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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.
1836-1898 -- New York's Professional Fire Fighters

Politics, rivalries, and insurance companies force
out the volunteer department in favor of a professional one.



1836 - Politics as Usual

Political opponents of the volunteer fire department used the Great Fire of 1835 as an excuse to demand a paid department.
Political opponents of the volunteer fire department used the Great Fire of 1835 as an excuse to demand a paid department.

Since its creation, the volunteer firefighting force had become more and more enmeshed in city politics. Seven New York mayors had been firemen, as had William "Boss" Tweed, legendary leader of the Tammany Hall political machine, who swindled the city out of between 75 and 200 million dollars. New Yorkers began complaining; between embezzlement within the department and feuds between rival engines (who would at times literally fight for control of a fire hydrant), they weren't receiving adequate protection from the volunteer force.

Chief Engineer James Gulick, who defied Tammany Hall by refusing to let politics influence his management of the fire department, created a Hydrant Company to monitor the water plugs and end the custom of hiding them under buckets until the favored company arrived at a fire. Yet Tammany Hall seized the Great Fire of 1835 as an opportunity to oust Gulick from power. Even though it had been his plan that had saved Wall Street from flames, Gulick was blamed for the blaze. Hearings were held in early 1836, and Gulick received the news that he had been voted out of office while on the scene of another fire. He simply turned his hat around, and walked away. As the firemen heard the news, they did the same, and when the fire re-ignited, the firefighters refused to put out the flames without Gulick. Despite pleas from the mayor, the firemen would not resume work until Gulick returned to temporarily lead the force.

After the blaze was put out, the firemen demanded Gulick's permanent reinstatement, and when it wasn't granted, 800 of them marched on City Hall, handing in their resignations. Bitterness over the event lingered on the force for years, and contributed to the street brawling between rival fire companies.

1865 - The Volunteers' Last Hurrah
The force continued to develop: The department's first double-decker, Philadelphia style engine was employed in 1840, and the city's first telegraph-operated alarm system was implemented in 1851; the city had been divided into eight districts, and the number of bell rings corresponded to the district in which the fire was located. Yet tensions persisted as introducing the use of steam-powered engines was suggested around 1846; the firemen particularly disliked that steam engines would require much less manpower. The insurance companies, outspoken in their disapproval of the volunteer department, supported the use of steam engines, and also created the Fire Patrol, a paid salvage company, in 1854. Finally, on January 16, 1865, "The Act to create a Metropolitan Fire District and establish a Fire Department therein" was introduced in Albany, which would merge the departments of Manhattan and the Eastern and Western Districts of Brooklyn under a governor-appointed Board of Metropolitan Fire Commissioners. It was passed and signed by the governor, and new commissioners were appointed May 3. Mayor C. Godfrey Gunther, Chief John Decker, and the City Alderman tried to forbid the new department from taking control, but the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the paid department that June.

The transition of departments was ongoing that July when volunteer firemen were summoned to Barnum's American Museum, a popular entertainment attraction that featured everything from an aquarium and exotic animals to wax figures and circus "freaks." As the department worked to extinguish the blaze, the axe work of fireman John Denham allegedly saved the crowd from a Bengal tiger that had jumped from a second floor window. Then, as the story goes, Denham calmly entered the burning building and returned, carrying one of Barnum's star attractions, the 400-pound "Fat Lady."

Although the first division of the professional force, Metropolitan Steam Fire Engine Company Number 1, began service on July 31, 1865 at 4 Centre Street, it took until December to completely implement the paid department. The force's jurisdiction extended up to 87th Street, while volunteers still protected northern Manhattan.

1869 - A New Department Takes Charge

Before the Blizzard of 1888, fire engines weren't equipped to be pulled by more than one or two horses.
Before the Blizzard of 1888, fire engines weren't equipped to be pulled by more than one or two horses.

The new department quickly established its command. Thirty-three engine and twelve ladder companies were added between September and December, new steamers were purchased, and the first organized firefighting instruction, an Officers School, was formed in 1869. This led to the broader School of Instruction in 1883, and, ultimately, to the formation of the Fire College in 1910. Also in 1869, the James Gordon Bennett Medal, the department's first official award for valor, was endowed, and first awarded in 1870 to Assistant Foreman Minthorne Tompkins for his ladder-top rescue of a woman from a burning building. Then, in 1870, the department became a municipally controlled organization; the mayor, instead of the governor, would appoint the fire commissioners. The Metropolitan Fire Department was now the Fire Department of the City of New York.

Ten years later, the Fire Commissioner divided the title of Fireman into three grades, based on length of service and each fireman's assigned section of the city. A fireman who had devoted less than two years of service was considered Third Grade, assigned above 43rd Street, and paid $800 a year. A fireman with more than two years, but less than four years, of service was assigned to a company below 43rd Street, and paid $900 annually. Firemen with more than four years of experience would go to a company south of 43rd Street, and earn $1000 a year.

Of course, during this period the force wasn't just developing departmentally. In 1866, the Board of Fire Commissioners began paying the owners of the steam salvage tug "John Fuller" a yearly fee to operate it as a fireboat on an as-needed basis. In 1877, several new breathing devices were tested for use in smoke-filled buildings. Ladder technology improved, and the department adopted more stringent fire codes for buildings after a disastrous blaze at the Brooklyn Theater killed nearly 300 people. During the Blizzard of 1888, deep snow prevented firefighters from delivering their engines to two multi-alarm fires on time. The department had to borrow spike hitches from local breweries and horse-drawn trolley car companies that would allow for four or five horses to be attached to the engines and the trucks, which had proven too great a weight for one or two horses to drag through the snow effectively. The department soon outfitted its apparatus to accommodate more horsepower.

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1899-1950 -- Development of Modern Firefighting
As the Manhattan skyline races upward, New York City firefighters must learn to climb.

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