NYC Fire Department History

The history of New York has been marked by a series of terrible fires, which have destroyed many lives and swept away millions of dollars worth of property. In 1741 the first of these conflagrations swept over the lower part of the city, consuming many houses, among them the old Dutch fort and church. On the 21st of September, 1776, during the occupation of the city by the British, 493 houses were burned, and great distress entailed in consequence upon the people. On the 9th of August, 1778, a third fire destroyed nearly 300 buildings east of Broadway and below Pearl street. In May, 1811, a fourth fire broke out in Chatham street and consumed nearly 100 houses. In 1828 a fifth fire destroyed about a million of dollars worth of property. On the 16th of December, 1835, began the sixth and most disastrous of these conflagrations. It raged for three days and nights continuously, swept over an area of 45 acres, destroyed 648 buildings, and entailed upon the citizens a loss of $18,000,000. In the face of this great disaster the insurance companies unanimously suspended. On the 19th of July, 1845, the seventh and last fire broke out in New street, near Wall street, and swept in a southerly direction, destroying 345 buildings. The loss was $5,000,000.

As a matter of course, a city that has suffered so much from fires is in especial need of the best known means of preventing and suppressing them. Since the year 1653 there has been a Fire Department in New York, and it would be an interesting task to review its history had we the space to do so. In its early days it was considered an honor to be a member of a fire company, and some of the best of the old-time citizens were to be found in the ranks of the various organizations. The city took care to keep the force provided with the most improved machines, and every effort was made to render it as efficient as possible. As the city increased in wealth and population the character of the firemen changed. The respectable men left the organization, and their places were filled with men who were drawn into it by the excitement which was to be found in such a life. Soon the department passed entirely into the hands of the Bowery boys and other disreputable characters. The engine houses were rallying places for the worst characters of the vicinity, who amused themselves in their leisure hours by fighting among themselves, or by assaulting respectable passers-by. A fire was the dread of the city, not only for the damage the conflagration was sure to do, but for the disturbance it brought about on the streets. As soon as an alarm was sounded the streets were filled with a yelling, reckless crowd, through which the engines and hose-carriages dashed, regardless of those who were run over. Pandemonium seemed to have broken loose and taken possession of the great thoroughfares. If two rival companies met on the streets they would leave the fire to work its will and fight their battle then and there. There was scarcely a fire without its accompanying riot. The fires themselves were disastrous. Very little good was accomplished by the firemen, and the losses were tremendous. Adjoining buildings were often broken open and robbed under pretence of saving them from the flames. In short, the whole department was a nuisance, and thinking men saw that it was a great nursery of criminals and blackguards. Efforts were made to remedy the evil, but without success. The members of the department were volunteers, and were particularly impatient of control. Many of the companies owned their own engines and other apparatus, and refused to submit to any sort of restraint. There was but one way to bring good out of this evil, and at length the best men of the city determined upon abolishing the old system entirely. The demand for a change grew stronger every day, and at last the Legislature of the State set on foot measures for the abolition of the volunteer system and the substitution of a paid force.

In March, 1865, the Legislature passed the bill creating the Metropolitan Fire Department, and it at once received the Executive signature. The friends of the old system resolved to resist the attempt to overthrow it. A case involving the constitutionality of the bill was brought before the Court of Appeals, which body sustained the law. Efforts were made by the newly-appointed Commissioners to get the new system at work as soon as possible; but in the meanwhile the partizans of the old system endeavored to be revenged by disbanding the old force and leaving the city without any means of extinguishing fires. The danger was great, but it was averted by detailing a force from the police to act as firemen in case of necessity. By November, 1865, the new system was thoroughly organized and fairly at work. Each succeeding year has witnessed some fresh improvement, and at present New York has the best appointed and most efficient Fire Department in the Union.

The force, as at present organized, is under the control of five commissioners, appointed by the Mayor of the city. They make rules and regulations for the government of the force, exercise a general supervision over its affairs, and are responsible to the municipal government for their acts. The force consists of a chief engineer, an assistant engineer, ten district engineers, and 587 officers and men. Each company consists of twelve persons, viz.: a foreman, assistant foreman, engineer of steamer, a stoker, a driver, and seven firemen. Each company is provided with a house, with engine room, stables, quarters for the men, and rooms for study, drill, etc. The basement contains a furnace, by means of which the building is warmed and the water in the engine kept hot. Everything is kept in perfect order. The houses are clean and neat, and the engines and hose-carriages shine like gold and silver.

The men are all paid by the city. The firemen receive $1000 dollars per annum, and the officers a higher sum, according to their duties and responsibilities. The men undergo a rigid physical examination, and are required to present proofs of their good moral character before they are admitted to the force. The object is to have none but men perfectly sound and free from habits tending to impair their usefulness in the force. They are generally fine specimens of manhood, are noticeably neat in their dress and habits, and are just the opposite of the old-time volunteer firemen. Furthermore, they may be relied upon in any emergency.

There are thirty-seven steam-engines in the department. They are of the second class or size, and perfect in all their appointments. They were built by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, of Manchester, New Hampshire, and cost $4000 a-piece. There is also a powerful floating engine located on a steamboat, and used for extinguishing fires on the piers or on vessels in the harbor. It is kept near the Battery, so as to be convenient to points in either river. There are four hand engines, located in the upper part of the island, and twelve hook and ladder companies in the department. Several engines are kept in reserve, and are not counted in the active force.

The horses of the department are 156 in number. They are large and powerful animals, and are kept with the greatest care. They are groomed every day, and are fed punctually at six o’clock morning and evening. If not used on duty, they are exercised every day by being led to and fro in the streets adjoining the engine-house. They are thoroughly trained, and will stand with perfect steadiness under the most exciting circumstances. They know the sound of the alarm-bell as well as their driver, and the moment it strikes they exhibit an impatience to be off which is remarkable. They are kept harnessed constantly, and it takes but a few seconds to attach them to the engines.

The men are not allowed to have any other employment. The department claims their whole duty. A certain number are required to be always at the engine-house. In case of an alarm being sounded during the absence of a fireman from the engine-house he runs directly to the fire, where he is sure to find his company. A watch is always kept in the engine-room day and night. After ten at night the men are allowed to go to bed, but must so arrange matters beforehand that they shall lose no time in dressing. The horses stand harnessed in their stalls, the boiler is filled with hot water, and the furnaces are supplied with wood which burns at the touch of a match. It requires but fifteen seconds in the day and but one minute at night to be ready for action and on the way to the fire.

Scattered through the city are lofty towers, from which men keep a constant watch for fires. They are thoroughly acquainted with the various localities of New York, and can tell at a glance the exact neighborhood of the fire. From their lofty elevation they see the first cloud of smoke if it be day, or the first red glare if at night, and the next instant the alarm is sent over the city on the wings of electricity.

All signals and messages connected with the Fire Department are transmitted by telegraph, and for this purpose there is a distinct line through the city for the use of the department. By means of this line the various engine-houses are brought into communication with each other and with the central station and police headquarters. As the station-houses alone, however, would not suffice for the prompt communication of alarms, signal-boxes are scattered through the city at the most convenient points. These boxes are so situated that they may be reached from any point in a few minutes. They are several hundred in number, and are being multiplied as rapidly as possible. The engraving accompanying this chapter shows the appearance and mechanism of the signal box.

The box is attached to the telegraph pole, and is about twenty-four inches high, by twelve inches wide, and five inches deep. Every officer and member of the Fire Department, every officer and member of the Police Force, and every officer of the Fire Insurance Patrol is furnished with a key which will open all the boxes. A key is also deposited with the occupant of a building near the box, and a notice showing the location of this key is always placed in a glass case at the top of the box. Key-holders are cautioned not to open the box except in case of fire; not to give an alarm unless sure of a fire; not to give an alarm for a fire seen at a distance; not to pull down the hook more than once in giving an alarm; to be sure, after giving an alarm, that the door of the box is securely fastened; and not to let the key go out of their possession except when demanded by proper authority.


The engraving referred to will show the manner of giving an alarm. There are two doors to each box, an outer and an inner door, lettered respectively F and G in the engraving. The door G is to be kept closed unless it becomes necessary to repeat the alarm. The outer door, F, is opened, and the catch A is drawn down firmly. This winds up a spring, by means of the lever B, which sets in motion the wheel C, and strikes the number of the box on the gong D and on the instrument at the Fire Department headquarters. Should it be necessary to give a second or third alarm, the door G is opened and the Morse key E is struck ten times.

In this way all alarms are sent, first to the central office, and thence to the various engine-houses. The alarm from the central office is struck on a large gong placed in a conspicuous part of the engine-room of every engine or hook and ladder company. The locality, and often the precise site of the fire can be ascertained by means of these signals. For instance, the bell strikes 157 thus: one—a pause—five—another pause—seven. The indicator will show that this alarm-box is at the corner of the Bowery and Grand street. The fire is either at this point or within its immediate neighborhood. The signals are repeated on all the bells in the fire-towers of the city, and the citizens, by consulting their printed indicators, can inform themselves of the location of the fire. On an alarm of fire about one-sixth of the whole force goes to the place of danger. If the alarm be repeated the number is increased by another sixth, and so on until the necessary force is obtained. Each company is restricted to certain portions of the city, so that there is no confusion in sending out the proper force.

As soon as the sharp strokes of the gong give the signal of danger, and point out the locality, every man springs to his post. The horses are attached in a few seconds, the fire is lighted in the furnace, and the steamer and hose carriage start for the scene of action. The foreman runs on foot, ahead of his p. 347steamer, to clear the way, and the driver may keep up with him, but is not allowed to pass him. Only the engineer, his assistant, and the stoker are allowed to ride on the engine. The rest of the company go on foot. Fast driving is severely punished, and racing is absolutely prohibited. The men are required to be quiet and orderly in their deportment in going to and returning from fires. The engines have the right of way in all the streets. This is well understood, and it is astonishing to see the rapidity with which a route is cleared for them through the most crowded streets.

Upon reaching the fire, communication is made between the plug or hydrant and the engine, and the work begins. The chief engineer is required to attend all fires, and all orders proceed from him. The most rigid discipline is preserved, and the work goes on with a rapidity and precision which are in striking contrast to the noise and inefficiency of the old system.

A force of policemen is at once sent to a fire. They stretch ropes across the streets at proper distances from the burning buildings, and no one but the members of the Fire Department is allowed to pass these barriers. In this way the firemen have room for the performance of their duties, lookers-on are kept at a safe distance, and the movable property in the burning house is saved from thieves. Merchants and others have frequently given grateful testimony to the protection afforded their property by the firemen. Upon one occasion the members of the department had complete possession for several hours of every part of the building containing the immense and valuable stock of jewelry of Messrs. Tiffany & Co. This firm made a public declaration that after a rigid investigation they had not missed a penny’s worth of their property, and gratefully acknowledged the protection afforded them. Under the old system Messrs. Tiffany & Co. would have been ruined.


The life of a fireman is very arduous and dangerous, but the applicants for vacancies in the department are numerous. The men are often called upon not only to face great personal danger, but they are also subjected to a severe physical strain from the loss of rest, and fatigue. Sometimes they will be called out and worked hard every night in the week, and all the while they are required to be as prompt and active as though they had never lost a night’s rest. They are constantly performing deeds of heroism, which pass unnoticed in the bustle and whirl of the busy life around them, but which are treasured up in the grateful heart of some mother, wife, or parent, whose loved ones owe their lives to the fireman’s gallantry.

During the recent visit to New York of the Prince Alexis of Russia, a pleasing instance of the efficiency of the department was given. The Prince had just reviewed a detachment of the department, and had returned to his hotel (the Clarendon), in Fourth avenue, just out of Union Square. One of the Fire Commissioners proposed to him to test the efficiency of the force he had just inspected, and accompanied him to the alarm box at the corner of Fourth avenue and Seventeenth street, about half a block from the hotel. The box being opened, the Prince gave the signal, and immediately returned to his hotel. Before he had reached the balcony, the sharp clatter of wheels was heard in the distance, and in a few seconds several steamers clashed up, “breathing fire and smoke,” followed by a hook and ladder detachment and the Insurance Patrol. Within three minutes after the alarm had been sounded, two streams were thrown on the Everett House, and within five minutes ladders were raised to the hotel windows, and the men were on the roofs of the adjoining buildings.

Thanks to the model department, New York feels a security from fires unknown until now. The hopes of the friends of the new system have been more than realized. The fire statistics speak more eloquently than words could, and they show a steady decrease of the loss by fire. In 1866, there were 796 fires, involving a loss of $6,428,000; in 1867, the number of fires was 873, and the loss $5,711,000; in 1868, the fires were 740 in number, and the loss was $4,342,371; and in 1869 there were 850 fires, with a loss of $2,626,393. In the last mentioned year, only 43 out of the 850 fires were communicated to the adjoining buildings, a fact which speaks volumes for the exertions of the department.

The Headquarters of the department are located at 127 Mercer street, in a handsome building known as Fireman’s Hall. Here are the offices of the Commissioners, the Chief Engineer, Secretary, Medical officer, Telegraph Bureau, Bureau of Combustible materials, and Fireman’s Lyceum. The Lyceum contains a library of over 4000 volumes, and a collection of engravings, documents, and relics relating to the old Fire Department. All fines exacted of firemen, and those imposed on citizens for violating the ordinances relating to hatchways and kerosene lamps, are paid into the treasury of the “Fire Department Relief Fund,” for the maintenance of the widows and orphans of firemen.


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