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

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A notable event occurred in 1737. The Corporation applied to the Legislature "for the appointment of twenty-four able-bodied men, who shall be called the firemen of this city, to work and play the fire-engines, and who shall be exempt from serving as constables or doing militia duty during their continuance as firemen." Thus was brought into existence the first fire company in the City of New York.

The Legislature entertained the application, and passed an act in general accordance with it, which was submitted to the Common Council; and, after being three times read and approved by them, was in September, 1738, ordered to be published and printed. Three bells were rung, and proclamation was made in this wise: "Whereas, the Corporation are authorized to appoint a sufficient number of strong, able, discreet, honest, and sober men, not exceeding forty-two in number, an equal number from each of the six wards on the south side of Fresh Water [i.e., the Fresh Water Pond, or Collect], being freemen or freeholders of this city, which persons shall be called the Firemen of the City of New York, who shall be always ready at call." Thirty-five was the number chosen, and here are the names of these "strong, able, discreet, honest, and sober men," many of whose descendants are living in New York to-day:

From the East Ward: John Tiebout, Hercules Wardeven, Jacobus Delamontagne, Thomas Brown, and Abraham Vangelder.

From the West Ward: William Roome, Jr., Walter Heyer, Johannes Alstein, Evert Pelse, Jr., and Jacobus Stoutenburgh.

From the North Ward: Peter Lote, Peter Brauer, Albertis Tiebout, John Vredenburgh, and John Dunscombe.

From the South Ward: Johannes Roome, Peter Marschalk, Petrus Kip, Abraham Kip, and Andrew Meyer, Jr.

From the Dock Ward: Robert Richardson, Rynier Burgus, Baient Burgh, David Van Gelder, Johannes Van Duerson.

From Montgomerie Ward: Martinus Bogert, Johannes Vreedenburgh, John Van Suys, Adolphus Brase, and John Mann.

It will be noticed that no provision was made for paying these pioneer firemen. They were appointed by the city, but they served without salary.

Three years afterward appeared a committee of the Corporation "with full powers to inspect the ladders, hooks, etc., and to cause one hundred leather buckets to be made." Ten years afterward a "shed" was ordered to be built for a fire-engine just removed into "Montgomerie Ward, near Mr. Hardenbrook's." Eleven years afterward another engine-house was built in the centre of Hanover Square, the location being changed ultimately to Old Slip, fronting the present Franklin Market, and the company subsequently becoming known as No. 11. Fourteen years afterward Jacobus Turk was authorized "to purchase six small speaking-trumpets for the use of the Corporation."

In March, 1755, Peter Clopper was allowed three pounds for building an engine-house "on a vacant lot called Rutgers' Wall, in the East Ward of the city." It is believed that the site of the building is the same as that occupied many years afterward by Engine Company No. 26 in what became Rutgers Street. In June, 1758, the Corporation sent to England for "one large fire-engine, one small one, and two hand ditto, with some buckets." Meanwhile, it had ordered that fines for the violation of the fire-laws should be paid, one half to the informer and the other half to the church-wardens, for the benefit of the poor. In July, 1761, the person who had general oversight of the several engines was Jacobus Stoutenburgh, with a salary of thirty pounds a year, or three times as much as that paid to Jacobus Turk twenty-five years earlier. The next year Stoutenburgh received the title of Engineer, the number of firemen was increased to seventy-two, and it was ordered that leathern caps be worn by them. In seven years the firemen numbered one hundred and sixteen, and another engine-house was built. For "maintaining" ten engines, and for his own salary, the engineer drew in 1771 the sum of thirty-three pounds and six shillings. In 1772 a third assistant-engineer was appointed, and three additional engines were bought.

In 1785 "a new ladder was ordered in place of one injured at the French Church" a building in Pine Street, near Nassau, which stood for forty years afterward. The same year, one E. Braser petitioned the Corporation to allow the engine-house in "St. George's Square" to be converted into a place of business. A generous proposal was made in 1787 by Mr. N. Kelsey, in behalf of himself and his neighbors, to build an engine-house and to provide ground for it, and an engine also. The company is believed to have become No. 18. The site was in Water Street, near Fulton. Somewhat curious is the following extract from the records for March, 1790: " Your committee report that upon inquiring into the manner of using the fire-engines of the smallest size, they find that they are used to approach nearest to the fire, and are therefore best adapted for the leaders to convey water through the windows and narrow passes, and that they are generally used in that way; that when the leaders are used none but the firemen are willing to support them, as it is attended by a general wetting by the water which gushes out of the seams. Your committee are therefore of opinion that the complement to each of the said engines be continued to ten men, agreeable to the prayer of said petition." Two fire wardens for each ward were appointed in 1791. Their principal duty was to report violations of the fire laws. So popular was the Department in those days, that in March, 1791, a number of persons applied for appointment as firemen on condition that they "procure an engine, and furnish a place to keep it in." The petition was probably granted, for the next month an increase in the number, of firemen was reported by the Clerk of the Common Council. To the same year belong the earliest extant records of any fire-company in the city, those of Engine No. 13, which began in the month of November.

The first written report known to have been made of the doings of the Fire Department proper was on the 4th of November, 1791, at a meeting held in the house of Jacob Brouwer, in Nassau Street. From the minutes of this meeting it appears that "engineers, foremen, and representatives" were present, but the only "representatives" seem to have been the engineers and foremen. The engineers were: Ahasuerus Turk, who was elected chairman, William J. Elsworth, John Stagg, Francis Bassett, Isaac Mead, and John Quackinbush. The foremen were: Abraham Franklin, who was elected secretary, Abraham Brouwer, James Beekman, Thomas Franklin, Evert Wessells, Gabriel Furman, John Post, Joseph Smith, Frederick Eckert, Sylvester Buskirk, Bartholomew Skaats, Jackamiah Ackerly, Thomas Ash, John B. Dash, Archibald Kerly, William Wright, David Contant, John Clark, and David Morris. It was resolved "that the moneys arising from chimney fines should be appropriated toward establishing a fund for the use of disabled firemen and their families."

The firemen at this time began to feel that they had a right to be represented in the organization of the Fire Department, which then consisted exclusively of engineers and foremen. They succeeded in getting passed a resolution that each company consisting of eighteen men should be entitled to send two representatives, and that each company consisting of less than this number should send one representative. It was farther resolved that, instead of all the engineers being members of the organization, only one of them should have that honor. A constitution was drafted and adopted, and on the 17th of January, 1792, the Fire Department elected officers as follows: President, John Stagg; Vice-president, Ahasnerus Turk; Treasurer, William Z.J.. Elsworth; and Secretary, Abraham Franklin.

An "experiment to be made with a copper pump for drawing water out of the river in case of fire, and thereby preventing the disagreeable necessity of the inhabitants going down to the slips and handing the water up in buckets," was ordered by the Corporation in 1792. One year afterward this pump was deposited, by authority, "in the rear of the City Hall," then on Wall Street. At the annual meeting of the Department in July, 1793, an amendment to the constitution was adopted, by which the relief of the benevolent fund was extended tot he families of firemen. It had been limited to "those whose misfortunes may be occasioned by injuries while doing their duty as firemen." The wheels of the engines were so small that locomotion was extremely difficult when there was much snow. Accordingly, a new style of sled was tried by Engine Company No. 18, and similar ones were ordered to be made for the other engines. But they were found to be worse than useless; for, while attempting to turn a corner, the engines were often upset and damaged. In very narrow streets sometimes they were left to be burned, because it was impossible to get them away. From a small book of Minutes of the Engineers begun on the 5th of May, 1795 it appears that those officers met regularly by themselves, were divided into classes for watch duty, and were entrusted with the privilege of selecting names of persons to be appointed firemen by the Corporation from the lists of applicants.

The plan of depending upon private houses to furnish buckets was not entirely satisfactory, and about this time each engine-house was supplied with two poles long enough to carry twelve buckets each. These poles were borne on the shoulders of four men. The general rule was, that the first fireman to reach the engine-house after an alarm of fire should have a right to the pipe, and take it with him to the fire; that the next four firemen to arrive should bear away the bucket-poles; and that the rest of the company should run off with the engine as best they might, "bawling out and demanding the aid of citizens as they proceeded on."

About the last reference to the Fire Department in the Corporation records of the Eighteenth century is an order for the completion of one thousand fire-buckets. Sixteen hundred buckets were made in 1801, and distributed to fifteen head-quarters; a light hand-wagon was provided for each head-quarters, and two men were appointed to draw each wagon, with its one hundred buckets, to fires. The use of these hand-carts continued only for a short time; the men who drew them were added to the fire companies nearest to the respective bucket-stations.

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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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