Firefighting in our communities' early days was volunteers' responsibility.
In Bayside in the fall of 1890, a group of prominent citizens met to form an organized firefighting force, becoming the Enterprise Hook and Ladder Company. All apparatuses were hand-drawn and all necessary firefighting tools were carried. Those closest to the fire alarm system would rush to the firehouse and haul an apparatus to the fire. The company did not convert to horse-drawn vehicles. About the time of World War I, an attempt was made to motorize the apparatuses.
My husband's father, Henry Wettingfeld Sr., became a member of the volunteers early in the last century. In 1907, he served as a company recording secretary and in 1908 was elected assistant foreman. He was named department chief in 1913 and upon completion of that service assumed recording secretary duties. He continued in this post until the department was disbanded in 1924.
In very early times in our city, most of the firefighting crews were social clubs, with some volunteers too convivial off-duty. This was not true in Bayside, though, whose volunteers were stalwart members from the common corps of the town citizenry, from farmers, blacksmiths, doctors, storekeepers and prominent citizens. Their social events recorded elegant menus, photographs and invitations we are fortunate to still have and which display a keen sense of decorum.
In the city, where there were several companies, rivalry played a role and, apparently, while running to a fire one night the "Blue Boys" collided with a rival company, Engine Company No. 2, which collided head-on with a tree. The Blue Boys taunted their luckless rivals.
Among the city's engines was the "Hankiller" Empire Engine #2, built in the 1840s. Known as the "Haywagon," it saw abundant action. "Haywagon" referred to its rick — like a set of double brakes, which when folded stood high above it.
The first steam fire engine put into regular city service was the "Elephant." It was the gift of fire insurance companies in 1859 and weighed 5,600 pounds, much lighter than earlier steam engines.
Volunteer firemen were extremely proud of their engines and Sunday morning was devoted to cleaning and polishing them. Members gathered at the firehouse, where the axes would be ground and polished, signal lamps and torches would be cleaned and filled with oil and brass, and silver would be given a diligent polish. Leather hoses had to be in top condition. All tools and machines had to be kept clean, a fact taken seriously by each "vamp" (as old-time firefighters were once called).
Securing water was a real problem for the early firefighter. It was often supplied by means of a main in the form of a hollowed-out log. Large wooden plugs were used to close the taps in the wooden pipes and from this came the use of the term "fire plug" when referring to fire hydrants.
Bucket lines had to be formed to supply engines with water from pumps. The Groton Aqueduct opened in 1842 and for the first time the city had a sufficient water supply. The fire departments' efficiency increased 100 percent.
Fire buckets were made by shoemakers and hand-sewn from the best leather available. Residents were required to keep buckets, generally hung at the front of the house, so that when an alarm sounded the firefighters and civilians could locate them readily.
Firefighters of more than a century ago had a language all their own. For example, a "bunker" was a fireman or runner who slept at or near the firehouse. A "coffee mill" was a fire engine manually operated by a crank on each side of the machine and a "crab" was a heavy, four-wheeled hose reel. "Kindly light" was a warning light used by a runner who ran through the streets to clear the way for the engine.
Much has changed over the years. All conflagrations pose serious concerns, but those of the past wiped out hundreds of homes and buildings in the city alone. One of the most serious fires to devastate our city occurred during the tenure of former Mayor Cornelius Lawrence in 1835. He was a member of one of Bayside's prestigious families and the first elected city mayor.
Fires were devastating to the city and its environs, especially in our early history. The vamps received no pay and we should never forget the results of their legendary "esprit de corps."
©2008 Community News Group
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