NYC Fire Museum: A Hidden Gem

The New York City Fire Museum houses one of the nation's most prominent collections of fire related art and artifacts from the late 18th century to the present.
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Walk west on Spring Street, through SoHo, past the enticing restaurants and the tempting clothing shops, and after you pass Varick Street, you will come to a fire house that still looks like a fire house, but this one welcomes you in to hear stories and see old fire trucks and other memorabilia from some 225 years of fire fighting in Manhattan. The museum itself is a gem that is worthy of visits from old and young.

The New York City Fire Museum houses one of the nation's most prominent collections of fire related art and artifacts from the late 18th century to the present. Its holdings range from badges and speaking trumpets (early megaphones) to hand-pumped fire engines and early motorized apparatus.

Damon Campagna, executive director and curator of the museum, had been kind enough to start me off with a tour of some of his favorite items in the collection. (We had met--and I had learned about the museum--through the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition that organized the many activities commemorating the centennial of that tragic fire.) After walking through with Campagna, I wanted to go back and read plaques and look closely, at which point I was joined by several different retired firemen who usually serve as guides for school groups as well as members of the public. (They had a little extra time for me because I visited during a week when most schools were on vacation.) From them, I got additional information, wonderful stories, and needless to say, some great one-liner jokes. The visit couldn't have been more rewarding or more fun.

A Few Firefighting Facts

The information I gained has sent me on a quest to learn so much more about firefighting in this country, and later on I'll bring to you what I learn, but in the meantime, I will share with you a few of the nuggets of information I gathered at the Museum:

•One of the purposes of night watchmen in communities was being alert for fires. If a watchman spotted flames, he set in action his watchman's rattle to awaken the community to come to fight the fire. With many buildings made of wood, fire was a full-out community emergency.

•The original fire departments were volunteer, and as a result, they took on a very club-like presence in a community since they consisted primarily of men from a neighborhood, gathering to protect their homes and businesses. This eventually made them entities to reckon with politically; if you could influence a fire department, politicians could get a lot of support. Tammany figured this out quickly.

•Because they were volunteer, they had to exist on a tight budget, so until after the Civil War when more departments hired professional firefighters, the companies could not afford to maintain horses. As a result, the fire wagons/engines were drawn to the fire by the men themselves. The pumping of the water was also done by hand and on display at the museum is one particularly beautiful pumping engine that was a double-decker (two levels for pumping), requiring 48 men to operate it. (Part of the high labor requirement has to do with the fact that pumping was really hard work, so there needed to enough men that they could trade off frequently.)

•Dalmatians became associated with the fire department when horses started to be used to pull the engines. Dalmatians could run beneath the team of horses to keep them moving on the way to the fire, and most importantly, they kept the horses collected and calm while the men fought the fire. Upon arrival at a fire, the men would unhook the horses and send them out of danger; the horses were covered with blankets to keep them warm or to keep them from being burned by embers from the fire; and the department dog would stay with the horses and keep them calm and in place.

•The museum has a collection of over 2,000 fire marks, the fire insurance company advertising emblems that were posted on buildings to show that the building was insured; this meant that those who helped put out the fire would also reap some financial gains for helping to save the property.

•A source for water was a constant problem. There were a few ponds and streams in Manhattan, but it was difficult to pump out enough water. (The opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842 brought about a major change.) Early on, water pipes consisted of downed trees where a hole had been bored through the trunk so that water could travel through it. Water pressure was inconsistent, and of course, finding a source close the fire was a constant challenge. Fire departments had permission to drill into the tree trunks wherever they could, to find a source for water, but it can't have been easy.

If You Visit
A specialty of the museum is instruction for school children in fire prevention and response. The building also houses a special memorial to the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11--a poignant reminder of that day and the importance of keeping fire safety front and center for those who build and work in big buildings, but also those who are called on to fight the fire.

The museum is actually a combination of two different collections. The NYC Fire Department had begun a collection in the 1930s that was originally housed on Long Island and then for a time at a firehouse on Duane Street, but in 1981, they were offered a remarkable collection by Home Insurance Company. One of their former presidents, Harold V. Smith, had become a collector just after the turn of the century, and when he became president of Home Insurance Company in the 1930s, he eventually installed his collection in the insurance company's home office on Maiden Lane where it could be on display to others on occasion. When the two collections were combined in the early 1980s, larger quarters were needed. After a fundraising drive by the Friends of The Fire Museum, the 1904 Beaux-Arts firehouse was renovated and now offers a pleasant space for visitors.

The Museum is located at 278 Spring Street, between Varick and Hudson, and is open Tuesday-Sunday (with slightly shorter hours on Sunday). Admission is very reasonable, particularly since one could spend hours going through the items on the two floors: $7 for adults; $5 for children; those under age 2 are free.

My latest newsletter is about traditions that surround the All-American sport of baseball. If you like Cracker Jacks or remember the Dodgers when they were in Brooklyn, you will want to check out "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

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