Written by: Charles E. Ransom
Prior to the incorporation of the Village, fire protection consisted of impromptu bucket brigades. Although there had been but one or two fires in the history of Sea Cliff, it was realized that no one could foretell when a destructive fire might break out.
In May, 1884, a group of men met in Gardner’s Hotel and organized the F. W. Geissenhainer Engine Company #I. Mr. Geissenhainer had ordered a Remington hand engine to be delivered on approval. Unlike the engines used in New York City, the Remington handles were not pumped up and down. Instead, spokes were inserted in the side of the apparatus and the men, two to a spoke, ran around the engine. Horses could also be hitched to the spokes. The trial of the engine, known as “The Little Giant,” proved a success and was approved by the members of the newly formed company.
The following morning, at 5:20 A.M., a fire occurred in the residence of Mrs. Case, located on Sea Cliff Avenue (then Eleventh Avenue) in the vicinity of the Chellborg house. There was then no fire alarm and Chancy Combs, the foreman of the company, did not know of the fire until some time after it had started. When the firemen finally arrived, they found the blaze had spread to adjacent buildings, and it was necessary to fight three fires instead of one. As the Sea Cliff News stated, “Undaunted by the magnitude of the task before them, the little company worked like veritable sons of Vulcan and saved two of the three houses, and established on the first day of their fire-fighting history a record which the Sea Cliff Fire Department has ever since maintained.”
Sea Cliff Fire Department running hose team at Hempstead 1916. The author and his 3 brothers can be seen in this photo.
The first Engine House was located on Summit Avenue opposite Pirie Park, in the carpenter shop of Chancy Combs. The members of the company sat on nail kegs. The acquisition of this one pumper had little effect in the extinguishing of fires in most parts of the Village. Mr. Geissenhainer had a reservoir on Summit Avenue which could supply water to fight fire in any of his buildings located on the street now called Fairview Place. A few years later, two public cisterns were built on Prospect Avenue in the vicinity of the Sea Cliff Hotel. These were filled with water from Mr. Geissenhainer’s reservoir. Water used in putting out fires in other parts of the Village had to be drawn from private cisterns which depended entirely on rainfall for their water supply.
It must be borne in mind that, prior to the advent of automobiles and motorized fire equipment, firemen had to run to headquarters when the bell rang and pull the equipment to the fire. By the time they got there, particularly at night, the fire was usually well under way and efforts were mainly restricted to saving adjacent buildings.
In June, 1884, the members of the company voted to donate two dollars each, to be used for the purchase of a hose cart. This cart was obtained in August, for the sum of sixty dollars. In December of the same year, the Village Board recommended that an Engine House be built in Pirie Park. Several hundred dollars had been subscribed toward the erection of the building. March, 1885, found the building complete, with the exception of the painting. It is interesting to note that most of the members were carpenters. Since all had donated their services, the building was erected at a very small cost. The members gathered at Pirie Park in the morning, laid the foundation timbers, erected the frame, completed the entire building—walls, floors, roof, and even the exterior trim—before they “knocked off for the night.”
The Mercedes hose truck, about 1916. The driver is Roy Hendrickson who became the first chief driver of the department.
In July, 1890, the Hook and Ladder Company was organized and, on August 16, a new truck was delivered. For a short time the truck was housed in the Engine House. The following year a Watrous Steamer was purchased, and the Village Board was requested to find new quarters for the Hook and Ladder truck. I have never been able to ascertain where it was moved, but rumor has it that the barn in back of Christ’s Bakery was used for that purpose.
A new Fire House was dedicated in June, 1896. Located on the southeast corner of Roslyn and Twelfth Avenues, it also housed the Hook and Ladder truck. That same year, the Enterprise Hose Company was organized. The old Fire House was moved from Pirie Park and located on the south side of the new head quarters. This became the home of the new company.
The Watrous Steamer apparently failed to live up to expectations and some enterprising soul decided to have a new boiler installed to replace the inefficient one. From that time on, the Steamer was known as “Old Pot Belly.” Unfortunately, the alterations were not very effective.
In 1908, the Engine Company changed its name to the Sea Cliff Engine and Hose Company. A Knott Steamer was purchased by the Village in 1912. Immediately it began winning first prizes at Nassau County tournaments. The New York State record established by the Knott still stands, although I must admit that such contests were discontinued years ago.
Some of the Hose Company members, in Asbury Park, New Jersey, circa 1912.
On Memorial Day morning in 1915, the Department was called out to fight a fire in the home of Ida Beach Stewart. Mrs. Stewart was so appreciative of the work done by the firemen that she asked what she could do to show her gratitude. She was told that the Mercedes runabout, which was stored in her garage and seldom used, would make a very valuable addition to the fire-fighting equipment of the Department. Mrs. Stewart donated the Mercedes to the Department, and it was assigned to the Engine Company.
That evening, the Department was again called out to the Stewart residence and the Mercedes was used to pull the Steamer. Because the pulling pole was still attached to the Steamer, it was necessary for several of the firemen to hop off and steer the Steamer whenever a turn had to be made. Later, a new body to carry hose was installed on the Mercedes, and a special attachment was designed to enable the Steamer to be towed. A short while later, the Steamer was equipped with a front wheel-drive engine and the Mercedes was used only as a hose cart.
Soon thereafter, another Mercedes was acquired to tow the Hook and Ladder truck and, later on, the Enterprise Hose Company purchased a Packard truck and presented it to the Village.
In 1931, the Fire House was replaced by the present headquarters which were formally dedicated in 1932. While the new building was under construction, the fire apparatus was housed in the buildings formerly owned by Robert W. Hendrickson, located on the northwest corner of Roslyn and Sixteenth Avenues.
Today the Sea Cliff Fire Department is equipped with the most modern fire-fighting apparatus. It is part of the Fifth Battalion, composed of several fire companies in this area of the North Shore, and is always ready to assist any of the other Battalion members in time of need.
Probably no division of the Fire Department is more worthy of praise than the ambulance crew. Scarcely a day passes which does not require the services of these dedicated and well-trained men.
I would be remiss if I did not give recognition to the Ladies’ Auxiliary. Organized in 1932, its members have made the life of the firemen much happier by providing them with hot coffee and snacks when the men are engaged in combating a serious fire.
Sea Cliff Fire Department
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