- Historic Sites
The people who stand ready to trade their lives for ours are part of a tradition that goes back 400 years
November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
As America learned on September 11, 2001, that hasn’t changed. The fire service in early colonial America was a form of mandatory community service. When fire broke out, adult males roused themselves from bed or left their work to man bucket brigades, taking their place on one of two lines. One line passed buckets filled with water from a well or reservoir to the fire; the other line passed the empty buckets back to the water source. It was tedious work and not intended to save the burning building so much as it was a defense against a larger conflagration. Unfortunately, the citizen firefighters of seventeenth-century America had plenty of opportunity to learn their vocation. Capt. John Smith said of Jamestown that he would consider himself safer in “wild Indian country” than within the settlement because of the tendency of “fools” to “burn down their homes at night.” Ben Franklin said his colleagues in the firehouse “have a reward in themselves, and they love one another.”
Decades later, authorities in Boston and New Amsterdam shared Smith’s frustration. The frequency of fires and the dangers to the community at large inspired colonial officials to initiate a struggle that continues to this day: imposition of a rudimentary fire code, which placed the interests of the public in general and firefighters in particular against the rights of property owners and developers. Boston authorities and the famous Dutch reformer in New Amsterdam Peter Stuyvesant outlawed roofs made of grass and thatch, and they also banned the use of wooden chimneys—yes, wooden chimneys.
Fire was something of an obsession with Stuyvesant (that and the tendency of New Amsterdam’s settlers to drink heavily and behave badly; modern mayors of New York no doubt will sympathize). He raised a property tax in order to buy 150 new leather fire buckets. And he purged New Amsterdam of its curious wooden chimneys and thatched roofs. Few government officials respected the rights and privileges of property more than Peter Stuyvesant, for he was, after all, an agent of Holland’s business interests. Still, he recognized in the 1650s that public safety and fire prevention required at least limited government control over private property. And so was born the centuries-old debate between firefighters and real estate developers over just how much regulation in the name of safety is enough. More than 300 years later, in the late 1990s, some of New York’s firefighters battled developers over legislation that would have required all residential buildings to be retrofitted with sprinklers. It was a bitter battle, one the firefighters lost. The city council decided the measure would be too expensive.
Stuyvesant also took a tentative step toward a paid fire department in New Amsterdam, hiring four fire wardens, supplying them with buckets and hooks and ladders, and sending them out on patrol at night. They were empowered to examine private homes to make sure that chimneys were properly swept. Later citizens of the colony established a “rattle watch,” in which a captain and eight men were given rattles to sound an alarm when they spotted a fire (or a crime in progress). The patrols were so successful that Stuyvesant soon had a complement of 50 fire wardens. While they were not paid firefighters per se, these men certainly were the ancestors of today’s FDNY.
Firefighting as a profession began in Boston in 1678, about a quarter-century after the city had ordered its first, primitive fire engine from an ironmaker named Joseph Jynks. The city hired a professional fire company of a dozen men and an officer to operate another engine the city had recently purchased from London. No other cities immediately followed Boston’s lead in hiring and training a corps of professional firefighters. In fact, New York waited until 1865 before establishing a paid fire service. But as fire equipment became more sophisticated, colonial officials realized that they could no longer depend simply on the civic spirit of brave but untrained civilians. In 1731 New Yorkers assembled near City Hall to witness the arrival of the very latest in firefighting technology, two pumpers that could throw water on a fire through a primitive nozzle. The engines had been developed in the shop of a savvy English inventor named Richard Newsham, who had the foresight to publicize his machines in broadsides published in the New World. The advertisements noted that Newsham’s fire engines had so dazzled the Old World that no less a figure than King George II had ordered one to protect his palace. Thus was born, long before Madison Avenue was so much as a cow path, the celebrity endorsement.
The arrival of these sophisticated engines and the growth of settlements along the New World’s Eastern Seaboard soon required a trained corps of firefighters. Volunteer fire departments were organized in New York, Philadelphia, Boston (to complement the paid fire company there), and other towns. To encourage recruitment, city officials offered volunteer firefighters an exemption from jury service—a tactic that might be employed to good use today—and from militia duty.