The Volunteer Era 1648–1865

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ALL ARTICLES:   The Colonial Period   Post Revolution

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New York’s firefighters began as volunteers when Manhattan was a Dutch colony. Fire alarms were given using wooden rattles and volunteers fought fire using buckets and hand pumpers. The city, however, grew beyond the limits of hand drawn apparatus and, in 1865, a professional force was organized.

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The burning of Barnum’s American museum, at the corner of Broadway and Ann streets, on July 13, 1865 is depicted in this reproduction of C.P Cranch’s “Burning of Barnum's Museum.” The fire was one of the last major fires fought by the volunteer firefighters. 

A Growing City

Throughout the volunteer era, the organization of the department changed and developed to fit the needs of New York City’s growing population and geographical expansion. Fighting fires required a lot of manpower, from the initial bucket brigades to the organized volunteer companies. Before the first fire engines were used in New York, all citizens were expected to help at fires by forming part of a bucket brigade. As the city expanded, more efficient means of fighting fires were required. In the early 19th century, hoses were introduced, which led to the demise of fire buckets. Fire apparatus at this time – hand pumpers, hook and ladder trucks, and hose reels – were all hand drawn. A large supply of manpower was needed until the paid department introduced horse-drawn apparatus in 1865.

The Colonial Period

Throughout the volunteer era, the organization of the department changed and developed to fit the needs of New York City’s growing population and geographical expansion. Fighting fires required a lot of manpower, from the initial bucket brigades to the organized volunteer companies. Before the first fire engines were used in New York, all citizens were expected to help at fires by forming part of a bucket brigade. As the city expanded, more efficient means of fighting fires were required. In the early 19th century, hoses were introduced, which led to the demise of fire buckets. Fire apparatus at this time – hand pumpers, hook and ladder trucks, and hose reels – were all hand drawn. A large supply of manpower was needed until the paid department introduced horse-drawn apparatus in 1865.

Post Revolution

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1786, the volunteer department was re-organized under the authority of the newly established City of New York with 300 men, fifteen engine companies and two hook and ladder companies. This era, commonly referred to as the “romantic” era of firefighting, is known for its torchlight parades, highly decorated apparatus, and camaraderie. The volunteer era ended in 1865 when the New York State legislature created the Metropolitan Fire Department (MFD). When the Volunteer Fire Department was disbanded, it had grown to the size of 3,421 men, fifty-two engine companies, fifty-four hose companies and eighteen hook and ladder companies.