The Story of New York Firefighting into the new Century 1783-1819

he challenge for New York firefighting in the 1800s can still be thought of as a revolution, with a few attendant riots, even though it was not primarily an armed struggle. Instead, this upheaval was a "population revolution", the consequence of hyper-growth. In 1790, the city had about thirty thousand inhabitants, up from three thousand the century before. However, it did not take another century to add another thirty thousand. In ten years, by 1800, there were over sixty thousand New Yorkers. By 1820, the city doubled its size (124,000). By 1835, it more than doubled once again (270,000). On average between 1830 and 1835, every month, one way or another, one thousand more people popped into the city.

This rapid growth challenged every municipal agency, the fire department included. In the late 1700s, the firemen who actually pulled fire engines to fires, pumped the engines' hand-rails, and directed the flow of water to quench a blaze were unpaid volunteers. The water they pumped usually came by way of bucket brigades of household volunteers. In the close-knit colonial society huddled below Wall Street, all but the misanthropes shared the common zeal for stopping fires. This communal fire-fighting spirit continued unabated from the Revolution to the 19th century.

In the 1780s and 1790s the fire department had more than enough qualified volunteers to grow with the city, particularly when it accepted former Loyalists without prejudice, like John B. Dash Jr. who became the foremen of an engine company. By 1786 the department had sixteen engines and about three hundred firemen. Moreover, groups of citizens competed to pay for new fire engines and establish fire engine companies. Archibald Kerley and several of his Cherry Street neighbors bought an engine for the city, built a house for it in their neighborhood, and formed a new engine company. A few years later, perhaps inspired by Cherry Street, Nathaniel Hawxhurst and his Queen Street neighbors donated an engine and engine house under the sole condition that they themselves be appointed as firemen to run with the engine. The Common Council did not look into the mouth of that gift-horse and made the appointment. By 1796 the fire department enjoyed twenty-two fire engines, several donated, and close to four hundred firemen.

Over the next decade, New York surpassed Philadelphia to become the largest city in the nation. Growing with New York, its fire department doubled the number of firemen and added a dozen more engines. Becoming the nation's largest fire department meant it confronted the problems of scale before the departments of other cities. No other American city in 1820 had to protect a population of 125,000 from fire. Philadelphia could provide a model for the development and use of fire hose; Boston, for the development and deployment of the electric telegraph alarm system; and, Cincinnati, for the successful introduction of steam engines. But, organizationally, through the first half of the century, New York would have to invent its own way into the future.

For example, New York was among the first to confront the erosion of the communal firefighting spirit. As early as 1803 there were rumblings in the lower wards against the bucket brigade system. In simpler colonial times the buckets collected after a fire were taken to City Hall to be picked up by their owners, usually an individual householder, baker, or brewer. Often enterprising boys would take the buckets from City Hall to their more prosperous owners in hopes of a small tip or refreshment. As the city expanded, getting the buckets back to City Hall and then back to the owners proved more difficult. In 1803 the Fire Wardens in the Third Ward reported a shortage of buckets, thirty per cent of their twenty-two hundred buckets had been lost. Sometimes the buckets were damaged or destroyed at a fire, but usually they were simply lost in the aftermath, impossible to find.

The usual compensation paid a householder for a lost bucket was $2. But, to be reimbursed the householder had to make out an affidavit, submit it to the Common Council, and then wait for that deliberate body to act. Few citizens took the time and trouble to go through the cumbersome process. The council minutes show a payment for a bucket here and there, but in 1803 they amounted to less than ten per cent of the buckets reported lost in the Third Ward alone. As a result, "...the inhabitants of the third many instances have expressed a determination that in the future they will not let their buckets go out at all." The Third Ward Fire Wardens reassured the Common Council that they had taken measures to "induce" their charges to procure the requisite buckets as the law required, but no one would characterize the firefighting mood of the Third Ward in 1803 as zealous.

The Common Council had already authorized one thousand buckets for distribution to fire houses at the turn of the century. It had been a standing practice by then for fire houses to keep at least twenty buckets on long poles so that first few firemen responding to the fire would be on the fire ground with them as fast as possible. For a short time, the fire department even experimented with carts to carry additional buckets. The Council added another patch to the system in 1803 by authorizing the production and distribution of one thousand more buckets to the fire houses.

The eventual elimination of the bucket brigade by 1820 was not the result of citizen apathy, however, but by the development, adoption and use of leather fire hose. In 17th century Amsterdam, the van der Heydens had developed and deployed fire hoses in conjunction with fire engines for sophisticated and efficient fire-fighting systems. While other European countries adopted their hose systems, they had little influence in America until about 1800. It could be, in the case of the higher pressure leather hose, that the techniques of securely sewing a long seam (forty to fifty feet) of leather was not widely known or practiced in America. The ends of a sewn leather tube also needed to have water-tight metal couplings at both ends. As it happened, around 1800 several American cities began to extend their use of hose. New York received delivery in 1799 of two engines from Hamburg, Germany to pump water from the "River" to the interior of the city using "long hoses".

About the same time, Philadelphia embraced hose on an even larger scale. By 1801 the city had built a canal and water works to bring water from the Schuylkill River. In the city, the water flowed through conduits of hollow wooden pipe tapped at intervals with hydrants. Hoses connected to the hydrants were at first used to fill fire engines. However, in many instances, where the pressure at the hydrant was high enough, no fire engines were necessary. The hose-men could attach their hose to a hydrant, run their hose to the fire ground, and play directly on the fire through a nozzle.

In 1803 the Philadelphia Hose Company was the first of many hose companies that supplied water to engines and, in some cases, supplanted the engines at fires. With the proliferation of hose companies came a marked increase in demand for high-quality hose that would not leak, or worse, burst at the seams during a fire. As a happy coincidence, members of a Philadelphia hose team, James Sellers and Abraham Pennock were also innovative manufacturers in metal and leather. Seeing first-hand the need for improved hose, they developed and patented a manufacturing technique for leather hose that used copper rivets to form and reinforce the seam. The hose thus built was water-tight, able to withstand higher water pressures, and less likely to rot at the seams. In Philadelphia alone, between 1811 and 1818, a licensee of Sellers and Pennock, Samuel Jenkins, manufactured and delivered over 13,000 feet of hose. As Josiah Quincy, the mayor of Boston was to note "Every hundred feet of hose is as effectual as the presence of sixty men with buckets." If so, Philadelphia's new hose was equivalent to bucket brigades of almost eight thousand people.

In the early 1800s, New York also adopted hoses to fill engines. However, the city at the time did not have a robust water supply feeding a system of pipes and hydrants. Without a widespread system of pipes, the department would use hose to connect engines sequentially in long lines from the water source to the blaze, a sort of "hose brigade" where the engines replaced people and the hose replaced buckets.

The speed with which they would form the long line of engines and hose was a source of pride in the department. On special occasions, such as the visit of the Revolutionary hero Lafayette, they would muster to demonstrate their capability: "After parading, they formed a line in the City Hall Park, No. 1 Engine taking suction from the City Hall cistern, and forcing the water through 200 feet of hose into No. 2 Engine, No. 2 into No.3, and so on, all around the inside of the railing of the Park, down the Broadway side and up the Chatham Street side. ...Three of the longest ladders were erected, forming a tripod, and on the top were put several burning torches. The last two engines threw the water from a pipe and extinguished the torches, in the presence of Lafayette, the Mayor, and other dignitaries."

New York relied on home grown hose suppliers like Israel Haviland for the first decade or so of the century. The news of an improved fire hose, perhaps influenced by Philadelphia innovations, appears in the minutes of a Common Council as early as 1811. The Committee on the Fire Department was directed to make and test hose "of similar construction." But, there was no doubt of the Philadelphia influence in 1815 when Samuel Jenkins, Sellers and Pennock's distributor, solicited the Common Council to supply the city "a superior kind of Fire Engine Hose" and the Committee on the Fire Depart was once again enjoined to test it.

In 1810 and 1811 the conversion from buckets to hose was at its peak in New York. Engine companies began to request more lengths of hose at virtually every Common Council meeting. By the end of 1811, the Fire Wardens suggested the repeal of the ordinance requiring householders to furnish buckets since "...the Use of Hoses had in a great measure superceded the use of Fire Buckets..." But, the Common Council felt abandoning the use of buckets would be "imprudent" since in the interior of the city "speedy" bucket collections could quench the flames before the line of engines could form. However, the Council did authorize "the number of buckets in each house to be reduced by not more than a one-third." How a householder normally supplying one or two buckets would implement this new order was not recorded. By 1814, the fire department had a little over thirteen thousand feet of hose while it had reduced the bucket count stored in firehouses to one thousand. In 1819, an ordinance formalized what had actually happened in practice much earlier, eliminating the household requirement for buckets completely.