The Lost Museum Archive

Marty Keese Describes Being a Volunteer Firemen

This lighthearted 1907 article from the New York Sun recalls the days before the advent of the professional fire squad, when, according to a volunteer named Marty Keese, "your fire company was your religion." The article traces the rise and fall of the volunteer companies in the esteem of the city from the days when heroism in a fire company was a sure jumpin-off point for a career in city politics, to the last days of the institution, when rival companies were as likely to brawl as they were to put out a fire. The article pays particular notice to the 1865 fire that destroyed Barnum's museum. The American Museum fire, which was one of the last major blazes on which the volunteer companies worked, was enlivened by the (ultimately futile) attempt to save a seal and a white whale from the burning building.

New York Sun, September 1, 1907

"In Marty Keese's Youth; Days of the Volunteer Fire Laddies; Glory; The attempt to Rescue the Great White Whale When Barnum's Museum Burned -- Rivalry and Rowdyism That Helped to Bring in the Paid Fire Department"

It was lots of fun, Marty Keese says, to watch the negroes dance for the firemen around Catherine Market just about sunup in the days of Old New York. They danced partly because the volunteer firemen, while waiting for their favorite fishmongers to open their stalls so that breakfast might be purchased, ordered the negroes to dance; and they danced partly because they loved their art; but most of all they danced to try to win prizes of long strings of shiny eels.

The only reason Marty Keese remembers those dancing contests at daybreak around the old market is because they had to do with the volunteer firemen. Loungers around the City hall lobby long ago estimated that if all the glowing language that party has delivered about the volunteer fire laddies was placed in a single line it would reach almost all the way from the City Hall to an honest Alderman. It was a more beautiful thing to be a fireman in the old days, Marty says, than it is now. And that is saying a great deal, as any one who knows Manhattan's opinion of her present day laddies must realize.

Does a fireman have to buckle in to try to rescue a live whale from a burning building in the heart of New York today? Marty wants to know. Pulling a modern piano or s'teen ton safe from the flames is child's play when compared to rescuing a whale. Carrying a live seal out of the same building wherein the whale was sizzling to a frazzle was bad enough, especially when the seal while being carried head downward insisted on nipping the rear of the fireman next in line. But to rescue a whale!

It was a white whale and it lived within a great tank in Barnum's Museum until one hot day in July. If the whale, while watching the sweating crowds that had come to the museum to watch the whale, was filled at any time during that July day with sinful exultation because the throngs were doing all the sweating, here was but another instance of the pride that goeth before a fall.

The white whale fire was the last of any importance in which the volunteer firemen were to wet down burning walls. If Marty Keese will not be offended, it might be remarked that in those days a fire got a better start than now. Wherefore, when the firemen reached the museum they found a very spectacular flare up confronting them, a fire that was a glorious thing for every onlooker but the white whale.

Inside the tank the temperature was going up like an express elevator, and by the time Fireman Marty came along to take a look and do his prettiest to help keep an uninsured whale from contracting singed flukes the sad word was passing around that in a few minutes the whale was due to give a neat imitation on a big scale of a broiled large lobster.

For you may try as you like--and the firemen that raced to Barnum's blazing museum did try--it's next to impossible to place an arm around a whale's waist and expect to make a getaway with it, meaning the whale. There wasn't a fire escape on the outside of the whale's tank, and even if there had been, it's dollars to last Sunday's roast beef that the whale would have lost its head just the same and never would have remembered to climb out upon the fire escape and shin down to safety.

All the sympathetic firemen could do was to stand around the tank and advance opinions. Perhaps some genius among the red shirted heroes would have hit upon a plan for rescue if the flames had not been so impatient.

Why didn't they take the whale out instead of standing there talking about doing it, you ask. Well, the first time you think about it when you are marketing again you just go ahead and buy a young and lively whale and place it in a tank in the kitchen and watch it grow and grow until it is as big as Barnum's whale was the day of the fire; and then set fire to the other end of your house and try to get the whale out onto Madison avenue, or whatever your street is, before the flames reach your kitchen. Bet you can't!

A prickly heat rash was breaking out on the starboard side of the whale and the port side was almost as well done, Marty says, when suddenly one member of the ways and means committee on whale rescue noticed that just opposite the whale's tank stood a pedestal loaded down with a pyramid of cannon shells. Some of the firemen were in favor of moving the explosive shells closer to the whale so that when the heat blew up the shells they'd settle the whole whale question with precision.

While the argument pro and con was underway it also occurred to the whale rescuers who stood nearest the shells that it would be more discreet to do the arguing further from the explosives, so they went away from there. Rather than leave the whale to be slowly poached by the growing heat, however, Marty Keese delayed his departure long enough to smash the heavy glass of the whale's tank with a hook and let out the water with a rush. So the whale merely roasted to death instead of undergoing the distress of being poached.

When Marty was descending from the burning museum on the Broadway side a few moments later he saw some of the men of 5 Hose Company make a thrilling rescue of a live seal named Ned. The firemen at least had begun the rescue by lifting Ned from his tank and after this start Ned gave al possible aid to the work of getting out on Broadway.

The fireman to whom was awarded the proud job of carrying Ned out of the building swung the seal head downward as far away from his person as possible. Just before the street was reached Ned's pointed snout came in contact, during one of the swings, with a part of the rear elevation of another fireman just ahead that offered much gripping possibilities. Ned gripped, and from that time on the seal's progress toward the street was even more rapid than it had been.

Chief Decker saw Marty coming out of the Broadway side of the building and learned from him that there were other firemen still inside.

"Tell 'em to come out--quick!" yelled the chief. "The building's coming down!"

There was no necessity to tell the firemen to scatter by the time Marty had gone inside again to obey the chief's order. A mighty totter and rumble had sent the firemen groping wildly toward windows and doors, and many of the men jumped from windows a story above the street. Marty slid to the ground astride a ladder, and while he and his companions were stampeding from the shaky walls Barnum's Museum collapsed with a long roar.

That was the time the new or paid department was coming into being. One by one the old volunteers were being honorably discharged. By November of that year the department was quite organized.

The esteem in which the old volunteers were held in the days of their glory scarcely is appreciated by the present generation in Manhattan. Half a dozen Mayors, perhaps more, in the early days owed their position almost altogether to their prominence as firemen, and in fact it was from the ranks of the volunteer smoke eaters that most of the public offices of the day were filled. p> There came a time toward the close of the activity of the volunteers when a few of the thoughtless and hot headed among them caused the glory of the organization to be dimmed a bit. Year by year the rivalry among the companies due to the eagerness of each to be the first to arrive at the blaze grew more bitter. There were accusations even that friends of the men in one company would try to block the way of a rival crowd trundling a hose cart or hand engine along.

A street fight between the members of Engine companies 40 and 53 while both were headed for a downtown fire was the last straw. There was a collision of men and engines as each party tried to crowd the other aside.

One enthusiast took out time to punch the nearest member of the rival crowd. That was the signal for all to forget the blaze and drop everything to fight it out then and there. And while the fire blew merrily onward there was a gorgeous fight underway that developed one of the best crops of broken noses ever seen on the island.

All New York raised a hue and cry the next day. The newspapers thundered their stormiest and the city helped to swell the chorus of disgust. The protests of the press continued so steadily that soon the disbandment of the last of the companies followed.

It is unfortunate that the volunteer firemen passed out under a cloud because of the actions of the rowdies of the department. Almost all of the best known men of their day ran with the old hand engines, and they gave their time day or night without pay or reward of any kind except the esteem of their neighbors and the joy of fighting the flames, for your fire company was your religion when Marty Keese was young.

Source: New York Sun