Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Early Days of Organized Fire Fighting in Today's Village of Pelham

The earliest days of organized firefighting in today's Village of Pelham are fascinating to research.  Indeed, the earliest organized efforts at fire protection elsewhere in Pelham including City Island (when it was part of the Town of Pelham) and the area that became today's Village of Pelham Manor are just as interesting.  

I have written on such topics before.  At the end of this posting are linked examples of several such postings.

In 1942, as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the first publication of The Pelham Sun, the newspaper published a wonderful article by G. Allyn Van Winkle that detailed the early years of organized firefighting in the area that became today's Village of Pelham.  The article included wonderful photographs of firefighter Philip Godfrey in the first uniform of Relief Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 and William Edinger, an early Fire Commissioner.  Much of the article included an interview with Edinger.  A transcription of the article appears below, followed by the photographs and a citation to the source.

"Volunteer Fire Companies In First Fire District Were Organized in 1893
William Edinger Recalls Days When Fire Engines Were Drawn by Volunteer Firemen.

Forty-two years ago, on Feb. 7, 1893, to be exact, a group of men, desirous of protecting their homes from the menace of fire, organized two volunteer fire companies in Pelham.  These two companies, now known as Relief Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 and Liberty Engine and Hose Co. No. 1, have continued down through the years.  The third company of the First Fire District Hose Co. No. 2 of Pelham, was organized in more recent years.  

The chief motivating factor in the formation of the fire companies was the fact that in 1892, two large houses in North Pelham were destroyed by fire.  Aid was called from New Rochelle, but it was impossible to prevent destruction of the buildings.  Wells and cisterns were drained nearly dry of water in the fight against the flames, but to no avail.  

Accordingly the men met and drew straws to determine which should belong to each company.  Those drawing long straws became Hook and Ladder men and those getting short ones, joining the Hose Company.  

Equipment consisted of a hose jumper and a truck with three or four ladders, both vehicles being hand-drawn.  An appropriation was placed in the town budget for $2,400 to cover cost of equipment and construction of a fire headquarters building.  But here the organization struck a snag, according to Former Fire Commissioner William Edinger of Fourth avenue, the only active member of the department remaining on the roster of the original fire companies.

Early members of Relief Hook and Ladder Company included:  Charles A. Barker, foreman; Gustave A. Karback, assistant foreman; Walter G. Barker, secretary; John Henderson, treasurer; George W. Wright, Michael J. Lynch, Henry G. Brotherton, William Edinger, John Costello, Francis McDermott, Frank M. Lyon, Ezra Daggett, John H. Young, Philip Godfrey, Louis C. Young and Jacob Heisser.

Among the early members of Liberty Engine and Hose Company were Alexander Anderson, William B. Pearson, Charles T. Johnston,, former Mayor James Reilly, former Supervisor David Lyon, former Mayor Eugene Lyon, Edward A. Schwartz, William A. Broege, John B. Clegg, W. J. Everett, Vincent Parker, William E. Algie, Herbert Barker, Loftus Brotherton, Henry F. Sountain, W.S. Harrison, John Hengel, Village Trustee Daniel J. Kennedy, John W. Dillon and Patrick J. Marvel.

Interviewed this week, Mr. Edinger told an interesting story:

Sherman T. Pell of City Island, supervisor when the companies were organized, and the town clerk, one Waterhouse, were later revealed to have borrowed funds from banks on notes issued in anticipation of tax collections.  However, they had borrowed the limit, not only from one bank but from several.  Pell was defeated about this time in the election and he disappeared, never being heard from again, according to Mr. Edinger.

Then it was discovered that considerable of the town's funds had also vanished.  The banks sued the town, but a court decision ruled that the town was responsible for only one note, said Mr. Edinger.  Waterhouse's holdings were confiscated and he ended up driving a hack.  

This defalcation delayed construction of the fire house until early 1895, because another appropriation had to be made and levied in taxes.  The house was finally built on Fifth avenue on property next to the present headquarters.  

The volunteers continued to pull their hose cart and ladder truck to and from fires.  In the early 1900's horse-drawn vehicles were secured and prior to the time that the district bought a team of horses, anyone's team was liable to seizure and use if the alarm sounded.  Teamsters driving by the fire house oftentimes had their horses unhitched from their wagons and hitched to the fire apparatus.  However, they received $5.00 for the use of their animals.  

A few years later the district purchased its own team and rented it out when the horses were not drawing the fire trucks.  The team might be at one end of the village being used by some resident when the alarm sounded.  He would have to unhitch, take the team to the fire house at a run and hitch it up to the truck.  

In 1908, a new fire house was built, the old one being moved to the back of the lot, and used for storage purposes.  It was shortly after the erection of the new structure that horses were purchased for the department.  This building was in use until 1927 when the present structure was built.  

In 1914 the department received its first automotive apparatus and within a few years, the horses, part of a glamorous era in firemanic circles, were sold, and the department completely motorized.  

Many peculiar incidents happened in the history of the department, one of the oddest being 'mutiny' of one of the companies about 1913 or 1914.  At that time, when the fire department held an inspection and parade, they really paraded.  The men would form at headquarters and then march all over North Pelham and then through the streets of Pelham Heights.  The fact that few of the residents of the Heights turned out to witness the parade, irked many of the volunteers and when the call for inspection in this particular year was issued, many said they would not march into Pelham Heights, but would stop at the New Haven Railroad tracks.  

On the night of inspection, the parade passed through the streets of North Pelham, but when it reached the railroad tracks, one entire company halted and refused to go farther.  The men broke ranks and returned to headquarters.  The balance of the marchers continued through Pelham Heights and finished the line of march.  For this action, the board of commissioners, however.  As a result of the court decision, one of the fire commissioners resigned, leaving only two members of the board.  This necessitated calling a special election, for according to law the district could be governed by a board of either three or five commissioners.

Three new commissioners were elected and the first action they took after their election was to reorganize the disbanded company.

The two holdover commissioners promptly resigned and left their successors in possession of the field."

Source:  Allyn Van Winkle, G, Volunteer Fire Companies In First Fire District Were Organized In 1893, The Pelham Sun, Apr. 12, 1935, pg. 11, col. 1 (Pelham, NY).  
in the first uniform of Relief Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1"


Below are links to various other items I have authored regarding early firefighting within the Town of Pelham.

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