Even long-time Manhattan residents can be forgiven for not knowing about the New York Fire Museum, given its tucked-away location between Soho and Tribeca. When I visited a couple years ago on a late December afternoon characterized by what weathermen call “a wintry mix,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. Demonstrations featuring flames – or, better yet – flame-throwers? The definitive history of the bonfire? A rogue’s gallery of famous arsonists?
While the Museum does not, in fact, feature any of the above, it is nevertheless a safe and absorbing way to while away an afternoon on the kind of day when just the thought of fire brings a welcome tingle of warmth to one’s chilly limbs. Located on Spring Street just off Varick, the Fire Museum spans three full floors of a renovated 1906 Beaux-Arts firehouse. According to its website, the Museum’s mission is “… to collect, preserve and present the history and cultural heritage of the fire service of New York and to provide fire prevention and safety education to the public, especially children.” Ah, that clears things up nicely, thank you very much.
Where to begin? Well, if you have small children in tow, they’ll likely enjoy the parade of gaily-painted ladder wagons and horse- and hand-pump engines dating as far back as 1830. If you’re a Home Depot kind of guy or gal, you’ll relish a browse through the extensive array of firefighting tools used by the Bravest from the early 1800’s to the present, including lockbreakers, mauls, axes, buckets, bolt cutters, roof saws, reducing caps, controlling nozzles, hoses, lanterns, spanners and wrenches and, for those attracted to the extremes of fire rescue, a jaws of life and a wall-mounted life net (“When you see the life net come out, things are bad,” according to a quote from Firefighter Donald van Holt posted next to the display).
Have you ever wondered about the provenance of those poles used by shimmying firefighters across the country? If so, you’ll be pleased to learn that they were invented in 1878 by Captain David B. Kenyon who worked the Chicago fire department. Kenyon’s pole was made of wood, which, according to early accounts, made for an often splintery ride down.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and, as far as the Museum is concerned, there’s also water. “You really can’t fight fire without water – there’s no way to do it. You really need that element,” Damon Campagna, the Museum’s executive director, told me during a phone interview. So for you non-firebugs, there’s a also lot of water-related history here, including documents related to the establishment in 1799 of The Manhattan Company, formed after fourteen years of political dithering, and chaired by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the days when they were still on speaking terms. Political and financial tomfoolery was ripe then as now, and, according to Campagna, of the $2 million initially raised by the Manhattan Company, only $100,000 was actually used to kickstart the city water project, the other $1.9 million being siphoned off by Burr to fund the Manhattan Bank, a rival to Hamilton’s Bank of New York and precursor of today’s Chase Manhattan Bank.
There’s also history about the city’s water mains (which, in the 1820’s, were fashioned – badly – from hollowed tree trunks) and hydrants (the city’s first was installed at the corner of William and Liberty Streets in 1808 and, yep, there’s still one there today). If you or a close relative have ever been unfortunate enough to be called “plug ugly,” you might be interested to know that, in the 1850’s, a “Plug Ugly” referred to a ruffian hired to guard locally operated hydrants from would-be water thieves in the 1850’s. And did you know that the term “fire plug” came from the holes drilled in wood water mains to obtain “the wet to put out the red”? I didn’t think so, and neither did I until I visited the Museum.
Understandably, water companies, then as now, were eager to allay public concerns about the quality of their product. Included on the list of “Queries to the Superintendent of the Manhattan Water Works and His Answers Thereto,” a kind of FAQ for the water-imbibing populace of 1823, was this:
Q: Is not the Manhattan Water deemed a wholesome water?
A: The Manhattan Water is considered wholesome. I drink it and have experienced no unwholesome effects from it, nor have I ever heard of any. The water appears as pure and clean as any I ever saw.
The claimed purity of Manhattan’s water as supplied by the Manhattan Company was put to the test when, in 1842, the city’s water source was switched to the Croton Reservoir in Westchester. Noted diarist George Templeton Strong wrote in July of that year “There’s nothing new in town, except the Croton Water which is full of tadpoles and animalculae and which moreover flows through an aqueduct which I hear was used as a necessary by all the Hibermian (sic) vagabonds who worked upon it.” Yuck.
If, like me, you are immediately drawn to all things animal-related, you’ll get a kick out of the framed 1936 Diploma of Honor from Dog World International bestowed on “Chief” (breed: “just a dog”). Chief rescued a cat from a blazing tenement in Boston, grabbing it by the scruff of its neck and ferrying it down three flights of stairs. Chief’s heroic form, taxidermied and mounted, can be viewed behind glass on the Museum’s first floor.
Speaking of dogs, their jobs as firehouse mascots in the days when pumps were equine-driven consisted mainly of keeping other dogs from harassing the horses. And contrary to what you might believe, Dalmatians were the preferred breed of firehouse mascot not because of their fetching black-and-white spotted ensembles, but because they were long winded and capable of keeping up with the horses as they raced to fires across the city.
The first fire horse (no name or breed noted) was purchased in New York City in 1832, when the Volunteer Fire Department’s manpower had been greatly depleted by a citywide epidemic of Asiatic cholera. (There is a cholera warning poster displayed in the museum that is both funny and cringe-inducing, urging citizens to “Be Temperate in Eating and Drinking!”, “Attend immediately to all disorders of the Bowels” and “Abstain from Cold Water, when heated, and above all, from ARDENT SPIRITS.”). As is generally the case for early adopters throughout history, those first fire companies to start using horses were widely ridiculed for being “weak” and “unmanly,” though I suspect not a peep was heard when the transition was eventually made to steam and diesel powered vehicles. The last of the city’s fire horses were retired from duty in a ceremony appropriate to their service and widely covered by the media on December 20, 1922.
‘Tis the season, you’ll want to be sure to check out the Museum’s tidy gift shop featuring an array of fire-related and firefighting videos, books, puzzles, hats, water bottles and, of course, t-shirts, which according to Ashley Whelan, Operations and Store Manager, are the shop’s most popular item. And for those for whom price is no object? The $70 “job shirt,” the on-the-job sweatshirt worn by city firefighters (sorry, currently out-of-stock), is the shop’s most expensive item. For the more miserly, there are plush stuffed Dalmatian dogs ($14), tree ornaments ($8.50 to $11.50), FDNY socks ($4 to $7 per pair) and, for the truly Scrooge-like, magnets and badges ($2 each), and pencils and sharpeners (a steal at a buck each).
And no fire-related emporium would be complete without those beefcake calendars featuring a photo of a different, ripped firefighter each month. I asked Campagna if he had purchased the 2014 FDNY Heroes calendar yet. “Well, I used to get one for free, when I was in them,” Campagna, a non-firefighter, joked. “But not any more.”
This being Manhattan, I couldn’t resist asking Whelan if, say, Robert DeNiro or other local celebs ever stopped by. “Hah, that’s a good one,” she laughed. “We know they’re out there but they don’t seem all that interested in us here.”