The Lost Museum Archive

Volunteer Firemen React to Steam Engines

The advent of the steam fire engine in the 1850s was of great concern to the volunteer companies of New York, who were furious at the prospect of being demoted from skilled pumpers to mere machine hands. This article from the New York Herald describes the visit of a Philadelphia steam fire engine company to New York, and the hostility with which it was treated by the New York volunteer companies. The New Yorkers jeered at the Philadelphia machine and its operators, understanding that were the steam fire engine allowed to come to New York, the days of the volunteer fire company as workingman's social club and source of neighborhood pride would be over. Advocates of a professional fire force, on the other hand, were delighted by the efficiency of the steam fire engine, and used it as ammunition in their battle against the volunteer company.

New York Herald, September 4, 1858:

The announcement in the Herald of yesterday, that the Philadelphia steam fire engine which won the prize in the trial at Boston, would play in the Park at 10 A.M., drew a large crowd to that locality at the time designated. The machine, which is a neat, compact looking engine, was worked by twenty-five members of the company who visited Boston with it. They are a respectable and vigorous looking body of young men, and handled the machine admirably. Their dress was similar to that worn by New York firemen, with the exception of the cap, which is of glazed cloth, and in shape like a Zouave's chapeau.

The Philadelphia has been at every fire that has occurred in the city of Brotherly Love since last January, and the firemen of that city, who at first were prejudiced against it, now regard the steam engine as a valuable auxiliary for checking conflagration. The fire is kindled as soon as the alarm is given, and in seven minutes the required amount of steam is ready to work the engine.

While the Philadelphians were preparing yesterday morning to make a trial of their machine, the fire at No. 13 Bowery broke out, and at the request of Mayor Tiemann they proceeded thither to test their apparatus. On arriving on the ground the visitors were somewhat surprised to find that the New York companies threw obstacles in the way of their procuring water, and for some time they were unable although ready to go to work. The Assistant Engineers, however, at length procured water for the Philadelphians.

They first played through a single hose, and although seventy feet from the blazing building, they succeeded in throwing a stream quite as strong as the heavy old hand engines which stood immediately opposite the fire. The force of the water, however, burst the hose they were using, and the Philadelphians were compelled to stop. This disaster, strange to say, instead of exciting the sympathy, provoked the derision of some of the New York firemen, who hurrahed and cheered, and acted generally as though they were rejoiced at the bad luck of their Philadelphia visitors.

The latter, not being daunted by their mishap, next proceeded to play two streams, with new hose. These two streams were thrown to a height nearly equal to the one thrown by Adriatic Engine Company No. 31, one of the "crack" hand engines of this city. The success of the steam engine seemed to enrage the New Yorkers, and the man who held the pipe for Engine No. 31 turned the stream of water full upon the Philadelphians. This magnanimous feat was cheered by the firemen, while citizens on the walk cried "shame!" "shame!" At this juncture it seemed as though a general attack was about to be made upon the visitors, but through the efforts of Assistant Engineer Baulch and the police the stranger firemen were protected from personal violence.

After helping to pout out the fire, the Philadelphians with their machine returned to the Park, but as they were compelled to take the Amboy boat for home at one o'clock they had not time to make the trial of the apparatus they had promised the public.

Although two days in the city, this company received no courtesies from the New York Fire Department, and they were allowed to go home without even an escort to the boat.

New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston and other large cities, are now using steam fire engines. As yet New York has been without one in active service. Our fire insurance companies should see to this.

Source: New York Herald