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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

More on the Early History of Organized Firefighting in the Settlement of Pelhamville

The early history of firefighting in Pelhamville seems to mirror the early history of firefighting in many other small suburban communities.  Pelhamville homeowners first fought fires on their own with buckets and well water and, when available, the assistance of neighbors.  Residents understood the futility of such self-reliance.  

In 1892, two major fires burned two Pelhamville homes to the ground.  In the case of one of the fires, winds carried embers from the fire all the way to New Rochelle, shocking both communities and prompting Pelhamville residents to organize "bucket companies" as part of the "Pelhamville Fire Department" to fight fires.  These early efforts were little better than the self-reliance of earlier days.  Residents hung a large, circular locomotive wheel rim and attached a hammer to it with a chain.  In the event of a fire, the first person who could get to the wheel rim would use the hammer to pound on it in an effort to alert the community.  

Within a short time it was apparent that more professional equipment was necessary.  Local residents petitioned the Town Board to create a fire district with authority to issue bonds fund such equipment.  In 1893, the First Fire District of the Town of Pelham was organized.  Shortly thereafter, the district raised the funds necessary to buy and hand-drawn, hook and ladder carrier and built a tiny little wooden fire house near the location of today's firehouse in which to store the hand-drawn hook and ladder equipment.  

Within a few years, the hand-drawn hook and ladder carrier was replaced with a horse-drawn version of the same equipment and a "Nott Steamer" was added to permit steam-pressurized water to be pumped onto fires.  

Somewhat surprisingly, the horse-drawn equipment was not replaced with motorized equipment until 1923.  The Nott Steamer was kept long thereafter and even could outperform early motorized pumpers used by the Department.

Nott Steamer Roughly Like "Jim Reilly's Boiler"
Once Deployed by the First Fire District of the Town of Pelham.

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes an article published in honor of the 45th anniversary of the creation of the First Fire District of the Town of Pelham.  An excerpt from the same article appeared in a recent posting describing the "Great Furniture Fight of 1896."  Today's posting transcribes the entire article because it conveys so much about the early history of firefighting in the settlement of Pelhamville.

"Pelhamville Volunteer Fire Dept., 45 Years Old
Old Timers Recall Days When Fire Department Was Organized As 'Bucket Company'; When Citizens First Volunteered To Render Community Service in Fighting Fires.

This month marks the 45th anniversary of the founding of the First Fire District, which began as the old Pelhamville Volunteer Fire Department.  The volunteer fire companies, the Relief Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1, and Liberty Engine & Hose Co. No. 1, were organized as 'bucket' companies in 1892 and the district was officially created a year later.  

According to the recollection of old timers, the need for a local fire department was greatest felt during 1892 when there were two serious fires in the village.  The Delcambre residence at Fourth avenue and Third street and the Case residence on Fifth avenue between Second and Third street were burned to the ground because there was no local means of fighting fires.  Embers from the fire at the Case house were carried over into New Rochelle.

The following written by J. Gardner Minard gives an interesting insight into the early days of the volunteer fire department in Pelham:

The Pelhamville Fire Department

The two fire departments of the Town of Pelham have proved a puzzle to so many that an explanation seems to be in order.  Why is the Pelham fire department called the First Fire District and the Pelham Manor department no called the Second District?  Why are there two villages in the First Fire District?  Prior to 1893 there were no fire companies in what is now the Town of Pelham; no street lamps, and small water mains in a few of the principal streets only.  If your kerosene lamp exploded at night, you grabbed a pail or two and rushed for the well in your front or back yard while the rest of the family yelled from the windows or doors to attract the neighbors, usually a block or more away.  If the fire gained on you, which it usually did, you gave up the fight and joined the family and neighbors in salvaging what possessions you could.  When the flames lit the sky, the fire bells in Mount Vernon and New Rochelle announced that help was on its way.  To those who recall what the streets from the two villages leading into Pelham were like realize the hopelessness of the effort.  The firemen arrived completely fogged out too late to be of any service and had the heartbreaking job of dragging the apparatus back up the dark hills into their own villages again.  In winter they made no effort to get over the impassable roads.

In the fall of 1892 a group of men living north of the New Haven tracks in what was then known as Pelhamville, met to discuss the organization of a 'bucket company.'  Some argued that since ladders would be needed, that a Hook and Ladder company would solve the problem.  Several meetings were held and a committee reported that under the Town Law ten property owners could petition the Town Board to create a fire district.  The petition was prepared and presented to the board and in 1893 the First Fire District which included all that unincorporated portion of the town north of Colonial avenue was created.  

Pelham Manor was then an incorporated village and the town board had no jurisdiction over that territory.  The villages of Pelham and North Pelham had not yet been dreamed of.  Next the Town Board ordered an election of five fire commissioners each for a term of five years.  In those days the commissioners made up an annual budget and ordered an election in which taxpayers voted either for or against the budget.  A bond issue provided funds for the purchase of a lot 50 x 100 on the west side of Fifth avenue 100 feet south of Fourth street and the contract for the erection of the building awarded to Godfrey Bros., Carpenters and Builders.  One of them, Philip Godfrey, is still a member of the company.

The commissioners ordered fire badges and in commemoration of the date the company was actually started, 1892, began numbering the badges from 92 up.  The lowest number, 92, was awarded the late Jacob Heisser, the local grocer.  All the badges were stamped 'Pelhamville F. D.,' although half the district was located south of the railroad tracks and not in Pelhamville.  The president of the board of fire commissioners, Judge William H. Sparks, resided on Wolfs lane in what is now the Village of Pelham [i.e., today's Pelham Heights].  The town board now ordered water mains laid in many streets and hydrants installed.  

Under the Town Laws the fire commissioners had the power to appoint a chief and assistant chief; each to hold office at the pleasure of the board.  At the earnest request of the firemen, this law was waived and the firemen permitted to elect their own candidates.  This resulted in one of the biggest upheavals in the department.  The hose company had a larger membership than the truck company, and each nominated its own candidates; the rule being that the two officers could not represent the same company.

In 1896 an election was held; the commissioners, as usual, acting as inspectors of eoection.  It resulted in a tie vote.  The commissioners ordered another election, but the truck company objected.  Many rumors were afloat as to why this should be, but the one that persisted was that the truck company had pulled a fast one on the hose company under the noses of the commissioners and knew it could not be repeated.

Angered by the refusal of the firemen to carry out their order, the commissioners thereupon exercised their prerogative and appointed -- not one of the candidates -- but Jacob Heisser, who was not a candidate.  It was not that the firemen objected to Mr. Heisser, but they saw their privileges being curtailed.  Judge Frank M. Lyon, the local butcher, and foreman of Relief Hook and Ladder Co., called a special meeting and laid the matter before the volunteers.  He suggested that the company be disbanded and, as the furniture had been purchased by them, they take it away with them.  Phil Godfrey warned the men that they were making a serious mistake that would create more enemies than friends, but the motion was made and carried, Godfrey and four others alone voting against the motion.  'Come on boys, follow me' called the foreman, seizing the swivel chair on which he had been seated and swinging it over his shoulder.  The others picked up chairs, desk and other articles of furniture and marched out, taking with them the chairs, desk and other articles of furniture and marched out, taking with them the chairs on which the dissenting members had been seated.

The commissioners held a special meeting and ordered the firemen to return the furniture, but only received the rebel cheer.  Then the commissioners carried the case to court at White Plains.  Counsel for the firemen produced the books to show that a meeting was held and the motion duly carried; also he produced receipts to show that the firemen had bought the furniture and had a right to remove it.  Counsel for the commissioners produced the by-laws of the company that stated that 'five men shall constitute a quorum to proceed with the business of the meeting,' and as five members still remained in the company, it still existed as a company.  The Court agreed with the commissioners and ordered the furniture returned.  The furniture, which had been stored in Merritt's barn at the foot of Fourth avenue and First street, was brought back.

In the spring of 1896 the territory south of the New Haven tracks was incorporated as the Village of Pelham and a few months later Pelhamville incorporated as the village of North Pelham.  Thus the First Fire District now included two villages.  The Pelham Manor fire department being organized after the incorporation of the village, had to be organized under the Village laws.

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The first equipment of the department was a hand-drawn hook and ladder, and the next step was to erect a fire house.  The contract was awarded to Philip Godrey, who constructed a small wooden house, which for many years occupied a site adjacent to the present fire headquarters.  Later it moved to the rear of the lot and a larger building erected.  This building was used until a few years ago when the present building was built.  The original fire house was used as an engine room and drivers' room.  It was removed when the second building was torn down.  

The hand-drawn apparatus was succeeded by a horse-drawn truck and a Nott steamer which for many years was affectionately known as 'Jim Reilly's Boiler,' because the late James Reilly, blacksmith and village president had greatest success in getting up steam.  The old hand-drawn apparatus for many years was parked in a vacant lot adjacent to fire headquarters.  

Motorized equipment was purchased in 1923, but 'Jim Reilly's Boiler' retained by the department for several years could be used in emergency and in tests proved to be almost as efficient as the motor pumper.

Pelham's first fire alarm was an old locomotive tire, suspended in a frame and hit with a trip hammer worked with a chain.  During the early days of the department water mains had not been laid on all the streets and it was necessary to stretch hose for considerable distance in order to combat fires."

Source:  Pelhamville Volunteer Fire Dept., 45 Years Old, The Pelham Sun, Apr. 1, 1938, Vol. 28, No. 52, p. 1, cols. 2-3.  

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Below is a list of prior Historic Pelham Blog postings that touch on firefighting and the history of fire fighting units within the Town of Pelham.

Mon., Feb. 16, 2015:  The Great Furniture Fight of 1896:  Company of Pelhamville Firemen Resigned En Masse.

Thu., Feb. 12, 2015:  Rare 19th Century Image of Pelhamville Firemen Who Served in Relief Hook and Ladder Company No. 1.

Fri., Dec. 12, 2014:  Parade and Housewarming Hosted by Pelhamville Fire Department in 1894.

Thu., Jul. 24, 2014:  Dedication of the New Fire Headquarters in the Village of Pelham on December 29, 1927.

Wed., Jul. 02, 2014:  Election Shenanigans Involving Fire Commissioner Election in 1898.

Thu., Apr. 24, 2014:  Information About the History of Fire Departments in the Town of Pelham Published in 1927.

Fri., Jan. 24, 2014:  Early Days of Organized Fire Fighting in Today's Village of Pelham.

Fri., Jan. 15, 2010:  Photograph of Augustine C. McGuire, President of the Board of Fire Commissioners of the First District Fire Department in 1913.

Thu., Jan. 14, 2010:  1913 Report of the Firemen's Benevolent Association in Pelham.

Thu., Dec. 10, 2009:  More 19th Century Baseball and Firefighting References.

Tue., Dec. 08, 2009:  The Darling Triplets: Three Brothers Among Pelham's Earliest Firefighters.

Thu., Oct. 08, 2009:  Firefighting Units on City Island in Pelham During the Early 1890's.

Mon., Aug. 31, 2009:  Contest in 1891 To Determine Which Steam Fire Engine Company Could Throw a Stream the Greater Distance.

Fri., Aug. 28, 2009:  Reorganization of the Minneford Engine Company on City Island in February, 1891.

Thu., Aug. 06, 2009:  Brief History of the Fire Department in the Village of North Pelham Published in 1913.

Wed., Aug. 05, 2009:  Pelham Manor Fire Chief Pleads for Taxpayers to Authorize Purchase of Village's First Fire Engine.

Wed., July 15, 2009:  Liberty Hose Company Election in 1898.

Thu., Jan. 19, 2006:  Pelham Manor's Earliest Fire Fighting Equipment.

Mon., Aug. 01, 2005:  An 1896 Inspection and Drill of the Fire Department in Pelham.

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