By the turn of the last century Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 and Engine Company No. 7 had had an unusually close relationship for decades. The separate companies had been located nearby one another since the organization of the professional fire department in 1865 when they were housed steps away at Nos. 22 and 26 Chambers Street. Hook & Ladder No. 1, for instance, had a telegraph receiver at No. 22, while Engine Company No. 7 did not. Messages were run back and forth by fire fighters between the two companies to solve the problem.
But the histories of the companies went much further back. Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 was established during British rule, on July 10, 1772. After many of its volunteer members marched off to fight in the Revolution, it was reorganized in 1784 and given the name “Mutual Hook & Ladder No. 1.” It was Mutual Hook & Ladder No. 1’s foreman who designed the fireman’s helmet with the high crown and broad rear brim in the late 1820s. It is still used today with some variations.
Around 1830, not long after John W. Towt designed the helmet, the Protector Engine Company No. 22 was formed. Fire fighting at the time relied on a disorganized collection of volunteer companies manned by neighborhood men called “laddies.” Many of the companies earned a reputation as rowdy, boisterous groups; and nearby fire houses would compete with one another to arrive at a fire first, or to become the more skilled at extinguishing it.
The devastating fire that destroyed Barnum’s Museum in 1865 along with pressure on the State Assembly by reformers resulted in the Act of 1865 that coupled Brooklyn and New York with a paid, united “Metropolitan District” fire department. Hook & Ladder No. 1 was unique among all the city’s companies. It not only was allowed to keep its name and number; but according to firefighter and department historian Paul Porcello, it “continued with the same truck, same helmets, same location, and nine of the new twelve members had served in the old volunteer company.”
Protector Engine Company No. 22 was reorganized as the professional Engine Company No. 7 and was installed at No. 26 Chambers Street close to Hook & Ladder No. 1. The companies would be relocated several times; always remaining together or close by.
As the turn of the century neared, a new challenge faced the Fire Department—the ever-growing height of downtown buildings. The steam pumper engines could shoot water no higher than a few stories; a problem that was made clear on December 4, 1898. Engine Company No. 7 and Hook & Ladder No. 1 both responded to a massive blaze in the five-story Rogers Peet menswear store at Broadway and Warren Street. The devastating fire sparked serious discussion about the how to more successfully battle high-rise fires. Among Chief Edward F. Croker’s solutions was to double-up the apparatus of engine companies. By adding a second truck the linked engines could achieve more thrust. His plan was initiated in 1904.
To accommodate its second engine, a new fire house was necessary for Engine Company No. 7. Three lots were acquired at Nos. 100 through 104 Duane Street and the old commercial buildings demolished.
From 1879 to 1895 Napoleon LeBrun & Sons had the enviable position as official architects to the New York City Fire Department and created sometimes opulent fire houses throughout the city. Now the Tammany Hall awarded commissions to various architectural firms. The esteemed firm of Trowbridge & Livingston was commissioned to design the new joint station of Engine Company 7 and Hook & Ladder Company No. 1.
Construction was completed a year later and the companies moved in on New Year’s Eve 1905. Trowbridge & Livingston had produced an especially handsome French Renaissance structure of red brick with heavy stone banding above a rusticated limestone base. The 75-foot wide structure featured three bay doors—two for Engine Company 7’s apparatus; and the other for Hook & Ladder No. 1. The second floor housed the two companies; while the uppermost story was reserved for municipal use, including a courthouse.
Within a week of the impressive building’s opening, on January 5, 1906, The Sun explained “Engine 7 has been made a double company, in order to afford better service in case of a fire in the dry goods district.”
Another of Chief Crocker’s solutions to high-rise fires was the “salt water high pressure system” which provided an average of 125 pounds pressure to designated hydrants and could be raised to as high as 300 pounds. The area south of 14th Street was deemed the “high pressure district.” The system was fully operational by 1908—just in time for one of the two Duane Street companies’ worst nights.
January 7, 1909 was called by the New-York Tribune “a night of fires, twelve alarms being turned in in a little more than an hour.” The first alarm came at 7:22 when fire broke out in the Lipton Tea building at Hudson and Franklin Streets. According to the newspaper there were several explosions and “the neighborhood was aroused.” By the time the firefighters arrived, the entire building was engulfed.
Thirty-five minutes after Engine Company 7 began battling the blaze, the six-story wall of the Leonard Street side of the building collapsed “with a crash that could be heard for many blocks.” Eight firefighters from Engine Company 7 narrowly escaped with their lives.
In the meantime, a heavy north wind carried “sparks and three-inch cinders” as far south as Fulton Street, setting other buildings on fire. The firefighters contended not only with the winds, but with the bitter cold and problems with the high-pressure hoses.
The Tribune reported “It was a bad night for the firemen. The intense cold coated their clothing with a layer of ice, and icicles formed on their helmets and hair. A number of fire fighters were overcome by the combination of cold and heat and were attended by ambulance and department doctors.”
At the Lipton Tea fire the high-pressure hose broke free of the hydrant twice, “bowling men over.” The Tribune said “Many narrowly escaped serious injury.”
By the time the several fires were extinguished 18 companies had responded. The new high-pressure system was applauded. “For the first time since the installation of the high pressure system its efficiency was fully tested,” reported the Tribune. “Not one engine was used in fighting the fire, and the high pressure system again proved its efficiency.”
New York City was the center of the silent film industry at the time. The American Vitagraph Company occupied the second floor of the 12-story triangular Morton Building at Nassau and Ann Streets, where it stored around 1600 reels of highly-flammable celluloid film. The material was notorious for self-igniting in certain conditions—such as when it was near the hot bulbs of the motion picture projectors.
On Sunday afternoon, July 3, 1910, Charles A. Burton was working in the office when, around 5:15, he glanced into the storage room. The New-York Tribune reported the following day “Just as he did so, one of the hundred inflammable reels in the lot blazed up. He sprang for it and rushed with it to the window, throwing it out into Ann Street. Then, with his front hair, eyebrows and mustache singed to the skin, he turned back to look at the other films. They were a mass of flames where a moment before not a spark had appeared.”
The blaze rapidly spread upwards in the building. By the time Engine Company 7 and Hook & Ladder No. 1 responded to the narrow streets around the Morton Building workers were trapped. The Tribune noted that among them were five lawyers working for the Federal Investigation Bureau on the top floor. “When they poked their heads out of the windows they could see crawling swiftly up the airshaft toward them little tongues of flames, which crackled on the window casements.”
William T. Beck of Hook & Ladder No 1 and Joseph Wood, the driver of Engine Company 7, were already on the way up the stairs to the men. “When they got to the twelfth floor these firemen had to crawl on their hands and knees, the smoke was so dense,” said the newspaper. When the lawyers were told to follow them down the burning staircase, they were at first reticent. “But firemen can be very persuasive at times, and the five were guided in safety to the open air,” assured the article.
A “spectacular blaze” earlier that year did not end so happily. Fire erupted in the “bookbinder and paper ruler” operation of S. Wainkratz on the fourth floor of No. 70 Duane Street, just a block from the fire station, on April 23. The New-York Tribune reported “By the time the firemen arrived the fourth and fifth floors…were a mass of flames.”
Engine Company 7 was the first to arrive and put up its extension ladder to the fourth floor. Seven firefighters entered the building at street level; heading upwards “to open all the iron shutters they could get to,” according to The New York Times the following day. Suddenly they were overwhelmed by a back draft. The Tribune wrote “In an effort to get away [John] Fischer [sic] was lost. Somehow he succeeded in bursting open the iron shutters on the Manhattan alley side.”
The Times described the firefighter’s struggle in dramatic terms. “As for Fisher, his run for life was full of agonizing pain. Everything around him on the third floor was blazing, and smoke closed in around him, slowly benumbing his senses. He shouted for help, but there was no one to hear him. No one will ever know how many times he fell, then struggled up, and staggered on toward a window.”
Firefighters on the ground saw Fisher at the window, his clothing on fire. They yelled to hang on just for a moment and they would turn the water on him. But the desperate man threw himself out the window to the pavement below. His skull was fractured along with several other bones.
In the crowd was Father Gilroy of St. Andrew’s Church. He pushed through and administered last rites to the dying man who everyone thought was the building’s watchman. He was so burned that not even his fellow firefighters realized it was him. At the hospital his clothing was removed. “There they found his badge and learned from that who he was,” reported The Times.
Six other firefighters of Engine Company No. 7 were treated for injuries in what the New-York Tribune called “one of the most spectacular fires in the downtown districts for some time.”
By 1913 New York City was plagued with anarchist groups like the Black Hand which used terrorism to further their causes. As is the case today, certain firefighters were trained in anti-terrorism procedures, including the detection of explosive devices. Fireman William Scofield of Engine Company 7 was responsible for inspections of public venues in the downtown district.
Around 10:30 on the night of April 11, 1913 he began his inspection of the new Jefferson Theatre at No. 214 East 14th Street. About 1,500 patrons were enjoying a “motion picture love story,” according to The Times, while a man played a “soft accompaniment” to the silent movie on the piano.
Scofield was below the auditorium. He heard a “whispering, sputtering sound” which he recognized as something burning. Searching in the shadowy basement, he found a bomb, the fuse of which was sparking and rapidly burning toward the device. There was about a six inch length of fuse left before the explosion would take place.
The Times reported “Without making any outcry Scofield dropped to one knee, picked the bomb up in his hands, and put the fuse to his mouth. His teeth closed over the short stretch of fuse left and he bit it off clean. By doing so he checked the advance of the fire upon the explosive within and thereby probably saved the theatre from destruction and those within it from death or injury.”
Scofield’s method of disarming the bomb was, perhaps, unorthodox, but effective. While the movie goers continued to enjoy the film unaware, police arrived on the scene, including Detective Carrao, a specialist in bombs. An examination of the device made the intentions of its maker clear. On the plain brown paper in which it was wrapped was written Morte, the Italian word for “death.”
The Times noted that Scofield “makes such rounds every half-hour, being one of the firemen regularly detailed to theatres.” He advised the reporter that he “bit off the fuse as a surer and safer way than tearing at it, or attempting to put it out with his fingers, for it might have been dangerous for him to have tugged at the bomb in any way.”
The members of Engine Company No. 7 and Hook & Ladder No 1 were regularly recognized for their courage and action. On June 24, 1914 Captain Patrick Walsh was awarded a medal for saving Lieutenant Schoener from “the midst of several hundred barrels of flaming gasoline,” for instance, and on May 24, 1948 Lieutenant Henry J. Hermann was cited for his “extreme bravery in risking your own life to carry from a burning and smoke-filled building an aged woman who had been overcome.”
By 1927 the companies on Duane Street were sharing the fire station with First Division Headquarters, commanded by Deputy Chief James W. Hefferman. Hefferman was not only a veteran firefighter but an engineer and inventor whose improvements to firefighting equipment were in general use. In May 1927 he received the Fire Department’s Administration Medal for yet another invention.
Fire Commissioner Dorman described it to reporters as “a powerful new revolving nozzle, composed of six small nozzles, for use in ships or cellars where smoke or flames prevent firemen from entering with their hose.” The innovative device could be lowered into the burning space and the revolving nozzle would douse the entire area without the need for firefighters entering the space.
Following the Pearl Harbor attack and the United States entrance into World War II, a new threat existed for Manhattan. On February 8, 1942 Fire Commissioner Patrick Walsh (the same Walsh who had been cited for courageous performance when here in 1914) announced that “a new type of fire apparatus…developed for wartime emergencies” had been developed. “It will be known as hose Relay Apparatus 1 and will have its headquarters at Engine 7, at 100 Duane Street.”
The “hose relay wagon” was a converted aerial ladder truck. The racks and ladders had been removed, providing space for more than a half mile of three and a half inch hose. The new apparatus had seven times the capacity of the standard hose wagon. Should water mains be disabled by enemy attack, the modified wagon would be used to relay water pumped by fireboats.
In 1956 the First Division Headquarters moved to No. 243 Lafayette Street and in May 1957 the Hook & Ladder No. 1 moved to the center bay to make way for the Fire Department Museum. As a group of firefighters pushed an old engine pumper into the building on April 30, an “irreverent passerby,” according to The Times, yelled “Get a horse!” The pumper was one of 11 pieces of antique apparatus moved into the space, including an 1810 “gooseneck” fire engine. The museum was opened here on June 17 that year and remained until 1987 when it moved to No. 278 Spring Street.
|Trowbridge & Livingston took inspiration from 17th century French architects who, in turn, had borrowed from Italian Renaissance designers.|
Hook & Ladder 1 and Engine Company 7 continued to coexist in the building throughout the rest of the 20th century. In 2001 a French filmmaker, Jules Naudet, stationed himself at No. 100 Duane Street in order to create a documentary which followed the routine of a new firefighter, known as a “probie,” during his probationary period.
On the morning of September 11 Naudet was taping Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer as he responded to a report of a gas leak. The sound of an airliner could be heard in the background. Naudet panned his camera upward just as the plane collided with the north tower of the World Trade Center.
The subsequent footage included the only known filmed documentation from inside the Trade Centers. The raw videotape was described by Times journalist Alan Feurer who said in part “It captures the radio transmissions ordering everyone down to the lobby after the second plane hits. It shows the gout of dust and rubble as the buildings suddenly collapse. It shows the booted foot of a Fire Department chaplain who is being carried through smoke and the din of screaming. It shows the faces of anxious men only minutes before they die.”
Later author David Friend in his 2006 book Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 said “Many would come to refer to Engine 7 as Lucky 7. In fire Department parlance, 100 Duane Street became the Miracle house: every one of its fifty-five firefighters—including the thirteen on duty that morning and the forty-two who rushed to assist them—escaped alive, thanks in no small measure to Joseph Pfeifer’s decisiveness.”
Pfeifer, the man whom Jules Naudet was filming with the catastrophe began, ordered fire fighters to the cleared C staircase of the north tower, saving them critical minutes in their descent and most likely saving their lives. Tragically, Pfeifer’s firefighter brother, Kevin, was lost that day.
Times reporter David W. Dunlap later noted “Everyone in the Fire Department lost incalculably on Sept. 11, 2001. The men of Engine Company 10 and Ladder Company 10 lost one thing more: their home.”
While their firehouse on Liberty Street was rebuilt, Engine 10 moved into No. 100 Duane Street where they remained until October 2003.
While many other companies were relocated throughout their existence, Ladder Company 1 and Engine Company 7 still remain in their striking 1905 firehouse. According to Paul Porcello, “Engine 7 is known as ‘The Magnificent Seven’, a reference to the western movie of the same name, based on the idea that at the time, the inside of the firehouse looked like the old west from when the department used horses to draw the apparatus. Ladder 1 is known as, "The Original One", for both being one of the first fire companies in the city, but for also being the first Tower Ladder in the FDNY in 1964.” He adds, “Together, the entire house is known as the ‘Stately Duane Manor,’ a play on the phrase ‘stately Wayne Manor’ from the old Batman TV show.”
|The bronze letters 1 LADDER 1 were added to the central bay when the company moved from the western (right) bay to make way for the Fire Museum.|
Trowbridge & Livingston’s exceptional design earned the structure landmark designation in 1993, and prompted the AIA Guide to New York City to call it “among the most impressive small-scale civic structures of the period.”
many thanks to Paul Porcello for his comprehensive knowledge and his suggestion for this post
photographs by the author
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