Monday, March 13, 2017

We Work for Glory

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Around 8:30pm on the evening of May 7, 1878, the band played a solemn death march as Elmira’s volunteer firefighters paraded for the last time.  The city council had voted to discontinue the 48-year tradition of volunteer fire companies in favor of a paid department.  As they marched, the members of Elmira Hose No. 1 carried a sign which read “Shoot the Paid Fire Department—Too Thin! We Worked for Glory, They Work for Pay - $100 a Year.” The parade began at the Hose Tower and was supposed to make an orderly loop of downtown, but dissolved into chaos instead when it began to pour.

In November of 1830, the Village of Elmira Board of Trustees appointed 30 men to serve as the village’s unpaid firemen. These early firemen fought fires with bucket brigades until May 1834, when the village purchased an old goose-neck fire engine. The village firefighters re-christened themselves Torrent Fire Company No. 1. Using their new engine’s hand-pump to draw water directly from the river or canal, they could blast water at the fire for as long as their strength held out.  They used this pumper until the city bought them a steam-powered fire engine in 1864.

Example of a period hand-pump fire engine, 1848

The volunteer firefighters did more than just douse flames. They were also an important part of Elmira’s social scene. Elmira’s volunteer fire company’s participated in an annual 4th of July parade and held water pumping competitions. Most firefighters were young and physically fit. They hosted dance parties and were some of the most eligible bachelors in town. Even after they retired from firefighting, if they had served five years, they were exempt from jury duty and certain municipal taxes.

Fire engine barn used by Companies No. 1 & 2, ca. 1870s

Between 1834 and 1878, there were over a dozen volunteer fire companies founded in Elmira. Some of my favorites include:

-         Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 used their ladders to rescue people and their hooks to tear down buildings in order to create fire breaks. They were formed in 1844, but disbanded in a snit in 1846 after being snubbed in the 4th of July parade. They reformed in 1849.
Invitation to the Hook & Ladder Ball at Eagle Tavern, November 12, 1845.
-         Young America Company No. 4 (1854-1863) consisted entirely of teenage boys. In 1855, they won a pumping competition at the New York State Fair and were presented with a silk banner made for them by the young ladies of Elmira. Most of the members ended up joining the army during the Civil War.

-         Ours 4 Hose Company (1868-1872) had a reputation as a bunch of dandies. Their fire station not only housed their fire engine, but also served as a club house with a gaming parlor and reading room. They were so good at firefighting that other companies decided to adopt their decadent ways.
Decadent dandies of Our 4 Hose Company, 1868

-         Independent Hose No. 3 (1866-1878) operated out of a fire station on the Southside at the foot of the Lake Street Bridge. I don’t know much about these guys but I love them, if only because some of their members actually posed for the photo below. 
How can you not love these dorks from Independent Hose No. 3?

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