FIRE DEPARTMENT


The Fire Department of New Orleans passed through the same changes and vicissitudes as other branches of the municipal government, and as have occurred in other cities of the same age. It began with no firemen at all, followed by a volunteer fire force, which assumed more and more the characteristics of a paid department, until finally the volunteer force went out altogether and a paid department came into service.

There were no firemen in the earlier days of New Orleans, and no means of fighting fire. When flames broke out in the little city, the neighbors flocked to the scene of the fire and did what they could with buckets to extinguish the flames. The soldiers also turned out and did the heaviest work.

With the lack of firemen, in a city where houses were almost all of wood and roofed with shingles, it was natural that a great conflagration should occur. Such a fire came on Good Friday, March 21, 1788, and it was one which the city had cause long to remember. A high wind, amounting almost to a gale, carried the flames from house to house and from street to street. The entire business portion of the city was destroyed, including the parochial church (succeeded by St. Louis' Cathedral), the Presbytery (where the civil courts are now situated), and with it nearly all the archives of the colony, the municipal building or Cabildo, the military barracks and arsenal, with large supplies of arms and ammunition and the calaboose or public jail, from which the prisoners were narrowly rescued from burning to death. Altogether between 800 and 900 houses were destroyed by fire, the total loss being estimated at $2,595,616. It was the first big fire New Orleans ever had, and it has never had one as large since.

The conflagration had one good effect; it called attention to the utter deficiency of the city in the matter of preparations to fight fires. There were not even enough buckets to use, and no organization to pass up the buckets to put out the fire where it burned or to wet the roofs of the houses which stood in its path.

While the city was in flames the Governor sent the soldiers to the artillery quarter to search for such military implements as were best adapted to the purpose of staying the flames, such as axes, military picks, etc., with which to pull down houses and parts of houses and parts of houses left standing that might feed the flames with fuel. The result of the great fire, which was felt in New Orleans for many years afterwards, was the organization of a fire department. Only four years afterwards another severe fire broke out in the city. Thanks to the improvement that had been made in fighting fires, it was not nearly as destructive as that of 1788, for not only were there buckets ready for vise but engines as well, the latter being, however, without trucks and carried in carts. The city at that time was divided into lower wards or districts, in each of which was an Alcalde de Barrios, a commissioner of police, who had charge not only of the police or serenos, but also of fire matters as well. The alcaldes were directed to take charge of the engines and implements, to assume command at all fires and to organize new companies as the occasion demanded. It was the first fire department New Orleans boasted of, and it proved efficient in spite of the very crude engines then in the city. In 1794 another destructive conflagration occurred, which burnt over a considerable portion of the city destroyed in 1788. The fault did not lay with the alcaldes or the firemen, but was due to the lack of necessary provisions in regard to the style of the new houses erected. Most of them were of wood and of a very flimsy character, and a fire once started was difficult to extinguish.

When New Orleans passed under American control and a city government was established, the first work of the new council was to overhaul the fire department and improve it. There were four engines in the city, one for each of the four quarters of the city, but they were without trucks; and the committee to which was given the matter of strengthening the fire department recommended that there be organized for each engine a company of fifteen men, under a foreman. These first foremen were le Sieur Chesse McNeal, Hilaire Boutte, and Gagne. A fifth engine, called L'Union, was soon after provided, and the council appropriated $1,000 for the support of a volunteer fire department — the first appropriation made for the purpose. It provided also for a detail of firemen each week for patrol duty. The several companies were entirely independent of one another, and considerable confusion resulted, requiring the attention of the fire committee of the council. It was found too arduous work for the firemen to do patrol duly as well as service with their engine, and the fire patrol was abolished in 1806, and the ordinary police patrol was required to give notice of fires to the fire companies.

In ISOG, the council showed that it was beginning to understand and appreciate the necessity of taking precautions to prevent fires, and a number of very sensible ordinances were passed, such, for instance, as the prohibition of shingle roofs, providing for the inspection of chimneys, relating to the proper policing in the case of fire, so as to prevent looting and other depredations, which were frequent at that time.

A still more rigid law was passed in 1807, known as the "bucket ordinance." It fixed the limits within which the construction of wooden buildings was prohibited; it required every householder to have a well on his premises and to be provided with at least two buckets.

A depot for four engines, known as the Depot des Pompes, was provided at the City Hall, with twelve dozen buckets, twelve ladders, ten grappling-irons and their chains, ten gaffs, twelve shovels, twelve pick-axes, twenty axes and ten sledge-hammers. Six other engines were provided for — one at the Theater St. Philippe, one in each of the four quarters or wards of the city, and one in the Fauxbourg St. Marie, the new or American district of the city, which was growing up above Canal street. Each engine was to be served by a company consisting of from twelve to twenty-two men. There was, in addition, a company of "sapeurs" (sappers), composed of thirty workmen accustomed to use the ax, such as carpenters, blacksmiths and iron workers, whose duty it was to tear down building's whenever this became necessary to prevent the spread of fire. On the first Sunday of each month the engines were required to repair to the Place d'Armes (Jackson Square), there to play their engines and otherwise exercise themselves.

The ordinance is a long one, and there are numerous provisions as to the fire department; indeed, it was so complete that it has formed the basis of nearly all the subsequent legislation on this subject. It will be noted from the detail of the engines and other implements of the fire department that the latter was very well provided, considering the time and place for fighting fires. It was certainly in marked contrast with the condition that had prevailed eighteen years previous, at the time of the great fire of 1788, and gives some idea of the progress that New Orleans was making under American rule.

The firemen were all volunteers; and to encourage the citizens to join the several companies, the legislature passed a law exempting from jury duty all firemen, a provision which remained in force up to the time of the disbandment of the volunteer department.

The council, at the same time (1807), offered a reward of $50 to the fire company whose engine first reached any fire.

A fire-alarm service was provided for, hut it was of a most primitive character. A watchman, or sereno, as he was still called, was required to be by day and night on guard at the porch of the St. Louis Cathedral, whose duty it was to call the hours, and who, at the first sight of a fire, should ring the alarm bell. He was further to indicate to the citizens who rushed toward the church the direction in which the fire was by waving a flag by day and a torch by night.

In the event of a fire alarm, all the watchmen who could be spared from police duty were required to report at once at the City Hall, whence they were sent in squads toward the fire by parallel streets, obliging all persons whom they met to go to the fire and lend their assistance in extinguishing it, by working the engines.

The necessity of a good fire department became more and more obvious. Whether with reason or not it is difficult to say, but the belief prevailed that there were a number of incendiaries in the city who were desirous of burning it down. In 1807 the council passed a resolution, in which it was announced that there had been two recent attempts to burn the city; and rewards of $500 were offered for evidence that would convict the incendiaries. How strong the popular sentiment was on this point is borne evidence to by the passage of a law allowing slaves to testify against their masters in cases of arson or incendiarism, and even giving them their liberty as a reward for furnishing information in cases of incendiary fires.

These acts stopped the incendiary fires, but in 1816 another big conflagration broke out, in the lower part of the city, which exposed the utter inefficiency of the fire department. A board of fire commissioners was created, five in each of the eight wards of the city. The commissioners were required to be at all fires, bearing white wands as badges of office and authority, and to direct all persons present at the fire, whether free or slave, by forcing them into ranks for the purpose of handling buckets to supply the fire engines with water, and perform such other duties as were required of them. The council tried to organize a municipal and partly paid force, but it was more or less a failure.

In 1829 New Orleans abandoned all efforts to support a paid fire department of its own and arranged with the volunteers (the Firemen's Charitable Association). for the extinguishment of fires. The volunteer firemen had several controversies with the city before the latter fully accepted their services in the extinguishing of fires. One of the most serious was in 1833, when the council placed two of the engines under the control of negroes — negroes having been previously used to a great degree as firemen. The volunteer firemen held a meeting and tendered their resignations, in case negroes were continued in the service, whereupon the mayor and council gave in and the engines were turned over to white firemen.

The expense of the fire department during its earlier days was very small. The cost for 1835, for instance, was only $10,430. The city gave only $1,000 a year. The insurance companies and banks gave $1,500; the firemen themselves, $250. The balance was given by individual subscriptions from property holders and merchants, who were interested in preventing fires. Thus, it will be seen that the new service was doubly a volunteer one — the firemen giving their services free, while the money for the necessary and legitimate expenses of the department was contributed by voluntary subscriptions. It was such a fire service as might be expected in a very primitive state of society.

Its popularity- did not prevent the volunteers from getting into serious difficulties with the city. There was no sufficient head to the department, and the rivalry of the several companies led to unfortunate results, which more or less interfered with the extinguishment of fires.

The council attempted to restore order and discipline, in 1855, by the creation of the office of chief engineer of the fire department, and selected James H. Wing-field for the position. It also passed an ordinance providing, among other things, for the payment of the firemen; in other words, it attempted to establish a paid fire department. Finally, seven of the companies which had grown very weak, were disbanded and deprived of their charters.

The result of this legislation was a revolt on the part of the volunteer firemen. They asserted that the plan to get rid of them and substitute a paid fire department was the work of the underwriters. They accordingly announced their intention of retiring from business, met in mass meeting and resigned from the service.

The city invited bids for the extinguishment of fires, and the Firemen's Charitable Association, to the surprise of every one, bid in the contract, for $70,00. This contract plan continued for thirty-six years, until 1891, the amount allowed for the fire service being increased from year to year.

In 1860, just before the opening of the civil war, the fire department consisted of fourteen hand-engines, five steam-engines and four hook-and-ladder trucks. At the outbreak of the war, the firemen were organized into a military body, uniformed as zouaves and equipped with arms; but this organization, of course, broke up when Gen. Butler occupied the city, and the firemen returned to their duty, being granted special privileges by the military commander.

With the return of peace, an attempt was made to get rid of the volunteer system, which had been abolished in New York and most of the other cities where it had prevailed. An ordinance was passed in 1881, establishing a paid department and creating a board of fire control, but was vetoed by the mayor. The board of control was created, however, in 1886; and in 1880, when the contract between the city and the volunteer fire department of the sixth municipal district expired, the city took advantage of the opportunity to establish a pay system in the sixth district. This was followed two years afterwards, in 1891, by the refusal of the council to renew its contract with the volunteer fire department, which expired that year, and decided on the establishment of the pay system for New Orleans. It had taken the city much longer to get to a pay system than most of the larger town of America, because of the success and prosperity of the Firemen's Charitable Association, and its great political strength; for its members had exercised the greatest influence on the community, and had filled high positions, as mayors, and even as governor.

The new paid fire department cost rather more than the volunteer service. The city had, moreover, to buy back the engines and apparatus from the Firemen's Charitable Association, just as that association had bought its apparatus from the city in 1855.

There has been practically no change in the system since the organization of the paid fire department, beyond the continued improvement by the purchase of better engines and such other apparatus as were needed. The department is under the active management of a chief and two assistants; but the board of control and the lighting and fire committee of the council have control over it, make the purchases, employ the men and try them for any breach of the rules, prepare all rules and regulations, etc. The department is under civil-service rules, and can no longer take the active part in politics, for which the volunteer firemen were noted of old. The chief, as well as most of the men, were taken from the old volunteer force, but naturally it was very materially reduced from what it had been in volunteer days. In consequence of this reduction the department labored under many disadvantages during the earlier days of its service, when fighting large fires ; but there has been steady improvement ever since, and the department is to-day the equal of that in cities where the cost is from fifty to 100 per cent. more.

The several chiefs of the fire department of New Orleans have been as follows:
NEW ORLEANS FIREMEN'S CHARITABLE ASSOCIATION.

First, Second Third and Fourth Districts: 1855, James Wingfield; 1856, Alfred Belanger; 1858, John F. Gruber; 1861, David Bradbury; 1864, Alfred Belanger; 1866, Jacob Seidner; 1868, Philip McCabe; 1869, Tom. O'Connor. Fifth District (Algiers): 1859, W. Brodtman; 1870, T. H. Jones; 1873, M. Iver; 1875, W. Brodtman; 1877, T. Daly. Sixth District (Jefferson): 1869, John A. Meyer. Seventh District (Carrollton): Fred Fischer, Philip Mitchell, John Pfeiffer, George Geier, John Dahmer.

The fire department of New Orleans in 1900 has 27 steam-engines, 12 chemical engines, 7 hook-and-ladder trucks, 1 water-tower, 144 horses, 4 captains, 44 lieutenants and 207 firemen.

New Orleans was the fourth city in the Union to introduce the fire-alarm telegraph. This it did in 1860, adopting the Gamewell system. Thirty seconds was sufficient to get the alarm from the alarm boxes to the engine-houses. Improvements have been made in this service, also, from time to time.

— STANDARD HISTORY OF NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
    MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT, By Norman Walker
    MUNICIPAL AND MILITARY HISTORY
    EDITED BY HENRY RIGHTOR
    THE LEWIS PUBLISHING COMPANY CHICAGO, 1900
    As Written


Storyville, New Orleans Red-Light District
1897-1917


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