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America's Founding Fathers fighting Fires
Benjamin Franklin described volunteer firefighters as, “Brave men of Spirit and humanity. Good citizens, or neighbors, capable and worthy of civil Society and the enjoyment of a happy government.” Being a firefighter was, and still is, a noble calling. Most of America's early patriots -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Barry, and Aaron Burr -- were volunteer firefighters.
We excerpt the below text from the book, “Our Firemen, The History of the New York Fire Departments”
We have brought to light, among other important things, one interesting fast that had been forgotten or not generally known--the fact that the Father of his County had enrolled himself as a Volunteer fireman.
George Washington, who was as zealous in the discharge of his duty as a private citizen as he was eminent and efficient in public life, became an active fireman in the Alexandria, Virginia, about the year 1870. He was then about eighteen years of age, and resided with his brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon, several miles from the town, which he visited, "on horseback as often as ten times a week."
As a young man he took and active part in all the affairs of the growing place until it became an important colonial city. Besides his firmness of character, his love of active pursuits, his passion for horsemanship and all manly sports made him a natural leader among the young men of the town. It is related tht he was always one of the foremost to assist inputting out fires, riding even from Mount Vernon to be present at one. As Alexandria increased in size, the principal citizens began to organize for protection against fire, and the own record shows that they each agreed, out of "mutual friendship," to carry to every fire "two leathern buckets and one great bag of oznaburg or wider linen." This was the primitive colonial mode of extinguishing flames.
The Friendship Fire Company of Alexandria, which still survives, was organized in 1774. At that time Washington was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, but the members of the new company evidently remembered his former services as fireman, for at one of their first meeting they unanimously elected him as honorary member, and forwarded him a copy of the minutes. To show his appreciation of the compliment, Washington at once made a thorough inspection of the different kind of fire engines in use in Philadelphia, and upon his return there, in 1775, he bought from one Gibbs a small fourth-class engine for eighty pounds and ten shillings, and just before he set out for Boston to become Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, he sent this little engine as a present to the Friendship Fire Company.
The great Chieftain did not lose his interest in fire matters through his elevation to position and power. Upon his retirement to Mount Vernon, after his second term as president, he continued to take an active interest in the municipal affairs of Alexandria. It is related that in the last year of his life (1799) he was one day riding down King Street, when a fire broke out near the market. He was accompanied by his servant, also on horseback, and noticed that Friendship Company engine was poorly manned, though a crowd of well-dressed idlers stood about. Riding up to the crowd he employed very vigorous language in rebuking their indifference at such a time. He ended by calling out, "It is your business to lead in these matters," and throwing the bridle of his horse to his servant, he leaped off and seized the brakes, followed by a crowd that gave the engine such a "shaking up," as it never knew afterwards.
For more information, see:
Alexandria, Virginia - Friendship Firehouse Museum
Firehouse.com - Firefighting in Colonial America