At 90 Tells of Running to Fires.
Who is the oldest survivor of the old New York volunteer firemen? When Thomas Hedges Foggin died recently at the home of his son in Port Richmond, S. I., his friends said that honor belonged to him. He had just celebrated his ninetieth birthday. Since then several men who ran with the engines and hose companies in the days when New York city occupied only a small part of Manhattan Island have come forward with the assertion that not only their age exceeds that of Mr. Foggin, but that their length of service in the department was greater than his. Mr. Foggin became a member of famous old “Big Six ” engine company in 1857. In the Staten Island village where Mr. Foggin died lives one of the veteran volunteers who were born before him and had been running to fires for many years before Mr. Foggin became a member of “Big Six.” He is Joseph L. Vanderbilt, of No. 146 Harrison avenue, Port Richmond, and w-as born September 19, 1821.
“I do not say that 1 am the oldest of the veteran volunteer firemen, but I surely would come in for that distinction before Mr. Foggin,’’ he said recently. ”1 was running with Engine Company No. 3 for several years before Tweed organized “Big Six.”
Although a nonagenarian, Mr. Vanderbilt does not look more than seventy and his mind is as active as that of a man of fifty. This soundness of body and mind he attributes to the clean life he has always led. From a boy he was an athlete and he was an old time baseball fan. He was one of the organizers and for several seasons manager of the famous Eckfords, of Williamsburg. Mr. Vanderbilt loves to talk of the days when East Broadway was the fashionable thoroughfare of the city, when rival volunteer fire companies raced to fires and when the old Eckfords were humbling the Atheltics and the Mutuals.
“There is one thing I can’t remember, however,” Mr. Vanderbilt said, “and that is just when 1 began to run with the fire engine. I was only a boy when I got the fever, and in those days all the boys delighted in getting hold of the rope and running to a blaze. I served my apprenticeship in the department as volunteer runner with Engine Company No. 33, which was in Gouverneur street, between Henry and Madison streets. I turned out so often with the company that I became an expert long distance runner. One of my longest runs was with No. 33 to the old penitentiary that occupied the site which is now Madison Square Park. I was the leader on the rope. The leader was usually the best runner, and it was his duty to set a pace for the other men and keep the rope tight. Many of the men who started behind me that day dropped from exhaustion, but others took their places and old No. 33 had the honor of beating all the other companies to the fire. All the companies went up Broadway, and I remember how happy we were as we passed and left behind the other engines and hose trucks. Although I was born in Allen street, my first recollection of New York was when we lived near what is now First avenue and First street. To the north of us we looked out over fields and woods. At the time I began to run with Engine No. 33 I was living in Madison street, then one of the fine residential thoroughfares of the city. The Fifth avenue of that day was East Broadway, where everybody of wealth and prominence resided. When on parade, or reviewed by the mayor, the fire department made as fine an appearance as any organization, not excepting the militia. With our red shirts, black trousers and leather helmets we made a brave showing. 1 was on parade when the Croton water was turned into the mains for the first time, and when the. Atlantic cable was laid we were called out to assist in celebrating the achievement. After Engine No. 33, which was popularly known as “Old Black Joke,” had been driven out of Gouverneur street by Tweed I assisted in the formation of Hose Company No. 34, which was located at avenue D and Tenth street.”