The Lost Museum Archive

American Volunteer Firemen

by Charles Dickens

In this magazine article Charles Dickens capture the spirit and lore of the volunteer fire companies in the mid-nineteenth century. The camaraderie, youthfulness, and heroism of the fire "laddies" as portrayed by Dickens contrasted sharply with the growing criticism of the volunteer fire department as undisciplined street gangs that used fire fighting as an excuse to fight one another. New York City insurance companies, middle-class reformers, and Republican Party supporters all argued for eliminating the volunteer system that attracted young working-class Irish immigrants and provided a based for local Democratic Party organizing. In 1865, the State legislature replaced the 4,000 volunteer firemen with a much smaller paid fire department.

The firemen of America are all volunteers. It is the law of the land that every citizen at a certain age, must come and serve for a certain specified duration of time, as either a militiaman or a volunteer. Now, as I believe the militiaman's term of service lasts five years, and a fireman's only three, you may easily imagine, among an itinerant and feverishly restless democratic youth, which is preferred.

Besides, there are many other reasons which I have no doubt contribute to make the fireman's service more popular in America than the militiaman's. In the first place, the former service, though vexatiously frequent in its calls upon its members, is not so restrained and monotonous as that of the militiaman's; and the Americans, as self-conscious freemen, are very jealous of even the smallest and least galling restraint. Secondly, the dress is not so much of the character of a livery-which a true American always detests as a badge of serfdom; it is more loose, careless and picturesque. Thirdly, the work is at night, when shops are shut and counting houses closed; lastly the service is one of stirring danger, and full of that passionate excitement that the American, whose Anglo-Saxon blood the suns of a new continent have long since fired to almost the volcanic warmth of the Indian he displaces, loves, and must have.

I will give my first impressions of the appearances of these volunteer firemen . . . [I] was working my way from the Battery and the vast world of warehouses thereunto adjoining, into Broadway. . . Here comes some cotton bales, and here a cart of oysters—sea fruit new gathered; but now a stir and oscillation in the street crowds. Now rises to the immaculate blue sky that ever smiles on New York, a bray of brass, a clamp of cymbals, and the piercing supplication of fifes, and bomb tom cannonades the drum with expostulating groan.

Ha! There breaks through the black-panted crowd (even the seediest American wears evening dress) gleams of warm scarlet! It is the rifle company of one of the New York Volunteer Firemen Societies. Here they come, four abreast. 'Fours,' with no very severe military air of stiff order and mathematical regularity, but with light, gay, swinging step, jaunty, careless, rather defiant freemen, a little self-conscious of the display, but braving it out in a manly game-cock way. They are trailing rifles now, the officers swinging round in the wheels with them, glittering sword in hand.

They wear a rude sort of shako covered with oil-skin, red flannel shirts, with black silk handkerchiefs, blowing gaily (as to the ends), tied round their throats in jaunty sailor's knots; they are all young men, some quite boys. It is evidently the manner with them to affect recklessness, so as not to appear to be drilled or drummed about to the detriment of their brave democratic freedom uniform. No, they would as soon wear flamingo-plush and bell-hanging shoulder knots. . .

These street processions are incessant in New York, and contribute much to the gayness of the street. Whether firemen, or volunteers, or political torch-bearers, they are very arbitrary in their march. They allow no omnibus, or van, or barouche, to break their ranks; and I have often seen all the immense traffic of Broadway (a street that is a mixture of Cheapside and Regent-street) stand still, benumbed, while a band of men, enclosed in a square of rope, dragged by a shining brass gun or a brand new gleaming fire-engine.

But, after all, it is at night-time that the fireman is really himself, and means something. He lays down the worn-out pen, and shuts up the red-lined ledger. He hurries home . . . slips on his red shirt and black dress trousers, dons his solid japanned leather helmet bound with brass, and hurries to the guard-room, or the station, if he be on duty.

A gleam of red, just a blush in the sky, eastward—William-street-way—among the warehouses; and presently the telegraph begins to work. For, every fire station has its telegraph, and every street has its line of wires, like metallic washing lines. Jig-jag, tat-tat, goes the indicator:

Fire in William-street, No. 3, Messrs, Hardcastle and Co.

Presently the enormous bell, slung for the purpose in a wooden shed in the City Park just at the end of Broadway, begins to swing and roll backward.

In dash the volunteers in their red shirts and helmets—from oyster cellars and half-finished clam soup, from newly begun games of billiards, from the theatre, from Boucicault, from Booth, from the mad drollery of the Christy minstrels, from stiff quadrille parties, from gin-slings, from bar-rooms, from sulphurous pistol galleries, from studios, from dissecting rooms, from half-shuttered shops, from conversazioni and lectures—from everywhere—north, south, east, and west—breathless, hot, eager, daring, shouting, mad. Open fly the folding doors, out glides the new engine—the special pride of the company—the engine whose excellence many lives have been lost to maintain. . . It shines like a new set of cutlery, and is as light as a 'spider wagon' or a trotting-gig. . . with axes and coils of leather, brass-socketed tubing fastened beneath, and all ready for instant and alert use.

Now the supernumeraries—the haulers and draggers, who lend a hand at the ropes—pour in from the neighboring dram-shops or low dancing-rooms, where they remain waiting to earn some dimes by such casualties. A shout—a tiger.

Hei! Hei!! Hei!!! Hei!!!! (crescendo), and out at lightning speed dashes the engine, in the direction of the red gleam now widening and sending up the fanlike radiance of a volcano.

Now, a roar and cackle, as the quick-tongued flames leap out, red and eager, or lick the black blistered beams—now, hot belches of smoke from shivering window—now, snaps and smashes of red-hot beams, as the floors fall in—now, down burning stairs, like frightened martyrs running from the stake, rush toward poor women and children in white trailing night-gowns—now, the mob, like a great exulting many-headed monster, shouts with delight and sympathy—now, race up the fire engines, the men defying each other in rivalry, as they plant the ladders and fire-escapes. The fire-trumpets roar out stentorian orders—the red shirts fall into line—rock, rock, of the steel bars that force up the water—up leap the men with the hooks and axes—crash, crash, lop, chop, go the axes at the partitions, where fire smoulders. Now, spurt up in fluid arches the blue white jets of water, that hiss and splash, and blacken out the spasms of fire; and as every new engine dashes up, the thousands of upturned faces turn to some new shade of reflected crimson, and the half-broken beams give way at the thunder of their cheers.

The fire lowers, and is all but subdued, though still every now and then a floor gives way with an earthquake crash, and into the still lurid dark air rises a storm of sparks like a hurricane of fire-flies. But suddenly there is a crowding together and whispering of helmeted heads. Brave Seth Johnson is missing; all the hook men and axe men are back but he; all the pumpers are there, all the loafers are there. He alone is missing.

Caleb Fisher saw him last, shouts the captain to the eager red faces; he was then breaking a third floor back window with his axe. He thinks he is under the last wall that fell. Is there a lad there will not risk his life for Seth? No! or he would be no American, I dare swear.

Hei! Hei!! Hei!!! Hei!!!!

Click-shough go the shovels, chick-chick- the pickaxes. A shout, a scream of Seth!

He is there, pale and silent, with heaving chest, his breast-bone smashed in, a cold dew oozing from his forehead. Now they bear him to the roaring multitude, their eyes aching and watering with the suffocating gusts of smoke. They lay him pale, in his red shirt, amid the hushed voiceless men in the bruised and scorched helmets. The grave doctor breaks through the crowd. He stoops and feels Seth's pulse. All eyes turn to him. He shakes his head, and makes no other answer. Then the young men take off their helmets and bear home Seth, and some weep, because of his betrothed, and the young men think of her.

Such are the scenes that occur nightly in New York. The special disgrace of the city is the incessant occurrence of incendiary fires. Yet accidental fires are exceedingly numerous, for wood is still (even in New York) the predominant building material, in consequence of the extraordinary cheapness of wood fit for building. The roofs, too, are generally of tin, and not tile or slate, and this burns through very quickly. Moreover, the universal stove (derived from the Dutch, I suppose) occasions a great use of flue pipes, and these are buried among wood, and are, even when embedded in stone, dangerous.

Source: Charles Dickens, "All the Year Round" March 16, 1861