of Buildings by Mr. Albert F. D'Oench, a practical builder and architect.

ALBERT FREDERICK D'OENCH, Superintendent of Buildings, was born at St. Louis, Mo., on Christmas Day, 1852. His father, William D'Oench, one of the most prominent of St. Louis' citizens, was of Flemish origin and was born in Silesia, and his mother, whose family were Alsatians, was born in Hamburg. They came to America in 1838 and grew up with St. Louis. Mr. D'Oench studied at Washington University and received the degree of M. E. in 1872 when he went to Stuttgart and took the three year course of architecture. After traveling in German, Austria, Switzerland, France, and England he returned to America in the fall of 1875 to become a draughtsman in the office of Mr. Lopold Eidlitz the well known architect and once principally engaged on drawings of the new Capitol at Albany. Afterwards he worked in the office of Messrs. Richard M. Hunt and Edward R. Raht, finishing his course of training in 1881. He established himself as an architect in 1882 and in 1885 on the strongest and most flattering recommendations was appointed Inspector of Buildings to succeed Mr. W. P. Esterbrook by commissioners Van Cott, Purroy and Croker and under the law was made Superintendent, January 12, 1886. His administration of the affairs of the Bureau of Inspection of Buildings has caused neither his friends nor the public to regret his selection which it is fair to state that in transacting business he departed little from the course laid down by his predecessor.

Belts and snaps were provided for members of the Life Saving Corps to enable them to attach themselves to use their hands and arms freely when secured by the snaps to ladders. Gilbert T. Orr, Chief of Battalion, relieved from duty at fires, died on the 9th of March. March, 23d, the following important resolutions were adopted:

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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