From a fire bucket to a full fire department (pg.5)

Princeton Packet

10 May, 1988

From a fire bucket to a full fire department

While there were various informal steps taken by the citizens of Princeton and especially by the trustees of Princeton University (then The College of New Jersey) to be prepared in the event of fire, no retold of the formal establishment of a true fire company in the town prior to February of 1788 exists.

As early as 1756, shortly after Nassau Hall was completed and occupied. the trustees procured tsso ladders and as many as 100 leather buckets. Each bucket was numbered, stamped with the initials “N.H” and distributed around what was that the largest structure in the colonies. It was expected that students would provide all the manpower needed in case of an emergency.

By 1765 a fire engine had been obtained and a small saw to house in and the ladders had been built on the right front of the building. Students were fully expected to operate this machine as well.

But on the eleventh day of February, 1783. records indicate that the citizens of Princeton  held their first meeting of the formally organized fire company.

The best men in the town joined the company attended quarterly meetings established recognized firefighting procedures and kept meticulous records of their activities.

This last attribute was the responsibility of many of the best businessmen in Princeton who served as clerks and were charged with “keeping orderly records” — men such as Dr. John Beatty, Isaac Snowden, Jr. John Monson, John N. Simpson, Isaac Homo, N.C. Everett and Ramis D. lanvie.

At this first meeting fundamental rules were adopted, including the following:

Each member shall furnish himself and keep it the most conspicuous past of his have two buckets and one basket or bag matted with ho mine and company. The company shall appoint a committee of two members to act quarterly, whom duty it shall to to examine that each member is supplied with and has in good order his number of bucke, etc., and report. etc. Furthermore. these titles were strictly enforced. There was a fine of one shilling imposed for failure to attend either the quarterly or any other meetings. The same fine was imposed for failure to keep Imams or bags in good repair or to have therm in properly “conspicuous” puts of the house.

Failure to report to the site of a fire was, of course, a most serious breach and the rules specifically stated that there should be a levy of “seven shillings and sixpence upon any member who should neglect to repair to a fire when alarm is made or to discharge his duty when present at a fire.”

Although members of this fins fire brigade were elected by ballot and the rolls comprised some of the town’s most important persons. nevertheless the duties or the members wm rigidly stratified according to the original by-laws.

For example, duties were divided into four distinct classifications. Class the Ent shall contain six men whose duty it shall be to enter the dwelling houses and other buildings that may be on fire and attend to the removal of goods and other properly therein contained.

Class Second shall contain 13 nwn who arc to have sole direction and management of the fire engine. Class Third shall contain five men who arc to be provided with ladders. fire hooks and axes. and shall attend to the unroofing. tearing down and removing such pasts of buildings on fire, as may, in the opinion of the Lbrector. be proper to obstruct the progress of the fire.

Class Fourth shall contain the remainder of the company. Who are to attend to the supplying with water the engine. and such persons as may he otherwise employed in extinguishing the the by hand.” One may well suppose that among the important men ref the company there was a certain jockeying for better positions within these classifications. We have no information on this, but we do know that Capt. John Little was elected director, Dr. John Beatty as clerk and Enos Kelsey was named treasurer.

We also have the names of those men 200 years ago who signed their names to the original rules and thus formed the first brigade: Aaron Mattison, Joseph Leigh, Noah Morford, Samuel Stout, Jr., Zebulon Morford, Enos Kelsey, James Hamilton, Christopher Stryker, Stephen Morford, James Moore, Andrew McMackin, Jacob G. Bergen, John Lane, John Little, John Hamilton, Conant Cone, Isaac Anderson, Jared Sexton, David Olden, Jr., John Jones, Isaac Snowden, Jr., David Hamil-ton, Samuel S. Smith, Robert Stockton, John Beatty, George Henry, John Barlow, John Dildine, Thomas Wiggins, John Schureman and James Campbell.

Within a short time new members were added, names which survive to this day on street posts throughout the town of Prince-ton. Names like Richard Stockton, Samuel Snowden, Joseph Olden, Dr. John Van-Cleve, Cornelius Terhune, Benjamin Old-en, Samuel Bayard, John Joline, John Maclean, Charles Steadman and others. It is interesting to know that the prominent men, the professors and the professional men were not merely honorary members, but attending members, who shared in the duties and offices of the company.

The early minutes of the company minutes is full of minute detail as to housekeeping chores. A small Committee was appointed to recoast from the trustees of the college the sole use and direction of the fire engine and to promise in return that the engine would be put and kept in proper repair at the sole expense of the company. More importantly, perhaps to the the engine would be used for the benefit of the college as well as the town.

The request was granted and as a […] the engine was repaired at a cost of 6 […] 16s 3d, each member of the company be asked pay a proportionate share.

Nor were the everyday inspections […] gotten. The committee of inspection reported and the company resolved: “that place when Mr. Kelsey hangs his buck was not the most conspicuous part of house.” There is no further data, but […] can easily imagine Mrs. Kelsey asking husband to “get them buckets away from the front door” and the poor man compromising in the interests of family peace.

Dr. Beatty contributed to the company coffers when he was fined a full […] shillings  for using of the ladder belonging to the company and keeping it from its proper place all night, therefore breaking a longstanding rule.

For a very brief tune there was a move[…] require appearances only when hou[…] belonging to members of the core the com[…] should be afire, but this was quickly repealed.

In 1796, one major role was rewritten. No longer did each member have to k[…] his buckets and bags at home. Now equipment would be stored in the engine room.

And finally, apparently after considering […] able trouble, the ladders which kept disappearing with regularity were secured lock and key

And so all seemed in readiness for […] major test of men and equipment.


Photo•David G. Wilbur

Parade Grand Marshals for the Bicentennial Parade are Hook and Ladder members Alex Duthie, Earl Wilbur, and James Pace, with 50, 59, and 60 years of volunteer service respectively.

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