Long Island City fire companies, which were initially volunteer units that were both organized and run haphazardly, were spirited groups that often fought each other as much as the fire. This eyewitness account, from March 1883, vividly describes fire fighting – Long Island City style!
On Saturday the 10th, there was a conflagration at the Sunswick Mills (an oil cloth factory) near Broadway. A number of companies responded: Tiger Hose No. 8, Mohawk Hose No. 1, Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, Protection Engine Company No. 2, Steinway Hose Company No. 7, Jackson Engine Company No. 1. Jackson, Jackson Hose, Empire Hose and Hunter Engine, Jackson Engine. Fighting another fire, was delayed.
The water mains did not run along the streets near the Mills, so the firemen tried to draw water from McAlloney’s pond (which was near 21st Street). Despite warnings to the contrary, the Jackson men drove their engine onto the iced-over pond. Immediately the engine was submerged up to her bed plate. It required nearly 100 men to pull the vehicle from the icy muck.
From the beginning, it had been apparent that the building would be a total loss. Within an hour the roof had fallen in, but flames continued to flicker in the debris. The owners of the factory promised to rebuild, but some thirty or forty people were thrown out of work. The firemen then spent time ensuring that nearby buildings did not catch fire too.
The Assistant Chief Engineer ordered the firemen to “pick up” and return to their houses. As the men were gathering up their hoses to leave, a dispute arose between Tiger Hose and the Jackson crews regarding a length of hose. The Jacksons claimed that Tiger Hose had stolen it from them some time ago and placed their name on it. The Assistant Chief was called to settle the matter, but became embroiled in the argument himself. Whereupon, he issued an order: “Well, you had better fight for it, and let the best man win.” Then, evidently regretting his remark, he ordered Jackson to take the hose even though Tiger had brought it to the fire.
While the firemen were bickering the smoldering ruins ignited again, and an alarm for the fire companies was sounded a second time. As the engines pumped water on the smoldering ruins, the Hook and Ladder Company pulled down the tottering walls.
During the second visit, which lasted into the night, while two engines (Jackson and Protection) were pumping, the men in charge of the butts (which directed the water stream) kept turning the nozzles heavenwards to see which engine could pump the highest stream. As the Long Island Star put it: “The act was a wanton waste of time and a total disregard of the necessity of throwing water on the fire.” An order from the Assistant Chief Engineer to “keep the butts down” went unheeded.
Near the end of this exhibition, the Assistant Chief, responding to the demands of the Jackson men, himself took the butt of that engine, held it aloft, and played a stream at the stars.