Building the City > Steam Fire Engines
During a frigid and windy night in 1835, a ravenous fire swept “like flashes of lightning” from building to building in Lower Manhattan. The wind hurried the conflagration’s progress, while subzero temperatures froze hydrants and hoses. Over the next two weeks, the insatiable flames would burn 674 warehouses and offices – including the Tontine Coffee House, one of the Chamber’s first meeting places, as well as the Merchants Exchange, its current home – and destroy as much as twenty-six million dollars in property and merchandise.
These losses struck hard at the members of the Chamber of Commerce, especially those involved in fire insurance, a business sector that more or less ceased to exist in the City for a generation afterwards. The damage also suggested the inadequacy of the volunteer firefighting companies, which – in the eyes of the merchants – had proven themselves inadequate to their task. Aligned with religious and ethnic identities, the companies were central to workingmen’s politics; many a Tammany sachem got his start by excelling in the two-fisted, bare-knuckled culture of the brigades. But, the merchants hated the system, especially since the volunteers tended to be at least as interested in fighting one another as they were in actually fighting fires.
In the 1850s, the Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee to look into the possibility of acquiring steam fire engines, a recent and promising invention. This seemed like a progressive proposal. After all, as the committee noted, “while the arm of man tires, the devouring [fire] continually gathers strength. It needs then to be opposed by an agent as powerful and unwearying as itself, and the superiority of steam over manual labor, it is believed, may be made to appear as conspicuous and decided in this as in any other way.”
Steam fire engines – each was “essentially a street locomotive … carrying with it a powerful pump – were being used successfully in Cincinnati, Louisville, and New Orleans, and New York was falling behind. The committeemen attended a demonstration of engines built by the firm of Lee & Larned, but a “temporary malfunction” prevented them from seeing what the machines could do. In a separate trial for the city, two steam fire engines propelled themselves three miles in only twenty-five minutes, and then put on an impressive display of discharge. The steam engines could launch water higher, farther, and longer than their human-powered competitors. Adopting these machines was obviously necessary. “The use of them,” declared The Independent, “has been proved efficacious in a marked degree.” The Chamber’s committee was even prepared to help pay for the engines if the city proved stingy.
“Yet, strange to say,” The Independent’s editor continued, “the firemen of this city, as a body, will not allow the use of these steam-engines.” The machines required fewer men and more technical expertise. As such, they were a direct threat to the culture of the volunteer companies, which hindered and sabotaged their steam competitors at every chance. The merchants – whose property was at stake – could not tolereate such behavior “Surely,” they insisted, “the fire companies do not exist for the benefit of their members, but for the benefit of the city.”
As it turned out, the workingmen of the volunteer brigades were not the only source of annoyance. In 1860, The New York Times ran a stern denunciation of Lee & Larned under the headline, “Jobbery in the Contracts – Failures and Defects in the Engines.” As corrupt as the volunteers had been, the industrialists were at least as bad. The City was overpaying for services and unfairly preventing other firms from competing for the work. “Thus,” the paper complained, “it appears that the most important business of protecting the City against conflagration, like everything else in which our Common Council has any share, has permanently degenerated into an instrument of private plunder.”
Progress marched on, however. By 1862, New York operated fourteen steam fire-engines, and more were on the way. A generation later, Chamber historians concluded that their committee’s recommendation had been vindicated. The adoption of steam engines, they wrote, “has proved eminently useful, and will doubtless be the main reliance hereafter for safety in crowded communities.”