(This is not Ginger)
In a recent post, I wrote about Ginger, a well-loved fire dog for Hook and Ladder Co. No. 5 of New York’s Metropolitan Fire Department. So many people enjoyed this story — especially my fellow volunteer firefighters and EMS workers – so I started digging more into the history of fire dogs in New York City. While reading through some old news articles in The New York Times, I came across a story with a feline twist.
In 1894, an orange tabby cat strolled into the firehouse at 437 E. Houston Street on the Lower East Side, in an area that is now known as Alphabet City. The firehouse was the headquarters for the Metropolitan Steam-Engine Company No. 11, which served the Fifth and Sixth Districts. In the late 19th century, these districts were some of the worst slum areas in the city and home to many Eastern European Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants.
This really is Ginger (New York Times, October 17, 1897)
Three years later, the cat named Ginger had mastered several tricks, including sliding down the brass pole and “boxing” with her trainers — firemen William Lennon and Gus Shaw — while standing on her haunches. Although Ginger was smart enough to stay behind when the men went on fire calls, she did earn the title of firehouse mascot and capture the attention of The New York Times.
Live Oak Engine Company No. 44 – “Turk”
Metropolitan Steam-Engine Company No. 11 was organized on November 2, 1865. It was one of 34 engine companies organized that year under a state act titled “An Act to Create a Metropolitan Fire District.” This bill, passed into law on March 30, 1865, abolished New York’s volunteer fire department and created the Metropolitan Fire District, a Board of Commissioners, and the Metropolitan Fire Department (MFD).
Prior to the transition from volunteer to paid service in 1865, Engine Company No. 11 was known as Live Oak Engine Company 44. The volunteer fire company was organized August 2, 1824, by the master shipbuilders of the Dry Dock, which was the shipyard district that extended along the East River from Grand Street to 12th Street. The motto of Live Oak was “We Extinguish One Flame, and Cherish Another.”
This 1816 hand pump goose-neck pumper was the type of apparatus Live Oak used in its early years. (The company was always opposed to steam engines in the Fire Department, and fought hard against their introduction.) This was probably one of the first hand pumpers built by James Smith of New York City. Photo by P. Gavan
The Great Shipyard Fire
In the early 1800s, Adam and Noah Brown operated a shipyard at the foot of Stanton Street on the East River. By 1824, Brown & Bell, who were renown for constructing clipper ships and steam vessels, were also operating in this vicinity, as was Issac Webb & Company.
On March 14, 1824, at about five in the morning, a fire was discovered in Noah Brown’s steam sawmill. The fire quickly spread, destroying the mill and large ship house of Brown & Bell. In the ship house were two steamboats, including the Hudson, which was being built for K.M. Livingston and almost ready to launch. Also destroyed were two brigs and a large quantity of live oak ship timber. The flames then extended to the adjoining shipyard of Isaac Webb & Co., where a frame building and ship timber were consumed.
Engine Company No. 33, “Black Joke,” which was led by foreman James P. Allaire and located at the north end of Cherry Street between Jackson Street and Corlears Street (near present-day Corlears Hook Park), was cut off from the shore end of the shipyard by the sudden spread of the fire. Before the firemen could remove their engine from the scene, it caught fire and was completely destroyed. Several of the firemen were caught between the fire engine and the end of the dock – four of them jumped into the river but were rescued by boats from the shore.
Clipper shipwright Jacob Bell was one of the first organizers of the Live Oak volunteer fire company. Bell and his partner, David Brown, were proprietors of Brown & Bell, a shipyard located at the base of Stanton Street and destroyed by fire in 1824.
This grand fire led to the formation of Live Oak No. 44, which was organized by Jacob Bell, Isaac Webb (foreman), John Demon, Edward Merritt, and Foster Rhodes. The company ran independent of the New York Fire Department for about four years and operated out of a small frame house that the members built themselves on Columbia Street near Houston Street.
At that time the river was almost up to what was then Goerck Street – just three blocks east of Columbia – so the firemen were very close to the shipyards.
In about 1828, Live Oak received the number 44 from the Fire Department, and had a one-story brick firehouse with peaked roof built on Houston Street, about 100 feet west of then Lewis Street (near present-day Baruch Drive and the Island School, PS/MS 188.) On November 12, 1850, the city purchased a 25 x 180 foot lot on East Houston Street between Columbia and Cannon streets from Jonathan Rider. Live Oak moved its firehouse to this location in 1853, where the company — volunteer and paid — remained for about 100 years.
New York shipbuilder William Henry Webb, son of Live Oak foreman Isaac Webb, often ran with the volunteer engine company. In 1840, Webb inherited his father’s shipyard on the East River — Webb & Allen — renamed it William H. Webb, and turned it into America’s most prolific shipyard, building 133 vessels between 1840 and 1865.
As the story goes, in 1830 renowned shipbuilder Henry Eckford took some ship carpenters, including a group from Live Oak, to Constantinople to work on a contract he had there. Eckford died shortly after arriving in Turkey, but the men continued the project and were called “Turks” when they returned to New York. The name stuck with the fire company — the men even carved two Turks standing upright and wearing sabers on their goose-neck hand pump engine.
The Transition to Engine Company 11
At the time of the transition in 1865, Live Oak owned one hand engine, one jumper, 13 lengths of hose, three ropes, one hose washer, three lanterns, two lengths of suction, three cans, three pails, three mops, and a few other odd items – all of which was turned over to New York City.
According to the 1865 Annual Report of Chief Engineer of Fire Department, Live Oak Engine Co. 44 had 50 members in 1865, 10 of whom claimed to reside at the firehouse, including Foreman William F. Squires and Assistant Foreman Peter Maloney. By this time the volunteers were of various nationalities and professions, including clerks, gunsmiths, ship carpenters, blacksmiths, barbers, and printers.
1939 Mack Hose Wagon of Engine Company No. 11
In 1897, when Ginger the cat was making her home at the East Houston Street firehouse, Engine Company 11 consisted of the following 12 members: foreman Thomas R. Kane; assistant foreman Fred. J. Rothenhausler; engineers James H. Frederick and Charles S. McArthur; firemen (1st grade) Edward F. Haulton, Gustav Shaw, Henry Decker, William J. Lennon, James P. Judge, and Edward F. Birmingham; and firemen (2nd grade) Eugene Silverman and Henry Planson.
1904: The Fatal Tenement Fire on Attorney Street
Although Engine Company 11 fought its share of major fires – none of which Ginger the cat ever attended –one of the worst fires I came across was a fatal tenement fire at 164 Attorney Street on September 4, 1904. Several firemen from Engine Company 11 were injured in this horrific fire that killed at least 14 people – mostly women and children.
The 2:45 a.m. fire in the five-story tenement building also left about a dozen people severely injured with burns and internal injuries from jumping from fire escapes, including firemen John Adamosky, William Benisch, John White, and Bernard Ligenmuyer, all of Company 11, and Philip Hublitz of Truck 18, which was located on Attorney Street.
According to the news report, a contractor making alterations to the building had taken down the iron ladders connecting the fire escape balconies from the third floor down, both on the front and back of the building. The injured firemen had all gone to the back of the building to help rescue the “fear-crazed people” packing the fire escapes. One of the fire escapes began to sag with all the weight and crashed to the ground, crushing fireman Adamosky under the debris. Hublitz and Benisch also fell, but were fortunate enough to fall on a feather mattress.
All of the firemen were treated at Gouverneur Hospital; several victims were also sent to Bellevue Hospital. Adamosky, who had just been appointed to the company on July 1, 1904, was not expected to live and was given Last Rites at the hospital. This ca. 1902 photo shows the Gourverneur Hospital ambulance.
The dead and injured included members of the Eichler, Feurberg, Kirschner, Kurz, Miller, Zwirn, and Kromeiner families, with victims ranging in age from 3 months to 48 years old. Fifth-floor residents Mrs. Sadie Feurberg and all 3 of her children were killed in the blaze, as were Mrs. Yetta Miller and all 4 of her children. Their husbands, like many other men who lived in the building, had been sleeping on the roof that hot night, and were able to escape by jumping to the roofs of adjoining buildings.
Following the fire, three men were arrested and charged with criminal negligence, including the contractor and building owner Leon Sober. Today, 164 Attorney Street is a one-story building constructed in 1951 and occupied by an auto repair shop.
Lower East Side, 1908
1950: Baruch Houses Put an End to Engine Co. 11
In August 1949, Mayor William O’Dwyer – the 100th mayor of New York City — announced a new public housing development for the Lower East Side. The $31.4 million, 28-acre development, which would be called Bernard M. Baruch Houses (today known as Baruch Houses), was a Federal–aided slum clearance development under the national Housing Act signed by President Harry S. Truman.
During construction from 1953 to 1959, six blocks of slum buildings between East Houston Street and Delancey Street were razed, including Cannon, Goerick, and Mangin streets. Most of the structures that were demolished were old-law (pre-1901), walk-up tenements with communal bathrooms and either no running water or only cold water. Baruch Houses was completed June 30, 1959, with 16 thirteen-story structures and one seven-story building – all featuring hot running water and elevators. The development provided homes for 2,194 families in 3- to 6-room apartments, with rents averaging $9 a room.
The groundbreaking ceremony for Bernard Baruch Houses took place on April 8, 1952. Pictured are Dr. Herman Baruch (left), brother of the financier and presidential confidant Bernard Baruch, Robert Moses (center), City Construction Coordinator and Park Commissioner, and Philip Cruise, the New York City Housing Authority chair.
Between the construction of Baruch Houses and Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia Houses (completed in 1957), over 1,650 people of the Lower East Side were displaced, including the firefighters of Engine Company 11. On October 15, 1957, Engine Company 11 was officially disbanded.
This 1852 map (click link below) shows Engine Company 11 at 437 East Houston Street. Many of these streets were razed for the construction of the Baruch and Mayor Fiorello housing developments in the 1950s.
1862 Map of the Lower East Side
If you enjoyed this story, click here for a true tale about another Ginger — the fire dog of Greenwich Village.