Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 57, Part V

By Holice and Debbie

The life of a fireman, now as ever, is as adventurous as that of a soldier; nay, it is not too much to say that the former runs far more risk then the latter. The fireman is on duty night and day, facing the enemy that never runs away, but stays to conquer or be conquered. When the alarm rings in the station house no man knows but if it may be the summons to his death. The vehicle that whirls to a fire may be swiftly conveying him to an agonizing end. But of this he never stops to think. The greater the peril the more eager is he to face it. Many and many a time have those soldiers of fire placed themselves in imminent danger and been warned by onlookers to retire. But again and again have these warnings been reiterated ere these gallant men thought of flinching from their posts while a chance remained to check, even in the slightest degree, the ravages, of the flames. They mount to the loftiest buildings, from every window of which streams of fire are pouring. Down into suffocating cellars they will go with their hose, while, mayhaps, rivers of molten lead, or avalanches of burning timber are falling around them. Underneath facades swaying to and fro, or tottering walls, half-blind with smoke, they will toil, while spectators re fearing that very moment will be their last. Into the very jaws of death--a room aflame or filled with volumes of suffocating smoke--they will unhesitatingly rush to rescue women and children.

Act of heroism, material for the pages of thrilling romances, are plentiful in the records of the department. We could fill a volume larger then this with the details of such daring deeds. We can give only a few:

Ten or a dozen years ago, during a fire in Trinity Building on Broadway, a heavy beam fell form the roof on eight firemen in such a way that it prostrated them without crushing them. The wood was on fire from end to end, and did not leave them space to rise in. they lay close to the floor which was smoking and covered with sparks, and the beam continued to burn over them with a few feet of their leads, threatening to roast them to death. One of the pipes had been buried with them, and when they discovered it they turned it against the flames. Steaming to death now threatened them, as the water vaporized in the heat, and filled their crib with scalding white clouds. But the circumstances saved them, by enabling them to abate the fire below until their comrades outside had lifted the beam over them.

Another building on Broadway was burning in 1877. It was agreed between three hose men, who were stationed on the roof, and one of the officers stationed below, that as soon as the fall of the roof appeared imminent to him he should call to them, and they should leap to the next building, over an intervening alley five or six feet wide. In the meantime they did not distress themselves, but worked steadily with their streams, which were poured down the scuttles. The hiss and lapping of the flames, the fierce pulsations of the engines, the trumpeted orders of the chiefs, and the crash of falling iron and timber were so loud and confusing that a voice might have easily been lost in them. Notwithstanding this fact, the men held to their secure ground until a gentle rattling indicated that the roof was about to collapse, and they hard the officer below cry, "Leap!" it was a fearful moment. There were hundred of people watching them. Every spectator held his breath. Then, almost simultaneously, the bold hose men sprang from one parapet to another, and they had barely done so when a dense volume of smoke and sparks shot into the air, and a pit of flame remained where the men had stood before. The pent-up feelings of the crowd were let loose, and a roaring cheer drowned the roaring of the fire and the loud laboring of the engines.

There are many, too many, sad episodes, also to record. A man has been killed by being knocked from a ladder by a misdirected stream of water, or wandering over the roofs of houses, falls down an open scuttle, and is either crippled for life or killed. He runs the risk of his engine or truck colliding with a vehicle, with all the dreadful consequences, and there are a thousand and one other accidents to which he is liable in the service of his calling. Some of these we record in other chapters. The chapter devoted to the Roll of Merit will give an idea of the heroism and dangers of a fireman's life.

There is like wise to be enumerated among the risks run by firemen the probability of coming in contact with contagious diseases. Here is an amusing story from the old Department; "In 1857 a fire occurred in a humble tenement in Baxter Street. Several of the inmates were sick and unable to escape. The men of Hose Company No. 14 dashed in among the flames to the rescue. The last man was carried out by James R. Mount, Cooley, Lyons, and Evans, of No. 14. They were conveying the patient still farther up the street out of the way of the engiens, when a woman rushed up and cried, "Thank God, he is saved! But oh! My husband will die, for he has the small-pox bad!" As if their burden was red-hot iron, the affrighted firemen dropped it, and started back aghast. There was a place called Begg's Saloon, at No. 71 Mulberry Street, and the firemen made a rush for this to disinfect themselves with as much whiskey as they could carry. They did not care for the fire and the crumbling building, but the small-pox--oh! That was worse than death.


The long hook and ladder trucks are objects of wonder to the stranger visiting the station, and he cannot understand how these seemingly unwieldy machines can get quickly to a fire. But they do, and quite as quickly as the engines. It is a marvelous sight to see one of these machines manned, dashing through the street, and turning the sharp corner of a street with as much ease as a hand-cart. The driver in front has, without a doubt, perilous task; also the brakeman in the rear. But driver and brakeman manage the machine with as much dexterity a the sailing master of a yacht, and rarely cause a collision. In the winter time, when the car companies pile up the snow in little mountains in the gutters, truck have come to grief from this cause, and, being upset, many men have thus been injured. In the densely populated districts hook and ladder companies go out on a fire alarm with four engines. Should people be cut off in an upper story, in the twinkling of an eye the long ladders are against the walls, and the men climbing rapidly to the rescue.

Should the fire have eaten the partition, the hooks are plied to tear down the walls


The men have been constantly on the lookout for improvements that would reduce the time in getting out to a fire. The sliding pole has an immense advantage over the old-fashioned pell-mell rush down the stairs, saving nearly a minute of preparation, and every second tells nowadays. Captain Rafferty's Fire Patrol No. 3, on the West Thirtieth Street, was the first to have a contrivance superior to another invention--a trap door. The device, working smoothly and quickly, saved some seconds of time lost in sliding down the brass poles and clambering to the seat on the engines. In exhibition drills Drivers Lyell and Root have been able to drop tot heir seats and start the truck in less than two seconds, which is away ahead in anything done in the patrol truck manning. The trap is cut in the ceiling immediately over the driver's seat on the heavy truck. It is surrounded on the floor above by a polished brass railing four feet high that shines like a mirror. The driver's beds are right beside this railing. When an alarm sounds at night the spring from their beds together, seize the railing and let their bodies drop horizontally through the trap. The instant the door opens they let go and catch a second bar fitted into the ceiling, like an acrobat dropping from one trapeze to another. This second bar balances them and prevents them from falling forward in their five-foot drop to the truck seat. A weight attached to a pulley shuts the trap door with a bang the moment they disappear through the trap.

The time in hitching is wonderfully quick, and it would seem that it cannot possibly be made less, notwithstanding the hopes of those who are constantly on the lookout for further improvements in this direction. At present, with the exception of two acts, everything is automatic. These two acts are the movement of the horses from the stalls to their places beside the engine shaft, and the snapping of the collars over their necks by the watchmen. And both these are done in such a perfect way that they are as good as automatic anyhow. Automatic machinery does all the rest of the work quick enough to make your head swim if you try to time the details. The instant the operator at Fire Headquarters opens the circuit to send an alarm, the current drops a metal ball right besides the gong. The ball strikes, presses down a bar of brass, and pulls steel wire that automatically unhitches the springs at the sides of the stalls tht hold the halters of the horses. the hammer on the gong, simultaneously with the first alarm stroke, stops the little "record" clock that is perched on a shelf besides the gong, and thus automatically keeps a record of the time consumed in going to a fire, putting it out, and returning. By comparing the little clock with the big clock on the wall, that is kept going all the time, the captain of the company can tell at a glance just how long it took to do any given piece of work. The harness is always suspended over the shaft by an automatic iron "hanger." It is held in position there by springs. When the driver grabs the reins the tension loosens the springs, the harnesses drop down upon the horses, the watchman snaps the collars around the horses' necks, and automatic weights attached tot little pulleys in the ceiling carry the framework of the "hanger" up overhead out of the way. Improvements are steadily being made in the collars that the fire horses wear. They are made in two sections, fastened with hinge at the top, and snap together at the bottom with an automatic steel spring lock. Collars made of cast iron were introduced in some of the engine houses. They are sixteen pounds lighter then the leather collars, which weigh thirty-six pounds each, and they are considered more durable and serviceable. These collars can be fastened around the horses' necks in a fraction of a second.

A new automatic special alarm has been introduced, by which time is saved in transmitting an alarm from a regular street box, and is made use of by many big buildings. This alarm consists of an electric contrivance hitched on to the ceiling of each floor and attached to a very sensitive wire. A certain dangerous degree of heat in any particular floor, no matter how generated, will cause the wire to expand, and start a current that drops a disk in the engine houses of the district in which the building is located, and on this disk is inscribed not only the exact location of the building, but also the exact part of the building in which the fire, or the heat what is great enough to produce fire, if not checked, has broke out.


On April 7, 1884, the building known as the St. George Flats, Nos. 223 and 225 East Seventeenth, was the scene of a conflagration. The building, as an architectural sense, was a striking feature of the east side. There are few buildings used for domestic purposes that exceed it in height. It was seven stories high from the sidewalk (exclusive of the basement), and was eight stories in the rear.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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