Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 51, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



Its Construction and Development. -- Records of the several Superintendents and Their Efforts To Perfect the System. -- Superintendent Smith. -- A Man with a Creditable Record. -- Vigilant, Enterprising, Scientific. -- Central Office of the Fire-Alarm Telegraph.

The telegraph in connection with the fire service has become an indispensable adjunct, and in as much a necessity in communicating the existence and locality of a fire as the steam and other improved apparatus for extinguishing. Indeed, successful management of fires depends so much upon early and instantaneous information that the telegraphic system is now considered as important as any branch of the department. the old-time method of detecting fires by the aid of look-outs upon high towers situated indifferent parts of the city, and communicating their existence to the public, and approximating to the locality by striking the tower bells, was kept up until the Fire Alarm Telegraph System ws put in operation.

At this time a system of telegraph was in use connecting the various bell towers with each other, which was continued, and the look-outs were maintained at Union Market, Essex Market, Marion Street, Spring Street, Jefferson Market, Twenty-sixth Street, Thirty-third Street, Yorkville, and Mount Morris for sometime, but they have gradually been abandoned, and the old towers removed, with the exception of the one at Mount Morris, and at Morrisania.

The Fire Alarm telegraph ws constructed under the old Gamewell patent, and was put in operation in January, 1871, by the contractors, Messrs. Charles T. and J. N. Chester, and Mr. Charles T. Chapin was appointed Superintendent. The Central Office was located on the second floor of Firemen's Hall, in the room lately occupied by the President of the Board. This system embraced the territory of Manhattan island, including that of the East River islands, and consisted on its equipment of 2780 poles, 612 miles of wire, divided into 56 circuits, viz, 41 box signal circuits, 3 key and bell circuits, 2 tower circuits, 2 dial circuits, and I police circuit, 548 alarm boxes, with 54 alarm gongs and 42 key and bell magnets in the houses of the fire companies, and 16 dial instruments in the quarters of the district engineers or battalion commanders, and the necessary receiving and transmitting apparatus in the Central office, the alarms from the street boxes and bell towers on receipt at the Central office being repeated and transmitted to the several companies over the gong circuits, which was the only one source upon which companies depended for receiving alarms. Each company was provided with a key and bell instrument, connected with a talking circuit, for the purpose of informing the Central Office by signal when about to leave quarters, and on their return to quarters after an absence.

Mr. Chapin was succeeded as Superintendent in March, 1871, by Mr. C. K. Smith. The annexation of the Westchester District to the city on January 1st, 1874, made necessary the extension of the lines beyond the Harlem river, and in the early part of that year this was accomplished by cabling the river at Third Avenue and at Macomb's Dam. In this district was located six companies, which were equipped with the regular apparatus a in use throughout the department. In 1874 the position of Superintendent was vacated by Mr. C. K. Smith, and Chief Operator John H. Emerick was placed in charge until the September following, when Mr. Emerick ws made superintendent and Mr. J. Elliott ws made Chief Operator and subsequently appointed Assistant Superintendent. I January, 1880, the position of Superintendent being vacated by Mr. Emerick, Mr. Smith was appointed Superintendent.

J. Elliott Smith, the present head of the Fire Alarm Telegraph System, has been connected with the department since 1873, at which time he entered the department as Assistant Operator, ws promoted as Operator the following July, and made Chief Operator in September of the same year. In July, 1879, he was promoted to be Assistant Superintendent, the office of Chief Operator being at the same time abolished, and on February 1st, 1880, was appointed Superintendent.

Superintendent Smith was born in Northfield, Vermont, in 1834, received his education in the Select School of the town and at the Vermont Seminary at Newbury.

On the opening of the Boston and Montreal telegraph line under the old Bain system, he learned that art of telegraphy, and was placed in charge of the office in Northfield, then the headquarters of the Vermont Central Railroad, at the age of sixteen, his superintendent being Professor Moses G. Farmer, the original inventor of the Fire Alarm Telegraph System. In this occupation he continued some three or four years, with the exception of an interval of two or three school terms. Engaging then in the transportation office of the Company, going thence to the cashiership of the transportation department of He joined General Butler's New Orleans expedition. On the arrival of the Federal Army at New Orleans, and the occupation of the city, he was appointed by General Butler Military Superintendent of Telegraph in the Department of the Gulf, with instructions to take possession and management of all telegraph lines, including those of the Police and Fire Alarm.

As the different lines connecting into New Orleans had been almost completely destroyed by the Confederate authorities as they left the city on the approach of the Union forces, the work of reconstruction ws extremely difficult, the more so from lack of the necessary material, and to supply operators its became expedient to draw from the rank and file and establish a school for instruction.

By this method and with the aid of reinforcements imported from the North, the requisite force was provided with which 350 miles of lines were put in operation as fast as reconstructed.

The officials in charge of the Fire alarm and Police Telegraphs were required by the commanding General to take the oath of allegiance to the Government as necessary to their retention in office. This they refused to do, believing themselves indispensable to the service of the city, consequently secure in their position. Not so, however, with the General, who ordered Superintendent Smith to dispossess the entire force as soon as he could do it with safety. This was done within a few weeks as soon as a relieving force could be organized, and these systems remained under Mr. Smith's management until May 1, 1864, when they are restored to the civil government. During the twelve years of Mr. Smith's connection with the New York Department, his constant aim and study has been to add every improvement to the telegraph system which would tend to benefit the service. When fist entering the department he was the importance of reducing the time occupied in the transmission of the alarm signals from the street boxes tot he companies, and on his appointment as chief operator he at once directed his energies to the perfecting of the device by which the several companies were enabled to receive alarms from the street boxes direct, and at the same time they are received at the Central Office. For want of space in the operating room at that time the improvement could only be attached to a single circuit, enough, however, to show the immense benefit in gaining of time, and the advantage of an additional means for the transmission of the signals. The importance of this and other suggested improvements so favorably impressed the Commissioners, that they provided a liberal appropriation for the purpose, and Mr. Smith was charged with the carrying out of the improvement, the details of which he carefully devised, and which were thoroughly carried to completion under his personal supervision; and at the hour of nine o'clock and twenty minutes P. M., the 25th of March, 1878, the electric life was in a moment transfused from the veins and apparatus of the old office to the new room in the upper story of Firemen's Hall; and to the magnificent and multitudinous paraphernalia prepared for it, and constituting the equipment of the finest arrangement of its kind in existence, and now known as the New York system.

A curious incident connected with the operation was the fact that the first fire signal received and transmitted through the new office was the Headquarters' station, which was received within a few minutes after the transfer had been made, and found to be occasioned by a fire on the same block. On the arrival of the midnight relief force at the old office their astonishment was great to find there former office abandoned and in a state of chaos. The transfer has been a perfect success, not a hitch occurring.

The wires of the New York Fire Alarm Telegraph are carried exclusively on poles, no housetops being used for the purpose. There are now nearly 7,000 poles and 1,050 miles of wire, divided into 78 circuits, all of which are metallic, with two or three exceptions; there are 53 box signal circuits, five of which connect with the public schools, and three connect with theatres, manufactories, hotels and other buildings. And known as special building circuits.

There are four combination circuits connecting with the various company houses throughout the department which receive the signals at the Central Office from the fire alarm boxes, and convey them direct to the companies. Eight gong circuits carry the alarms to the large gongs in each company's quarters as transmitted upon the repeating instruments, twelve telephone circuits connect with each company, the quarters of the principal officers of the department, the Gate House in Central Park, the head-quarters of the Police Department, and a watchman's circuit connects with the department repair shops and the hospital stable.

There are 972 signal boxes, 654 of which are attached to poles, 26 are located in city institutions, the property of the city, 131 are located within the public-school buildings, also the property of the city, and 161 are connected with the theatres, hotels, manufactories, and other private buildings.

There are in use in the department 83 large electro mechanical gongs, 74 combination, alarm, and talking instruments, 92 sets of telephones, forming the equipment of the quarters of the respective companies and the principal officials of the department.



NEW YORK, November 6th, 1865..

To the Officers and Members of the Metropolitan Fire Department:

Below will be found a list of Alarm and Signal Stations below Fourteenth Street, adopted by the Board of Metropolitan Fire Commissioners, together with a list of Engine and Hook and Ladder Companies, which are to do duty as designated.

Fire Companies lying above Fourteenth Street will do duty by Bell Alarms in the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th and 6th Districts, as heretofore.

All Bell-ringing below Fourteenth Street will be discontinued from and after------------------------except in case the Telegraph at the Bell Towers should not be in working order, in which of emergency, the Bells will ring the Signal Station Number. For instance, should the Fire be in the vicinity of Old Slip and Water Street, the Bell will ring 1 (internal) 2 (internal) 3, or such number as may designate the station or locallity.

Officers and Members of the several Companies in the Department are particularly enjoined to become familiar with the Numbers of the Alarm and Signal Stations in which they are designated to do duty. A slate will be provided for the purpose of recording the Number of the Station from which the Alarm was received, and on which the Officers of he company will cause to e noted before the house is closed after the apparatus has left for a fire.

To give an Alarm of Fire, unlock and open the Side-box, pull down the Bell-handle as far as it come, then release it, close and lock the Box. Should be ticking be heard in the Telegraph-box after pulling the Bell handle down, you will then send notice of the fire to the nearest Bell Tower or Police Station.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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