University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Fire Fighters of the Past

Volume I  ·  June 1946  ·  Number 3
Fire Fighters of the Past

Occasional additions to the Local History Collection from a variety of sources during the past few years have brought to our attention a subject which is colorful and entertaining, but which somehow has been neglected in local annals. We speak of the volunteer fire companies, particularly of Alert Hose Company No. 1, memorabilia of which have come into our possession recently through the courtesy of Miss Mary Moulthrop, Miss Elizabeth Gould, and others.

Rochester, like other cities, had to rely for many decades on the services of volunteer fire companies for protection from fire, and Rochesterians, like other city dwellers, responded man and boy to the clang of bells, the shouts of "Fire!" and the rattling of engines over the rough pavements. The first volunteer fire company came into existence as early as 1817, but it was not until the spring of 1826 that the real volunteer fire department was organized, with regularly certified members assigned to two engine companies and one hook-and-ladder company. From that time until the fall of 1858, when the volunteer system was partially abandoned, the history of the various companies forms a vivid chapter in Rochester's past. Names of some of the companies listed in successive city directories reflect the spirit of the volunteers: Young America Fire Company, Red Rover Engine Company, Red Jacket Engine Company, Live Oak Engine Company, Spartan Hook and Ladder Company, Alert Hose Company No. 1, and the Protective Sack and Bucket Company. Mottoes of the groups run the gamut of human aspirations from "We conquer to save," to "Water we crave."

Rossiter Johnson, an alumnus of the University and one of its most prolific writers, has given us two pen pictures of the early fire companies. Brought up in that section of the city known as Frankfort, the part west of the Genesee River and north of Brown Street, he later used it as the locale of his novel of boy life, Phaeton Rogers. Two chapters in that delightful tale are devoted to the fire fighters of the day, and would grip the attention of the most sophisticated youngster of today. In his essay, The Grandest Playground in the World, he has more to say of the heroes of his youth:

Before steam fire engines were invented, the performances of the hand-engines furnished much entertainment for the boys. When a fire broke out, all the church bells in the city were rung wildly, because each sexton was paid a dollar for ringing. Everybody was excited, and almost everybody ran to the fire. There were seven companies in the city. Each company, with a long, double drag-rope, drew its machine to the fire, always on a keen run. When the supply of water was distant from the fire, a line was formed, and one engine sent the water through its hose to the next, which in turn forced its way along. They all had numbers and names. Red Rover Three could 'wash' any other engine, that is, pour the water into its box faster than it could pass the stream along. But Zack Weaver, foreman of Torrent Two, could lick any other foreman. This will enable you to understand the interest that the boys took in the Fire Department and its powers. Celebration of the Fourth of July always began with a trial of the engines before the Court House. They endeavored to throw their streams over the head of the Goddess of justice, and sometimes they succeeded.

Three disastrous fires on successive days in the summer of 1858 brought the old volunteer system to an ignominious close. On the sixteenth of August fire broke out in North Water Street, resulting in the destruction of Longmuir's Brewery and a tannery. On the following day the city turned out for a joyful celebration of the laying of the first Atlantic cable, winding up with fireworks and a torchlight parade in which the fire companies participated. Private parties followed the public display, and were in full swing shortly before midnight when the alarm of fire again sounded. In rare good spirits as a result of the preceding convivial entertainment, the volunteers rushed to the fire and pandemonium ensued. By morning the city had lost five business blocks, a church, and twenty stores. On the eighteenth of August fire again occurred, this time causing the complete destruction of the Rochester Cotton Mills on Brown's Race. Property valued at $240,000 had been destroyed by fire in three days. Hastily called meetings of angry and discouraged citizens brought action, and on August 24, 1858, the Common Council unanimously adopted a resolution disbanding the old volunteer companies.

Three new volunteer companies to supplement the "paid" fire department formed a connecting link between the old system and the new for a number of years. On August 23, 1858, the Protective Sack and Bucket Company No. 1 was organized for the purpose of removing property from burning buildings, or buildings in dangerous proximity, and protecting it during the fire. This company is still in existence as a volunteer organization, with headquarters at the Fire Department on North Street. On September 7, 1858, the Alert Hose Company No. 1 was formed with nine charter members, growing in influence and popularity until it boasted a membership of one hundred, three "carriages," and a three-story carriage house, complete with reading-room, bunkroom, and session-rooms, into which they moved with great pomp on January 23, 1875. The third company, known as Active Hose Company No. 2, was formed in 1868 to give assistance in that section of the city east of the Genesee River.

The organization and working program of Alert Hose Company No. 1 is quite fully outlined in the Library's copy of its Constitution and Bylaws published in 1873. Incorporated under the laws of the State of New York, the Company was authorized to own property, conduct business, elect members (not to exceed fifty active members), and to grant the privileges of "exempt firemen" to those of its members who had served five years. Exempt firemen, according to state law, were to be excused from jury duty and military service, except in case of insurrection or invasion. New members were chosen by secret ballot from a list of candidates proposed by members and acted upon by a Committee of Inquiry. Three negative votes would prevent the election of any candidate. The procedure suggests that of the social club or fraternity, to which, in a sense, the volunteer companies were comparable. The bylaws were concerned largely with fines and penalties, which would lead one to suppose that disciplinary problems were rife.

The part played by the volunteer companies at public celebrations has often been described, and is familiar to those of the present generation who have seen the volunteer fire departments of New York State's smaller communities on such occasions. Their fancy uniforms and highly polished equipment were their pride and joy, and were displayed whenever occasion presented itself. The part they played in the social life of the community is less evident and not so well known. Organized as clubs, with elected members, secret proceedings, clubrooms, and monthly meetings, their interests were by no means confined to fires. They were social organizations, and as such had their influence on the social life of the city.

Annual public entertainments in the form of a fancy-dress ball, given by the "Alerts" over a period of years, are an illustration of the point. Newspaper announcements and reviews of these gala events would lead one to suspect that they were occasions eagerly awaited and happily attended. The bal masque for 1873, we read, was held on February 13 in Corinthian Hall. For the benefit of the timid, preliminary announcements gave assurance that "persons of doubtful character, of either sex, will be excluded." A long and detailed review in the papers of the following day proclaimed the ball a brilliant success. The reviewer for the Rochester Daily Union and Advertiser said:

For decorations, the stage and hall were transformed into a charming con­servatory of flowers and vines ... Upon an elevated dais in the rear stood the Company's 'spider' with its lamp lighted and hose ready for use . . . Arching above a stand at the opposite end of the hall was a bow of gas lights shaded by parti colored glasses, surmounting which, displayed in brilliant jets of gas, was seen the cabalistic legend 'Alert.'... Upon the several chandeliers and at various points on the stage were suspended cages containing canaries, and there were none present who seemed more delighted than these little beings.

An orchestra and a band vied with one another at opposite ends of the hall. The program included an "instrumental concert," a triumphal procession, and "Terpsichorian [sic] festivities of thirty sets." A stupendous affair, it was surrounded, said the reviewer, "by an atmosphere of high respectability, order and refinement."

The "Alerts" and the "Actives" passed out of existence in the eighteen-nineties. Steam fire engines drawn by horses supplanted the old hand-drawn engines; the Holly water system supplanted the steam engines; and the telegraph system for fire alarms stopped the clanging of church and City Hall bells. These new developments could be used effectively and efficiently only by a properly trained, full-time personnel under complete municipal control, and so the days of volunteers in a city the size of Rochester were over. Fires continue to be and ever will be a fertile source of excitement, but no longer are they accompanied by the shouts of captains, the racing and rivalry of the companies, the disorder and confusion which amounted at times to a public carnival. Yet these fire companies are a part of a colorful past; they made valuable contributions to public safety; and they were an integral part of Rochester's civic and social life. It seems only right and fitting that some attempt should be made to preserve any records or mementos of their existence which may still be found.