This post was written by Marybeth Kavanagh, Reference Librarian for Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections
On July 31, 1865, Engine Company 1 of the new Metropolitan Fire Department went into service, and the transition from a volunteer to a paid professional fire department in New York City had begun. The Metropolitan Fire Dept. was originally under the authority of state-appointed commissioners, but in 1870, the Tweed Charter gave New York City’s mayor control of the fire department and changed it’s name to the Fire Department of the City of New York.
As FDNY celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, we’re sharing some photographs from the Frederick H. Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs. In addition to documenting some notable fires, including the Triangle Factory fire in 1911 and the Equitable Building fire in 1912, this collection offers a fascinating look at the many facets of early 20th-century firefighting in New York City, a few of which are highlighted here.
Then as now, firefighters spent at least as much time inside the firehouse as actually fighting fires. Occasional visits from celebrities, like opera singer Nellie Melba (Downton Abbey fans may remember an episode which featured a performance by Dame Melba at Downton!) were among the perks of the job.
Fighting Fires in the Modern City: The High Pressure Pumping System
The Croton Aqueduct had supplied water to NYC hydrants since 1842, and the fire department supplemented the Croton supply with water from the river. But as the city grew, available water pressure was insufficient to reach the new skyscrapers that were rapidly becoming part of the urban landscape, and it became clear that high-pressure water delivery was needed to fight fires in a vertical city. Between 1903 and 1908, four new high-pressure pumping stations were constructed, two in Brooklyn and two in Manhattan. In response to alarms, these stations would increase the water pressure threefold or more and send it through high-pressure mains to fire hydrants, where the trucks would tap into it. The Gansevoort Station had five pumps, each of which could deliver 2,700 gallons per minute, and it was the station called into action fight the Triangle Factory fire.
Fire Apparatus: Horse, Motor, and the Slow Transition
According to FDNY’s 1910 Annual Report, there were 1,508 horses in service as of December 31, 1910. Motorization of fire apparatus began in 1911, but horses remained an integral part of FDNY for another decade. As the 1914 Annual Report explained, “Changing from horse-drawn to motor means that stalls must be removed, gasoline storage tanks installed, floor strengthened in most cases…and a considerable change in the equipment of companies, all of which must be done without the company going out of service.” The last horse drawn engine was in service until December 1922.
“Firefighters do not regard themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.”
– Edward F. Croker, Chief of the FDNY 1899-1911