Five Alarm Fire

My grandfather, who was born in 1906, was a volunteer fireman all his adult life (to celebrate his 100th birthday, the town he lived in named the new fire station after him). What inspired his love of fire fighting? Watching the horse drawn fire engines coming up the West side of Manhattan. Imagine what it was like to see a team of three horses galloping down Broadway pulling a fire apparatus. The clatter of hoofbeats, the clang of the machinery. Magical. It inspired a lifetime of service.

The horse drawn fire engines inspired my grandfather to become a volunteer fireman.

My grandfather was born at the right time to remember them. The Fire Department of New York began replacing its fire horses in 1910, moving to a motor-propelled hose wagon and water tower. He was old enough to have clear memories of the engines.

The first motorized apparatus of the FDNY was a 1909 Knox high-pressure hose wagon, shown here in front of Engine Company No. 72 at 22 East 12th Street. This hose wagon was one of the first three firefighting vehicles to simultaneously arrive on the scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire on March 25, 1911. Photo, Museum of the City of New York Collections.

Engine Company No. 205 of Brooklyn Heights was the last fire company in the FDNY to become motorized. For decades, Engine 205 had ruled as the oldest, most famous and most influential of New York’s fire companies. Their last run, in December of 1922, led to a retirement ceremony.

When the alarm sounded for the final call for the last horse-drawn engine in NDNY history, Balgriffen took his place in the middle spot of the hitch for the engine, with Danny Beg and Penrose on each side. George W. Murray drove the engine this day, although driver Louis Rauchut was also in attendance. On the ash pan behind, Captain Leon Howard was keeping his hand on the whistle rope so that it screamed one long blast; Engineer Tom McEwen pushed coal into the firebox with both feet and one hand (he used his other hand to hold on tight). Waterboy and Bucknell hooked up to the hose wagon, with veteran John J. Foster (“Old Hickory”) at the reins and driver William T. Daly on the sidelines. The horses dashed down Fulton Street and along Court Street to Joralemon Street, and then to the rear of the Borough Hall. There, Jiggs, the senior coach dog, ran circles around the engine, obviously anxious and confused why no one was hooking up to the hydrant or dragging the nozzle. (Source: The Hatching Cat of Gotham)
S. Del Goldsmith
The best birthday present ever — having a fire station named after you.

My grandfather’s volunteer career began in 1941, where because of the shortage of manpower due to World War II, he served the NYFD as a member of the ladder company on 51st Street. He next joined the Roslyn volunteer Fire Department on Long Island. While he lived most of his life in Manhattan, my grandparents had a weekend home 65 miles north of the city in Patterson, NY. My grandfather joined the Patterson FD in 1955 and was last at Fire Station #1 to celebrate his 100th birthday. I grew up with the sound of the fire radio always on in the background and still think of the wide-eyed boy who fell in love with horse-drawn engines.

It’s hard to imagine a New York City where horses powered the city’s service vehicles. So much changed during my grandfather’s life; it was a gift to have his memories bridging the past with our present.

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