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A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present.

No. 14.

Brooklyn Fire Department—its origin, 1772.—Names of the first firemen.—Interruption of the war of '76.—Meeting in 1785 to re-form the Department.—The first engine—appearance, etc.—Washington Company No. I.—Honorable position of firemen.—New Engine of 1794.—First fire-bell, and where erected.—1788-93—number of buildings in Brooklyn, etc.—Account of a disastrous fire in 1806.—Primitive accommodations for putting out fires, in those days.—A new machine and larger bell decided on.—Aid from New York firemen.

WE INTEND to devote this paper of our series to a statement of the origin of the Brooklyn Fire Department, which dates back to a period before the time of the Revolutionary War—was interrupted by that event—and then, immediately after peace, was resumed again, and has been prosperously carried on ever since. We shall give some valuable reminiscences, and an account of the earliest large fire in Brooklyn.

To those interested in our Fire Department (and who is not?) it will be curious to note the following, in which is recorded the first attempt, or nucleus, from which has been formed what is now one of the noblest and most effective departments in the United States.

It appears that the origin of the Fire Department of Brooklyn dates as far back as the year 1772, previous to the Revolutionary War. The following is one of the memoranda, for which we are indebted to the late Jeremiah Johnson:1

At a town meeting held at Brookland on the 7th day of April, Anno Domini 1772, being the first Tuesday of said month, and then and there chose six firemen, according to audit of the Governor, Council, and General Assembly; an act for the more effectual extinguishment of fires near the ferry in the township of Brooklyn, in Kings County, passed the 31st December, 1768

The persons chosen for firemen are as follows:

Joseph Sharpe, John Crawley, Matthew Gleaves, Joseph Prior, John Middagh, Wm. Boerum.

We think the members of our Department, in their beautiful hall in Henry street, ought to preserve some enduring memorial of these six original Brooklyn firemen. They commenced a work which is more to their credit, humble as it is, than many a more talked-of class of persons.

The next year we hear of anything being done is after the war. For we suppose that during the Revolution men's minds were engaged in such momentous questions, and everything was so unsettled, that they gave little attention to safety from lesser dangers. In 1785, after the close of the war, there was a meeting of the villagers of Brooklyn, at the house of Mrs. Moser, at which an effective beginning was again made (probably the whole attempt had been suffered to go to decay during the war), for continuing the organization of a Fire Department. A Fire Company was formed, consisting of seven members, for one year; namely, Henry Stanton, captain; Abram Stoothoff, John Doughty, jun.; Thos. Havens, J. Van Cott, and Martin Woodward.

The meeting just alluded to seems to have had official standing, as a regular meeting of freeholders; for they voted to raise a hundred and fifty pounds to purchase a fire engine—which vote was duly carried out.

This engine, if it were only now in existence, entire, would be almost as great a curiosity as anything in Barnum's Museum—especially to our fire laddies. It was manufactured in New York (up to this time fire engines had been imported from England), by Jacob Boome; and was one of the first, if not the first, made in the United States.

The above engine stood about three feet in height, was eight feet in length, three in width, and two and a half in depth. It was what is termed a long-stroke engine, and worked easy, throwing a stream 60 feet, through a pipe of three-quarter inch nozzle, of six feet length. Neither hose nor suctions were used, the supply of water being furnished in buckets, by hand, poured into the box. The box held 180 gallons. The arms were placed fore and aft. Eight men were sufficient to man this machine, which, like the venerable simile of the singed cat, was a good deal better than it looked.

With the above described engine, and the names as before given, commenced, or rather was resumed, the formal outset of the Brooklyn Fire Department, under the name of "Washington Company No. 1," which is the same identical No. 1 that has descended to the present day (Prospect street), by being continued and passed along—few of the members of the present company, we dare say, having a correct idea of the antiquity and respectability of their beginning so far back as 1785. We have to add that the original house was located in Front street, near Fulton. It is now in Prospect street, near Main.

Nor must we forget to record that for many years there was dignity and prestige about the position of fireman that made a membership in the company carefully scanned, and duly weighed, before it was bestowed. Membership was an elective office. The firemen were chosen annually in town meeting; and the choice was considered something to be proud of.

At the town meeting in 1788, the number of firemen was increased to eleven, and the following were elected members: Stephen Baldwin, Captain; Benj. Baldwin, Silas Betts, Thomas Havens, Joseph Stevens, Gilbert Van Mater, John Doughty, Jr., and John Van Cott. These members continued with little or no variation for the three succeeding years.

[In] 1794, it was resolved, in town meeting, to purchase a new engine, and a hundred and ninety pounds were voted for that purpose. With this, a much improved engine was procured, made in New York by Hardenbrook. The same year, the offices of clerk and treasurer of the Fire Department were instituted, and John Hicks unanimously chosen to perform the duties of both.

In 1795, the number of firemen was increased to thirty. By law each dwelling-house in Brooklyn was required to be provided with two fire-buckets, at the expense of the householders, and kept always ready for use, under a penalty.

Soon after this the villagers resolved to procure a fire-bell. Fifty pounds was raised for that purpose, and the bell, being bought and brought over to Brooklyn, was raised on top of a stone house belonging to Jacob Remsen, at the corner of what is now Fulton and Front streets, (now Long Island Insurance Company's premises). Here, the bell being placed, Mr. Remsen agreed to see that it was duly rung on occasion of fires, and for his liberality, he was elected a member of the Fire Department, without being expected to do any other service.2

We should like to trace out the present location of this bell; for we have a strong suspicion that it is yet in existence here in Brooklyn. When the old stone house was torn down, (about the year 1818), the bell was removed to Middagh, near Henry street; and then afterwards to the building called the "Eastern Market" in Sands street, between Bridge and Gold—which building was afterwards converted into a church, and the bell used for that. Who is there that can give us any reliable information of this first old fire-bell used to alarm the villagers of Brooklyn?

All this while, by virtue of the statute passed by the Legislature in 1788, although a Brooklyn fireman received no pay, yet not only his position as we have intimated was considered a most honorable one, but he was exempted from "serving on the highways," (mending and repairing the roads,) and from jury and inquest duty, and also from militia duty, except, as now, in case of invasion or other imminent danger.

In 1793, there were about seventy-five buildings within the fire-district of Brooklyn. These were, the majority of them, so near the Old Ferry, that water was relied upon to be obtained from the river.

We are unable to give minute details of the continuation of the growth of the Department in our town. We will transcribe, however, an account of one of the largest fires that occurred in Brooklyn in the earliest part of the present century—probably the largest and most destructive that ever occurred here up to its date, or during a number of years afterward. It occurred on the 16th of November, 1806. We are indebted to the only paper published in Brooklyn at the time, the Long Island Intelligencer (a weekly paper before described in this series) for a brief account of the cause of the fire, and the destruction caused by it.3 Then, just the same as now, incendiarism was rife. For the origin of the fire is given as follows:

The most uncommon hardihood and depravity was exhibited by two boys, named Wm. Cornwell and Martin Hill (neither of them exceeding the age of fifteen), who wilfully and deliberately caused the conflagration. The candle went out three times before they accomplished their diabolical intent, and was as often renewed. During the fire they robbed an adjoining store of a considerable sum of money; and intended, when the wind answered their purpose, to set fire to a large barn, the property of Mr. Abiel Titus. They are committed for trial at the April session.4

The amount of loss incurred by this fire is not stated in money but it must have been considerable, according to the following list destroyed:

  • Two stables, a granary and several outhouses belonging to Mr. Suydam, who also lost a horse and a quantity of grain, salt and hay.
  • One large house (in which several families resided, who nearly lost their all) belonging to the estate of J. Van Nostrand, deceased.
  • One house belonging to Mr. Foster.
  • One house belonging to J. Garrison, Esq., torn down to prevent the extension of the flames.
  • One barn and out-house, the property of Mr. G. Hicks.
  • One stable belonging to B. Cornwell.
  • One barn belonging to Mrs. Carpenter.
  • One barn and soap works, the property of Mr. Burdett Stryker, much damaged.

This excessive fire (for those days) caused of course a good deal of excitement and dissatisfaction with the existing condition of the fire apparatus.—For although the organization of the Department is alluded to as taking place more than thirty years previously, the reader must not imagine anything like the systematic provisions made now-a-days for extinguishing fires. In those times they had only the two fire-engines before mentioned. But the main reliance consisted simply in buckets, passed along a string of people, from hand to hand! Perhaps in addition, they had a few axes and a couple of ladders. Of course, this will seem almost ridiculous to our modern Brooklyn fire laddies, with their costly and beautiful machines. But the just-mentioned fire aroused the villagers of Brooklyn to procure another engine and additional safeguards. The Intelligencer of a week or two after has the following local paragraph of proceedings at a meeting called:

Messrs. B. Birdsall, J. Doughty, J. Patchen, W. Clark and B. Clark, were appointed a committee to inquire into the probable cost of a large fire engine and bell, and such implements as they may conceive to be useful for the purpose of extinguishing fires in the village of Brooklyn, and to report thereon to a meeting of the inhabitants to be called by them for that purpose.

This engine, according to all accounts, was duly procured, and was the third fire-engine owned and possessed by the good people of Brooklyn. We may as well add that we notice in the proceedings at the meeting after the fire (as reported in the Intelligencer) a resolution of thanks to the firemen of New York, who came over and rendered valuable assistance in subduing the Brooklyn conflagration.

We may have more to say of the history of the Brooklyn Fire Department, bringing it down to the present day, in another number.


1. Jeremiah Johnson became town supervisor of Brooklyn in 1800 and held the position for forty years. He was also, at various times, the mayor of Brooklyn, a representative to the Legislature and the Assembly, and a County Court Judge. [back]

2. The bell was actually moved from Remsen's property to Middagh in 1816, and it was relocated to Eastern Market in 1827. [back]

3. Whitman gives an account of the Long Island Intelligencer and other papers in "Brooklyniana No. 6" (January 11, 1862). [back]

4. The issue of the Long Island Intelligencer from which Whitman provides his transcription is currently unidentified. [back]

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