History of the New York Fire Department
About this time St. Paul’s steeple was on fire, and was saved by a sailor climbing up the steeple. The great tea-water pump in Chatham street was, when an emergency arose, utilized to extinguish the flames. Hundreds of water carts supplied housekeepers with this pure water, and as the fire occurred on a Sunday, all these water carts were employed in taking water to St. Paul’s and the fire engines.
In January, 1800, the small Engine No. 21 was removed from the engine house in Gold street, near the Baptist Meeting House, to the house in Greenwich street, near the Industry Furnace, in the place of the old Engine No. 1, which had been removed to Engine House of No. 23, in Broadway, near the Hospital.
On the thirteenth of this month Uzziah Coddington, attached to Engine Company No. 14, was appointed a fire warden. On the twenty-seventh of the same month, Nicholas Van Antwerp, of Engine Company No. 11. was promoted to the position of an engineer.
Thomas Howell imported two fire engines from London in December, which the Corporation purchased from him for the sum of four thousand dollars. At a conference between the engineer and a committee of the Common Council, held in the same month, the following disposition of the new engines and alteration of some of the old ones was agreed upon:
The large engine (imported) was placed in the corner of the yard of the City Hall, and an engine house built ajdoining the house of Mr. Verplank. It was numpered 3. and allowed a complement of twentyfour firemen. The other lately imported engine was placed in the jail-yard in the house where No. 8 lay, receiving that number, and being allowed twenty men. (did No. 8 was removed to the Furnace at the North River, and numbered 1, and its company increased to thirteen men. Engine No. 3 was removed to the Hospital and numbered 23, to replace the engine sent to Poughkeepsie—No. 1—then at the Hospital, being out of order and useless. Engine No. 21, then at the Furnace, was returned to its original stand in Gold street, near the Baptist Meeting House. The comp%ny of the old Engine No. 3, consisting of ten men was put in charge of the new engine in the yard of the City Hall, and its strength increased to twentyfour men. The company belonging to Engine No. 8, consisting of thirteen men, was placed in charge of the new engine in the jail-yard, and the force increased to twenty men.
In addition to the foregoing, the Council committee recommended that a new engine house be built at the head of the Common Sewer, at Burling Slip, near Pearl Street, for Engine No. 18. and with respect to the floating engine, that a boat be immediately procured for it, and placed in one of the most central slips on the East River, with a force of thirty ablebodied men. Protests were subsequently presented against this location for the engine house, and it was decided that a more eligible site would be at Beckman’s Slip, directly in the rear of a fountain erected by the Manhattan Company for supplying shipping with water. As these changes and assignments called for the employment of an additional number of fiftyone men, which would increase the firemen to a greater number than the law allowed, it was decided to apply to the legislature to increase the number of firemen to six hundred.
The Fire Department consisted of a single engineer, who received his appointment from the Common Council, and who was invested with absolute control over the companies, engines, and all else that pertained to the organization; a number of fire wardens, commissioned by the same authority to inspect buildings, chimneys, etc., and to keep order at fires; and several voluntary companies under the direction of a foreman, assistant, and clerk of their own choosing. A few engine houses had been built; the greater part of the hooks and ladders, buckets, etc., were deposited for safe keeping in the City Hall. Several of these pioneer companies retained their organization up to the time of the disbandment of the Volunteer System.
At this time, the city, though the metropolis of the western world, was a mere village in comparison with the city of to-day. The city proper was bounded on Broadway by Anthony, on the North River by Harrison. and on the East River by Rutger Streets; and even within these limits the houses were scattering, and surrounded by large gardens and vacant lots; Broadway ended at Astor Place, where a pole fence, stretching across the road, formed the southern boundary of the Randall Farm, afterwards the endowment of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor.
Engine House Removed
In November, 1802, the engine house in Hanover Square was removed to the Old Slip. On the twentyninth of the month the engine house of No. 4 in Nassau street, between John and Fair streets, was removed to the public ground near the office of the Kine-pock Institution.
According to the report of the fire wardens of the Third Ward there were, in March, 180.1, one thousand three hundred and thirty-eight fire buckets, and a deficiency of six hundred and fifty-two. The inhabitants of that ward were opposed to throwing out or carrying their buckets to a fire; and so frequently had become the loss of buckets at fires, and on account of the impediments which existed in getting payment for those lost from the corporation, that many of the Third Warders were in a revolt against the system, and declared they would not lend their buckets at all. In May, one thousand fire buckets were ordered by the corporation for the use of the firemen. Engine No. 23 was destroyed at a fire which occurred in this month.
One of those terrible fires which were wont to ravage the city periodically before the introduction of fire-proof buildings and the existence of an efficient fire department, broke out on the eighteenth of December. 1804, in a grocery in Front street, and raged with fury for several hours, burning the old Coffee House, on the corner of Pearl and Wall streets, the scene of so many patriotic gatherings in the days of the Revolution, with many other of the old landmarks of the city. Forty stores and dwellings were destroyed by the fire, which was supposed to have been the work of an incendiary. The loss of property was estimated at two millions of dollars.
Even so early as this year the necessity of settling a regular plan of streets, for a distance of eight miles in length, and the width of the island, was anticipated by the legislature, and a plan was established by law comprehending in its features the cutting down of mountains and the filling up of valleys to a regular and uniform grade over all that extent.
Number of Fire Wardens Increased
In December the number of fire wardens in each ward was increased to six. Gilbert Aspinwall resigned as warden, and John Ellis was appointed in his stead. John De Peyster and John Kane were appointed additional fire wardens in the second ward; Thomas Taylor, John L. Van Kleeck, and William H. Ireland in the Third Ward; and James Taller in the Fourth Ward.
In 1805 another fire ordinance was passed, which is in many respects similar to that of 1793. It is more comprehensive, however, and the fines imposed are in U. S. currency.
It provides, in addition to the other, substantially as follows: The firemen of the city to consist of one chief, and as many other “engineers,” fire wardens, hook and ladder men, and other firemen as may be appointed by the mayor, etc., as firemen, and be distinguished by the said appellations.
The chief is to have control of the firemen, subject to the Common Council, and the engineers shall take proper measures for having the several engines “placed, filled and worked,” at fires. He is also to have charge of the repairs of engines, and to see that they are kept in good working order.
It changes the distinguishing badges, etc., to be worn by fire officials at fires, as follows:
In order that the members of the Common Council, Engineers and hire Wardens, may be more readily distinguished at Fires, the Mayor, Recorder, Aidermen, and Assistants, shall each have on those occasions a white wand of at least five feet in length, with a gilded flame at the top, and each of the engineers shall have a leather cap painted white, with a gilt front thereto, and an Engine painted thereon, and have a good speaking Trumpet painted black; and each of the Fire Wardens shall wear a like cap with the City anhs painted on the front and the Crown painted black, and have also a speaking Trumpet, painted white. And the names and places of abode of the members of the Common Council, Engineers and Fire Wardens, shall from time to time be fixed up in writing in the Watch Houses by the Aldermen respectively in whose Ward the Watch House shall be. And, moreover, it shall be the duty of every Watchman, upon the breaking out of fire at or near his Watch Station, to alarm the citizens by the crying of fire, and mentioning the street where it shall be on his way to the nearest Watch Station, “so that the citizens and firemen generally be made acquainted where and in what street to repair.”
But if a chimney take fire after the watch is set, the watchman is enjoined to prevent the ringing of any bell, so that the firemen and citizens be not unnecessarily alarmed.
The former provision as to the placing of a lighted candle in the front window, is renewed here, and reappears in all ordinances down to the year 1860.
The hook and ladder men shall be divided into companies, which shall each choose a foreman, assistant, and clerk, out of their own number. They are required, under penalty of one dollar and fifty cents. In case of fire, to bring the necessary hooks and ladders to the scene of the fire, and to use the same, under the direction of the members of the Common Council and engineers, and after the fire is extinguished, to return them to where they are usually deposited. The capacity of the fire buckets is increased to two and a half gallons.
The firemen (other than engineers, fire wardens, and hook and ladder men), shall be divided into companies. one to lie assigned to each of the fire engines belonging, or that may hereafter belong, to the city, and each company shall choose a foreman, assistant, and clerk out of their number.
It became apparent in 1805 that the means employed for the extinguishment of fire required, and were susceptible of, much improvement. The increasing extent of the city and its population enhanced the possibilities of frequent and dangerous fires, at the same time it supplied the means and indicated the propriety of putting the Fire Department upon a more effective and systematic footing. The utility of the floating engine had been fully established. But as it could not always be moved in due season to the place where it was wanted, it was proposed to procure another of the same kind. For a similar reason, and also because at some seasons the ice or other causes might wholly prevent the floating engines from being moved, it was recommended that two engines of like power be procured and placed on wheels, for service within the city. These latter were not intended as substitutes for the floating engines, but it was thought that four engines of the power specified were not more than could be usefully and profitably employed on many occasions. Certain of the engines then in use—Nos. 2, 5, 6, and 16—were both too small and greatly out of repair, and it was decided to sell them, and that in future uniformity in size and power in engines be attended to throughout the department. The screws of the leaders were of different sizes, which led occasionally to trouble at critical moments. Uniformity in that respect, too, was observed regarding engines of similar power, and every common engine should have at least four leaders of forty feet each.
Decide to Build New Fire House
In May, 1805, it was decided to build a new engine house in the Seventh Ward on a site offered by Smith Place in Rivington street, between Third and Fourth streets, and the chief engineer was ordered to furnish one of the best of the small engines for the company to be established there. On the thirteenth of the month the engine house in the City Hall yard was extended so as to admit of the reception of the engine then stationed in Nassau street on ground belonging to the Presbyterian Church. The chief engineer was authorized, in September, to station fire engines at Greenwich street, and form a new company. Divie Bethune, Jeremiah F. Randolph, Hector Scott, Peter H. Wendover, and Samuel L. Page, Jr., were appointed fire wardens of the Eighth Ward. Engine No. 13, situated at the Fly Market, was given a new location at the head of Burling Slip, in December. In the spring of the following year a new fire engine house was erected on the ground of the New Dutch Church in Liberty street. About the same time Hugh McCormick, of No. 2 Jacob street, was appointed a fireman of Company No. 7, instead of John Minuse, resigned: Nehamiah Ludlam, Philip Ruckle, and Walter Whitehead were appointed to No. 15. instead of James Bertine, Jeremiah Woods, and Jacob Peterson, resigned; Abraham Swyer, David Hubbs, John Gillmour. and Benjamin Haight, to Company No. 13, instead of John Heyer, Frederick Miller, Samuel Burtis, and John Cavantgh.
The streets were swept twice a week by the inhabitants. each opposite his own house; and for the collection of garbage a bell-cart came round daily in each street. The city was lit by lamps, with oil. Wood was the principal article of fuel, and hickory was deemed the best. The chimneys were swept by small negro boys, whose street cries in the morning drew forth many a denunciation from those whose slumbers were thus disturbed. With the break of day did the streets ring with their cries of “Sweep ho! Sweep ho! from the bottom to the top without a ladder or a rope, sweep ho! to a chorus or cry, in which often were added dulcet sounds of real harmony.
In 1807 there was a number of the old Dutch houses still standing, with their gable ends to the street, and the date of their erection in iron figures placed in the wall in front. Several of these stood in Broad, William, Garden, and Pearl streets; two stood at the head of Coenties Slip, west side, near Pearl. The dates generally were from 1696. 1697, 1701 and 1702, showing that the city was pretty much confined to the near proximity of the old Dutch Church in Garden street, built in 1693, and below Wall street. Every one of these buildings has long since disappeared.
City Had 60,000 Inhabitants
The city, at the time in question, contained about sixty thousand inhabitants. A large majority of the residents dwelt below Cortlandt street and Maiden lane. A sparse population then occupied that portion of the island which lay above the site of the New York Hospital on Broadway, and the grounds stretching northerly, now covered with magnificent buildings, were then graced with the sycamore, the elm, the oak, the chestnut, the wild cehrry, the peach, the pear, and the plum tree, and further ornamented with gardens appropriated to horticultural products, with here and there the artichoke, the tulip, and the sunflower. Where now stand the Astor Library, the Mercantile Library, the Academy of Music, the Cooper Institute, and the Bible House, old Dutch gardens were abundant, cultivated with something of the artistic regularity of the Hollanders, luxuriating in the sweet marjoram, the mint, the thyme, the currant, and the gooseberry. Avenues, squares, and leading roads had not been laid out, and the street regulations in paving and sidewalks had reached but little above the City Hall Park, and in the Bowery only within the precincts of Bayard street. The present City Hall was in a state of erection, and so circumscribed, at that time, was the idea of the city’s progress, that the Board of Supervisors, by a slender majority, after a serious discussion, for economy’s sake, decided that the postern part of the Hall should be composed of red stone, “inasmuch as it was not likely to attract much notice from the scattered inhabitants who might reside above Chambers street.”
Fire plugs were first introduced in 1807, the first (dug being put down at the corner of William and Liberty streets. The chief engineer approved of it so highly that he recommended that each block in the city be similarly supplied.
In June of this year a petition of residents in the vicinity of Corlears Hook for a fire engine was acceded to, and old No. 1, which had been superseded at the Methodist Meeting House by a larger engine, was sent there.
Were 869 Men in Department
The full strength of the Fire Department was eight hundred and sixty-nine men, as compared with seven hundred and sixty-one in the previous year (1806). It was made up of seven engineers, forty-eight fire wardens, seven hundred and seventy-eight fire engine men, and thirty-six hook and ladder men. The number of fire engine companies was thirty-four, of which Nos. 28 and 33 were the smallest, having only ten men each, and Nos. 25, 3 and 8 were the largest, having forty, thirty-two, and thirty men respectively. The floating engine was in charge of forty men. There were only two hook and ladder companies. In November the strength of Fngine Company No. 25 was raised to fifty. Two years later, in December, the full strength of the department was nine hundred and fiftyfive men, of whom seven were engineers, fifty-five fire wardens, eight hundred and forty-seven fire engine men, and forty-six hook and ladder men—an increase of twenty-eight men over the previous year (1808).
An ordinance, passed January 11, 1808, provides that the Fire Department shall consist of “a chief engineer, and as many other engineers, fire wardens, fire engine men, hose men, and ladder men,” as may be appointed by the Common Council. It gives absolute control in case of fire to the chief engineer over men and machines. The chief engineer must make examination of all apparatus, etc., at least once in six months, and report the same, with list of force, to the Common Council, to be published. He had charge of repairs, and was required when a fire was over to send all private fire buckets found in the vicinity to the City Hall for identification. The provisions are substantially as in the 1805 ordinance, with the exception of some additions and alterations which it is not necessary to notice.
The following appointments were made in March, 1800: William W. Callatian, upholsterer, 28 Beaver street, to Engine Company No. 3, vice Jacob P. Roome, resigned: James Segoine, shoemaker, 53 Water street, to Engine Company No. 11. instead of Daniel Updike, resigned; Andrew M. Arcularius, grocer, 151 Fly Market, to Engine Company No. 24, vice Alexander Nicoll, resigned; and Lewis Thomas, wheelwright. Greenwich street, to Fngine Company No. 27, in place of Abraham Towles, resigned.
A hook and ladder company, consisting of ten men. was established in the village of Greenwich in the summer of 1809. The members of the company were: Henry Blacklidge, James Reeves, Andrew Hegerman, John Jennings, William Lezong, William Welling, John H. Blanck, William P. Gilbert, Thomas Sherwood, and John Brown. This was the origin of Hook and Ladder Company No. 3. Messrs. Sherwood and Hegerman remained only about one month with the company, and were replaced by Isaac De Boise and Andres Blakeley.
The expenses incurred by the city for supplies to the Fire Department for the eight years ending 1809 amounted to forty-three thousand eight hundred and eighty-eight dollars, and it was suggested that, inasmuch as the fire insurance companies were greatly benefitted by the existing organization of the Fire Department, they should be called to defray some proportion of the expense.
The engine house standing on the burial ground of the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church was donated to the church society by the city in May, 1809.
An attempt was made on the evening of the thirtieth of November, 1809, to set fire to the range of wooden buildings in Front street, between Crane Wharf and Beekman Slip, by placing a coal of fire in some damp powder, and laying the same in a pile of staves at the rear of the store. No. 203 Front street. The mayor, De Witt Clinton, issued a proclamation, offering three hundred dollars reward for information which would lead to the discovery of the incendiaries.
Among the appointments made in March, 1810, we find Philip W. Engs, accountant, 222 William street, in place of John McGregor, resigned, to Engine Company No. 21; and John Vreeland, merchant, Broadway, vice Andrew Maverick, resigned, to Engine Company No. 16.
The population of the city in 1810 was over ninetysix thousand; having added thirty-six thousand in ten years, and increased nearly threefold in twenty years. The city had extended with unprecedented rapidity, and, at the time mentioned, it covered more than four times the area that it embraced twenty years before. Broadway had been opened through to the Bowery, and on either side streets had been laid out as far up as Amity and Great Jones streets. To the east of the Bowery, the streets running eastward were laid out as high up as North (Houston) street, which had been fixed as the permanent boundary of the city; and crossing these, the present streets were laid out as far as Norfolk street.
The city was again devastated by a terrible conflagration (May 19, 1811), which broke out about nine o’clock on Sunday morning, near the northwest corner of Duane and Chatham streets. The steeple of the Brick Church, and the cupola of the jail caught fire.
(To be continued)