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How Steam Blew The Rowdies Out Of The Fire Departments
The old volunteer system was colorful, but it could do more harm than good—and the efficiency of machinery finally replaced it
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
On April 1, 1853, the United States’ first paid fire department went into service. As chief, the city wisely chose one of the mightiest brawlers of the volunteer system. The first alarm that was answered by the professionals found the discarded volunteers ready. Two hundred and fifty men attacked the new civil servants. But the wily chief had his own musclemen and friends on the alert, too, and in twenty minutes the dissidents were routed. Then the steamer, “Uncle Joe Ross,” went to work on what was left of the fire. By this time the engine had a good head of steam up.
The original Latta steamer had many defects, but Cincinnati was impressed with the new system. The steamer had made unnecessary the presence at a fire of uncounted men who supposedly were merely waiting their turns to man the handles of their hand-pumpers; this greatly reduced rowdyism, theft, and general disorder. Public subscription quickly raised funds for an improved engine, which was named “Citizens’ Gift.” Like its predecessor, this engine was too big to fit in a firehouse and too heavy to be pulled through the streets by horses. Huge barn-like quarters had to be built for the monstrosity. When the alarm sounded, four horses dragged it out into the street where its boiler was fired and the engine proceeded under its own power.
The success of the Latta steamers sounded the knell for volunteer firemen in the cities. The skilled technicians necessary to service the steamers could not be provided under the old system of “first men there handle the pumps.” This colorful, self-sacrificing phase of American life fell before progress. What indignant citizens and public officials could not do to abolish an institution, the steamer quickly effected.
But there were compensations for this loss of the spectacular volunteer organization. The chief engineer of the fire department of Cincinnati reported in 1851: “Under the present control the Engine Houses are no longer nurseries where the youth of the city are trained in vice, vulgarity and debauchery, and where licentiousness holds his nightly revels. The Sabbath clay is no longer desecrated by the yells and fierce conflicts of rival Fire Companies, who sought the occasion offered by false alarms, often gotten up for the purpose of making brutal assaults upon each other; our citizens, male and female, pass our Engine Houses without being insulted by the coarse vulgarities of the persons collected around them.”
By 1858, the bulk of that city’s apparatus was sufficiently reduced so that the engines could be drawn through the streets by horses. Steel and brass took the place of iron; fuel was carried in separate vehicles.
In other communities, progress was slower. In 1855 Lee and Larned, manufacturers, placed two steamers at the disposal of New York City, but the firemen petitioned the city council to reject the engines. That year a hand-pumper of the largest size, called “The Mankiller,” had a contest with a Latta steamer in City Hall Park. The steamer pumped water 182 feet, horizontally, through four lengths of hose; but the hand-pumped stream reached 189 feet. To most of the wildly cheering firemen it looked as though human muscle had defeated steam. But two of the officers were more observant. They saw that when the exhausted firemen collapsed in the street, the steamer’s stream remained unwaveringly constant. “John, that stream stays there.” “Yes, it does.” “Well, that settles it.”
More time was required before New York’s firemen accepted the new machine. The city’s first steamer, “J. C. Cary,” was a tremendous engine that could be pulled on a flat roadway by two powerful horses, but on a hill, horse-power was not enough. The engine was converted into a sell-propelling steamer, and it was demonstrated before the street commissioner; apparently this juggernaut was more dangerous to streets than it was to fires. In 1858, Harper’s Weekly observed that the engine “seems destined to play an important part in bringing about the inevitable substitution of steam power for that of human muscle in working fire engines.”
In Philadelphia the volunteer firemen were unusually well entrenched; hadn’t Benjamin Franklin organized America’s first fire company there? But even before the volunteers were mustered out of service, several companies purchased steamers. In 1858 Hibernia Steam Engine Company Number 1 made a number of exhibition appearances with its new “teakettle” in other communities.
Firemen discovered in time that the new steamers were not so impersonal as it had been feared. The first steamers, in fact, were given individual names, just like the hand-pumpers, and even the old-time volunteer firemen began to see the new engines as handsome. By 1860, steamers were sufficiently small and light to be pulled by hand; that was something of a comfort to the “vamps,” for they were not being supplanted (just then) by horses. The men could still “run with the engines.” Two of the celebrated Currier & Ives series, “The Life of a Fireman,” show steamers, despite the fact that Fireman Currier had grown up with the hand-pumpers.