CHIEF JOHN KENLON OF NEW YORK CITY
One of the striking figures in fire department circles in this country is Chiet John Kenlon, of the New York department, who has held that responsible position and filled it with consummate ability since 1911, when he was promoted upon the retirement of that other notable character, Edward F. Croker. Chief Kenlon, by reason of his many-sided abilities, is eminently equipped for this position of commanding officer of the uniformed force. He is versatile and is right at home and highly efficient in all branches of his duties, which are many and various. His deep interest and study of the questions affecting his chosen field were demonstrated in his addresses on fire prevention and on sprinklers, which were made at the 1914 convention of the International Association of Fire Engineers, at New Orleans, and which appeared in full in the last issue of FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING. Chief Kenlon was born in Dublin about fifty-four years ago, and when eleven years of age he went to sea. It was three years later that he saw New York for the first time, and called it his home, although he still spent most of his time on the ocean. Before giving up the sea, Kenlon held both a chief engineer’s and a master’s license. As a fireman his first assignment was to Engine Company No. 24, in Morton street. In about ten years he had become foreman of engine Company No. 2, and on December 15, 1903, was promoted to the rank of battalion chief, being in command of the second district. A year later he was made chief of Battalion No. 19, comprising the fire boats, and when, in December, 1908, the marine division of the department was created, Kenlon was appointed to its command as deputy chief. Kenlon’s work in command of the department’s boats became widely known. His broad abilities, his great activity and his sound judgment placed him before the public eye as a foremost figure in the department, and when Chief Edward F. Croker resigned on April 17, 1911, Kenlon was immediately appointed acting chief of the department. The same year he was made chief, the promotion not being on seniority, but on the merit system, the civil service examination questions covering every phase of fire fighting. The ceremony at fire headquarters, at which Kenlon was appointed chief, was a memorable one. Besides the Fire Commissioner, Joseph Johnson. Jr., and Deputy Commissioners Farley and Olvany, there were present Mayor Gaynar. James Creelman, president of the civil service commission that conducted the examination, at which Kenlon headed the list of the ten candidates for promotion with a percentage of 85.08, and ex-Chief Croker. Commissioner Johnson announced the result of the examination for chief and cheers were given as Kenlon walked up to the platform. Mayor Gavnor made an address in which he said: “How much better it is for you, the chief of the department, and the others who have been promoted today, to know that you have been promoted on your own merits, and not by the influence of anybody,” and added: “You have just taken the place you have taken today on your own merits, after a fair and square examination.” Mr. Creelman, who issued a copy of the examination papers, calling attention to the fact that they covered every phase of fire fighting, made an address, in which he said: “The examination, whose culmination you just witnessed here today, gets its peculiar significance from the fact that it was taken at a time when two situations came together in New York. One was the erection of high buildings in the city, both uptown and downtown, and the peculiar situation in regard to the water supply of New York, together with the use of chemicals in fire fighting, and the fact that the fire department was coming to a motor basis, rather than horse basis, together with the consolidation of the city of New York and the outlying towns into a single city, creating a larger administrative field, made it necessary that the fire chief of New York should possess very high technical qualifications. The other is that this examination, calling for such new tests, such exceptional tests, was thought by all civil service commissions all over the United States, and all of the experts are of the opinion that it is the highest office ever filled in the history of the world by competition, outside of Cgina, of course. When he was asked to give an outline of his coming administration, Chief Kenlon said: “I feel greatly the honor of having led such an intelligent and worthy number of competitors. While I am chief of the department, I am going to try to maintain its excellent standing, and strive to ever increase the efficiency of the greatest fire department in the country, by continually modernizing the fire fighting methods,” and his record since then has shown that he has ever kept these aims in view and has done so with conspicuous success.
Chief Kenlon was in command at the Equitable Life Assurance Society Building fire, at No. 129 Broadway, in January, 1912, and his masterly handling of that serious fire brought him much praise. To quote from FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING at that time: “Concerning the manner in which the conflagration was handled, by Chief Kenlon and his men, too much praise cannot be given. Handicapped by streets too narrow to admit apparatus, by the prevalence of a fortymile gale and every man encased from head to foot in ice, to attack the flames was a herculean task. And yet, from the roofs of the surrounding skyscrapers, millions of gallons of water were poured into the burning building, thus keeping the flames within the confines of its walls. The fact that the fire was confined to its original limits will doubtless allay apprehension as to the menace to downtown New York of a fire once well under way. Here was a blaze which met all the conditions of a potential conflagration and which, fanned by a gale as it was, might have realized the worst fears of those who expect a fire some day to ‘sweep from river to river.’” While so much credit was due to the chief, he did not forget the heroism of the firemen under him, and he then said: “The work of the men was superb, and they never showed better than they did in keeping this fire in the building in which it started. I cannot say too much in praise of them, and I would be a strange man if I was not proud of them.” He is jusftly proud of the department he has been identified with for so long and likewise the rank and file of the department is proud of their chief. Chief Kenlon’s character and attention to duty at all times was illustrated at an appreciation dinner at the Hotel Astor, tendered to him two years ago, by a large number of friends. Throughout the banquet a telephone occupied a place on the floor beside him and every once in a while the bell tinkled, and the chief reached down for the phone, and thus he kept in touch with events while the guest of honor at a dinner at which about four hundred were present. Not only his enterprise, but his popularity was demonstrated. Cheers greeted him when he entered the banquet hall. During the dinner, C hief Kenlon was presented with a handsome diamond ring as a token of the esteem in which he is held. The toastmaster, Patrick J. O’Beirne, made a speech of welcome and Chief Kenlon’s reply showed that he possesses the gift of public speaking to a high degree, displaying a range of study and thought and a quality of eloquence that delighted his hearers. He spoke of the fire in Alexandria, and then of other big fires, up to the Chicago and Baltimore fires.