The
Camden
Fire
Department
1874 to 1885


 

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Camden Fire Department, a very limited edition history was published in 1994. The fire fighters of Camden have served the city well, often with less than adequate staffing and equipment, and have compiled an admirable record not only during the years covered in the abovementioned book, but in the years since. I doubt that anywhere in the United States have so few done so much for so many with so little.

That being said, I believe that the story of the fire fighters in Camden deserves being told to a much wider audience that the original limited edition book could ever hope to reach, so it will presented here and on other web-pages within the www.dvrbs.com website.

The years 1864-1873, 1912-1928, 1929-1950 and 1980-1990 are presented on other webpages.

For profiles of individual fire fighters of years gone by, go to the Camden Fire Department Uniformed Personnel Index or to the Interesting People of Camden web-page.

Please contact me with any comments, questions, or corrections.... and I'm always happy to add further information about the people and event described here. Books have limited space. This website has unlimited space!

This page was first set up on February 27, 2005. Pictures will be added soon

Phil Cohen

Camden Fire Department 1874-1885

On May 4, 1874 Samuel Elfreth was promoted to Foreman. Benjamin Cavanaugh continued as Foreman. A year later, to the day, William Osler was promoted to Extra Engineer.

The nation's centennial year found the Democrats gaining control of City Council. On April 8, 1876 Claudius W. Bradshaw was elected Chief Engineer; his Assistant Engineer was George Horneff and Thomas McLaughlin was named Extra Engineer. The Foreman of Engine Company 1 was Alfred Ivins and of Engine Company 2, William H. Bassett. On April 1st of the following year Bradshaw and Horneff continued in their respective positions. Henry Grosscup was named Extra Engineer; Cornelius M. Brown became Foreman of Engine Company 1 and James M. Lane the Foreman of Engine Company 2.

At 3 A.M. on Thursday, November 8, 1877 a fire was discovered in the trimming room of Charles F. Caffrey's Carriage Manufactory. This four-story brick structure occupied a quadrangle 100 feet by 108 feet on Market Street with a three-story brick building on the Tenth Street side. Fire fighters arrived promptly only to find the blaze well advanced with flames being fed by materials stored in the buildings. Both structures and their contents were destroyed with a loss of $105,000. The light from this blaze was so bright that a watchman at the Washington Mills in Gloucester City rang the factory's bell believing the town was ablaze. It was said that half the citizens of Gloucester shared the watchman's belief.

Camden, again, rendered valuable assistance to Cape May, New Jersey on November 8, 1878. Shortly after 7 A.M. a workman on the roof of the Stockton Hotel saw smoke coming from the roof of the Ocean House, some four blocks away. Minutes later, the fire alarm was sounded when a woman, also saw what was now dense smoke emanating from the same area. By 8 P.M. a general alarm was sounded by ringing Cape May's church bells. This call brought townspeople to assist the inadequately equipped fire department in battling the flames.

The fire spread rapidly and it was soon obvious that help was desperately needed to stop the raging blaze. Cape May Mayor Williams and Fire Chief Colonel Lansing sent a dispatch to General Sewell, Superintendent of the West Jersey Railroad, requesting a steamer and much needed hose from Camden. The Camden Fire Department responded to the urgent call on a special train 
arranged by General Sewell. A steamer and hose cart accompanied by Chief Engineer Claudius W. Bradshaw arrived in Cape May just after noon, some one hour and twenty minutes after departing Camden. 

In the absence of any organized leadership, Chief Bradshaw assumed command of the entire operation and immediately placed his engine in service at the corner of Washington and Jackson Streets. This position was considered essential to saving the remainder of Cape May. The Camden apparatus directed two large hose streams on the Centre House and the burning buildings on Jackson Street. Homes were being wet down on the opposite sides of Washington and Jackson Streets to prevent the spread of the flames. Camden‘s Bravest held that position for more than an hour, being supplied with water from a large surface well and two elevated water tanks.

When the fire appeared to be under control, flames were discovered coming from the Columbia House some three blocks away from the origin of the blaze. Chief Bradshaw ordered his units to relocate to Columbia and Guerney Streets and special called a second steamer and hose cart from Camden. 

According to the newspaper, the Cape May Wave, Camden's steamer "rendered very efficient aid in checking the flames“. The Stockton Hotel had been spared the wrath of the flames due to the aggressive stand by Camden Firemen who got the upper hand on the blaze around 3 P.M.

Camden's second steamer arrived in Cape May around 4:30 P.M., by which time the conflagration had been halted. This engine, under the command of former Chief and current Fire Commissioner Robert Bender, assisted in darkening the remaining fires. The New York Times stated that had it not been for the Camden Fire Department, the flames would have burned until after midnight instead of being controlled between 5 P.M. and 6 P.M. Camden's companies remained on the scene well into the night, assisted by Engine Company 3 from Philadelphia which had arrived too late to help control the huge blaze.

Two thousand bath houses, numerous hotels, private homes and businesses were destroyed. Half of the city, some thirty-five acres, had been devastated by the inferno that resulted in a loss of $500,000.00. 

In 1879 Republicans gained control of City Council and on April 3rd new officers of the Department were named. Samuel Elfreth was elected Chief Engineer with James M. Lane as Assistant Engineer and Henry Grosscup as Extra Engineer. 

Cornelius M. Brown was appointed Foreman of Engine Company 1 and Samuel Buzine Foreman of Engine Company 2. These men remained in their positions until 1882.

On March 27, 1882 John Campbell was named Extra Engineer with George Tenner as Foreman of Engine Company 1 and William H. Bassett as Foreman of Engine Company 2. On July 29th of that year Daniel A. Carter replaced Samuel Elfreth as Chief Engineer and Henry Wagner replaced James M. Lane as Assistant Engineer.

The fire had an auspicious beginning in the roasting rooms of Johnson's Coffee Essence
Factory at 4:30 P.M. Friday, January 5, 1883. Burning materials communicated to an elevator
shaft and burned upward igniting woodwork along the way. Within five minutes the two-story,
35 by 50 foot building on Broadway below Mechanic Street was a sheet of flames. The Johnson family narrowly escaped with their lives but lost nearly everything they owned.

The fire department received the alarm from Box 34 at Broadway and Kaighn Avenue. Companies arrived quickly but lost considerable time getting water on the fire since the nearest hydrants were more than two blocks away at Broadway and Liberty Streets and on Mechanic Street above Fourth. Firemen John Sutton and Charles Alcott narrowly escaped death when they fell through the roof while battling the blaze. Twice the fire was thought to be extinguished only to have the flames erupt again. 

When the blaze was finally put out the factory had been destroyed, and an adjacent store owned by Samuel Jackson had sustained fire damage. Had it not been for the valiant efforts of fire fighters the fire would have spread to surrounding structures. There had been two small fires at the factory prior to this major blaze.

Daniel A. Carter and Henry Wagner continued in their respective positions until 1885. In 1884 William Morris was named Extra Engineer with Samuel Buzine as Foreman of Engine Company 1 and James M. Lane as Foreman of Engine Company 2. William Morris remained in his position in 1885 but the popular Samuel Elfreth was again elected Chief Engineer replacing Daniel A. Carter. Samuel Buzine replaced Henry Wagner as Assistant Engineer; John Stockton became Foreman of Engine Company 1 and Henry Grosscup Foreman of Engine Company 2.

At 2:30 A.M. on March 21, 1885 fire struck a two-story blacksmith shop at 19th and Stevens
Street
s. The shop, operated by Edward Joyce, was heavily damaged because the nearest hydrant
was frozen, causing a delay in getting water on the fire. While placing a blanket on the gray mare of Hose Cart 1, Extra Engineer William Morris was kicked above the left knee and sustained a broken bone. He was removed to the quarters of Engine Company 2 where Dr. Onan B. Gross set the leg. After extinguishing the flames fire fighters were called back at 5:30 A.M. for a rekindle.

Just two hours later a loud explosion rocked Haddon Avenue and Federal Street. A kitchen
range boiler at the 586 Federal Street residence of James Colter, Jr. had exploded. Fire fighters
responded quickly but the kitchen was destroyed.

A fire was reported at the Cooper's Point Manufacturing Company on Saturday, June 13, 1885
at about 12:30 in the afternoon. The old mill building at Front and Elm Streets was destroyed after flames broke through the roof. Before fire fighters could control the blaze it had also destroyed two dwellings at 613 and 615 Front Street and 618-630 Point Street. Flames also leaped Point Street and ignited some lumber sheds owned by Charles Stockman. Chief
Elfreth placed the fire under control at 2 P.M., but not before it had caused $60,000 in damage.

Less than two days later four fires occurred within a twenty-four hour period. The first struck
about midnight on Sunday, June 14th and involved the wood yard and kindling wood works of W.J.
Haines at Twelfth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Several members were overcome by dense smoke and hose lines had to be stretched across the P.R.R. tracks.

At 1:45 A.M., while the Department was still at the scene of this blaze, Box 16 at Tenth and
Federal Streets was transmitted. An engine, a ladder and a hose cart were dispatched from the
wood works fire which had just been placed under control. The alarm proved to be malicious.
Shortly afterward a verbal alarm received at the quarters of Engine Company 2 reported that a fire
had flared up at the paper mills at Cooper's Point. The blaze was quickly extinguished.

At 6:20 A.M. an alarm from Box 23 brought fire fighters back to the wood yard which had
rekindled and was blazing freely. This fire was also extinguished in‘a short time.

At 10:30 A.M. a chimney fire was reported at 219 Point Street. That fire was extinguished in spite
of a delay in receiving the alarm. An excited civilian had attempted to turn in the alarm by yelling into the fire alarm box (almost 100 years before the invention of ERS voice technology).

At a special meeting of the City's Fire Committee held on July 7, 1885 the fire department was reorganized. Eighteen of the Department's thirty extra (call) men were dropped, leaving only four for each company. Each engine added a permanent foreman and two hosemen; the ladder company added two laddermen for a total of eight new full-time firemen. 

The new foremen were John Stockton, Engine Company 1 and Henry Grosscup, Engine Company 2. The reorganization became effective on August 1st and the foremen were given charge of their respective units at an annual salary of $720. The hosemen, tillermen and laddermen received a yearly sum of $600. James Roach and Jacob Nessen were added to the rolls of Engine Company 1; Charles Robinson and Isaac Shreeve to Engine Company 2 and Benjamin Middleton and Thomas A. Walton to the Hook & Ladder Company. The reorganization enabled the Department to operate under their $20,000 annual budget.

Just two nights after the Fire Committee's meeting, Camden's Bravest acted promptly and
effectively to prevent a potential conflagration. About 7 P.M. that evening, Captain John Sparks was sitting outside his saloon when he noticed smoke coming from the second floor windows of
the William C. Scudder & Company's three-story brick building at 95
Federal Street. Upon arrival, Engine Company 2 took a hydrant at the nearest corner and placed a line in service. The fire was in the center of the second floor ceiling and spreading upward, creating heavy smoke conditions. Chief Elfreth ordered his men not to ventilate the windows fearing the fire would extend to nearby exposures. With great difficulty, two hose streams were advanced into the front of the building and one through a rear door. The damage was contained to the second floor ceiling area and the planks and joists of the floor above.

A tornado struck parts of the city on August 4th of that year, knocking over the firehouse bell
tower of Engine Company 2. The twister was also responsible for three fires and six deaths.
.

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