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, November 14, 2017

The Town of Pelham Had to Save Pelham Firefighters From the Wrath of Taxpayers in the Early 20th Century

The early history of today's Village of Pelham Fire Department is complex but fascinating.  Pelhamville residents banded together before incorporation of the Village of Pelham (today's Pelham Heights) and the Village of North Pelham to form the "First Fire District."  The First Fire District served residents and businesses of the Town of Pelham located north of today's Colonial Avenue.  After incorporation of the Villages of Pelham and North Pelham, the First Fire District continued to handle fire protection north of Colonial Avenue.  It raised money by taxing local residents.  It submitted its annual budgets to voters residing in the district for approval.

By the first decade of the Twentieth Century, however, the First Fire District was in trouble.  A massive fire in 1907 revealed the First Fire District's lack of resources.  Known as the Pelham Livery Stable Fire and the Vaughn Livery Stable Fire, the disaster took four lives (though some reports claim three died).  See:

Tue., Dec. 06, 2016:  An Account of the Tragic Vaughan Livery Stable Fire in Pelhamville in 1907.

Wed., Jan. 18, 2006: Newspaper Report of the Infamous Vaughan's Livery Stable Fire in North Pelham in 1907.

Shortly after the Pelham Livery Stable Fire, the First Fire District proposed a massive increase to its annual budget.  The fire commissioners concluded it was time to install a modern fire alarm signal system and to "improve the equipment of the firemen who were rendering excellent service under discouraging conditions."  Thus, the fire commissioners sought an annual budget of $2,000 and submitted the proposal to voters.  The voters voted down the increased budget.  The First Fire District responded with a second proposal seeking approval of a $200 annual budget to cover its operating expenses.  To the surprise of all, voters rejected that proposed budget as well.

Things reportedly became difficult for the First Fire District.  According to one account, things became so bad that the volunteer firefighters paid the expenses necessary to run the operations:

"The two companies were paying for the coal and electric light bills to say nothing of locks, keys and badges which were supposed to be supplied by the commissioners.  Had it not been for the loyalty of the firemen, the department would have ceased to exist.  Liberty Hose company even loaned the fire board $50 to help meet expenses."

Residents of the Villages of Pelham and North Pelham simply ceased to support the local Fire District they had created through payment of taxes to supply the revenue the district so desperately needed.  Town government decided to step into the breach to get the job done.

A special law was framed and passed by the New York State Legislature thereafter to permit the five fire Commissioners of the First Fire District to prepare the district's annual budget and then submit it to the Town Board for approval rather than have the proposal voted on by residents of the district.  The law gave the Town Board the power to approve, increase, reduce, or even reject the budget entirely.

Eventually, the process was returned to the First Fire District.  For a time throughout the teens and early twenties, however, the First Fire District was able to avoid the wrath of local taxpayers who believed their taxes were too high to fund a more modern fire-fighting force by turning to the Town Board of the Town of Pelham to approve its annual budgets.

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"North Pelham

A local taxpayer asks:  'Will you kindly explain the fire commissioner-town board combination.  I have been a resident of this fire district for nine years, and have always been puzzled when I read how the two boards meet to fix the budget for the coming year.  What has the town board  got to do with the first fire district?  Two of their members come from Pelham Manor, outside the district, yet the budget, it seems must have their approval.  Has the town board any jurisdiction over the expenditures of the fire board?  I am sure there are many like myself [who] would welcome a little light on the subject.'  Ans.  The town board meets the board of fire commissioners each year in January to approve or amend their estimate or budget for the ensuing year.  At the time the First Fire district was incorporated, the territory taken in was all that part of the Town of Pelham situated north of Boston Post road, (now Colonial avenue).  The village of Pelham was not incorporated at that time, and the territory north of the railroad track was known as Pelhamville.  The villages of North Pelham and Pelham were incorporated after the fire district had been established, thus two villages were created within its limits.  The apparatus in use was found to be [obsolete] after the disastrous Pelham building fire in 1900 [sic; the fire was in 1907] which caused the loss of three lives.  The commissioners, five, who had been elected for five years, decided it was time to install a fire alarm signal system and otherwise improve the equipment of the firemen who were rendering excellent service under discouraging conditions.  A budget of $2,000 was submitted to the taxpayers of the district and voted down.  The budget was reduced to $200 to meet the running expenses of the companies, and this too was defeated.  The two companies were paying for the coal and electric light bills to say nothing of locks, keys and badges which were supposed to be supplied by the commissioners.  Had it not been for the loyalty of the firemen, the department would have ceased to exist.  Liberty Hose company even loaned the fire board $50 to help meet expenses.  It was at this time some level headed taxpayers suggested the option be taken away from the taxpayers and the power vested in the town board.  While the town board has the power to approve, increase, diminish or even reject the budget, they have absolutely no jurisdiction over the expenditures after the budget had left their hands.  A special law was framed and passed the state legislature authorizing the present method.  While there seems to be no question that the law at the time it was created, was necessary for the proper fire protection of the residents of the districts, many now believe the district is able to pass upon its own budget without having to submit it to a board consisting of, in part members who have no real interest in the district.  It is a far cry from the estimate of $200 to run the department twenty years ago and the budget [of] $12,237.70 for the present year.  The taxpayers rejected the former but, to use the homely expression of an old resident, 'Now they shove it down our throats.'  Be that as it may, if the medicine will do the patient good, the method of administering it must be alright.  At the joint meeting, there was included in the estimate budget appropriation to purchase a Ford runabout for the chief and to be used as a 'chemical' for minor alarms.  This was disallowed.  Whether it is cheaper to take out the big engine for minor alarms than to purchase a Ford, may be subjected to dispute; Judge Crawford striking the keynote by saying, 'I am in favor of giving the firemen anything they ask for; in fact they should not ask for anything; they should demand it."

Source:  North Pelham, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Feb. 3, 1920, p. 8, cols. 5-6.

Hand-Drawn Hose Cart of the Type Still Used by One of the
Companies of the First Fire District as Late as 1912.  This is
the Sort of Equipment That the First Fire District Needed to
Modernize After the Vaughan Livery Stable Fire of 1907.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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

Wed., Nov. 01, 2017:  Pelham Manor Firemen Helped Their San Francisco Brethren After the Great Earthquake in 1906.

Tue., Sep. 12, 2017:  Sale of Antiquated Fire Equipment in 1922 Reminded All of the History of North Pelham Fire Fighting.

Fri., Jul. 21, 2017:  Pelham Firemen Turned Their Hoses on Trolley Construction Crew in 1898.

Fri., Jun. 23, 2017:  A Little of the Early History of Hose Company No. 2, the Pelham Heights Volunteer Fire Fighting Unit.

Fri., Jan. 20, 2017:  A Proud Pelham Fire Department Took Possession of a New American La France Fire Engine in 1914.

Thu., Jan. 19, 2017:  Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold:  Don't Mess With a Pelham Fireman.

Thu., Jan. 12, 2017:  Six of Pelham's Earliest Firefighters Marched in the 36th Annual Fire Inspection Parade in 1930.

Tue., Dec. 06, 2016:  An Account of the Tragic Vaughan Livery Stable Fire in Pelhamville in 1907.

Wed., Nov. 16, 2016:  More on the 1889 Fire that Destroyed the Hunter House on Travers Island.

Tue., Oct. 04, 2016:  Harry R. King, Fire Chief of the First Fire District From 1911 to 1913.

Wed., Jun. 15, 2016:  Organized Volunteer Fire Fighting in Pelhamville Began as Early as 1885.

Tue., Jun. 14, 2016:  The First Annual Inspection of Pelhamville Fire Fighting Units in 1894.

Tue., Jun. 07, 2016:  When Did Pelham's Minneford Engine Company Acquire its First Fire-Fighting Steam Engine?

Mon., May 16, 2016:  Fatal Fire in 1902 at One Fifth Avenue Burned Down the Post Office and Pharmacy.

Fri., Apr. 29, 2016:  Famous Meyers Mansion in Pelham Manor Burned Down in 1897.

Thu., Apr. 28, 2016:  Pelham Manor Dutifully Extinguished a Fire That Nearly Burned Down its Hated Wooden Train Station in 1896.

Mon., Jan. 04, 2016:  Pelham Manor Voters Voted to Disband the Pelham Manor Fire Department in 1928.  

Mon., Dec. 14, 2015:  Early History of the Village of Pelham Manor Fire Department.

Fri., Dec. 11, 2015:  Evidence of An Early Independent Firefighting Unit in Pelham Named "Indians."

Thu., Dec. 10, 2015:  Grand Fire-Fighting Competition and Parade Held in the Town of Pelham in 1891.

Wed., Dec. 09, 2015:  Pelham's Minneford Engine Company Built a New Fire House on City Island in 1894.

Mon., Dec. 07, 2015:  The Code Used on the City Island Fire Bell in the Late 19th Century Used for Fire Alarms.

Mon., Nov. 30, 2015:  Another Detailed Account of the 1901 Fire that Destroyed the Clubhouse of the New York Athletic Club on Travers Island.

Fri., Nov. 20, 2015:  Account of 1894 Fire in One of Pelham's Earliest Newspapers.

Wed., Sep. 30, 2015:  Was it Arson that Destroyed the Prospect Hill School at Jackson and Plymouth Avenues in 1917?

Thu., Sep. 17, 2015:  An Account of the February 28, 1925 Fire at Pelhamdale, A Home on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fri., Jun. 12, 2015:  The Tumultuous Reign of Pelham Manor Fire Chief J. Louis Cunningham in the Early 1900s.

Tue., Jun. 09, 2015:  Reminiscences of Firemen Who Served From 1893 Until 1923 in North Pelham.

Wed., Jun. 03, 2015:  The Bell in Firemen's Memorial Park at First Street and Wolfs Lane.

Tue., Jun. 02, 2015:  Important Early Images of the Pelham Fire Department.

Fri., May 22, 2015:  History of Pelham's Beloved "Nott Steamer" Known as "Jim Reilly's Boiler."

Thu., Mar. 26, 2015:  Fire Destroyed the Old Pelham Manor Post Office in 1945.

Fri., Mar. 20, 2015:  Fire in 1932 Devastated the Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor.

Tue., Feb. 17, 2015:  More on the Early History of Organized Firefighting in the Settlement of Pelhamville.

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., Dec. 11, 2014:  Pelhamville's First Attempt to Create a Fire Department in 1893 Failed Due to a Legal Technicality.

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.

Thu., Jan. 30, 2014:  The Night Pelham's Town Hall Burned.

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

Thu., Jan. 23, 2014:  Another Account of the Devastating Fire that Destroyed the Travers Island Clubhouse of New York Athletic Club in 1901.

Wed., May 12, 2010:  Fire Partly Destroyed Pelham Town Hall in 1908.

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.

Fri., Sep. 04, 2009:  1901 Newspaper Article About Fire that Burned New York Athletic Club Clubhouse on Travers Island.

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., Feb. 19, 2009:  The Old Hunter House Burns to the Ground in an Arson Incident on Travers Island on April 4, 1889.

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

Wed., Jan. 18, 2006:  Newspaper Report of the Infamous Vaughan's Livery Stable Fire in North Pelham in 1907.

Mon., Oct. 17, 2005:  The Firemen's Memorial of the Pelham Fire Department.

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

Tue., May 31, 2005:  The June 6, 1940 Fire That Destroyed the George M. Reynolds Mansion (Part I of II).

Wed., Jun. 01, 2005:  The June 6, 1940 Fire That Destroyed the George M. Reynolds Mansion (Part II of II).

Fri., May 06, 2005:  The Great Furniture Battle at Pelhamville's Relief Hook and Ladder Company in 1896.

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