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FDNY - A History: From volunteers to professionals, buckets to Super-Pumpers, 350 years of New York City firefighting.Photo of an old fire truck

New York's first volunteer firefighters operated for nearly a hundred years without even the most primitive fire engine.
1648 - 1835 -- The Volunteer Fire Department

Over three hundred years ago, American firefighting consisted
of four volunteers and their buckets of water.



1648 - the beginning
In 1648, New Amsterdam Governor Peter Stuyvesant appointed four fire wardens to patrol the area between the streets, inspect chimneys to be sure they had been swept properly, and to enforce the ban on wooden chimneys. Fire fighting and city politics have been intertwined ever since Stuyvesant shrewdly split these warden appointments between two Dutchmen and two Englishmen.

1657 - the Prowlers
In 1657, a log cabin fire prompted New Amsterdam's Dutch colonists to establish a group of eight night watchmen, whose duty was to wander the streets after dark, looking for fires or suspicious individuals. Officially, the watchmen were called the "Rattle Watch" because of the wooden rattles they carried to sound a fire alarm, but the town's people simply referred to them as the "Prowlers." When the "Prowlers" rattled their alarms, everyone was supposed to come out and help fight the fire. At the time, this was done with a bucket. In fact, until 1731 the lone means of extinguishing fires was with water conveyed via a leather bucket, and in 1659, the city obtained 250 such leather fire buckets.

1664 - from New Amstradam to New York

An early example of a fire engine, which would have required as many as forty men to pump.
An early example of a fire engine, which would have required as many as forty men to pump.

In 1664, the English took over New Amsterdam, renaming it New York. The "Prowlers" were replaced by the "Night Watch," four men with bells who announced the time and the weather each hour, in addition to searching for fires in a similar manner as the "Rattle Watch." The city received its first two fire engines in December of 1731. Designed by Richard Newsham, "Engine 1" and "Engine 2" were small, wooden, and heavy. Carried by fire fighters to the scene of a fire, they worked by means of a seesaw hand pump. Without a suction hose, the engines had to be filled with water by bucket.

1736 - the first firehouse
The city's first firehouse was built in 1736 in front of City Hall on Broad Street. And on December 16, 1737, the colony's General Assembly created the New York Volunteer Fire Department, appointing 30 men who would remain on call in exchange for exemption from jury and militia duty. The city's first official firemen were required to be "able, discreet, and sober men who shall be known as Firemen of the City of New York, to be ready for service by night and by day and be diligent, industrious and vigilant." Anyone who neglected to answer a fire alarm was fined 12 shillings. The new force of 35 men was in charge of defending 1200 homes and nearly 9000 people from fire.

1741 - saving Trinity Church
Within four years of the department's establishment, the force faced its first real test. Inside the fort, in the governor's house, a fire was discovered on noon, March 18, 1741, and the two engines hastened to the scene. Nevertheless, they were too late and too outmatched by the fire, and all of the buildings within the fort burned down. Over the next few days, a succession of fires led to rumors of an arson plot. Suspects were arrested - some were even executed - yet the mystery was never completely solved. Still, the adversity led to 14 additional members being assigned to the fire department, and a year later the force added another apparatus: an American-made brass hand pumper. By 1753, the department had four engines, all of which were needed that February to fight a fire in the Free School House on Broadway, which abutted Trinity Church. Embers drifted to the church steeple, and the engines' water streams hardly reached the roof, but, eventually, the firefighters were able to save the church.

1776 - fire during wartime
Fire ravages New York, after virtually the whole fire department left the city to fight under George Washington.
Fire ravages New York, after virtually the whole fire department left the city to fight under George Washington.

After George Washington and the Continental Army retreated northward through Manhattan in late August of 1776, nearly the entire fire department enlisted and evacuated the city with him. Six days later, fire broke out in the Fighting Cocks Tavern, yet no alarm was heard as all the city's bells had been melted down into munitions. By the time it went out, the fire had consumed 500 buildings, almost one quarter of the city.

1786 - FDNY is born
When the firefighters returned home from war, their equipment was trashed and the department underwent a period of renewal. Engine 1 adopted the name Hudson Engine Company No. 1 - initiating the custom of officially naming companies - and on February 15, 1786, the Common Council passed an ordinance establishing a brand new department with 300 men divided among 15 engine and two ladder companies. Several years later, in 1789, the Fire Department of the City of New York was formally incorporated by the State Legislature, obtaining the right to raise funds for itself and for the widows and orphans of firemen.

1800 - moving toward modernity
As the city grew, the department expanded and progressed. Fire plugs, predecessors of the fire hydrant, began being installed in lower Manhattan in 1807. In 1827, the first fire engine carried by a horse was used to fight a fire and additional help was sought for the first time, from Brooklyn, to help fight a fire. The fire engines continued to be pulled by the firefighters themselves, until a cholera epidemic in 1832 depleted the department's manpower, forcing them to start relying on horses.

By 1835, New York had over 250,000 inhabitants and 1500 firemen. That December, during a bitter cold spell, a fire broke out in a five-story warehouse at 25 Merchant Street. Fifty buildings were aflame by the time the blaze was discovered, and the whole department was alerted. Forty-nine engines, five hose carts, and six hook and ladders trudged through the snow to what would be known as the Great Fire of 1835. The river was frozen solid, so firefighters were forced to make ice-fishing-style holes in the ice. Working through the night and into the next day, firemen from New York, Brooklyn, Newark, Philadelphia, and elsewhere made a stand at Wall Street, using Navy explosives to create a firebreak that finally ended the blaze after 674 buildings had burned.

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1836-1898 -- New York's Professional Firefighters
Politics, rivalries, and insurance companies force out the volunteer department in favor of a professional one.

1648-1835 1836-1898 1899-1950 1951-2002