FDNY: Apparatus Fatalities, Technology and Change

Saturday Night, September 9, 1848 Edward Crowley, a member of Manhattan Engine 20, was one of a crew pulling their hand pumper to a huge fire in Brooklyn. Like a number of other responding companies, they would travel by ferry across the East River. As...

The widespread use of steam engines also meant the increased use of horses to pull them because of their size and weight. It was generally felt that the response limit in the late 19th century for a horse-drawn steamer was five miles before the team of horses was exhausted. Hand engines were used until at least the end of the civil war.

Technological advances related to fire apparatus during the 19th century seem to primarily be the shift to horse-drawn rigs and steam powered over hand operated pumps. The 1865 legislation mandating the paid department also included a provision that horse-drawn steamers would be used. The combination of these two changes meant much heavier apparatus moving at a higher rate of speed. Between 1850 and 1900, forty firefighters were killed in accidents; of these, 34 fell from apparatus and 22 of those were run over by the rig, the horses, or both.

One factor surely contributing to the death rate was the condition of the streets. Manhattan's famous grid system was expanding slowly and imperfectly uptown. In the early 19th century few streets were paved. Broadway was paved to the intersection of the Bowery and it in turn was paved north to what is now 233 Street in the Bronx. An 1818 zoning battle ended with the area west of Sixth Avenue from Houston to 14th St. (Greenwich Village) being exempted from grid requirements resulting in an "eccentric and baffling" street pattern that exists to this day.

In the 1870s a paved street consisted of "successive layers of stone broken into pieces of nearly uniform size." Further downtown, cobblestones were removed on Broadway, Wall, West and other streets and replaced with granite blocks set in sand which "produced a jarring, undulating ride; carriages appeared to rise and fall as if on a troubled sea." Fifth, Madison, and Lexington Avenues barely made it to present day Midtown before petering out in boulder strewn paths. Pulling a heavy steamer across these surfaces that were often slick or icy would have been a perilous experience. The accident statistics seem to bear that out.

Paradoxically, some of the best streets were in the "suburbs," including the area around 110th Street and the Harlem River where Boss Tweed had created whole neighborhoods and cross town connecting streets noted for their quality. Like the variety of apparatus and appliances in the fire department, the streets across the city were a hodge-podge that often spelled death and disaster for firefighters.

As early as 1697 the city was requiring homeowners to hang a lantern from an upper story "in the darke time of the moon." In 1759 whale-oil lamps were installed as a crime fighting measure. In the 1820s the first gaslights were installed to wide acclaim. The final step in the illumination of the city was the adoption of an electric light system which was seriously undertaken in the 1880s. By 1886 there were hundreds of street lamps up several avenues from the Battery to 59th Street. Still, much of the city was in darkness after sunset and for many years the fire department would continue to make night-time responses in low light conditions that must have contributed to the number and severity of accidents.

In the 1870s, some 18,000 vehicles used Broadway every day. It was said that to attempt to cross it was to take your life in your hands. In addition to the 40,000 horses and thousands of pedestrians, there was also stiff competition from horse cars and trolleys. And, any semblance of modern traffic control was non-existent.

At the close of the century, horse cars were rapidly being replaced by electric trolleys and the result was a combination of chaos and death on the streets. By 1885 trolleys had killed 105 people and injured another 400, most of them children. These locomotive size vehicles moved at 30 mph, yet still had the braking system of a horse car. Several firefighter fatalities were the result of collisions with trolley cars, their power poles or tracks.

We may grumble about the traffic we face today but it pales in comparison to what these early urban firefighters faced on every run they made.