From Fire Commissioner Raymond "Doc" Kiernan, City of New Rochelle:
When the New York City newspapers were delivered to the New Rochelle train station on the morning of March 4, 1861, the front page news was that today was the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president of the United States.
Washington, DC, was a long way off and New Rochelle had not supported Lincoln, and there was important business in the Village of New Rochelle. The Village Board was to meet today to consider a petition to appropriate $400 to purchase New Rochelle’s first fire truck, $800 to erect or procure its first firehouse and appointed 29 men as volunteer firemen to protect the 3,500 residence of the growing Village of New Rochelle. The New Rochelle Fire Department was born.
The Village of New Rochelle Fire Department’s first company became known as the Enterprise Hook and Ladder and Bucket Company No. 1. Not to be out done by the Village, two week later the Town of New Rochelle formed its first fire department. Much of the early records talk about how the two departments competed in races up and down Main Street to prove who was fastest.
On Sept. 2, 1867, the Huguenot Hook and Ladder Company became the Huguenot Fire Company No. 1 with the Fire Departments first Engine, or Pump. Prior to this, the fire department’s only ability to extinguish fire was using buckets. That first engine was first used by the NYC Volunteer Fire Department and was obtained at the cost of a whopping $1,500.
In 1882, the department received its first fire bell and placed it on the new Huguenot Fire House on Lawton Street (now the library parking lot). The building later burned to the ground but the bell was saved and reused. Today the bell is a memorial to fallen firefighters and is in front of Station No. 1 on Harrison Street. In 1885, the department purchased its first steam-powered pumper to augment the hand-powered one.
In 1899, the Town and Village of New Rochelle merged to become the City of New Rochelle. The Fire Department was forced to consolidate as well and became the Fire Department of the City of New Rochelle. On March 4, 1901, the department hired William Rinck, making him the first paid fireman. Additional paid firefighters were added each year and on May 1, 1903, Chief Ross became the first paid fire chief. He had served as volunteer chief starting on July 16, 1889.
The City continued to grow and the Fire Department grew with it, adding new apparatus, fire stations and paid firefighters. In 1920, Chief Jones reported the department had its busiest year in its history as the firemen had responded to 200 alarms that year. On May 13, 1927, at the recommendation of the Chamber of Commerce, the City disbanded the Fire Department volunteers. The reason stated was to improve the fire insurance rating, thus reducing insurance premiums. This professional system is still in place today.
Over the decades as the City has grown, the fire department has kept pace, adding new technologies such as horseless pumpers, tower ladders, the Jaws of Life and computers. The fleet and the stations have been and continue to require upgrading. New neighborhoods particularly in the north end required protection, and stations were replaced to provide room for development. The Fire Department has been challenged in many ways, and early firefighters would be shocked to learn that number of calls for help has exceeded 9,000 annually.
During these years, the New Rochelle Fire Department has responded to many emergencies small and great, the most notable earliest one being in 1875. The Ferguson’s Grocery and Feed store fire on Main Street took much of the downtown shopping district. Ferguson rebuilt it (this time of brick) and on Nov. 5, 1890, it burned again. The second fire was worse than the first with mutual aid needed to save the Village. Larchmont, Pelham, Mt. Vernon came along with Port Chester who placed their hand engine on a railroad flat car to get to Lawton and Main within 25 minutes. The Rye Fire Department arrived later, having pulled their pumper down the Post Road.
Firefighting remains one of the most dangerous professions. Many firefighters have been injured, some critically, and six New Rochelle firefighters have made supreme sacrifice. May they rest in peace. They gave their all for New Rochelle.
Many things have changed in New Rochelle in the 150 years since March 4, 1861. But the one true constant is that when someone needs help the New Rochelle Fire Department will be there in minutes, and that is something that the citizens can always count on.
Over the upcoming months, the department will celebrate their legacy and century and a half of service with a number of special events and displays.
Editor's Note: This article was edited for style.