NEW YORK’S FIRE ALARM TELEGRAPH.
R. T. C. CAMPBELL, a lawyer of this city, who helped to prepare the charges brought some time ago against Superintendent Smith of the fire alarm telegraph bureau of New York, and aided in trying the same, has recently addressed an open letter to Mayor Strong, criticizing his honor severely and caustically arraigning the methods of business of the New York board of fire commissioners. lie adverts to the fact that
Mr. Smith was supported very strongly by influential persons, whose political affiliations were certainly not with those who desired a reform administration
At the conclusion of the evidence the case was adjourned for three weeks, during which time Commissioner Ford died, ‘‘unfortunately for [the mayor’s] administration and the city of New York ” Fearing the evil consequences that might arise from the appointment of an unsuitable successor to the dead commissioner, Mr. Campbell wrote to Mayor Strong asking him “very earnestly,”
before appointing a successor to Mr. Ford, to look into the facts developed in the Smith trial. The fire alarm system has been for years a nest of rottenness. There has been more than $200,000 stolen from the city in the construction of the underground cable system. These are grave assertions; but I can establish them to your satisfaction.
Meanwhile, during Mr. Campbell’s absence abroad, Mr. Sturgis was appointed as Mr. Ford’s successor. But Mayor Strong, as Mr. Campbell points out, had been asked before appointing Mr. Ford’s successor, to read the testimony of Mr. Smith himself, and of Mr. Carty, the electrical engineer of this city, and to satisfy himself that the incoming commissioner should be a “man of sufficient ability to understand and courage to perform.” This testimony was the outcome of “months of constant labor in investigating and preparing the evidence” on Mr. Campbell’s part—a review of the methods of the fire alarm telegraph bureau for the eight vears preceding having taught him that
there is no place too great or too small, too important or too sacred to escape the rapacious voracity of certain cormorants who have lived by public plunder; and that gross incompetency, allied to positive dishonesty, characterized the history of the fire alarm bureau of this city, down to. and including the first few weeks of the appointment of your [the mayor’s] first board of fire commissioners. * * * Hundredsof pages of testimony (adds Mr. Campbell) were taken in Smith’s trial; but Mr. Sturgis in a few days was prepared, it seems, to cast the most important vote of his life. Smith was restored; and the incumbency that has characterized the fire alarm telegraph bureau for the past fifteen years is again in full sway, thereby arming your [the mayor’s] enemies with ugly material to use against reform and good government.
Mr. CampbelP’s letter calls the attention of the mayor to a few points in the case, with a view to the evil done to the city by thc appointment of Mr. Sturgis being repaired. He shows that Commissioner Sturgis had given as his opinion that it was “ not proven that the necessary funds or authority” had been obtained and that he was “ not justified in speculating affirmatively on that point ” namely,
the alleged fact that Mr. Smith could not help having a telegraph system which was recording day by day a number of failures because of “ lack of funds and authority ”
Yet Mr.Sheffield,before charges had been drawn upagainst Mr. Smith, had filed an opinion that this city’s fire alarm telegraph bureau “ is the best in the world,” while Supt. Smith had sworn in his answer that he ” kept and maintained the best fire alarm system in the world.” At the conclusion of the evidence, however, Commissioners Sheffield and Sturgis, were driven to furnishing lame excuses to explain why Mr. Smith is not to blame for its being the worst in the world. Mr.Smith’s own testimony, now on file in the fire commissioners’ offices admits that his system overhead and underground was failing daily. It is also in evidence that the failures were owing partly to defective springs, rust, broken terminals, screws, and like avoidable and petty causes; yet Smith did not take steps to avoid or prevent them. Hundreds of injuries to circuits from magnet wires coming in contact with the iron boxes were recorded. The boxes could have been insulated and failure prevented at a cost of one dollar per box; yet Sturgis says the “ necessary funds ” could not have been obtained. It cost more to remove troubles of this character than the radical change would have cost; and the argument of “ lack of funds” is of no force.
That there was no “ lack of funds” was ample proven by the testimony on the subject of ” ways and means.” Mr. Campbell shows further that there was no “lack of authority” under which Mr. Smith could act, and quotes the rules of the board of fire commissioners, one of which gives him control over every employe of whatever description in the bureau and charges him with
maintaining the fire alarm in proper repair, and, in addition, under the rules and regulations [he] shall himself prescribe such necessary rules for the government of the employes serving under his direction as are not herein contained. Such were the responsibilities of the superintendent; but the facilities were equal to the responsibilities, ” Extra pay roll No. I,” former President Purroy swore was provided to meet such emergencies as the superintendent might find arising from time to time,” and this ” extra pay roll ’’ ran from $647.25 per week upwards for the last three months of Mr. Purroy’s administration,and ran into tens of thousands of dollars every year from the time it was devised, until the time that the new board was appointed.
Mr. Campbell reasonably doubts that, with the failures daily occurring, “ any of the money of ‘ extra pay roll No. T was used for the emergencies of the service.” But in any case he adds that
Mr. Sturgis shuts his eyes to the evidence when he states that the superintendent had not the “necessary funds or authority.”
Further than this the evidence shows that ” no other city had such a record of fire alarm telegraph failures as New York,” where they numbered two per cent, of failures of boxes to work, while the record of the underground system far exceeded that amount. Yet Mr. Sturgis disposes of these facts by saying :
The value of the records of other cities is modified by the uncertainiy as to their minuteness and accuracy. The evidence indicates that none will bear comparison with our own in these respects—a fact which is greatly to the credit of the superintendent—as from this armory of facts alone can the evidence to prove his incompetency under this charge be drawn.
Even if this is granted as truth. Mr. Campbell asks if the ” thousands of unnecessary and avoidable failures recorded by Smith’s subordinates” are not ” go-id evidence against him.” The statement of Mr. Sturgis, however, Mr. Campbell brands as
a singular perversion. The records of the other cities were established by the production of the records themselves of those cities before the commissioners and by the sworn testimony of Superintendent Mead, of Pittsburgh, Assistant Superintendent Wafer, of Brooklyn, Superintendent George, of Boston, and others. It is an insult to these witnesses to say that their testimony or their records were ** modified by uncertainty.” It is In evidence that Mr. Carty, electrical engineer of the Metropolitan Telegraph Company, went from box to box. from terminal port to terminal port of the underground cable system and found decay and rottenness at every point he examined; none of which were on the records. Smith’s incompetency is proved absolutely by the records of the fire alarm telegraph bureau; but it is also conclusively proved by the records of the fire alarm telegraph bureau. Mr Brophy. an electricial engineer of Boston, testified that he had inspected many terminal heads and many boxes, and found the entire system, in so far as he examined it. “very bad.” This was not on the records.
Mr. Campbell shows besides that
not one word was offered in contradiction of the testimony of these and other experts; nor is there any allusion to this testimony in the opinion of Sheffield and Sturgis,
The writer then states that the “ entire electrical business of this cit is done in a slip-shod, disjointed manner;” and that this is not the case in the other leading cities of America and Europe.
In Philadelphia. Boston, and elsewhere, a single officer controls the placing of all wires in the city, whether they are of a municipal or private character.
Adverting to the laying of underground cables in this city for fire department purposes—a work begun in 1888 and continued year by year until 1894, when there was about 100 miles of cable laid, with an average of eight conductors to a cable under the direction of Supt. Smith at a total cost of about $500,000. Mr. Campbell points out that
almost from the day the first cable was laid until this day the records of the failure of the underground system to work, considering the relative usual ability of each to interruption, many times exceeds in number that of the overhead system.
It was further charged against Supt. Smith that he
drew his specifications for the benefit of Contractor Wylie;and the results of the conspiracy or incompetency in the matter of laying the underground cables was the loss of more than $200,000 to the city of New York. But Mr. Sturgis has the effrontery to say:“ Testimony of Wylie shows the specifications gave sufficient information for intelligent oiddlngs.” Many disinterested expert witnesses said the specifications did not; but Wylie says they did. There is a homely saying, “ Ask my brother if I am not honest,” which surely applies here.
Mr Campbell insists that reading the evidence in his brief, which he sends to Mayor Strong with his open letter, no room is left for
an honest business man to come to any conclusion than that the city was defrauded out of this large sum of money. If we had t>een compelled to pay a quarter of a million too much for a good cable system, the citizens might not mind (?). The public do not usually scrutinize closely municipal expenditures, if they get good results. Remember that which we got for our money was the kind of a cable system described by Carty & Brophy. We not only were charged twice the price that the best underground cable system should have cost, but we receive a cable system which is dangerous and nearly worthless. Yet all this in the trial for the removal of Mr. Smith for incompetence is ignored! Had a court martial been called to try Benedict Arnold for his treason at West Point, and had the court martial restored him to his command in the American army, it would not have been a more flagrant abuse of power than that which had been committed by Commissioners Sheffield and Sturgis in restoring Smith. These gentlemen undertake to justify themselves by referring to the testimony of the underwriters given at the trial of Smith; and I know you will agree with me in saying that the testimony should not have had one particle of consideration in making up a judgment. These amiable club acquaintances of Mr. Smith neither personally nor officially represented the underwriters of the city.
Mr.Campbell then refers to the Insurance Press of this city of November 4 and it, and gives extracts from an editorial published in the columns of FlRK AND WATER on November 14, 1896 (which he calls “ the most prominent fire department paper in the country” ), the Spectator, of this city, the United States Review, of Philadelphia, the Standard, of Boston, City Government, of this city,and others; all of which make 1 or the condemnation of Commissioner Sheffield (and, therefore, by implication.of Commissioner Sturgis, whose role in the matter seem to have been to say ditto to Mr. Sheffield) and Superintendent Smith.
Mr. Campbell is particularly severe on the point which Mr. Sheffield thought he had made when he said:
“ No loss of life or property has occurred by reason of the failures of * Smith’s bureau.’ ” How does Mr. Sheffield know (demands Mr. Campbell)? There are more than than one thousand entries on the records of the fire alarm telegraph bureau, showing that boxes did not work when pulled for fire during Smith’s incumbency as superintendent. When a box does not work when pulled for fire, the party attempting to send the message must go to the next box; therefore, every time that a box refuses to work when pulled for fire, there was some delay in notifying the fire department. Chief Bonner, Mr. Purroy, and Mr. Smith all admit that every second lost in getting to a fire, incalculably increases the difficulty of the fire department in putting it out. Who can say how much increased the fire losses have been by reason of the thousands of times Smith’s bureau failed to work when pulled for fire? No wonder [PIRE AND WATER] says “ some startling catastrophe may be looked for.”
In the beginning of his letter Mr. Campbell writes to the mayor that soon after his inauguration a number of Republicans began to find fault with his administration, claiming that certain influences were successful in retaining in office many men who had been active in maintaining and carrying on the former methods af city government. In spite of all his friends could do, the great body of Republicans of this city, who had furnished ninety per cent, of his votes, were alienated from his administration; and to-day, more than half of the appointees of the old administration, including Superintendent Smith, of the fire alarm telegraph bureau, are found in positions as of yore.
If a good, clean administration could be pointed to, this line of criticism could be partially met; but your opponents have lately begun to assert that your administration was not only nonderscript in politics, but lacking in every essential element characteristic of a genuinely reform administration, and that the very magnitude of your opportunities to have made a name in history and to have not only scotched, but absolutely destroyed the bad elements heretofore banded together for the plunder of this city, seems to have frightened your administration into a degree of inertia indicative of a paralysis which precludes every hope of reform from it.
Farther on Mr. Campbell continues his criticism of Mayor Strong’s policy in not having in the beginning rid himself and the city once and for all of the old office holders. He says:
Remember, Mr. Mayor, it is you and the men who nominated you,and your administration that will be held responsible before the public; not the unknown Mr. Sturgis and Mr. Sheffield; and when the insurance and other press of this city and of the country assails,as it is assailing this decision it is Tammany that is benefited,and real reform suffers because of the sins of sham reform
Mr. Campbell reminds the mayor that Mr. Purroy boastinglv testified in Mr. Smith’s case that during his incumbency of the office of fire commissioner he was “ nine-tenths of the board.”
He was the star witness that came forward to defend Smith and the methods of the old board of fire commissioners which LaGrange and Ford had put upon trial, and for which Mr Sheffield became the special advocate. Ford’s death, Sturgis’ appointment, gave Sheffield the power, and the testimony of l’urroy is quoted by Sturgis and Sheffield as a justification for the reinstatement of Smith. That is reform, Mr. Mayor,with a vengeance!
The mayor. Mr. Campbell says, had also commissioners of accounts, who at the time of his writing had been at the fire department headquarters for more than six months, professedly examining accounts Wherefore, either the old administration must have been very correct or the commissioners of accounts purblind.
They must be of the same warp and woof that a majority of your fire commissioners are. I stand prepared to make good the assertion that a bright, honest, expert accountant can ir. ninety days’ time point out more than one-third of a million dollars taken from the city in the accounts of the fire alarm telegraph bureau, for which absolutely no value was given to the city in the ten yearsending January, 1895. Your commissioners of accounts may have labored; but they have not yet, so far as the public knows, brought foh even as much as the fabled mountain did.
Remember that in Smith’s investigation there was only one bureau of the city’s government investigated; and, notwithstanding the mass of incompetency and dishonesty disclosed, your commissioners restored Mr. Smith. Suppose our enemies ask: Tammany’s opponents, headed by Mayor Strong, were brought into power as the result of a combination of false pretences; Mayor Strong has been in office for two years. What has he shown ? What dishonesty have his commissioners of accounts demonstrated ?”
The fire commissioners caused a most rigid investigation to be made of one of the most important bureaus of the city. Its honesty and competency were demonstrated and Mayor Strong’s commissioners, two out of three, give a certificate of efficiency to the bureau, find nothing wrong in its administration, and restore its superintendent, who for nutty years had been Mr. Purrot’s “expert adviser,” to office. That is the inference which the magazine. City Government, says must follow. That is the inference that your opponents will claim is correct. You and I and every man who can read know it is false; but that is what your fire commissioners give your opponents an opportunity to say.
Mr. Sheffield wishes it understood that a majority of the existing board of commissioners were the accusers of Mr. Smith, and, therefore, they should not have the selecting of council to prepare charges and try the case. I think the objection is far fetched. When a court charges a person with contempt, for instance, it does not hesitate to assign counsel to prep ire the charges and present them to the court.
Mr. Sheffield laboriously attempts to acquit Mr. Smith of conspiracy entered into between Pearce and Smith to defraud the city in the matter of furnishing electrical supplies. The evidence shows that the city paid from fifty to 200 per cent more than market prices for supplies purchased. Mr. Pearce and Mr. Smith were jointly charged with being coconspirators. Mr. Pearce was in the trial room, and in the private offices of the fire department, in consultation with Smith’s counsel, including Mr. Sheffield, and yet was not called as a witness. The counsel for Mr. Smith admitted it would be “ unwise to call him !” Mr. Sturgis says: “ Pearce is not hereby exonerated from over-charging; but Pearce is not on trial.” No. Pearce the seller is not on trial; but Smith the buyer was on trial. Pearce the seller, if on trial before the present board, would have been acquitted, just as Smith the buyer was. You know, Mr. Mayor, as a business man. that from fifty to 200 per cent, over market prices is not paid for goods, month in and month oat, without somebody profiting.
Mr. Campbell, then directs attention to the evidence of Capt. Doherty, who pulled four different boxes for the third alarm for a big fire,and to the cross-examination of the insurance men. He then passes on to the charge that Smith negligently ” (Mr. Campbell believes “ purposely ”) omitted to keep records —on which as on every other point Mr. Sturgis
finds him not guilty, but very incautiously adds the following: “ Regarding the system of preserving records, the evidence shows that it is deficient and required amendment. While less important than the work itself, it was second to that and should be of such a character as to afford to future authorities accurate information of all important details.”
But that is just what it did not do, and what it was Superintendent Smith’s duty to see that it did do. “ He negligently omitted to do it; and Mr. Sturgis and Mr. Sheffield find him ‘ not guilty,’ although Sturgis says as above.”
Mr. Sheffield, when the charges were first discussed, scoffed at them and said that Mr. Smith had the “ best fire alarm system in the world.” Mr. Smith’s sworn evidence was to the same effect;
but the evidence shows conclusively that he kept and maintained the worst fire alarm telegraph bureau in America. I believe Constantinople is not as well equipped as New York in the matter of a fire alarm telegraph bureau; and, because of that exception, New York loses the distinction of having the worst in the world.
Wherefore, this being proved, Mr. Sheffield becomes
an apologist of the bureau, laboring to show that conditions must be considered in exculpation of its defects * * * If (he reasons) the general superintendent of the New York,New Haven and railroad were on trial on the charge of incompetency because a certain number of lives were lost on his system in a given period, and a certain number of accidents occurred by which property was destroyed, it would not be competent testimony to offer, as a witness to prove the charges,the superintendent of the London and Northwestern Railway Company in England. That road, I believe, in one year carried millions of passengers without a single accident to either life or property. But it does not prove incompetency in the superintendent of an American railroad that on his line there were accidents during the same period.
The illustration is very far-fetched; for, as Mr. Campbell points out,
nobody charged Mr.Smith with being responsible for accidents [but] with responsibility in continuing failures which were the result of gross negligence. The element of accident was entirely outside—wholly eliminated from anything past in evidence against Mr. Smith.
But would it not be suggestive to the superintendent of the American railroad, if it was true (which it is not) that a certain number of lives was lost on his system within a given period, that the London and Northwestern railroad carried millions of passengers without a single accident to either life or property, for him “ to examine the methods adopted by the London and Northwestern, and adopt similar methods on the American railroad ? He might not be able to do it in a day, ora month, or a year; but, surely, it could be done. He could at least begin to try “
Mr. Campbell, however, shows it was not necessary for Mr. Sheffield to go to England to find his illustration. He had before him the testimony of near neighbors, Brooklyn,Newark, Philadelphia, and Boston, as well as Pittsburgh. Chicago, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Washington—in all of which the percentage of failures was about one to forty in this city. As to his claiming different conditions for Superintendent Smith, that was “ arrant nonsense.”
Conditions all favored Smith; unlimited money, unlimited authority was his—we should have had the “best fire alarm telegraph bureau; but instead we have the worst. It is iq evidence that the railroad companies of Europe, and the better lailroad companies cf America use the block system of electric signals; and it is in evidence that the block system is electrically worked, and that there are not as many as one failure in each quarter of a million times that the electrical appliances are called into requisition; but in the New York fire alarm telegraph bureau there were two failuees in every one hundred times that it was pulled for fire tests.
Mr. Campbell, disclaims any personal animosity to Mr. Sheffied. Each was mutually courteous to, and each perfectly understood the other from the beginning—the one as the attorney against Smith, the other as the “ chief attorney for Smith.” He then concludes his letter to the mayor as follows:
I write you this letter in the hope that it will cause you to examine and correct. Your office.which is much more important than the vice presidency of the United States, will soon pass to another. Your incumbency of it is drawing to a close; but there yet remains time to do much to make possible that your successor will be a man devoted to the cause of honest municipal government. The fire commissioners; standing at bay. sav: *’ Smith is restored; Wylie,the contractor, remains. What are you going to do about it ?” History repeats itself— Tweed was a fire commissioner once; and once he said: “ What are you going to do about it?” The response was the reiteration of the charge of dishonesty. Tweed went out of office. Should not Smith go out of office? Your reputation, the good of the city requires that he should. I conclude by quoting what that highly responsible JOURNAL,FIRE AND WATER, said editorially in its issue of November 28, 1896: “ Mayor
Strong, in order to save his reputation, should look into the evidence in the case of Superintendent Smith and see that Commissioners Sheffield and Sturgis right the grievous mistake they have made — if at least, he intends to hold good faith with the people.”