THE OLD VOLUNTEERS OF NEW YORK.
Harper’s Monthly for February contains a second article on “The Old New York Volunteer Fire Department.” Although profusely illustrated, the article is not so interesting as the first paper of this series. The author, Mr. G. W. Sheldon, is a resident of this city, a newspaper man, and could readily find sufficient material to make his contributions valuable. There are scores of old Volunteers living who would be glad of the opportunity to give him their personal reminiscences of the old Department, interspersed with interesting anecdotes and incidents. Among the illustrations of the February article is one picturing the Jennings fire, where a number of Firemen lost their lives ; of Firemen’s Hall, present Headquarters of the Department, and portraits of Thomas Franklin, Carlisle Norwood, John A. Cregier, George W. Wheeler and Harry Howard. These are all excellent, both as likenesses and specimens of wood engraving.
The following is an extract from the article.
“The symbol of the old Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York was the figure of a Fireman holding in his brawny arms a child whom he had rescued from the flames. It was an emblem not less true than beautiful, yet many an old Fireman does not recall a single instance of a comrade’s saving anybody’s life. Mr. Carlisle Norwood remembers but one case. Mr. Theodore Keeler remembers none at all. Nor does Mr. Peter R. Warner, who adds, however, that “ any human being would exert himself to save a fellow-creature’s life, and I am sure that if I had gone into a house and saved a woman or child, I should have dismissed the subject from my mind in a month. If a Firemen could save life he would do so, and not think much about it afterwards.” Mr. Michael Eichell, once an engineer in the Department, and for 24 years in actual service there, does not remember a single case in which a Fireman saved a human life. Mr. Harry Howard, ex-Chief Engineer, says that “ Firemen often saved lives, but they are too modest to talk about it,” yet he remembers only two instances : “ J. R. Mount, recently a messenger in the Department of Public Buildings, saved the lives of a woman and child at a fire at No. 89 Bowery, a furniture establishment. The Common Council voted him a silver pitcher as a testimonial. I don’t care to speak of myself, but I remember that at the fire in Jenning’s clothing store, No. 231 Broadway, after the roof had fallen in and killed 13 Firemen, I heard a boy shouting from the second story, ‘ Save me ! save me !’ I went up and found him wedged in, surrounded by a part of the fallen roof, and iron safe, and a wall. Many years afterward, when a rich merchant of San Francisco—his name was S. A. Van Praag—he called at my house, and, as I was out, left his card, inscribed with the words, ‘ The boy that you saved from Jenning’s fire.” ’ Mr. John A. Cregier describes Mount’s performance as a most heroic act—the most remarkable instance he remembers of a Fireman’s saving life. The ladder being too short, it was put upon a hogshead, Mount ascended to the fourth floor, helped a woman out of the window and down the ladder —a most difficult feat—and fainted when at last he saw her safe. Another old Fireman, who is unwilling to have his name mentioned, says that on the Fourth of July, 1831, he saved a child from a burning building. ” Soon after we reached the place with the Engine, a mothercame rushing down stairs, shrieking that her baby was left behind. I immediately hurried up stairs, took the infant from its cradle on the second floor, descended with it amid considerable smoke, and handed it to her.” This old Fireman never told the deed to any one but the members of his own family, and he is unwilling at this late day to be set up as a hero. His many friends would be surprised if they heard his name. He is one of the most prominent capitalists in the City of New York. In the voluminous manuscript minutes of Engine No. 13, in five large folio volumes, dating back as far as the 9th of November, 1791, and continuing until the 8th of June, 1847, there is not a solitary record of a Fireman’s saving anybody’s life. Of the almost as voluminous manuscript records of Engine No. 21 the same observation is true. After a careful reading of both series of minutes I have failed to find even the mention ot such heroism. The minutes of Engine No. 5 and of Engine No. 42 tell the same story so far as I have been able to discover them. Yet the well-known symbol of the Fireman with a saved child in his arms, which stands in white marble upon the top of the Firemen’s Monument in Greenwood Cemetery, which formerly stood over the facade of Firemen’s Hall, in Mercer street, and above the entrance to Engine No. 2’s house, in Eldridge street, and which in varied forms graces the engraved pictures on Firemen’s certificates and ball tickets, is appropriate in the highest degree. It represents the readiness of brave men to become the saviors of their fellows, and the modesty which in song and story has so often been the accompaniment of valor.
We are confident that the above does injustice to the Old Volunteers, We have heard old Firemen relate scores of instances where individual lives had been saved by the Firemen, through the personal bravery and daring of individuals connected with the Department. We have heard vividly described, also, exciting scenes at fires where whole families had been rescued, and where workmen, shut up in burning buildings, had been taken out by the Volunteer Firemen. No record of these acts was kept at the time, which accounts for the fact that it is almost impossible to name individuals who were instrumental in saving life. There was no incentive then as there is now for preserving such records, and the incidents spon passed from the minds of all except those personally interested, and their modesty forbade mention of them. There is no question but the Old Volunteers were as brave and gallant men as those of to-day, and the records show that scarcely a week passes in which the Paid Firemen are not instrumental in saving life at fires. Their opportunities are greater, for we have more tenement houses, and a greater number of large factories, where hundreds of workmen are employed, but there is no doubt but the Old Volunteers contributed far more to saving life than they are apparently credited with in the above extract.
Under the present system every Company is obliged to keep a full daily record of all that transpires in connection with it, even to entering the minutest particulars regarding the going and coming of the men. The part played by each Company at a fire is thus made a matter of record, and any special incident that occurs is entered upon the journal. Whenever persons are aided to escape from a burning building, the number and names of all so assisted are recorded if it is possible to obtain them, and if a member of the Company has rendered conspicuous service in saving life, the facts of the case must be reported to the Commissioners by the officers of the Company. By this means a full record is made up at headquarters of distinguished services rendered by Firemen. The Commissioners have caused to be prepared a Roll of Merit, wherein the names of Firemen who save life are inscribed, together with a statement of the facts of the case. There is, also, the Bennett Medal, provided by the late James Gordon Bennett, which is awarded each year to the Fireman who has rendered the most conspicuous service during the preceding year. These incentives to gallantry and bravery stimulate the men to special exertions; but their greatest benefit consists in securing a more perfect record of the deeds of heroism performed by the Firemen. Fourteen members of the Department have received the Bennett Medal, which has been publicly presented to them, usually in presence of, and with considerable display by, the Department. In THE JOURNAL of January 3, 1880, we printed a list of names then borne on the Roll of Merit. There were then 106 names in the list, including all grades of Firemen, from the Chief of the Department down tQ the men in the ranks. Some of them had been honored with two or three inscriptions on the Roll of Merit for separate and distinct acts of heroism. With this record for the Paid Department—which has existed only since 1868—it cannot be possible that the Old Volunteers, with their many years of active service, should not have done equally well. It can scarcely be true, therefore, that “ many an old Firemen does not recall a single instance of a comrade’s saving anybody’s life.” At least, the inference conveyed by the above extract, that the saving of life by Firemen in the Old Volunteer days was almost unheard of, we know to be incorrect. Mr. Sheldon can easily find old Firemen who will give names and particulars if he desires to use them.