The Lost Museum Archive

New York Times Coverage of the Transition to a Paid Fire Department

When the New York State Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of a professional fire squad in July 1865, the era of the volunteer fire companies was over. It remained to be seen, however, how smooth the transition from a force over 4,000 volunteers to a force of 400 professional men could be. Initially, the volunteer fire companies responded with outrage, increased inter-departmental fighting at fires, and by threatening to discontinue work completely, leaving the city with no fire protection until the professional force could be assembled in 1866. However, after being assured that all members of the volunteer squads would maintain their firefighter’s exemption from the military and from jury duty, the volunteer companies voted to remain on call until the transition to professionals could be completed. This series of articles from the New York Times provides a chronological account of this transition.

New York Times, July 7, 1865

Firemen's Fights Must Be Stopped

Our reporters give an account of another incipient riot got up by firemen and runners last evening. For a time the brawl went on with great violence, and the rival factions or companies enjoyed the pleasure of trying to kill each other without let or hindrance, because—and here is the fact of main importance—"the Chief Engineer and his assistants had completely lost control of the men," and their efforts to stop the disgraceful row were simply laughed at. In short time, however, a squad of policemen came down the street at double-quick, and the fighting firemen left, at a little more than double-quick.

These fights are becoming quite too common, and the new commissioners must see to it that they are ended. The Paid Fire Department is a fixed fact; all honest firemen acquiesce in the decision of the Court of Appeals; the Chief and Assistant Engineers willingly serve until other officers shall be ready to take their places. But there are a great many bad men in and around the department, who are determined to bring odium upon the new system at any cost. Hence these fights. But they must be stopped, and that forthwith. The remembrance of July, 1863, is too fresh to permit such playing with fire; the same men who led the mob then are now fomenting trouble, and if they are not checked by the strong hand, we shall be in hourly danger of scenes even worse than those of the great riot. It is useless to appeal to their sense of manhood and honor; they have neither; nothing but the resolute infliction of punishment upon those whose guilt is clear will reach their consciences. It is well that we have a police force upon which the people can rely for protection, and we urge upon the Superintendent the duty of watching closely the malcontents of the old Fire Department and the villains who are urging them to mischief, and especially of putting down on the instant anything like a fight between companies or their runners.

New York Times, July 11, 1865

The Fire Department

Meeting of the Board of Engineers and Firemen—the Majority Vote to Continue to Do Duty

A meeting of the engineers and fire of the old department was held last evening at Firemen's Hall, Chief Engineer Decker presiding. About one hundred members were present.

The secretary stated that about twenty of the members were still in debt to the board.

The secretary further stated that at the last meeting of the Board a resolution had been adopted to the effect that if the Board of Metropolitan Fire Commissioners would grant an honorable discharge to all members of the Volunteer Fire Department on the 1st of August next, then the members would do duty to that date, otherwise they would not continue to do duty after the 10th of July.

A copy of this resolution was forwarded to the commissioners, who replied as follows:
Board of Commissioners of Metropolitan Fire Department,
New-York, July 8, 1865
John Decker, Esq.:
Sir: I am directed by the board to acknowledge the receipt of your communication dated July 1, inclosing a resolution adopted at a meeting of your board held on the evening of June 30, 1865, and in reply to inform you that the board is not prepared at the present time to comply with the proposition contained in said resolution.
Yours respectfully,
Chas. E. Gildersleeve, Secretary

Mr Hayes moved that the question be put as to adhering to the resolution adopted at the last meeting.

Mr. Anderson of Hose Company No. 22, offered a resolution to the effect that the department continue to do duty to the 1st of October next, at which time, as represented, the new Commissioners will be ready to organize the department.

Mr. Decker said the commissioners are now taking an inventory of the apparatus of the department, which will occupy them about three weeks. All the old department wanted was an honorable discharge within a reasonable time. It had hitherto done nobly.

Mr. Hayes wished to know who Mr. Decker thought the department had done during the last two or three weeks and whether he did not think it a disgrace for a man to be associated with the department?

Mr. Decker said they could not prevent people from talking.

Mr. Hopps thought the best thing they could do was never to run another fire in the City of New-York. [Applause.] He hoped the department would stand by their resolution.

Mr. Hayes withdrew his motion and Mr. Anderson subsequently withdrew his resolutions.

The motion to take a vote on the question as to adhering to the resolutions adopted at the last meeting of the Board was then renewed and adopted. The role was then called with the following result:

Affirmative - Engine Companies Nos. 1, 3,8, 17, 28, 31, 33, 41, 48, 51; Hose Companies Nos. 1, 19, 23, 26, 39, 36, 37, 44, 49, 50, 51; Hook and Ladder Companies Nos. 12, 15.
Negative - Engine Companies Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 13, 16, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 34, 37, 38, 40, 42, 45, 53; Hose Companies Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 13, 16, 21, 22, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 33, 38, 45, 47, 51, 55, 59; Hook and Ladder Companies Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 17.

The Chief-Engineer voted in the negative, and the Secretary, Mr. Davidson, in the affirmative.

Mr. Davidson then tendered his resignation as Secretary of the Board, and the Board then adjourned subject to the call of the chair.

New York Times, July 13, 1865

The Fire Department
How the Work of Reorganization Progresses
All the Down town Companies Declare for the New Board
The Law Regarding Honorable Discharges
Thirty-five Engines and Ten Hook and Ladder Companies to Compose the New Department
Plans and Purposes of the Commissioners

The Metropolitan Fire Commissioners are energetically pushing forward the work of organization, but as yet the difficulties in the way are far from overcome. The one great obstacle so far encountered is the absolute want of funds with which to carry out the projected improvements entertained by the new board toward a complete reorganization. As soon, however, as the budget sent in by them to the Board of Supervisors is accepted and the moneys are forthcoming, the board will set about making the extensive alterations already laid out.

In addition to the drawback of a lack of money, the commissioners find in many of the old companies a disposition to create difficulty and embarrass the new department by resigning and ceasing to perform duty. The Commissioners of the old Fire Department and the representatives met on the 1st inst. And adopted a resolution to the effect that if the Board of Metropolitan Fire Commissioners would grant an honorable discharge to all members of the Volunteer Fire Department on the 1st of August next, then the members would do duty to that date, otherwise they would not continue to do duty after the 10th of July. . .

At the meeting of engineers and foremen, held on Monday night last, quite a stormy debate arose upon the proper action, but when the vote was taken. . . the majority of the firemen [were] in favor of remaining in service until properly discharged by the new commissioners. However, many of the foremen and other influential members of the different companies favor an immediate dissolution of the old organization, knowing full well that the paid system will reduce the working strength of the New-York Fire Department, and that only a few of the old men can obtain employment. These men, holding positions in the Volunteer Department, are, in nearly every instance, exempt firemen, and are wholly outside of any of the benefits that may be conferred by the new board. Ignoring the fact that every fireman who has not served his full term is as completely under the control of the new Board of Commissioners as they ever were under the old one, the exempts are quite independent in their actions and sentiments, and pay no attention to the rights of those doing active duty and not yet discharged.

What the Law Says.
For the benefit of those firemen whose term of service has not yet expired, we publish the following section from the bill authorizing the establishing of a Metropolitan Fire District.

Section 19. All members of the present Fire Department, regularly enrolled at the time of the passage of this act, shall be returned by the present Chief Engineer under oath, to the Clerk of the Common council of the City of New York, and all such members who shall faithfully perform their duties until regularly discharged by said commissioners, and not otherwise, shall be entitled to al the privileges and exemptions to which exempt firemen are entitled by the laws of this State.

It will thus be seen that in order to enjoy the benefits accorded to exempt firemen, the members not yet out of service, by reason of the non-expiration of their term of seven years, must continue to serve until the Metropolitan Fire Commissioners can supply their places, and more fully organize, when discharges will be granted to all not retained. To prove this to be the case, we call attention to another section from the new Fire Act:

Sec. 20. Immediately on the organization of said department, all persons who shall then be firemen in the City of New York shall be under the control and government of said Metropolitan Fire Department, and if they shall so remain until they are discharged by said department, shall be entitled to all the privileges and exemptions allowed by the laws of the State of New-York; the same as if they served out the full term as prescribed by the laws of the State of New-York; and the said department shall have full power to discharge by resolution said firemen, or any of them, whenever they may deem proper. Nothing herein contained shall be construed to deprive any person of their right to, or affect their interest in, the fund known and called the New-York Fire Department Fund, or any part thereof, and the said fund shall continue to be held and administered by the present trustees of the Fire Department or their successors, but for all other purposes the present Fire Department of the City of New-York is hereby abolished.

Nothing could be more explicit than this section coupled with the one immediately preceding it, and they both cover the whole ground so completely that no one can mistake their meaning.

Mr. Decker's Action.
Chief-Engineer John Decker fought valiantly and consistently against the new law as long as there was any chance for its final defeat. As soon, however, as the Metropolitan Fire Law was declared constitutional by the Court of Appeals, he gracefully submitted, and has continued to perform duty ever since. In order that his conduct should not be misconstrued, Mr. Decker wrote the following note to the new board:
New York, June 27, 1865
Charles E. Pickney, Esq., President Board of Metropolitan Fire Commissioners:
Sir: To your note of the 23rd inst., desiring me to continue in the performance of my duties as Chief Engineer until further notice, I respectfully reply that, in accordance with my own feelings, I desire to retire from active duty, as I am not an applicant for the position; but in order to act consistently and to carry out the spirit of the resolution adopted by the Board of Engineers and Firemen of the volunteer Fire Department, while the controversy relative to the constitutionality of the bill was pending, and while the public mind was fearful that the old department would refuse to perform duty. I volunteer my services to the new organization until a reasonable time shall have elapsed, sufficient for the new Board of Fire Commissioners to take charge of all matters appertaining to this department.
Very respectfully,
Jon Decker, Chief Engineer

The Metropolitan Fire Commissioners met this straightforward offer in the proper spirit and while accepting the service of Chief Engineer Decker, it is understood that they contemplate affording the relief desired by him.

Action of the Firemen.
Notwithstanding the efforts of those holding positions in some of the companies to break up the old organizations, it is gratifying to find that almost all of the downtown firemen have declared for the new order of things, and, so far as is learned, no one company below Canal street has signified any intention of ceasing to perform active service. Up town, however, considerable trouble is encountered by several of the companies throwing up their organizations, thereby causing considerable difficulty at this juncture. But even up town the members of the companies try to do what is right, and in some instances have requested their officers to resign, elected a new set, and at once report to the commissioners their perfect willingness to continue to do duty until honorably discharged. Hook and Ladder Company No. 13 is a case in point. This company was generally reported to have disbanded, but the board was agreeably surprised yesterday by an informal report from the company, stating that having reorganized with a new board of officers, they desired to be considered as still performing fore duty. Some necessary repairs and supplies needed by the company will be at once ordered, and everything is quite harmonious in No. 13.

There were reports flying about the city and the Firemen's Hall, yesterday, that Engine companies Nos. 1 and 33 were about disbanding, but it is the belief of consistent firemen, that the members of these companies will follow the praiseworthy example if Hook and Ladder No. 13. Several other companies are at present considering the matter f throwing up all connection with the department, but it is sincerely to be hoped that they will see the matter in its true light, and determine to do duty until regularly and honorably discharged.

Source: New York Times