THE ALBANY FIRE DEPARTMENT OF THIRTY YEARS AGO.
When we gaze upon the magnificent, well-disciplined and well-equipped Fire Department possessed by Albany to-day, and retrospect upon what it was thirty years ago, says the Press of that city, a very thorough knowledge of the advancement made by our people in fire matters may be obtained. In 1841 Steam Fire Engines were little dreamed of by Albanians. Hand Engines were then in vogue, which were a great advancement upon the old leather bucket previously used. Our city was very well supplied with Hand Engines, Hook and Ladder Trucks, Hose and Axe Companies. The protection afforded our citizens by these organizations, was quite sufficient and always reliable, were it not for the petty jealousies that existed, and which not infrequently culminated into bitter enmity. Many of the Companies embraced upon the roll of membership some of the best known citizens. In ea6h, also, was enrolled some evil disposed persors, the height of whose ambition was to hear a fire alarm that they might have an “exciting run ” with some one of their associate organizations in the Department, and if possible a quarrel. In olden times the Firemen of Albany were as noted for their street fights as were those cf New York and Philadelphia, where bloody scenes were of daily and nightly occurrence. Previous to 1840, no Department in the country contained better material or was more orderly than that of Albany. Gradually, however, from that date, jealousies arose between the several organizations, a rougher element joined, and scenes most disgraceful were continually enacted. All any one had to do, in those days, was to shout “ fire! ” on the street, and the alarm would go like wild fire until all the city bells were clanging and the apparatus of the Department moving.
From 1840 to 1848 the enmity between Companies grew more intense. At every alarm of fire terrific street fights between Companies were sure to occur. To such an extent was this feeling carried, that the “runners” with the machines would become impatient over the long intervals between alarms, and either cause a fire to be started, or get up a false alarm, that the Department might be called out. A race between two Engine Companies was equally as exciting as to see the horses attached to one of the steamers of the present day go at full gallop alcng Pearl street or Broadway, when an alarm has been sounded. In these races the men cf one company in their efforts to pass would crowd upon the other. As soon as this occurred, all thoughts of the fire vanished, the ropes were at once dropped, and the fight commenced. Fists were at first resorted to, but it was not long before clubs, stones, and sometimes knives and pistols were brought into requisition. Never before or since, have the streets of Albany witnessed anything like the fights that followed. Engines 8 and 9 were the leading competitors. No. 8 was befriended by Engine Cos. 4, 10 and 11, while No. 9 was backed by Nos. 2, 5 and 6. Generally speaking, the other companies in the Department were non-partizan, and while they may have entertained friendly feelings for one side or the other, generally managed to keep their skirts clear of all quarrels. This system was in vogue until 1848, when the big fire occurred on August 17, of that year, and by which millions of propeity was destroyed, and the space bounded by Herkimer street on the south. Union street on the west, Huds n avenue on the north and the pier and quay on the east, was laid waste by the devouring element. This fire broke out about noon. The Department had been to a fire in Quackenbush street in the morning, which, as usual, was attended by beer drinking, and a desperate fight between the members of Engines 8 and 9. The apparatus had scarcely been housed, when the alarm was sent forth for the fire which culminated in the above destruc ion of property. Neither men, Engine or Hose was in proper condition to do service, and it was not surpriring that the flames gained rapid headway and soon became master of the situation. Engine No. 8 was promptly on the ground. The stable in which the fire originated on Herkimer street, east of Broadway, was burning slowly. It s-emed as it a few pails of water vigorously and judiciously applied would have extinguished the fire. But all were waiting for the machine to get at work. When the brakes were manned it was discovered that the Engine could not draw water from the river. It was then too late to use pails as the flames had gained full headway and were rapidly spreading. It was beyond control. All afternoon the fire fiend played sad havoc with property, and nothing tended to chick its fury until gunpowder was resorted to, which, followed by a drenching rain, put a stop to the destructiveness of the fiery demon.
Af er this fire our city authorities resolved upon a change in the Department. That fire and its results convinced them that there was no reliability to be placed upon a volunteer Department. A paid Department was suggested and ultimately agreed upon. In this a better class of citizens were enrolled and all work was faithfully and satiri ic orily performed. Well do we remember how the old volunteers would assemble on the occasion of an alarm and roundly abuse the members of the new Dcpar ment for their assumption in doing service for pay. The latter heeded not their epithets, however, and the old volunteers soon realized like Othello, that “their occupation was gone.” From that time forward a paid Department continued to grow in favor. Hand Engines were finally abandoned in 1867 and Steam Engines substituted. To-day Albany flatters itself in bt ing possessed of one of the best Fire Departments in the world. The old Department embraced thirteen Hand Engines, two Truck Companies, an Axe Company, and several Hose Companies. The present Department embraces ten Steamers, two Trucks, tea Extinguisher Carts, about forty Horses, a complete system of electric fire alarm, and an inexhaus ible water supply, innumerable hydrants, and an excellent force of men. Extensive fires now are almost next to impossible. More property was des royed on August 17, 1848, than his been destroyed during the whole time since that date. No further argument is needed to demonstrate the advancement made in fire matters in this city than this one statement alone.