A History of Mutual Aid

Dateline: 1835 -- Overcoming Incredible Odds, Philadelphia Volunteer Firefighters Provide Assistance to the City of New York

In December of 1835, the New York volunteer firefighters battled several fires in as many days. On Wednesday, the 16th, the alarm bells sounded once more and the firemen went out into the frigid weather. With thermometers registering seventeen degrees below zero, rivers and hydrants were frozen. Boiling water was used to open the hydrants. Holes were chopped in the river and hoses were inserted into them. The engines froze solid unless they were pumped constantly. The streams of water instantly became ice particles. Strong, gale force winds blew the water back onto the firemen creating icicles on their helmets and turning their coats into sheets of ice. The fire quickly swallowed the buildings. Troops detonated dynamite in an effort to produce firebreaks.

Flames could be seen in Philadelphia from Independence Hall tower. The valiant, but exhausted New York firefighters could not control the blaze. Mayor Cornelius Lawrence dispatched riders to request manpower and equipment from Newark, Philadelphia and nearby cities.

Philadelphia sent 400 volunteers. J. B. Harrison of Franklin Fire Company No. 12 recorded the amazing struggle the men undertook to reach the burning city:
“There were twenty-three of us on the drag lines. We headed for the Walnut Street wharf to get on a boat to cross the river to Camden. We were going to put the engine on a train there. The Delaware River was filled with huge ice flows, making it impossible to take a ship across. For most of the 400 volunteers, this was the end of the line.”

The Franklin Company and the Northern Liberties Hose Company persisted. Their plan was to drag their engines along another route to get on the train. When they arrived the tracks were ice covered and the trains were not running.

The Philadelphians decided to travel by foot. The engine of Franklin’s company weighed nearly 3 tons and was difficult to maneuver. Early Friday morning the men hired a horse to pull the engine but the horse only managed to last for several miles but the firemen continued on their journey.

Finally, early Sunday morning the firemen entered the city of New York. By now, the fire was under control. James Gulick, the New York fire chief, sent the Philadelphia firefighters to rest in a hotel. The men from Philadelphia would assist in mopping up hot spots Sunday evening and Monday.

The fire destroyed 674 buildings at an 1835 estimate of $20,000,000 to $40,000,000. But the New Yorkers treated the Philadelphia firemen as heroes. Collins quotes Harrison: “We went to look over the ruins of the fire and people everywhere wanted to do a kind act for us. I bought a few things when we were ready to come home and when I laid the money down for them it was refused. The merchants said we were welcome to take anything we wanted and they would not accept money for anything.”

The return trip to Philadelphia was made by boat and the mayor of New York ordered his volunteers to escort the Pennsylvanians home. The New York firemen later had an opportunity to visit the city of Philadelphia and thank them for their assistance.

Collins, Donald. Our Volunteer Firemen, 1736-1882. Ephrata, PA: Science Press, 1982.
Ditzel, Paul C. Fire Engines, Firefighters: the Men, Equipment, and Machines, from Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Crown, 1976.