Story of the Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York 1648-1798

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One year after Petrus Stuyvesant had arrived at New Amsterdam from Holland, as Director-general of the New Netherlands, he appointed four fire wardens to inspect the wooden chimneys of the thatched-roofed wooden houses of that village, and to demand a penalty of three guilders about one dollar and thirty cents for every chimney found to have been insufficiently swept.

By this act, which occurred in 1648, the fine old one-legged Dutch Commander-in-chief may be said to have laid the foundation of the Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York. The proceeds of the penalties were devoted to the establishment of a fund for the importation of leathern buckets and of hooks and ladders.

The earliest ordinance for the prevention of fires in what is now the City of New York reads as follows:

"Whereas, The Burgomasters of the City of Amsterdam, in the New Netherlands, have observed that within this city there is but little attention paid to the subject of fire and to the necessity of keeping the chimneys clean, in consequence of which there have already occurred several fires, and further dangers are to be apprehended, from the reason that the greater part of the houses in this town are built of wood, and among them some are covered with reeds and have wooden or platted chimneys:

""Therefore have we, with the approbation of the Director-general and Councilors of New Netherlands, appointed as Fire Wardens, Hendrick Hendrickson Kip, Govert Loockerman, and Christian Barents, who are hereby authorized to visit all the houses and chimneys within the city jurisdiction and to perform their duties as Fire Wardens according to the custom of our fatherland. Done this 26th day of February, 1656."

At that time the city contained one thousand inhabitants, and one hundred and twenty houses, and had been incorporated only four years.

Two years afterward the Honorable Burgomasters contracted with Reinhout Reinhoutzen to make one hundred leathern fire-buckets, and with Ariaen Van Lear to make fifty leathern fire-buckets, and ordered the same to be hung up in the City Hall and in the houses of several citizens living on the streets afterward known as Pearl Street, Broadway, Whitehall Street, and Exchange Place. The duties of the fire wardens seem to have been of too inquisitorial a character to please all the dames of the island, for, in 1658, complaint was made of Madaleen Direks, who had "presumed to insult the Worshipful Fire Wardens of this city on the public highway, and to make a street riot. Defendant Madaleen Dircks," say the court records of the day, "appears alone in Court and admits that she and her sister passed by the door of the Fire Warden Litschoe, and as they always joked when the Fire Wardens came to their house, she said "there is the chimney-sweep in the door, his chimney is well swept,' and not another word was said about it. The judgment of the court is that, as such things cannot or ought not to be tolerated, on account of its bad consequences, the defendant is condemned in a fine of two pounds Flemish, to be applied one half to the church and one half to the poor."

In January, 1677, "overseers of chimneys and fires" were appointed. In March, 1683, a law establishing the office of "viewers and searchers of chimneys and fire-hearths" inflicted a penalty of twenty shillings for defects in the construction of the wooden chimneys or the fire-hearths; and directed "that no person shall lay hay or straw or other combustible matter within their dwelling-houses, and that provision he made for hooks, ladders, and buckets," inflicting a fine of fifteen shillings upon "every person who shall suffer his chimney, to be on fire."* IN 1686, "by reason of great damage done by fire," it was ordered, first, "that every person having two chimneys to his house provide one bucket;" secondly, "that every house having more than two hearths provide two buckets;" and, thirdly, "that brewers shall have six buckets, and all bakers six buckets, under penalty of six shillings for every bucket wanting." In February, 1689, "fire-ladders, with sufficient hooks thereto," were "ordered to be made;" and, having gone so far, the city fathers proceeded to appoint "brandt meisters," or fire masters, the "chief engineers" of later days. "There was complaint," says the town-clerk's book, "of several buckets that were lost at the late fire in the Ffly [a market at the foot of Maiden Lane], and it was ordered that the crier give notice round the city that such buckets be brought to the Mayor." This was in 1692, and the law is known to have been in force for at least a hundred years afterward, when, after a fire, the buckets were taken to the front of the City Hall, and claimed by their respective owners.

In December, 1697, it was ordered that, because of "the danger that may happen by fire for want of a due inspection made to cleaning of chimneys and mending of hearths within the city, two sufficient persons in every ward of this city be appointed as viewers of chimneys and hearths, to view the same once a week; upon finding a defect, to give notice that such be repaired; if a person refuse, he to forfeit the sum of three shillings, one-half to the city, the other half to the viewers." Still farther we read that "if any person's chimney be on fire after such notice, he shall forfeit the sum of forty shillings; if the viewers neglect to perform their duty, they forfeit the sum of six shillings, and others shall be appointed in their place." This is the first record of a paid Fire Department in the city of New York. "Viewers" and "overseers" there were already; but now arrangement was made for paying, for fining, and for discharging them; and also a systematic performance of duty was required: they were to view the chimneys and hearths once a week. Five years later the constables were pressed into the service: "Constables are ordered to inspect every house, to see whether they have the number of buckets required by law." As the city increased, more books and ladders were provided. Twenty-two years after their first appearance it is recorded that in February, 1705, Alderman Vandenburgh was ordered to "be paid nine pounds five shillings for hooks and ladders by him provided; " while in October, 1706, it was "ordered that eight ladders and two fire-hooks and poles be provided, to cost L19 2s. Od.;" and in October, 1716, that "a committee be appointed to provide a sufficient number of ladders and hooks for public use; "but no fire-engine seems to have been in operation until fifteen years later, when the Department was fifty-four years old.

We may picture to ourselves, therefore, the double lines of firemen and citizens, with their buckets, one line passing the water up from the place where it was obtained, the other line passing down the empty buckets, all hands working so fast that half the contents of a bucket had been spilled over their feet and legs before the remainder reached the fire. "It would be an amusing scene in these days," remarks an old fireman (Mr. P.W. Engs); "and how much more strange it would appear to the women of our day to behold those of their sex in the ranks on such occasions! " The era of fire-engines was ushered in by the city of the 'voluntary aid' system in this respect; no gude vroux is found enlisted in it, but instead of these services of the brawny-armed of the fair sex, the fireman having toiled until he has overcome the devouring element, wends his weary way home, uncheered by the refreshing thought that authorities on the 6th of May, 1731, as follows: "Resolved, with all convenient speed to procure two complete fire-engines, with suctions and materials thereunto belonging, for the public service; that the sizes thereof be of the fourth and sixth sizes of Mr. Newsham's fire-engines, and that Mr. Mayor, Alderman Cruger, Alderman Rutgers, and Alderman Roosevelt, or any of them, be a committee to agree with some proper merchant or merchants to send to London for the same by the first conveniency, and report upon what terms the said fire-engines, etc., will delivered to this corporation." By December of the same year preparations were made for receiving the new apparatus; it was "ordered that workmen be employed to fit up a room in the City Hall [then located where the United States Treasury Building, formerly the Custom-house, now stands] of this city, for securing the fire-engines of this corporation, with all expedition." Probably in the same month the engines arrived; for we find it farther "ordered that Alderman Hardenbroeck and Mr. Beekman be a committee to have the fire-engines cleaned, and the leathers oiled and put into boxes, that the same may be fit for immediate use."

The next month (January, 1733) it was "ordered that a committee employ a person or persons forthwith to put the fire-engines in good order, and also to look after the same, that they may be always in good plight and condition, and fit for present use." Mr. Engs writes that he distinctly remembers to have seen one of Mr. Newsham's engines, with the maker's name on a brass plate, accompanied by a date, indicating that it was eighty years old. "It had a short, oblong, square box, with the condenser case in the centre, and was played by short arms at each end and mounted on four block-wheels, made of thick plank. There was no traveler forward for the wheels to play under the box; so that, when it turned a corner, the machine must have been lifted around, unless there was a large sweep to move in." Suction-pipes were unknown at that time, notwithstanding the fact that the committee had been ordered to obtain, with the engines, "suctions, leather pipes, and caps." The suctions were probably what was known afterward as "pump hose," which led the water from the pump to the engine box; the "leather pipes" were for the same purpose as those subsequently made of brass or other metal, and the "caps" were the nozzles. The first use of a real suction-pipe seems to have been by Engine No. 13, at a fire in a ship at the foot of Pine Street. The minutes of the company for May 29, 1806, make special and proud mention of the fact that the engine "played by the means of the suction."

The possession of the engines involved still farther expense. A new office of "Overseer of Fire-engines" was established, and in January, 1735, Mr. Anthony Lamb, whose son John afterward became Collector of the Port of New York, was appointed to fill it. His salary was twelve pounds a year. The first engine-house was erected the next year, "contiguous to the Watch-house in the Broad Street," at the corner of Wall Street. Many years subsequently the building was Burtsell's stationery store, and still later was replaced by a structure in the basement of which was Downing's celebrated oyster-house. In their new quarters the fire-engines were taken care of by Jacobus Turk for one year, for ten pounds, the agreement being that he should "pay all expenses in keeping them clean and in good repair, excepting some of the material work should break or give way, which should be paid for by the Corporation." Turk was probably one of Anthony Lamb's subalterns, and was appointed by a committee of the Common Council.

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Website: The History
Article Name:  Story of the Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York 1648-1798
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The story of the volunteer fire department of the city of New York by George William Sheldon New York: Harper & Bros., 1882
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