Archive for March, 2014

Caliph II and Mrs. Murphy

Caliph II and his mother, Mrs. Murphy, in their outdoor enclosure at the Central Park menagerie around the spring of 1908. Photo by A. W. Schaad

On the evening of December 6, 1914, the veteran night watchman at the Central Park Menagerie was making his rounds when he heard Caliph Murphy II roaring from inside the lion house. Caliph II had never roared like that before, so the loud noise caught Louis Seibold’s attention. He looked toward the lion house and saw an orange glow through the rear windows of the old wooden building.

As Seibold ran to unlock the lion house, Policeman Dodson of the Central Park police squad called Fire Department headquarters on 67th Street. He also contacted Head Keeper Bill Snyder, who in turn summoned as many zoo keepers to the scene as possible. The men knew they’d need all the help they could get if the fire got out of control and any of the 22 animals inside the burning building – a dozen lions, four leopards, one Siberian tigress, two pumas, and three hippos — lived to escape.

Lion House and Arsenal, Central Park

The fire started in the south wall (right) of the lion house, which was only about 100 feet away from the Arsenal building. Museum of the City of New York, 1875.

Approaching Caliph’s cage, Seibold could see smoke pouring from behind the wall. As the roars of the lions, tigers, and pumas intensified – they could be heard on Fifth Avenue — everyone began to worry that the animals would all burn to death if the fire got out of hand.

The first recruit on the scene was Thomas Frank Hoey, a former Barnum & Bailey trainer who had recently been promoted from zoo keeper to shepherd of the sheep that grazed in Sheep Meadow. Hoey quickly assembled the warm-weather extension cages that projected from the lion house in case they were needed for rescue efforts. He was especially concerned about young Akbar the lion, his mate, Helen, and their newborn cubs.

Lion House, Central Park menagerie


A crowd in front of the lion cages at the menagerie in Central Park, 1895. In 1914, the lion house was still lit by gas jets. Zoo employees told the press that they were always afraid of fire in the building, especially since the indoor cages were wooden (only the bars in front were metal). Museum of the City of New York, Bryon Company.

As Battalion Chief Patrick J. Graham and the firemen from Engine 39 and Ladder 16 prepared to enter the building, Seibold hooked up a standpipe hose from behind the cages and began pouring water on the fire. The firemen also began making their way to the rear of the lion house, albeit, their attempts were hampered by an aggressive puma and tigress who lashed at the men as they passed by their cages.

Sensing their fear and extraordinary danger, Caliph II, the zoo’s popular hippo, went into action.

Caliph Murphy II
Caliph II was born in the basement of the Arsenal building at the Central Park menagerie on March 6, 1908. Weighing a whopping 60 pounds at birth, he was the eighth offspring (give or take) of the renowned Miss Fatima Murphy (aka Mrs. Murphy) and her mate, the late Caliph, a jumbo hippo that died just two months before his namesake’s birth.

Mrs. Murphy, Central Park Zoo

In summer months, Mrs. Murphy, Caliph, and their offspring spent all their time outdoors.

In warm months, Mrs. Murphy and Caliph II lived in an outdoor enclosure near the primate house. But in late fall they were transferred to steam-heated tanks in what was called the bathroom suite of the south end of the lion house. According to Hoey, who spent many years as keeper of the lions and hippos, the felines were none too pleased when the hippos moved in for winter. As he once told a reporter, “They’d say, ‘Here come those fat folks in the next flat who make such a beastly noise splashing about in their bathtubs.’”

I wonder if the big cats appreciated the fact that all this splashing about is what saved their lives the night of the fire…

On that night, the 6,000-pound Caliph II was alone in his tank, which was next to the wall where the fire had started. Mrs. Murphy and her eight-month-old baby were in a separate tank next to him. Frightened and confused, Caliph began lashing about in his tank. As he frantically splashed about, the water was thrown up against the burning wall, helping to extinguish the flames.

Thirty minutes after the fire was spotted, the flames were extinguished and all the animals were safe. Although Seibold thought the fire may have started by a faulty electric wire outside the building, others thought it may have started from a lighted pipe left in a worker’s overalls in Caliph’s cage.

The Makeshift Menagerie and Police Station at Central Park

The impromptu menagerie began around 1862 in the basement of the Arsenal building near the south-east section of the park, and in small cages outside the building. The new Central Park police squad and stables were also housed in the Arsenal building.

According to John W. Smith, former director of the Central Park menagerie, the first animals to share this space with the policemen were a small black bear, a pair of Kerry cows from Ireland, seven Virginian deer, and a few monkeys, raccoons, foxes, opossums, ducks, swans, pelicans, eagles, and parrots.

Central Park Arsenal

The Arsenal was built between 1847 and 1851 as a storehouse for arms and ammunition for the New York State Militia. The building and surrounding 10 acres was purchased by the city in 1856 for $275,000 as part of the new 843-acre Central Park. Although Parks Commissioner Cabot Ward ordered the vine-covered Arsenal torn down in 1915, the building still stands, and now houses the offices of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Central Park Wildlife Conservation Center.

There was also a small enclosure on the Mall near the Casino restaurant (formerly the Ladies’ Refreshment Saloon; today the Rumsey Playfield and SummerStage) where some of the smaller animals and birds were exhibited on weekends (the poor little bear would be chained to a tree).

In early years, animal trainers and circus men like P.T. Barnum used the Arsenal as a storehouse for their surplus stock. They also offered animals to the zoo in winter months so they wouldn’t have to care for them during the off-season. The problem with this arrangement was that the circus men could take their animals away whenever they pleased – the animals did not belong to the city.

The Arsenal was also not well suited for a menagerie — let alone a police department — as noted in this Department of Parks building report for 1871:

“A limited space of the first story of this building was occupied by a number of clerks. A small part of the basement (damp and unsuitable as it was) was used by the Central Park Police. The whole building was offensively objectionable. Various animals were confined in the basement and on the first floor, with their cages in a state of great insecurity and danger. There had been no extra ventilation furnished to this building from the time it had been used as an Arsenal, and its unwholesome condition was apparent to sight and smell.”

In 1882, the menagerie was recognized by the Board of Apportionment, which appropriated $15,000 annually for feeding the animals and making repairs. Even though this doubled to $30,000 in 1888, it was still not enough money to obtain permanent animals.

Mr. Crowley, Central Park Zoo

In 1888, $30,000 a year was barely enough to feed all the transient animals, which now included a rhino, hippopotamus, elephant, tigers, leopards, jaguars, pumas, hyenas, and a monkey named Mr. Crowley.

Mr. Smith Goes to Central Park

In 1892, following the forced resignation of menagerie superintendent William A. Conklin, New York City appointed John W. Smith to the position of menagerie director. Smith, a former superintendent and acting president of the Second Avenue Railroad Company, acquired most of his animal knowledge with the railroad, where he was responsible for overseeing the care of the horse car line’s 2,000 horses.

John Smith’s goal was to procure permanent animals at no cost to the city, in order to create a year-round exhibit of excellent animals. He also wanted to build more animal houses, replace the dirt paths with fine paved walkways, and replace the rotting wooden fences with iron ones.

John W. Smith, Central Park menagerie director

In 1912, at the age of 73, John W. Smith took his very first vacation since joining the zoo twenty years earlier. The Evening Telegram, January 7, 1912

John was able to achieve all these goals by breeding animals and then selling or trading them with other zoos. One of the most successful animals in the breeding program was Miss Fatima Murphy, a nine-year old hippo from Natal, South Africa, who arrived in the U.S. in 1880 via ship from Hamburg (she had been captured by a group of men who worked for Carl Hagenback, world-famous animal trainer of the renowned menagerie in Berlin).

Mr. Smith and Miss Murphy Build a Zoo

By 1892, Miss Murphy was already “married” to a large Nubian hippo named Caliph Pretzelstein, who was purchased from the Zoological Gardens of Cincinnati for $5,000 in the spring of 1888 (he was also captured by Hagenback’s men on the Nile River). The couple had their first baby on December 2, 1889, which Conklin and the zoo keepers named McGinty Murphy (if it were a girl, they were going to name her Mary Ellen Ryan Murphy). John Smith made a deal with Hagenback to trade McGinty – and any subsequent baby hippos – for many less valuable but equally desirable animals.

Over the years, Mrs. Murphy and Caliph had about ten offspring (not all survived), including Lotus, Congo, Fatima, Iris, Heimey, Lulu, Sirius, Peter the Great, and Caliph II. Each hippo sold for about $5,000, which is how a small makeshift menagerie turned into a large permanent zoo.

The Origins of Political Correctness?

On April 11, 1893, The New York Times published a letter from an Irish-American who complained about the zoo’s practice of giving Irish names like Bridget and Patrick to all the monkeys, hyenas, rhinos, and hippos. That night, representatives from many Irish societies held a meeting at Ledwith Hall on 45th Street and Third Avenue to discuss the letter.

Thomas Francis Gilroy, the 89th mayor of New York City

Thomas Francis Gilroy, the 89th mayor of New York City, said he thought it was a religious sacrilege to name the zoo animals after Catholic saints.

The Times interviewed several prominent New York City men of Irish descent, including Irish-born Mayor Thomas Francis Gilroy, retired Judge Morgan J. O’Brien, and renowned circus man James A. Bailey. All three men said they agreed that giving the zoo animals Irish names was offensive.

Former New York State Supreme Court Judge Morgan J. O’Brien

Former New York State Supreme Court Judge Morgan J. O’Brien said giving animals Irish names was in very poor taste.

Judge O’Brien told the Times that he “regarded it as a disgrace to the American people that such bigotry and intolerance should be manifested by the officials of the zoo”, and he was pleased the newspaper was finally calling attention to the injustice. James Bailey said, “I do not think it is in good taste to give honored Irish family names to the repulsive –looking animals in the Central Park menagerie.”

New York City Board of Parks Commissioners President Paul Dana responded that the zoo neither officially named the animals nor prohibited the nicknames used by the keepers and the New York press. He explained that most of the keepers that gave names to the animals were Irishmen; for example, he said Mrs. Murphy was named by an Irishman named McGurty.

Perhaps McGurty was once scorned by a woman named Miss Murphy and this was his revenge, Dana suggested. Other board members suggested the news reporters were responsible for creating and publicizing the names, and should therefore be more creative by using names of all nationalities, like Hans, Francois, and Alfonse.

Pressured into action by all the media attention, John Smith agreed that no distinctive Irish names would be applied to any of the animals. Two days after the letter was published in the Times, he ordered all the keepers to drop the offensive Irish nicknames. From now on, they’d have to stick to names like Tom, Dick, and Harry. Mrs. Fatima Murphy, however, was allowed to keep her Irish surname.

Lion House, Central Park

The old wooden lion house of the Central Park menagerie was in the process of being torn down when this photo was taken in 1934. New York City Municipal Archives, No. 982

The End of the Murphy Legacy

On April 28, 1929, Mrs. Murphy passed away. Her body was taken to the American Museum of Natural History, where it was modeled and put on display in the Old World Mammal Hall next to a model of her late husband Caliph.

Five years after her death, the menagerie was completely remodeled, and all the old wooden buildings were torn down to make way for a brand-new brick and limestone “picture-book” zoo. Sadly, Caliph II, the last of the Central Park Murphy clan, never really got to enjoy his new home. On January 8, 1935, only a month after the zoo reopened, he was found dead in his new 15-foot-deep indoor pool in the lion house. He did leave a widow, Rosie, but it’s not known if she was liberated or had taken his last name.

The last of the Murphy hippos to pass on was Peter the Great, who died at the Bronx Zoo on February 1, 1953, at the age of 49.

The last of the Murphy family hippos to pass on was Peter the Great, who died at the Bronx Zoo on February 1, 1953, at the age of 49.

Central Park, 1880

On the border of Central Park, circa 1880. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, Image ID: 805713

The following story is dedicated in memory of the eight people who died in a building collapse in East Harlem, when a leak in a natural gas pipeline laid in 1887 exploded on March 10, 2014.

If you’ve read Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” you may recall her describing “the one-story saloons, the wooden greenhouses in ragged gardens, the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene” near Mrs. Manson Mingott’s white marble row house on Fifth Avenue.

Edith Wharton House

The white marble row house built by Edith Wharton’s great-aunt Mary Mason Jones, looking south from 58th Street in 1899. Photo: Office for Metropolitan History

Although the novel is fiction, much of the story is based on Edith’s own life and experiences in old New York. Mrs. Mingott’s house was based on the real home that Edith’s great-aunt Mary Mason Jones built in 1899. The wooden structures, rocks and goats were also very real in the 1800s.

Walking through the streets of New York City today, it’s hard to believe that only 100 years ago Upper Manhattan was sparsely developed, save for some rickety shantytowns where squatters of mostly Irish or Italian descent lived among the communal goats and chickens.

To be sure, there were a few luxury apartment buildings and tenements here and there – the Dakota at 72nd Street among the most notable – but they were few and far between.

The Dakota, 1889

This illustration of the Dakota at 72nd Street from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Paper, September 7, 1889, depicts the typical squatters’ shantytown of the Upper West Side.

The Goats of Harlem

During the 1800s, the Upper West Side of Manhattan from about 59th Street to Harlem was known as Goat Town or Goatville. Before the extension of the Eighth Avenue elevated railroad prompted new housing construction above Central Park, there was an estimated 15,000 goats in Goat Town.

There were also many goats roaming free on the Upper East Side, especially before some well-to-do residents of Yorkville and East Harlem formed the Anti-Goat Protective Association to expel the goats in 1884.

Eighth Avenue El, late 1800s

The Eighth Avenue elevated railroad, probably just north of 116th Street. As farmers sold their land, the lots were raised to the new street level.

Although most of Harlem’s goats received bad press for creating a nuisance – like entering a parlor window and devouring wall hangings or trampling flower gardens — the goats in the following story helped the police solve a crime.

Harlem Map, First Avenue

The Harlem Market Company leased 14 acres between 102nd and 103rd Street, First Avenue, and the East River. Existing buildings were converted to booths and new sheds (blue) were constructed to shelter the horse teams.


The Thieves of the Harlem Market

The Harlem Market, one of the greatest open-air markets of its time, was started by a group of men who wanted to provide a wholesale market for small tradesmen and farmers from Westchester County and Long Island. The men, led by M. Michael, J. Wulfhop, E. Williams, and H.C. Koster, established the Harlem Market Company in 1891 with a capital stock of $50,000.

Harlem Market

The Harlem Market during the transition from horse-drawn wagons (bottom left) to motorized trucks. New York Public Library, Image ID: 416550

All along First Avenue, blacksmiths and wagon repairmen opened shops to provide new shoes for the horses and fix carriages that suffered damages making the long journey from the farms to the market. Hotels and saloons also sprang up to provide services for the farmers. Hundreds of wagons arrived each day, many of them via steam ferry from College Point, Queens, to 99th Street or the new (1894) Public Services ferry from Edgewater, NJ, to 125th Street.

On November 20, 1897, two men from East 70th Street decided to try their luck at the Harlem Market, which was packed that Friday morning with wholesale wagons and retail push-carts. They loaded their light wagon with some stolen produce, including a crate of onions, a box of oranges, and a basket of string beans. Unbeknownst to them, however, the basket of beans had a hole in it.

Bicycle Policeman Daniel J. Fogarty

Bicycle Policeman Daniel J. Fogarty of the East 104th Street police station.

When the owners discovered the loss shortly thereafter, they summoned Bicycle Policeman Fogarty. There was no good description of the thieves, so where was he to begin? Perhaps the procession of goats following a trail of beans on the ground held the answer.

Fogarty followed the goats, which led him to the first thief, Joseph Abrams, 26. While the owner was identifying his produce, Abraham Yansky, 22, began to protest the arrest. The victim identified Yansky as Abrams’ accomplice, and he was also arrested. Both men were brought to the Harlem Police Court and held for trial on what was then a pretty stiff bail for stealing some fruit — $200.

Harlem Court House

The Harlem Courthouse at 170 East 121st Street and Sylvan Place was designed by Arthur M. Thom and James W. Wilson and completed in 1893. The brick, brownstone, bluestone, granite and terra-cotta building was built for the Municipal and Magistrate’s Courts, and included the Fifth District Prison. Today the landmark building is occupied by the Harlem Community Justice Center.

The Superhero of East Harlem

Although this story was originally going to be a quick and silly one about some goats, as I dug deeper into the career of Bicycle Policeman Daniel Fogarty, the story got longer – but much more amazing.

During his early career, Policeman Daniel Fogarty was stationed at the East 104th Street police station, which had jurisdiction from East 96th Street to East 116th Street, and from Central Park (and from Sixth Avenue above 110th Street) to the East River, as well as Ward’s Island. It turns out that Policeman Fogarty was a real superhero of East Harlem, a sort of Batman on two wheels in the late 19th century.

The 28th Police Precinct Station House

The 28th Police Precinct Station House was located at 177 East 104th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. The five-story station house, which had a two-story prison and lodging house in the rear of the lot, was designed by renowned NYPD architect Nathaniel D. Bush and completed in 1893. It opened on June 28, 1893, and closed in 1974 (then the 23rd Precinct).

The New York press loved writing about his courageous adventures, whether he was being dragged along the ground while trying to stop runaway horses, jumping into the ice-cold river to save drowning victims, or pulling children from harm’s way in the nick of time.

Sergeant Daniel J. Fogarty

In his 19 years of service, Policeman Fogarty won eight life-saving medals, including a gold medal from Congress for saving a man in the Harlem River. As a friend once told the press, Fogarty had “enough medals to make the German Emperor look like a bloomin’ civilian.”

Here’s just a brief summary of some of his more daring rescues:

January 1896:
Just three months after leaving the postal service to join the police department, Policeman Fogarty rescued a Roman Catholic priest who had fallen from a pier into the icy Harlem River. Shortly after this incident, he jumped into the East River to save Johnnie Crowe, a little boy who had fallen from his mother’s lap into the East River at the Peck Slip pier. The strong current carried them to the Brooklyn Bridge, where a tugboat picked them up.

West Farms trolley car

While riding on a West Farms trolley car (like seen here) in July 1896, Policeman Fogarty saw James Harvey fall into the Harlem River. He jumped from the moving trolley, dove off the old Harlem Bridge, and swam 150 feet to rescue Harvey. Fogarty lost two revolvers in the river. (Anyone want to go scuba diving in the Harlem River?)

January 1898:
While cycling down First Avenue around 11 p.m., Daniel heard cries for help coming from the river near 98th Street. He blew his whistle for help, charged into the icy water – striking his leg on a spike – and attempted to rescue William O’Toole, a fireman on the steamship Saratoga who had probably been drinking at Gregory Moser’s barroom. Hearing the struggle, Policemen Darrow and Maguire ambushed the No. 19 horse car and grabbed the reins from the driver’s hands. With some help from a few passengers, they were able to use the cut reins to pull the men from the river.

Asked by a reporter why he thought it was okay for a bicycle policeman to rescue a sailor from the river, Daniel said his book of rules wasn’t handy, so he just guessed it was the right thing to do.

May 1899:
Seeing a wild mustang charging up First Avenue, Fogarty took to the chase. Cheered on by hundreds of spectators, he gained on the horse and caught a rope attached to its halter. He was forced to drop the rope at 101st Street in order to save a small boy who stood in their path. According to the story, Fogarty leaned over his bike, picked up the boy by his collar, and carried him out of harm’s way. Without missing a beat, he continued chasing the horse until he caught him again at 106th Street. The horse was taken to the police stables on East 104th Street.

Father of the Police Drama
When he wasn’t saving women, children, and drunken men, Fogarty was busy volunteering as the first drum major and leader of the new Police Band, which he helped organize in 1903. He also wrote police dramas, which were performed for the benefit of the department relief fund.

In 1905, Fogarty wrote an article suggesting that a film be made on the life of a New York City policeman. He was immediately approached by Frederick Freeman Proctor (F.F. Proctor’s Enterprises), a theatre and vaudeville circuit manager. Commissioner William McAdoo liked the idea of including the New York Police in movie scripts, and so paved the way for the myriad of police movies and TV shows.

2585 Marion Avenue in the Fordham section of the Bronx, Fogarty residence

According to the 1920 census, Daniel Fogarty and his wife, Anna, lived in this circa 1901 two-story frame house at 2585 Marion Avenue in the Fordham section of the Bronx with their children Harriet, Harry, Gertrude and Anna. Prior to living here, the family lived on Webster Avenue and then at 375 East 199th Street in the Bronx.

Sergeant Fogarty and Colonel John Jacob Astor IV
In addition to the heroics, Daniel Fogarty was one of the first organizers of the department’s Widows’ and Orphans Relief Fund. As the leader of the Police Band, he thought it would be a good idea for the band to raise money for the wives and families of policemen who were injured or killed in the line of duty.

It was while working with Commissioner McAdoo on this initiative that Fogarty met Colonel John Jacob Astor. Not only did Astor assist in creating the fund, but he also worked with Fogarty to help form the Honor Legion of the Police Department, which was composed of men who rendered distinguished service in time of great danger.
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Vincent Astor

After his father, John Jacob Astor IV, went down with the Titanic, 20-year-old Vincent Astor inherited a massive fortune. The richest boy in the world made headlines when he sold off the family’s slum housing and reinvested in reputable enterprises to help the less fortunate.

When Astor died on the Titanic in 1911, his son Vincent Astor took his place on the fund. Shortly after Sergeant Fogarty retired due to a heart condition in July 1914 (he was then stationed at the East 51st Street Station), Vincent presented him with a $20,000 building on land belonging to the Astor estate at 149th Street and 8th Avenue. Daniel, his wife, Anna, and son Harry opened the Screen Theater – what was then called a “moving picture theater” — in October 1914.

Sergeant Daniel J. Fogarty

The highly decorated Sergeant Daniel J. Fogarty retired in July 1914 due to a heart condition.

By 1920, Daniel Fogarty was fully retired and had turned the theater business over to his son. He died at home in the Bronx on August 13, 1921. By that time, the goats, the squatters, and the shanties were gone, too.

Today, the land once occupied by the thriving Harlem Market, where Policeman Fogarty fought crime and saved lives on his bicycle, is occupied by the East River Houses, a large public housing development completed in 1941. The former 104th Street Station is still standing, only now it’s owned by Hope Community, Inc., a non-profit housing organization founded in 1968 to “develop, revitalize and beautify East Harlem.”

The following story is dedicated to the six firefighters of Squad 252 in Brooklyn, NY, who lost their lives at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Peter the cat of Engine 152, Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Peter was featured in an article titled “Horses, Dogs and Cats Make Good Firemen” in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 20, 1913.

I’ve never known a cat to be very fond of fires and fire trucks – albeit, my cat Boo does love to climb ladders and bake in front of the fireplace — but old New York certainly had its share of feline fire department mascots.

Although cats were generally considered to be poor firefighters, at least a few tried their paws at climbing ladders and sliding down the poles. One special cat in Brooklyn even enjoyed going to fires.

In the old days (1800s and early 1900s), the Fire Department of New York allowed the firemen to keep one dog, one cat, and singing birds in their firehouse (apparently there was no limit on the singing birds). These animals, in addition to the horses that pulled the apparatus, provided companionship for the men, who were often required to stay at their firehouses for more than a week at a time with only a few hours off.

Sometime around 1905, a little orange tabby cat arrived at the new firehouse of Engine Company No. 152 in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. No one knows how he arrived at 617 Central Avenue, but by 1913 he was a favorite mascot of the firefighters and a very popular cat in the neighborhood.

During his active years, Peter’s greatest skill was sliding down the pole in the firehouse. According to the firefighters who spoke to a reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 30, 1913, he could make the descent from the third-floor sitting room to the ground floor in three seconds. (The following video of another pole-sliding cat in about 1964 will give you a good idea of what Peter did.)

At the first sound of an alarm, Peter would dash from the second-floor sleeping room to the pole, and, with a flying leap, throw his paws about it and slide down. Then with one leap he would land on the driver’s seat of the 1907 Rech-Marbaker hose wagon. The firemen said he always seemed very proud to be the first member ready for action.

Rech-Marbaker Hose Wagon, FDNY, 1907

Peter enjoyed riding shotgun on the company’s hose wagon, which was delivered to Engine 152 in 1907. Here is a picture of a New York City Fire Department hose wagon built by Rech-Marbaker Company (Carriage Monthly, April 1907).

Peter joined the men on every call, and — although I find these hard to believe — would even follow them up the ladder as far as possible, until the smoke and flames drove him back. One day Peter took a bad fall from the ladder and had to go on sick leave. After that incident, he stopped going on calls. Although Peter would still slide down the pole and leap onto the driver’s seat, he’d jump off the engine before it took off (with consent from Captain Henry B. Burtis, of course).

Since Engine Company No. 152 didn’t switch from a horse-drawn wagon to a motorized American LaFrance pumper until May 26, 1919, Peter spent his retirement years resting with the horses. He also continued to perform his tricks for people who came to the firehouse to visit the legendary fire cat.

1897 ¬– 1998: From Engine 52 to Squad 252

When Peter’s engine company first went into service on April 1, 1897, it was called Engine 52. This new engine company was led by Foreman Edward Eichhorn and Assistant Foreman Louis Hauck. On January 1, 1898, the City of Brooklyn was incorporated into the five boroughs of New York City. The engine company officially became part of the FDNY on January 28, 1898, and about two years later, was renumbered to Engine 152 to avoid confusion with Engine 52 in the Bronx.

In 1913, the Fire Commissioner added 26 new companies in Brooklyn and Queens. At this time, engine companies in these two boroughs were given the prefix 2, so Engine 152 became Engine 252. One hundred years after it became part of the FDNY, Engine 252 was reorganized as Squad 252 and assigned to the Special Operations Command, which consists of seven squad companies, five rescue companies, a hazardous materials unit, and three marine companies.

617 Central Avenue Brooklyn

The firehouse was built by Leonard Brothers and went into service on April 1, 1897. Today it is home to Squad 252.

The Firehouse at 617 Central Avenue

Before there was a firehouse on Central Avenue in Bushwick, there was farm land owned by William Van Voorhis, and later, when he died, by Augustus Ivins. In fact, the entire area was divided into a series of relatively small plots owned by farming families, including the Chauncey, Cooper, Covert, Moffat, and Schaeffer lands.

From Real Estate Owned by the City of New York, January 1, 1908.

From Real Estate Owned by the City of New York, January 1, 1908.

On December 20, 1895, the Fire Department purchased a 25 x 100 foot lot from Mary L. Mintonge for $2,400.00. (Mrs. Mintonge was superintendent of a small school called the Women’s Christian Temperance Union No. 5 at Hooper and Harrison Avenue.) The three-story Flemish revival firehouse was designed by the renowned Parfitt Brothers — Walter E., Henry D., and Albert E. The English immigrant brothers designed one of the finest firehouses ever erected in Brooklyn, with a prominent scrolled front gable and stepped end gables that alluded to the 17-century Dutch settlement of Bushwick.

New York Public Library, Image ID: 1517513

This map from 1888-89 shows that the brick firehouse (near #3439) stood alone on its block, surrounded by mostly wooden structures, including some stables. A few brick tenements also appear on Cooper Street. The only other nearby brick buildings were Public School No. 74 and Public School No. 85, both on Evergreen Street. New York Public Library, Image ID: 1517513

The brick and Lake Superior red sandstone building featured room for the apparatus and horses on the ground floor; the foreman’s office; a sleeping room for the foreman and his assistant; a sleeping room for the firefighters on the second story; a sitting room on the third floor with a combination billiard/pool table; and a rooftop garden.

In early days, the firemen could feel breezes from the ocean as they relaxed in the garden. By 1908 their view was obstructed, but the men still enjoyed the garden on hot summer nights. Sometimes they detected fires from atop the roof before the alarm was called in to the Fire Department. Knowing cats as well as I do, I’m sure Peter also took many cat naps on the roof during his active and retirement years.

Bushwick firehouse Engine 152

The pièce de résistance of the Bushwick firehouse was a rooftop garden for the firemen’s leisure time between alarms. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 26, 1908

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
On September 11, 2001, Squad 252 responded to the 5th alarm call to the World Trade Center. Six of Squad 252’s members on duty that morning made the ultimate sacrifice and never returned: Lieutenant Timothy Higgins, Firefighter Tarel Coleman, Firefighter Pete Langone, Firefighter Pat Lyons, Firefighter Tommy Kuveikis and Firefighter Kevin Prior.