- 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
Inquiries into the distinct, insular, cohesive phenomenon known as firehouse culture have launched a thousand dissertations, examining American firefighters from the perspectives of gender, class, and ethnicity. Few, if any, have pointed out that at least in large cities like Boston, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, firefighting in the late nineteenth century not only was masculine, working class, and Irish, it was Catholic too. In the firehouse, Catholic immigrants and their children found a society and culture they recognized. Firefighters even in the volunteer days came to regard themselves as a community unto themselves, a separate society self-segregated from politicians, civilians, and all other outsiders. Catholic immigrants, particularly those from Ireland, had set up their own institutions to separate themselves from Protestant nativists in the 1840s and 1850s. The fire departments of many large cities became almost an extension of the Catholic parish, school system, and social services networks.
Firefighting was transformed into fire science in the late nineteenth century with the introduction of training academies, civil service exams, and tough physical standards for candidates. But not all firefighting was done in tenement houses and factories, of course, and not all firefighters were from the streets of urban America. On October 8, 1871, the very day that the nineteenth century’s most famous fire broke out in Chicago, the Wisconsin lumber town of Peshtigo went up in flames. By the time it was put out, the fire had killed at least 1,200 people and destroyed more than a million acres of forest and rural settlements. Forest fires were common in Wisconsin, as they continue to be in the West, but the Peshtigo fire was unlike any other wildfire before or, in terms of lost lives, since. The Chicago fire, which killed at least 300 people, remains better known, but the Peshtigo fire was by far the greater catastrophe. And it continues to speak to another, less celebrated tradition of American firefighting, the professionals and volunteers who battle fires in rural and wild America. In
Ghosts of the Fireground , a memoir of fighting recent wildfires in the West, Peter M. Leschak noted that the largest group of wildland firefighters are, in essence, freelancers who work sporadically for low wages and few, if any, benefits. Still, when fires break out, they put their lives on the line as surely as any professional firefighter in any American city or suburb.
Several twentieth-century fires stand out as tragic milestones: the blaze aboard the excursion boat General Slocum, which burned in New York’s East River in 1904, killing more than 1,200; the fires set off after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco; the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942, which killed nearly 500; the Hartford circus fire in 1944, which claimed 163 lives, many of them children; and the Happy Land social club fire in the Bronx in 1990, which killed 87. The worst fires often led to changes in firefighting tactics or building codes. After the blaze in Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago in 1958, which killed 92 children and teachers, the city demanded that all schools have automated sprinklers, among other safety measures, and as was and is so common after such tragedies, observers wondered why such an elementary step had not been in place before the fire.
But no fire in American history had the impact of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in 1911. The deaths of 146 garment workers, most of them young women, led to the passage of an array of laws regulating workplace safety and helped launch the careers of Alfred E. Smith, Robert F. Wagner, and Frances Perkins. It’s hard to imagine the New Deal without considering the outrage and reforms inspired by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
That blaze, which burned the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a building that still stands near Washington Square Park, also inspired the fire service in New York and around the country to press for stronger fire codes, mandatory fire drills, and more extensive use of technology like sprinklers. Even as the Triangle blaze was roaring, Edward Croker, one of the great fire chiefs in New York and American history, was denouncing the employers, like the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, who refused to conduct fire drills. Croker, the nephew of the notorious Tammany boss Richard Croker, soon retired from the FDNY to become a full-time advocate for fire prevention.
Just a few years after the Triangle blaze, America’s professional fire departments began to evolve into the highly trained corps of emergency workers we know today. Those in New York and Boston organized their first rescue units, a foreshadowing of the role firefighters were to play on September 11, 2001—that of first responder to an emergency. Rescue companies were to become the elite units of the professional departments throughout the country. Armed with special tools and training, they were prepared for just about any emergency, even those unrelated to fire. Nearly a century later, firefighters around the country—professional and volunteer alike—have taken on new responsibilities and, with them, new dangers in a world where fire and murder can be exported from caves in Third World countries. To cite just one small example, during a panel discussion among fire chiefs in suburban New Jersey not long ago, firefighters told of the hazmat training they now receive as a matter of course after September 11.