Hydrant History: America’s First Fire Teams
A Look at Colonial America’s Earliest Organizations, and New England’s First Paid Firefighter
From bucket brigades to the first professional firefighter, early American settlers never stopped innovating to keep fire from consuming their growing cities.
The first American settlement, Jamestown, was founded in 1607. Captain John Smith led the expedition and immediately perceived the threat that fire posed to the colony’s success: “I begin to think that it is safer for me to dwell in the wild Indian country than in this stockade, where fools accidentally discharge their muskets and others burn down their homes at night.” In the unruly world of New England and New Netherland, John Smith’s comments were full of foresight: Jamestown would burn down four times in the time served as Virginia’s capital. The growth of new cities was constantly checked by the destructive power of urban fires.
In New Amsterdam (today’s New York), citizens suffered constant setbacks due to uncontrolled burning. In 1648 Peter Stuyvesant, Director General of New Netherland, ordered the formation of a group of wardens. America’s first fire prevention team adopted a fitting name: the Rattle-Watch was comprised of eight fire wardens who were selected from a group of prominent citizens. When they happened on a house in flames, they spun wooden rattles to wake nearby residents who leapt out of bed to form improvised bucket brigades.
A few hundred miles north in Boston, large fires in the mid-17th century revealed shortfalls in their fire safety measures. The city decided to acquire a water-spraying engine and hired a local blacksmith to design and cast it. But not long after the engine came into commission, it started falling into disrepair. The disappointment spurred the city to send for a better pump from England. The primitive engine was better than anything built in New England at that time, but it was an ordeal to operate. Boston needed a full-time professional to work and maintain it: Thomas Atkins was hired to manage the new contraption and he became known as the nation’s first fully paid and professional firefighter.
Paying firefighters was a forward leap in organizational innovation, and it wouldn’t come back into fashion for another two hundred years. The developments in New Netherland and New England were just the beginning. In our next post, we’ll explore America’s first Fire Companies, where many Founding Fathers found a way to demonstrate their love of country.