The Lost Museum Archive

"Why New York City Should Have a Paid Fire Department," 1865

Insurance companies, civil and moral reform organizations, and the Republican Party were among the groups most active in lobbying for the creation of a paid fire-fighting force; this anonymous 1865 pamphlet focuses on the charges against the volunteer companies that would have been of the most interest to these special interests. There is a clear anti-immigrant tone running through the text, as evidenced in the claim that in the last 20 years, the fire companies had turned from an important, effective, respectable institution into “a rotting mass of festering corruption.” Not surprisingly, in the same 20 years, the fire companies had become almost completely Irish. Because Irish immigrants formed the largest Democratic voting bloc in the country, the creation of a professional fire squad would have eliminated the pro-Democratic voting corruption that this pamphlet alleges was endemic to the volunteer companies, thereby aiding the Republicans.

All things must change, and the Volunteer Fire Department of the city of New York, after an existence of nearly seventy years, following the many other institutions which were admirable in their day, but have passed away because superseded by the progress of events, is now tottering before the pressure of public opinion, and must soon give place to something more suited to the condition of the times.

The time was when a volunteer fire department was practicable in New York, but that era has long since passed. When the metropolis was a modest little city, where livery men talked about "over-driving" if their horses were taken to the Reservoir, in Fortieth street, and Eighth street was far out of town; when everybody in the department knew everybody else, and the decent virtues of our ancestors had not been supplanted by the crimes. rascality, and corruption, that now seem to be all-pervading, the voluntary system worked admirably.

In those days there were none of the demoralizing incidents connected with the system that now call so loudly for a change, the duties were not so onerous as to require that everything else should be abandoned to attend to them, and the best men, the most sober, substantial citizens of the city made a point of serving their time, and as political influences were also unknown, the direction of the Department was confided to those through whose influence and the influence which their names still lend, it attained a prestige the recollection of which is the main cause of its having been redeemed in our eyes so long after the reality has departed.

It cannot be said that the old race of high-toned, influential firemen, the Andersons, the Mills', the Engs', and the others whose names once shed such lustre to the title, have entirely disappeared. A few still are left; but is it their influence or their example that now controls the Department?

On the contrary, we know as every man of common sense knows, that the men who now aspire to the prominent offices, whose voices have the most weight in its councils, are men who sought and use their positions solely for the purpose of pecuniary or political profit, regardless of the great interests intrusted to their charge.

We know that through the corruption which such a state of things among the leaders inevitably occasions the infection has gone downwards, until the whole Department, with some honorable exceptions, has been changed into a mere political machine, bought and sold in the market, until it has become, when compared with what it was twenty years ago, a rotting mass of festering corruption.

In other days merchants and business men were proud of belonging to the Fire Department; now it is felt on all sides that a man lowers himself by the mere act of joining. If there had not been a great degeneracy, why would this change in public sentiment have occurred?

In contrasting the claims of a paid as compared with a voluntary fire department we are to regard their relative efficiency, economy, and the good or bad effects they respectively produce upon the public welfare.

Without discussing the various plans proposed, it is conceded by all its advocates that a paid department should be a comparatively small, well-disciplined and uniform force, organized something upon the model of the police, provided almost if not entirely with steamers drawn by horses, and acting in connection with an efficient fire telegraph.

There is no necessity for the force to number more than two or three hundred. Before the advent of steam the arduous labors of manning the brakes afforded some slight excuse for the employment of a great number of firemen, as at a large fire the services of all that could be obtained were often needed, but now the inferiority of manual labor has been too clearly shown to need demonstration, and so extensively have steamers been adopted by the present department that no more physical exertions are made by even its vast numbers than could easily be performed by this limited force, and with the exception of engineers (who are paid) and the pipe-men, the remainder of the men are simply in the way.

The question of the physical force required at fires being laid aside, we are to consider which of the two organizations affords the best and quickest way of finding the fire, and while capable of being controlled with the greatest facility, would be most likely to achieve the most beneficial results.

Laying aside for the present all mere moral considerations, the trouble of the present voluntary system in a city like New York is, that it had been so entirely outgrown, that to make it of any efficiency, an expenditure of material and labor has to be incurred not only unnecessary but greatly surpassing any benefit received.

As the area of the city is now far too great to be traversed by engines drawn by hand, it has been divided into nine districts, each practically forming a separate fire department, almost as large as its entire extent when the system was first organized, and a force of fifty-two engines, fifty-five hose carriages, eighteen hook and ladder trucks, and seventy-six hose, wood and coal tenders, are employed, which four thousand able-bodied men perambulate about, with a good deal less facility than could be done by four hundred horses; but then horses do not vote.

When a fire gets sufficiently under way to be perceptible from one of the towers, the tolling of the bells throughout the whole city, designates its location (within a half mile or so) to the firemen of that district, and to the thieves and other classes of the city at large, who find a livelihood at the expense of others.

At the sound of the bells these men, together with vagabonds of all descriptions, pour out from their haunts, in the low grog-shops and blind alleys of the lowest quarters of the city, and with hundreds of "runners," half-grown boys and even children, join in the crowd which are rushing along the sidewalks, accompanying some favorite engine towards the fire, compelling women and children to take refuge in stores to escape being run down, all shouting and yelling to the extent of their lungs, and only too happy if by taunts and jeers they can succeed in provoking the members of a rival company into a fight.

In these laudable exertions they are a good deal assisted by the firemen themselves, who race with each other through the streets, also yelling at the tops of their voices as if with the intention of frightening horses, terrifying such of the helpless portion of the community who have not taken warning by the noise and escaped, and making the air generally hideous till they come to the fire—when, as a general thing, they do nothing whatever but wait till it is over and then walk back again.

The members of the hand-engines man the brakes, it is true, but as the number of steamers is now so great, that there is rarely room or water enough for them alone, in the great majority of fires, the others are obliged to return simply because there is no opportunity for them to get to work.

It may be said that there is plenty to be done at fires, in the way of removing property. Most certainly there is, and if the firemen were willing to assist in saving property perhaps they might be sufficiently occupied, but unfortunately, they consider that their duty is simply to put out the fire, or rather to throw water upon the flames, and that rescuing property is something menial, and beneath the dignity of their position as volunteer firemen. The worst part of it, too, is, that those who entertain these ideas are the very best men in the department, in fact the only ones who are to be trusted with the handling of any property that the owners ever desire to see again.

This is the explanation of the fact why the losses from fire, and more especially from water, are so great, and why insurance rates in New York are so exorbitant; and this reluctance on the part of the firemen to meddle with property, in connection with the insane desire to pour in water without regard to consequences, has compelled the insurance companies to employ a paid organization at their own expense, simply to rescue property from burning buildings in as dry a condition as possible.

When, therefore, the hose is once laid and the steamers get to work, what is there for the great majority of the firemen to do, and what do they do, but loaf, hanging around every bar-room, invading in hordes every house of ill fame in the neighborhood, engaging in all sorts of disreputable practices, and far too frequently, winding up in a free fight.

Now, if the two main incidents of a paid fire department, the substitution of horses for men as a propelling power, and the use of an efficient fire telegraph, were to be adopted, much, if not all of these evils might be avoided. As the entire city would then become as attainable to all the engines as a single district now is to those doing duty in it, the number of apparatus might be reduced two-thirds, and the services of nine-tenths of the firemen become wholly unnecessary. . . .

It is difficult for anyone not familiar with the facts to appreciate the pertinacity and boldness with which stealing is carried on, under cover of protecting buildings at fires, and the great losses that are sustained by it under the present system. At a recent fire in Broadway, policemen stationed at the door of an adjoining building not on fire and not more likely to be than the pyramids of Egypt, were obliged to draw their revolvers to prevent a forcible entrance from those acting as firemen; while pilfering has got to be so common that if the articles are not very valuable it seems to be regarded more as a joke than anything else, so that at a fire in a music store in Fulton street, firemen were to be seen in all directions for blocks around, blowing trumpets and playing on instruments that they had appropriated; and it is a matter of course for them to walk into the liquor stores in the vicinity of a fire, and help themselves to whatever liquors of segars they may need. Such things as these occurring in broad daylight, without interference and almost without comment, will afford to a reflecting mind, some slight idea of what is done beneath the surface. Nothing of the kind could take place under a paid system, the firemen being fully employed, would have neither the time, the inclination, not the boldness to attempt anything of the sort; they would perform their duty until the fire was extinguished, and would then return without thinking of engaging in the fights that new seem an indispensable concomitant of a fire. The main thing in case of fire, is intelligent, concentrated, persistent action, in other words, discipline, and this is precisely the thing in which the present department is most deficient. . . .

[The] practice of bunking is one of the main features of the voluntary system.

Each company has certain rooms where a number of its members, from twenty upward, sleep, and, in fact, live; so that, according to the report of the Police Commissioners, over one thousand men have no other residence than engine-houses, and no other occupation than that of firemen.

Ostensibly, and often in reality, the members "bunk" for the purpose of being on hand in case of fires but, in the great majority of cases, the real reason is the society, excitement, and dissipation of the life.

Such a number of reckless young men, deprived of all domestic associations, away from everything that may tend to elevate their ideas, and thrown together under such circumstances, alternating from great excitement to complete idleness, form on of the most dangerous elements that could well be imagined.

Camps, barracks, and other places where men associate only with men, are proverbially demoralizing; but what are bunking-houses but barracks, situated in the midst of the temptations and evil examples of a city like this, and deprived of those regulations which alone make them endurable in military life?

Intemperance, licentiousness, and vice of all kinds, are engendered in their very atmosphere, and their influence for evil on the young men of New York, only too much exposed to temptation, cannot be estimated.

They are not only hot-beds of personal, but political corruption. Here are where the manipulations are made which control our city elections—where schemes are planned to break up primary elections and overawe political meeting, and where an eager crowd, ready for any kind of excitement, may always be found by those who require their services.

The Legislature have made sedulous efforts to preserve the purity of the ballot-box, and have passed a stringent registry-law; but of what avail is it so long as forty or fifty "repeaters" are enabled to sally forth from a single bunking-house, no one knowing who they are, or where they come from, except that they are registered at an engine-house, and, under another alias from another engine-house, repeat the operation until the requisite majority has been obtained. . . .

If the present department were broken up a great portion of the best material would transfer their services to the city militia, and thus a much needed support would be given to that great bulwark of our liberties, and the evil portion of it, who have done so much to degrade the politics and disgrace the morals of the city, would sink back into the obscurity from which they have been brought only by the advantages afforded by the present Volunteer Fire Department.

Source: Why New York City Should Have a Paid Fire Department. New York: C. S. Westcott and Co., Printers, 79 John Street. 1865