Fire Service Ladders and Their Use—Part II

Fire Service Ladders and Their Use—Part II

Brief Historical Background of Fire Department Ladders


Editor’s note: This is the second installment in the treatise devoted to fire service ladders. Chapter I appeared in the May, 1950, issue of this Journal and dealt with Ladder Definitions and Glossary of Terms.

As was explained in the foreword to the initial installment, recognition of the generous assistance rendered the author in the preparation of the text for this treatise will be made in full in the concluding chapter rather than in the respective installments as the work unfolds periodically in this publication.

It is regrettable that the history of the fire service includes so little authentic technical and other data upon which to prepare a comprehensive historical background for this treatise. There is information available on the subject of ladders in general but the histories of American fire departments and the earliest records of organized fire fighting in this country make only minor mention of the ladder equipment used by firemen.

In many respects, the development of ladders for the fire service has been a plant of slow growth. Extension and hooked ladders were known before Christ and used by fire fighters of the Roman Empire. But in this country the evolution from the straight, ground ladder to the extension type, and to the mechanically operated ladder, was gradual, and the greatest advance appears to have been made within the memory of many firemen still in active service.

Hand Drawn Ladder Trucks of Nearly a Century Ago Note the steering tongues, and the method of carrying buckets. Lower picture shows type more predominant in metropolitan cities before and during Civil War. This mounts a beam extension ladder which was possibly added later. It is doubtful if this original apparatus carried extension ladders.

As was pointed out in the initial chapter, the advent of the metal ladder has perhaps had the most profound influence upon the nation’s fire service ladders. Many students prophesy that within the next decade, if not sooner, the fire service will see the complete re- placement of the old wood types by metal models. Yet even in this field of ladders, recent to the country’s fire forces as it is, there is a dearth of historical information. It is difficult to give names and dates and places when describing the origin and development of the several types of such ladders now on the market.

THE use of ladders in fire fighting dates back to the day when man’s abode exceeded one story in height. Doubtless those earliest ladders were adaptations of the makeshift gross bars or rungs tied to side rails, and the single notched pole or one upon which were fastened steps of some kind.

Ladders were used in ancient days to scale walls and enter fortresses in times of war. No doubt it became obvious to the ancients that the same devices by which persons entered buildings would also answer the purpose of escaping from them, and as the utmost ingenuity of the ancients was exercised in devising means to accomplish the one, it was natural that later inventors should hit upon similar contrivances to effect the other.

In the illustrations to the old German translation of Vegetius (400 A.D.) there are ladders of rope and leather, in great variety, with hooks at the ends which when thrown by hand or an engine, were designed to catch hold of the corners and tops of the walls or windows; folding ladders of wood and metal, some consisting of numerous pieces screwed into each other by the person ascending till he reached the desired elevation; others with rollers at their upper ends to facilitate their elevation by rearing them against the front of the walls; baskets or chests containing several persons raised perpendicularly on a movable frame by means of a screw below, that pushed out several hollow frames or tubes contained within each other, like those of a telescope, whose united length reached to the top of the place attacked; sometimes the men were elevated in a basket suspended at the long end of a lever or swape.

Several combinations of the lazy tongs, or jointed parallel bars, also were found in this early history; one of these moved on a carriage and raised a large box containing soldiers, being somewhat identical with a fire escape described in a volume of the Transactions of the London Society of Arts, generations later.

The earliest fire department of which we have knowledge was that which functioned in the first century before Christ. We learn this was formed by the Emperor Augustus Caesar and that it was composed of 600 slaves. They were called Vigiles.

These slave firemen functioned until the year A.D. 6, when Augustus reorganized the department, creating a fire fighting force more in keeping with a great city and capital of a world empire. It lasted until the fall of the Roman State.

Augustus expanded the 600-slave Vigiles into a force of 10,000 Freedmen or citizens, and equipped them with plenty of apparatus—including siphons, ladders, pikes, brooms and life nets. The ladders were called scalae from which no doubt was later derived the term scaling ladder.

There were also long poles called perticae which, it is believed, were used to prop up walls, or push them over.

Down through the years ladders of one kind or another were used both to fight fire, and to rescue unfortunates from fire.

Among the earliest mentions of the use of ladders in this country is one which tells that on March 25, 1691, the Common Council of New York authorized the purchase of “five ladders with sufficient hooks thereto.”

The first reference to ladders in the City of Baltimore was contained in an Act passed in July, 1747, a section of which provided “that any inhabitants in the said town who shall after the first day of December next ensuing permit his, or her chimney to take fire, so as to blaze out at the top shall forfeit and pay the sum of 10 shillings current money for every such offense, and any person having a house in the said town with a chimney in use. who shall not after the first said day of December keep a ladder high enough to extend to the top of the roof of such house, shall also forfeit and pay 10 shillings current money.” Historians at that time commented that the fine of 10 shillings and tall ladders combined, served to keep down fires for a good many years. This was 16 years before the formation of the first fire company in Baltimore.

First Aerial of Historic Ladder I, N.Y.F.D. A two-horse hitch pulled this early ladder truck, and its crew; it was steered by tiller the tillerman perched over the aerial ladder. The make of this apparatus is not recorded in early histories.

In the early days of New York City, ladders were hung up on the fence of the City Hall, near the truck house, that plan being found handy for the first comers, citizens or firemen, to carry the ladders the short distance required at the time.

New York Has First Hook and Ladder Company

What is said to have been the first hook and ladder company was organized in 1772 in New York City. It was known as Mutual Hook & Ladder No. 1. Previously, there had been in existence in that city two hook and ladder trucks but neither bore any name.

Excerpts from the history of that company, which was said to be forerunner of the present Ladder Company 1 of the New York Fire Department, make interesting reading. It is related that on July 10, 1772, a company was formed with George Brewerton, Jr., as overseer (he was at that time an alderman from the West Ward). The members classed themselves as Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 which was located on Fair (Fulton Street) near Nassau. The following year Jacob Stoutenburgh was elected the foreman and in 1776 he was made chief of the fire department.

Hook and Ladder Truck No. 5 of the New York Fire Department at the Turn of the CenturyEarly Model Aerial Used in Fighting Sharon, Pa., Fire Early type one screw” hand-operated mechanical” aerial ladder (resembling a Hayes) in operation at a $150,000 fire in Sharon. Pa., December 18, 1928.

In 1780, Jacob Montague, who was appointed one of the committee for the introduction of water into the city, was chosen foreman and he served till 1782. Two years later the company was reorganized. The members met June 16 and elected Frederick Pentz foreman and took the name “Mutual.” In 1791, David Contain was chosen foreman; he was one of the early advocates for a benevolent fund. In 1796 Garret De Bow assumed command and held the post until 1800, the company at this time being located at the head of Whitehall Street, opposite Bowling Green.

There appears to be no description of the type of ladders and/or “truck” used at the time, other than a crude illustration in “Our Fireman” from which these records are taken. However, records of the company covering a meeting held June 25, 1826, describing arrangements made for the celebration of the anniversary of the fire department on October 14, include this statement: “It was decided that Mr. De Anterisches take the tiller, Davison and Van Antwerp the tongue, and Gratacap the emblem.”

Folding Ladder Truck of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, New York, in 1855

It is indicated also in later records that a “horse was purchased by the Company for eighty-eight dollars, on November 8, 1832.” In 1833 (April), the histories say, “it was decided to sell the horse,” no reasons being given.

In 1833, a Samuel Turner was made assistant foreman of the company and on the night of November 8, 1833, after a fire in Mill Street, the “Mutuals” entertained their “up-town” friends of Hook & Ladder 4 located at Eldridge Street.

The company minutes regarding the great fire of 1835 read:

December 15, 10 1/2 P.M., fire in Water Street. Did duty and watch.

December 16, 3 1/2 A.M. Went to the old fire, (a rekindle?)

December 16, 9 P.M. The largest fire New York ever saw in Merchant, Pearl, Water, Front, South. William, Wall, Hanover, Exchange Place, Beaver Street, Coenties Slip, Gouverneur Lane, Jones Jane, Stone Street, the Exchange, and the South Dutch Church. Absent none.

On May 11, 1836, the “horse was reported as being unfit for duty, and a committee was appointed to dispose of the animal to the best advantage.”

It is related that in 1848 the company had received a new truck “of which they felt very proud,” considering it the “handsomest truck in the City of New York.” In 1849 it is said the brass work on the truck was silver-plated.

In May, 1863, Douglas Cairns was elected foreman.

It is said the company never lost their organization for a single day during the existence of the Old Fire Department, and on the founding of the Paid Fire Department, Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 was officially created on September 8, 1865, using the same location, the same truck and the same distinguishing red cap-fronts of Mutual Hook & Ladder No. 1. Nine of the new company’s twelve members had served with the old unit. It was the only company in the fire department that was continued with the same number and location. Therefore, “it might be said that Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 has had a continuous existence since the sixteenth day of June, 1784.”

Hoel's Scaling Ladder in Use by New York Firemen St. Louis was the first city to have a pompier corps. This was in 1877. It used scaling ladders invented by Chris Hoel. who was later brought to New York to instruct firemen in the use of his product.

An illustration (Page 683) from “Our Foremen” shows the “Folding Ladder Truck” run by Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 along in 1855. What is meant by “folding” is not clear but doubtless referred to the tail-steering arrangement whereby the apparatus could be “folded” or turned in a narrow arc.

Ladder Development

The modern fire department ladder has gone through a process of evolution out of which has developed an appliance that combines great strength with lightness. The exact date of the introduction of the trussed ladder into the fire service remains in obscurity.

Some mystery also surrounds the introduction of the first extension ladders. These first received notice in this Journal about 1880, but it is believed fire departments experimented with them some time before that.

The portable extension ladder was devised to meet the needs for longer ladders, in turn necessitated by the increased height of buildings. In 1882, destruction by fire of an old five-story building at Park Row and Nassau Street caused the death of 12 persons. Most of the victims were lost, it was said, because the fire department’s best extension ladders fell short of the top floor windows by 30 feet. Following this fire, on February 3, the commissioners passed a resolution asking the chief of the fire department to study the problem. The resolution, in part, read:

“WHEREAS, there have recently been constructed in this city a great number of large flats and business houses, reaching in many cases to a height exceeding 100 feet, and

“WHEREAS, the extreme height to which it is possible to reach and manage extension ladders have been probably reached and does not exceed 70 feet, thus making futile the best efforts of this department toward rescuing the occupants of the upper stories of the buildings above mentioned whenever such occupants are cut off from escape below, therefore

“BE IT RESOLVED, etc. (that the chief investigate the problem and offer suggestions for its solution).”

Chief Eli Bates, at that time head of the New York Fire Department, made the study and finally replied with the suggestion that each hook and ladder company be equipped with scaling ladders “which might be hooked across window sills and utilized in ‘swarming’ from floor to floor.” The chief’s recommendations were accepted by the commissioners and thus scaling ladders became a part of the New York firemen’s equipment.

Before this, however, New York had had some experience with aerial ladders, which were conceived to meet the demand for a faster-raising extension ladder that would reach the tops or upper stories of the beforementioned flats (tenements) and other buildings.

The first aerial ladder was invented by Daniel D. Hayes, a San Francisco fireman, in 1868. His idea was not developed commercially to until about ten years later, when he introduced improvements in his original design, and it was placed on the market.

In 1873, Mrs. Scott-Uda, a Canadian woman, invented what was known as the “Scott-Uda” aerial ladder. On June 12, 1873, there was an exhibit of this ladder in New York City. Many fire chiefs were present and they were entertained at a dinner in the evening by Chief Eli Bates.

This dinney marked an epoch in another way, because on that occasion was launched a movement which resulted in the organization at Baltimore, October 2, 1873, of the National Association of Fire Engineers, which later became the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Mrs. Scott-Uda’s ladder never was adopted by the New York Fire Department. On the contrary, her device resulted in the city’s commissioners voting to have nothing to do with aerial ladders, following a tragic accident involving one of her ladders, which the city reportedly bought for $25,000. When the ladder was tested on Tweed Plaza at Canal Street and E. Broadway, September 14, 1875, it collapsed, hurling three men, including Battalion Chief William Nash, from a height of 97 feet to their deaths.

New York City’s first aerial ladder was a Hayes, which was purchased about 1880 and attached to Ladder 3.

The original aerial ladders were manually raised and lowered by cranking on or two “screws.” As the trend increased in all lines of endeavor to replace manual labor with mechanical power, the mechanically operated aerial extension ladder was developed and it was not long before this largely replaced the hand-cranked “screw types.”

Long Solid Beam Portable Ladder and Pompier Ladder Being Used in Rescue Operation at Fire in New York City on April 7, 1884

The earliest of the mechanical, or semi-mechanical, aerials was the spring compression type which raised automatically but had to be cranked down. Many of these models are still doing yeoman’s service. Later came the hydraulic operated design which was a further improvement up to this time. The chief drawback found in aerial ladders (the two-section wood models) was the fact that the fly had to be manually raised. It was not until the advent of the multi-section all-metal hydraulic and engine powered type aerial ladders that full mechanical operation was accomplished.

These improvements in reduction of manual effort have been paralleled by advance in other ways—in greater apparatus strength, propulsion and operating power, in reduction in weight and over-all dimensions; in greater, speed, easier, safer riding qualities, and maneuverability. Today the fire service finds the sturdy, swift-operating all-metal aerial ladder, which can be controlled by one man, its main reliance in performing the numerous laddering operations to be catalogued later.

Metal ground ladders are now made in aluminum and steel alloys, some types being presently supplied in lengths up to 65 feet. Experimental work is now being carried out on magnesium ladders, a number of which have already been built.

History of the Pompier Ladder

The French word “Pompier” means “a fireman”; the Italian word “Pompiere” has the same meaning. The term “pompier” therefore, applied to ladders means, literally, a “fireman’s ladder.”

Because of the use of the name “pompier,” it has always been believed that this type of ladder was of French origin. Such, however is not the case. The ladder is actually of German origin and dates back to about the year 1828.

At that time a Mr. Behi developed the pompier ladder at Schwabischgruund, Wurtemberg, Germany. His invention found only limited use until about 1840 when, with the beginning of the general development of volunteer fire departments, the ladder had become more popular. This was largely in Europe. Most rapid recognition of the ladder, and development of the method of its use, took place in southern Germany.

In 1864, the ladder was introduced in Elberfield, Germany, at which time the product was built practically the same as the pompier ladders generally in use throughout the United States, i.e.: having a single pole with large hook at the top and cross pieces running through the pole equally spaced. At present in Germany and other European countries the fire service used hook ladders with two sides or beams, and two hooks, somewhat similar to our roof ladders.

The pompier ladder was used by the Elberfield Volunteer Fire Department from about 1864 until 1875, when the department changed to the two-sided hook ladder. Drying that period, a Mr. Christian Hoell was a member of the Elberfield department for about seven years. He was instructed in the use of the pompier ladder and when he came to America and had settled, some time previous to 1877, he joined the St. Louis Fire Department, and introduced the pompier ladder to his new associates. Mr. Hoell later organized and trained the first pompier ladder squads and may be said to have laid the foundation for its use in this country. The pompier ladder system of life saving was introduced in the St. Louis Fire Department by Chief H. Clay Sexton on the 19th of December, 1877, and is still in use by that organization.

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Westliche Post in December, 1877, stated that “the Pompier Life Saving Service is a new feature in this country, being used only in the city of St. Louis, having been introduced in the fire department and has proven successful throughout. The ladders having been used at different fires and stood the test well.”

After Mr. Hoell had perfected the pompier ladder squads in the St. Louis Department, he was granted leave of absence, and went to New York City to instruct the firemen in that city in the use of pompier and life-saving work. Upon completion of their training, the fire officials offered Mr. Hoell a position in the New York Fire Department but he declined this offer and returned to St. Louis, where he afterwards became fire captain in the St. Louis Fire Department. Unfortunately, while directing firemen at a fire in a peanut warehouse, August 10, 1877, St. Louis, a falling wall took the life of Mr. Hoell and three other members of the department.

Since those early days, there have been few radical developments in pompier, or scaling ladders, as they have become more widely known in this country.

Pompier Ladder with Folding Rungs, an American Development

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