Fires, Fights and Benjamin Franklin: Philadelphia’s Volunteer Firemen, Part One


 

“The alarm of fire being given
Onward we did go
Their house we broke, and their engine took
And beat their members also.”

(From “The Franklin Hose Song,” c. 1850)

Tracing their roots back to a proud roster of founding fathers and fires fought, the volunteer fire companies that preceded the establishment of the Philadelphia Fire Department combined the best and worst traits of the city they served. Community-minded, innovative and tough, Philadelphia’s amateur firemen also earned a reputation for brawling, boozing and bitter rivalry equal to anything ever reported to have happened in the parking lot after an Eagles game.

A rapidly growing city of “about 700 dwelling houses,” Philadelphia had no fire service to speak of in the early 18th century. Though bucket brigades had existed in New England since the 1690’s, it would be decades before anyone took an organized approach to colonial emergency services. Meanwhile, Philadelphians doubtless looked nervously at the eminently combustible wooden warehouses along the Delaware waterfront, the boiling pitch-cauldrons and glowing forges of nearby shipyards and the pitiful resources the city could muster to protect its citizens.

During a fire, the victim depended on civically-minded neighbors with their own buckets, ladders, rope and hooks, the latter being used both to pull valuables from burning structures and to tear down buildings in the fire’s path to keep it from spreading An English fire engine was purchased for the city around 1718 – partly funded through fines collected from a colonial smoking ban enacted against those “presuming to smoke tobacco in the Streets of Philadelphia either by day or night” – but wasn’t much of a help; clumsy water-tanks on wheels, engines had to be hauled to the site of the fire, pumped by hand and continuously refilled by bucket chains.


 

This slow, exhausting process yielded predictably poor results. As reported by Benjamin Franklin in his Pennsylvania Gazette, one particularly destructive blaze in 1730 started on the riverfront and moved quickly into the city, consuming thousands of pounds worth of real estate and goods despite calm winds and generally favorable firefighting conditions.

After writing a series of articles on the subject, Franklin rose to the challenge. On December 7th, 1736, he and four friends founded the Union Fire Company, which survives today as Engine 8 of the Philadelphia Fire Department. One of the oldest organized fire brigades in the United States, the Union saw its ranks quickly filled to the agreed-upon maximum of 30 members. Other companies were founded by latecomers, all, according to one company’s records, “the most eminent men in Philadelphia, embracing merchants, physicians, lawyers, clergymen and citizens of wealth and refinement.” Indeed, fire company membership was a mark of honor, a sort of proxy social register of city notables from the mayor on down. This seems to have been the case throughout the colonies; George Washington, for example, was a member of his local volunteer fire company in Alexandria, Virginia.

to be continued…

References:

  • Johnson, Harry M. “The History of British and American Fire Marks.” The Journal of Risk and Insurance, Vol. 39, No. 3. (September, 1972), pp. 405-418.
  • Neilly, Andrew H. The Violent Volunteers: A History of the Volunteer Fire Department of Philadelphia, 1736-1871. University Microfilms, Inc. Ann Arbor, 1959.
  • The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. Franklin & Fires: His interest therein and his effort to Protect the Citizens of Philadelphia from Devastation., J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia 1906.
  • Wainwright, Nicholas B. A Philadelphia Story, 1752-1952: The Philadelphia Contributionship., Wm. F. Fell Co. Philadelphia, 1952.
  • Wainwright, Nicholas B. “Philadelphia’s Eighteenth-Century Fire Insurance Companies” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society.,New Ser., Vol. 43, No. 1. (1953), pp. 247-252.
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