Fireboats Through The Years
By Clarence E. Meek (July, 1954)
SOON after taking over the management of the Fire Department in 1865, and establishing the paid force, the Metropolitan Board of Fire Commissioners discussed the need for a "floating engine to fight fires on and along the river fronts." Their discussions resulted in the signing of a contract, in 1866, with John C. Baxter & Son, owners of the steam salvage tug JOHN FULLER, for the services of the boat on a "call basis" at a yearly rental. The JOHN FULLER was equipped with fire pumps and hose, in addition to a variety of salvage gear, and was well suited for its role as the first fireboat of the Fire Department of the City of New York. The boat was advertised by its owners as a "wrecking and fire steamer," and a notice appearing in a journal of the period stated, "The pumps are of extra power and were made to order expressly for the FULLER by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. As a fire engine she throws thirteen streams of water."
The FULLER was to serve as a regular unit of the Department for more than nine years, until the first city-owned fireboat was put in service in 1875, and for a number of years thereafter was rented from time to time to take the place of the Fireboats HAVEMEYER and MILLS, when they were out of service for inspection and repairs. At first, when the FULLER was needed at a fire, a messenger was sent from Fire Headquarters in Mercer Street to her West Street dock, with orders to respond. The first fire at which the "floating engine" operated as a unit of the Department was on October 16, 1866, at 307 West Street, close to her berth. In his report to the Commissioners for the year 1866, Chief Elisha Kingsland wrote that the contract for the use of the FULLER had proven most satisfactory.
When, at the suggestion of Chief of Department Joseph L. Perley, preliminary signals were adopted in 1870, 15 strokes and 4-6 strokes made up the preliminary for the Fire Steamer. The order gave these instructions:
Whenever the services of the Steamer JOHN FULLER are required by the officer in command at a fire, he will apply for the same by sending the special call 15 strokes and 4-6 strokes, followed by one round of the box. It is the duty of the Commanding Officer of the Company lying nearest to the wharf of the FULLER to send a messenger to said Steamer with a notice of the call.
In August of 1874, the Commissioners contracted with Wood Dialogue & Company, Philadelphia, for the construction of a fireboat at contract price of $23,800. When placed in service on May 12, 1875, the boat, which had been named the WILLIAM F. HAVEMEYER, was berthed at the foot of Pike Street. East River, and Engine Company 43 was organized to man her, with two officers, two engineers, pilot and five firemen. The HAVEMEYER was a wood hull vessel and, like several of the early fireboats, had quarters aboard for the crew. In fact, these boats were moved from one location to another without any more preparation than running the fire alarm telegraph wires to provide a ship-to-shore connection. Until the time that John Kenlon became Chief of Department, the company number remained with a fireboat regardless of its location.
Against contrasting background of sails, the "modern" fireboat, "W. F. Havemeyer, rests at her Pike Street Dock. Crew lived aboard in those days as berths were frequently moved.
A second fireboat, the ZOPHAR MILLS, was built in 1882 and when placed in service on April 14, 1883, was designated as Engine 51. Her first berth was at Pier 42, North River. The ZOPHAR MILLS was the first iron hull fireboat and was 120 ft. in length, with a 25 ft. beam and 12 ft. draught. She was designed by Charles H. Haswell who was also the designer of THE NEW YORKER—the most famous of our fireboats. The two Clapp & Jones fire pumps had a total capacity of 6,000 gpm. The ZOPHAR MILLS served the Department for 52 years and was disposed of September 4, 1934. Some of her wheel house equipment has been preserved in the Fire College Museum.
Iron-hulled "Zophar Mills," second boat, delivered as much water as six of our modern land engines. Some of her equipment is now preserved in the Fire College Museum.
Brooklyn's Seth Low
The City of Brooklyn had called on the New York Fire Department several times for the help of fireboats before contracting for the building of the SETH Low, in 1885. She was a wooden vessel throughout, with copper bottom to the water line. The Low had two screws and was 99 ft. in length, with a 24 ft. beam and 9 ft. draught, with two Clapp & Jones fire pumps with a total capacity of 3,500 gpm. Crews' quarters were aboard. She was commissioned January 1, 1886. as Engine Co. 23 of the Brooklyn Fire Department. She was first stationed at Harbeck's Stores, near the locations before finding a permanent berth at the foot of Main Street.
Except for hose reel at stern, Brooklyn's "Seth Low" looked very much like a tug boat.
The second fireboat of the Brooklyn Department was the DAVID A. BOODY, built in 1892. She was a wooden boat with crews' quarters aboard and was 106 ft, in length with a 23 ft. beam and 7 ft. draught. She had a single screw with a compounding condensing engine. The two fire pumps had a capacity of 6,500 gpm. The BOODY was commissioned October 28, 1893, as Engine Company 32 of the B. F. D. In the Brooklyn Fire Department the fireboats had civilian Captains, Pilots, Engineers and Stokers, the firefighting crews consisting of officers and firemen of the Uniformed Force. The New York Department also had civilian Pilots, Engineers and Stokers. Pilots were inducted into the Uniformed Force in 1907, by legislative act and Engineers of Steamer from the Uniformed Force gradually replaced the Engineers of the civilian force.
Before consolidation with the City of New York in 1898, Long Island City had a contract with Newtown Creek Towing Company for use of their tug PROTECTOR as a fireboat on a call basis. The PROTECTOR was equipped with pumps and hose, as well as salvage and wrecking gear. The Towing Company also had five other tugs, each equipped with a fire pump, which were available on call.
"The New Yorker"
THE NEW YORKER was constructed by Julius Jonson, New York, from plans by Charles H. Haswell. With a pumping capacity of 13,000 gpm, she was for many years the most powerful of fireboats. She was the first New York fireboat with a shore station and its house at the Battery became a landmark as famous as the boat itself. When THE NEW YORKER was ready, Engine Co. 57 was organized and the boat placed in service on February 1, 1891. News articles of the day gave much space to descriptions of the boat and its architecturally distinctive station near Castle Garden. She had a steel hull and a profile which was changed some years later by the installation of a larger stack and the removal of some of the superstructure. She was a single screw vessel with a triple expansion engine. On January 24, 1892, the ZOPHAR MILLS collided with THE NEW YORKER, hitting her head-on near the water line on the port side during a heavy fog. The crew were able to keep her pumped out until she could be berthed at a shipyard.
In those memorable winters of the 1890's, ice in the rivers around New York was a menace to the fireboats. On February 13, 1899, the DAVID A. BOODY sank in the East River at the foot of Corlears Street, while returning from a fire. The Captain sent out a call for help and the crew strove desperately to pump her out, hut to avail. The same day, the VAN WYCK damaged her steering gear and was towed to her berth by THE NEW YORKER.
For 40 years, "The New Yorker" stood guard over the New York Harbor. The battle-scarred veteran was the first fireboat to have a permanent shore station at Pier I, N.R.
Engine Company 66 was placed in service on June 1, 1898, at the foot of Grand Street. with the new boat ROBERT A. VAN WYCK. later renamed the WILLIAM L. STRONG. The VAN WYCK had been christened the WILLIAM L. STRONG when launched but the name was changed to VAN WYCK before she went in service, and then changed hack when Mayor Van Wyck ended his term. The WILLIAM L. STRONG was built at the yards where the first fireboat—the HAVEMEYERhad been constructed. She was designed by H. deB. Parsons, and her principal dimensions were 110 ft. in length. With a 24 ft. beam and 12 ft. 6 in. draught with a gross tonnage of 203 tons and 350 horsepower, she had a rated capacity of 6,000 gpm. The fireboat HAVEMEYER was disposed of on October 2, 1901, and Engine 43 was discontinued as a marine unit. The next fireboat to be added to the fleet was the ABRAM S. HEWITT, designed by H. deB. Parsons, and built by the New York Shipbuilding Company at Camden, N. J. Engine Co. 77 was organized October 25, 1903. and the HEWITT put in service at the foot of West 13th Street. This boat is now changed somewhat from her original appearance. The two stacks have given way to one funnel and the deck house has been altered. The HEWITT is practically a sister ship of the GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN, with a rated capacity of 7,000 gpm., a length of 117 ft., a beam of ft. and a 10 ft. 6 in. draught.
It may be appropriate, at this point, to mention two of the most disastrous fires in New York waters, from the standpoint of loss of life, in which our fireboats were engaged. The catastrophe which has been recorded in most histories of great fires as the North German Lloyd disaster gave Chief of Department Croker and the men of the fireboat fleet one of their toughest jobs and most harrowing experiences. Station 251, West and Morton Street, was received at 4:09 P.M., June 30, 1900, and the responding companies included Engines 51 and 57, the two fireboats then stationed in the North River. Chief Croker rolled on the box, as was his practice, in the case of alarms from hazardous locations. There was no fire at Station 251, but "hell was popping" across the river at the Hoboken piers. Explosions were heard and two large vessels, the KAISER WILHELM and BREMEN were seen to he burning and moving out into the stream. The BREMEN was adrift and floating toward the New York shore. Two other large ships—the SAALE and the MAIN—and numerous docks, barges and smaller ships were afire. The SAALE and the MAIN were being pushed or towed out into the river. Chief Croker special called Engine 66, the VAN WYCK, and gave orders for the fireboats to operate in the river. He hoarded THE NEW YORKER, which was commanded by Captain W. C. Braisted, and headed for the scene. The number of persons who died in the burning ships is stated in Chief Kenlon's book—"Fires and Firefighters"—to have been more than 400. Only 16 of the 150 on the MAIN were rescued and 74 died on the BREMEN. The men of the fireboat fleet did a heroic job that day. THE NEW YORKER took 28 off the BREMEN through red-hot port holes and landed them at Pier 18. In many cases men of the fireboats saw persons fall back into the flames as desperate rescue attempts were being made. The very modest report of Captain Braisted of THE NEW YORKER IS quoted in the 1900 Annual Report and Chief Kenlon gave a more complete account of the North German Lloyd fire in his book. At the time of the fire Chief Kenlon was Captain of Engine Co. 72.
The other waterfront disaster which should be recorded in any story of the Marine Division was the burning of the excursion steamer GENERAL SLOCUM, on June 15, 1904, with a loss of more than 1,000 lives, a large proportion of whom were children on a Sunday School outing. The first report of the GENERAL SLOCUM fire was a telephone message from a citizen at 10:11 A.M. This was followed immediately by a message from the Police Department that Officer Cowan, of the 35th Precinct, reported a steamship on fire at Hell Gate. The dispatcher ordered Engine 51 to roll at 10:12. A half minute later Box 2339 was received and transmitted. As phone messages to the Fire Alarm Office in 67th Street brought word of what was happening, Chief Croker ordered the fireboat HEWITT to respond from her Brooklyn berth and to stop at the foot of East 67th Street to take him aboard. The SLOCUM fire was fast and furious. When first discovered, the steamer was entering Hell Gate opposite Hallets Point. The vessel sank near North Brothers Island. Of the more than 1,400 persons aboard, only about 400 were rescued. The death toll reached 1,021. The men of our Department made many rescues but their principal job that day was the recovery of bodies.
A Battalion is Born
Up until 1905, the fireboats were attached to the Battalions in whose districts they lay. Special Order No. 6, of June 16, 1905, established the 19th Battalion. It read:
By direction of the Fire Commissioner, the 19th Battalion, to be composed of Engine Companies Nos. 51, 57, 66, 77, 78, 123 and 132, is hereby organized, to take effect from and after 8 A.M., on the 17th inst., and Chief of Battalion John Kenlon assigned to the command thereof. He will perform duty while at fires on the fireboats.
- By order of EDWARD F. CROKER, Chief of Dept.
The 19th Battalion was then assigned to the First Division. Four years later it was decided to organize the fireboats as a separate Division and an examination for promotion to the rank of Deputy Chief of the Marine Division was ordered. A requirement was that applicants must hold Pilot's and Master's licenses. Chief Kenlon was the only Chief of Battalion who could qualify and, after passing the examination, he was promoted to this specific title by Special Order No. 45, of April 12, 1909, being the only officer ever promoted to be Deputy Chief of the Marine Division. Two years later the junior among the Deputy Chiefs, he was first on the list for Chief of Department and became head of the uniformed force on August 1, 1911. The 19th Battalion was discontinued as a marine unit on October 20, 1925. In 1937, on November 1st, a Marine Battalion was again established with the organization of the 25th.
Present Fleet (as of 1954)
The GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN was built in 1903 by the New York Shipbuilding Company at Camden, N. J. When the MCCLELLAN was ready for service. Engine Company 78 was organized, on December 1, 1904, and took over the berth of Engine 77 at Gansevoort Street. Engine 77 moved to Main Street. Brooklyn.
The JAMES DUANE, THOMAS WILLETT and CORNELIUS W. LAWRENCE were added to the fleet in 1908, having been built by Alex Miller & Bros., of Jersey City, for a total cost of $335,000. These boats went into service as Engine Companies 85, 86 and 87, on December 7, 1908. The DUANE and WILLETT were the first New York fireboats equipped with turbine driven centrifugal pumps. Their rated capacity, at 150 psi is 9,000 gpm. The LAWRENCE is equipped with two reciprocating crank and fly-wheel type pumps with a capacity of 7,000 gpm. The THOMAS WILLETT was converted from coal to oil burning in 1926, and in 1927a similar conversion was completed on the JAMES DUANE. When Engine Companies 85 and 86 were organized, Engine 78 was relocated at the berth of Engine 51, in the upper East River. Engine 51 went to a new berth at Staten Island and for the first time, a fireboat was stationed in the Harlem River, with the organization of Engine 87 at 135th Street.
The SETH LOW went out of service January 1, 1916 and was replaced by the WILLIAM J. GAYNOR, built at a cost of $125,000. The GAYNOR, which has a capacity of 7000 gpm from her turbine driven centrifugal pumps, was converted to oil burning in 1937. The SETH Low was sold on August 20, 1917, after having sunk at the dock where she was tied up and nearly drowning the fireman who was detailed as watchman.
Engine Company 51 was out of service from January 1, 1917 until December 1, 1922. On that date, the new JOHN PURROY MITCHEL replaced THE NEW YORKER at Engine 57; the latter vessel went to Engine 77 to replace the ZOPHAR MILLS, which was sent to Staten Island to reactivate Engine 51. The MITCHEL had been launched at the yards of Standard Shipbuilding Co., Shooters Island, N. Y., where she was built at a cost of $235,000. An oil burner, equipped with centrifugal pumps having a rated capacity of 9000 gpm., the MITCHEL is 132 ft. in length with a 27 ft. width and 10 ft. draught.
The gasoline powered JOHN J. HARVEY was built in 1931, at a cost of $594,500. and placed in commission on December 17, 1931, as Engine 57, THE NEW YORKER being "retired." The HARVEY has five main gasoline engines driving generators which furnish current to the motors connected to the four fire pumps and two propellers. Her rated capacity is 16,003 gpm.
When the Hewitt was put into service in 1903, she had two stacks as shown above.
When the ZOPHAR MILLS was sold on September 4, 1934, the fleet was reduced to nine boats, and Engine Co. 51 was again temporarily disbanded, being out of service until November 16, 1938, when the FIRE FIGHTER was commissioned. She was the first diesel powered boat in the fleet and cost $924,000. She has two 16-cylinder Winton diesel engines, each connected to two main generators in tandem. Motors drive the four centrifugal fire pumps and two propellers. The FIRE FIGHTER is 134 ft. in length with a 32 ft. beam and a 10 foot draught, with a rated pumping capacity of 20,000 gpm. She was commissioned as Engine 57 at which time the HARVEY went from 57 to 86; the WILLETT from 86 to 78; the MCCLELLAN from 78 to 66 and Engine 51 was reactivated by the transfer of the STRONG from 66. The WILLIAM L. STRONG was removed from service in May, 1948 and Engine 51 was again left without a boat until the GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN was relocated at 51's berth on Sept. 19, 1949. The LAWRENCE was berthed in the East River at the foot of Grand St. (quarters of Eng. 66) on Oct. 31, 1952, as the quarters and berth of Eng. 87 were unusable because of highway construction along the Harlem River. The accident on the MCCLELLAN, while operating as Engine 51, in the harbor on September 17, 1953, the explosion which resulted in the death of Marine Engineer John D. McKean, has caused this boat to be laid up and the LAWRENCE to be assigned to Engine 51 at Staten Island, temporarily vacating the berth at Grand Street.
Heroes and Chiefs
Nine men of the fireboat fleet have died in line of duty : Engineer John Bulgar, Engine 43; Firemen Thomas J. Cooney and Cornelius Healy, Engine 223; Firemen Brerton F. Johnson, Edward J. Fox and John M. Grane, of Engine 77; Pilot John J. Harvey, Engine 86; Fireman Peter Engel of Engine 232 and Engineer John D. McKean, Engine 85.
Three commanders of the Marine Division have become Chiefs of Department: John Kenlon, John J. McElligott and Harold J. Burke. Another Chief of Department, Charles D. Purroy, was at one time Captain of the ZOPHAR MILLS. Truly, the history of the fireboat fleet has been in keeping with the great traditions of the F.D.N.Y. and worthy of emulation by all branches of the service.
The FDNY Fireboat Fleet List
WILLIAM F. HAVEMEYER (1875-1901) 106'x22'x10'. 6000 gpm.
ZOPHAR MILLS (1882-1934) 120'x25'x12'. 6000 gpm.
SETH LOW (1885-1917) 99'x24'x9'. 3500 gpm.
THE NEW YORKER (1890-1931) 125'x26'x12'. 13,000 gpm.
DAVID A. BOODY (1892-1914) 105'x23'x7'. 6500 gpm.
WILLIAM L. STRONG (1898-1948) 100'x24'x12.6'. 6500 gpm.
ABRAM S. HEWITT (1903-1958) 117'x25'x10'6". 7000 gpm.
GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN (1904-1954) 117'x24'x9'6". 7000 gpm.
JAMES DUANE (1908-1959) 132'x28'x10'. 9000 gpm.
THOMAS WILLETT (1908-1959) 132'x28'x10'. 9000 gpm.
CORNELIUS W. LAWRENCE (1908-1955) 104'6"x23'6"x9'. 7000 gpm.
VELOX (1907-1922) 68'x11'6"x7'.
WILLIAM J. GAYNOR (1914-1961) 118'x25'x13.4'. 7000 gpm.
JOHN PURROY MITCHEL (1921-1966) 132'x27'x10'. 9000 gpm.
CAPTAIN CONNELL (1922-1938) 56'6"x12'x6'6".
JOHN J. HARVEY (1931-1999) 130'x28'x9'. 18,000 gpm.
FIRE FIGHTER (1938- ) 134'x32'x9'. 20,000 gpm.
SMOKE (1938-1955) 53'x7'x3.5'.
JOHN D. MC KEAN (1954- ) 129'x30'x9'. 19,000 gpm.
H. SYLVIA A. H. G. WILKS (1958-1972) 105'6"x27'x9'. 8000 gpm.
HARRY M. ARCHER M. D. (1958-1994) 105'6"x27'x9'. 8000 gpm.
SMOKE II (1958- ) 52'x14'x4'. 2000 gpm.
SENATOR ROBERT F. WAGNER (1959-1993) 105'6"x27'x9'. 8000 gpm.
GOVERNOR ALFRED E. SMITH (1961- ) 105'6"x27'x9'. 8000 gpm.
JOHN H. GLENN, JR. (1962-1977) 70'x21'x5'. 5000 gpm.
JOHN P. DEVANEY (1992-1994) 70'x19'x5'4" 7075 gpm.
ALFRED E. RONALDSON (1992-1994) 70'x19'x5'4" 7075 gpm.
KEVIN C. KANE (1992- ) 52'x16'x4'6". 6500 gpm.