Could This Bucket Have Saved St. Paul’s Chapel?


September 21, 1776

The night was dry and blustery. Days before, the Continental Army had fled and left New York City in the hands of the British. Sometime between midnight and 1 AM a fire broke out on Whitehall Street. Trinity Church, the rector’s house, and the Charity School were soon engulfed in flames. 

Illustration of the Great Fire of 1776:

Night watchmen patrolling the streets sounded alarms, shaking rattles and ringing bells. According to his own report, the Rev. Charles Inglis, Trinity’s assistant minster, organized a bucket-brigade that poured water on the roof of St. Paul’s Chapel, an action he credited with saving the building.  Could the bucket pictured above, dated 1768, have been used to save St. Paul's Chapel?  

While there's no way to know for certain, it is likely this bucket was used to fight the fire of 1776. 

The fire bucket--recently discovered by Omayra Rivera, program administrator for St. Paul’s--lead The Archivist's Mailbag into the fascinating history of fire buckets and fire-fighting at St. Paul's Chapel.  

Fire Buckets

Fire buckets were used to get water to a fire. They were made of thick leather, sewn together with linen thread, and sealed with either paint or pitch, a tar-like substance. When fires broke out, everyone available—including women and children—would form a line from the fire to the nearest well, pond or river, and pass buckets back and forth. Men would pass the full buckets, and women and children would run or pass the empty buckets back to the water source. Later, buckets were used to feed hand-driven pumps that propelled water onto fires.

Devastating fires were a fact of life for early European settlers on the island of Manhattan. In August of 1628, just four years after the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, a minister named Jonas Michaelius wrote the second letter known to have come from the town. In it, he writes that many settlers had lost their baptismal certificates in a “general conflagration.” 

By January 1648, New Amsterdam had several hundred citizens, almost all living in flammable wooden buildings crowded south of Partition Street (now known as Fulton Street). The city’s ruling council, under the direction of Peter Stuyvesant, passed an ordinance appointing fire wardens, who were to levee fines on those caught with dirty (and therefore more flammable) chimneys and flues. The fines were used to purchase ladders, hooks, and fire buckets for the city.

Throughout the 1650s the city’s government struggled to raise the money needed for firefighting equipment, at one point levying what appears to have been a deeply unpopular tax on each house. Eventually the council strong-armed citizens into paying up, and four shoemakers were commissioned to make the buckets. Evert Duycking, the city’s glazier, was hired to paint numbers on the buckets so they could be tracked and counted easily. The buckets were hung in homes and businesses across the city, in order that they would be accessible no matter where a fire broke out.

The 1776 fire was rumored to have been started by angry Patriots in response to the British capture of the city. Loyalist newspapers reported that prior to the fire, church bells were stolen, and fire buckets had their bottoms slashed—both of which suggested the fire was arson. 

Excerpt of 1776 newspaper article about the fire:

St. Paul’s fire bucket has an intact bottom that appears to be original.

1730 illustration of a fire. Image links to the New York Public Library Digital Image Gallery: 

[Manuscript with a fire fighti... Digital ID: 804778. New York Public Library

Arson or accident, the fire of 1776 was widespread and difficult to contain. How effective were fire buckets at stopping a fire? For this information, The Archivist’s Mailbag consulted Gina Bertucelli, Manager of Life Safety for Trinity Real Estate, who has a Masters degree in fire science with a concentration in arson investigation. She’s also a former firefighter. 

It takes between 8,000 and 10,000 gallons of water to contain 1,000 square feet of structural fire. A modern fire engine, with four hoses, will typically pump 800-900 gallons per minute onto a fire—provided there is unlimited water available. A colonial fire bucket holds approximately 3 gallons of water and weighs 25 pounds when filled. A human bucket brigade working at top speed would struggle to deliver 100 gallons of water per minute.

Fire Fighters

New Amsterdam’s other weapon for fighting fire was the Rattle-watch. Starting in 1655, able-bodied men were employed to walk the streets from 9 pm until sunrise, calling out the time at each corner, and watching for any signs of fire. They carried wooden rattles and shook them to warn people of fire or any other threatening situation.

New Amsterdam came under British control in 1664, but the city’s fire prevention measures remained largely unchanged. Ordinances were introduced requiring fire equipment to be stored in sheds in several locations around town, and requiring each house to have its own fire buckets. The rationale for these ordinances reads: “…great Damages Have bin Done by ffire in this Citty by reason there were not Instruments to quench ye same.”

On February 16, 1757, a fire broke out and burned more than an hour “before the Citizens had proper Notice of it,” leading to criticism of the Rattle-watch. At the time, all male citizens of New York were required to watch four times a year—or pay someone to do it for them. As the New York Post-Boy put it: “The citizens are required, at least four Times a year, to watch, or pay their Two and Six-pence to a Parcel of idle, drunken, vigilant Snorers, who never quell’d any nocturnal Tumult in their Lives; (Nor, as we can learn, were ever the first Discoverers of a Fire breaking out,) but would, perhaps, be as ready to join in a Burglary, as any Thief in Christendom. A hopeful Set indeed, to defend this rich and populous City against the Terrors of the Night!”

Public outrage over the conduct of the Rattle-watch during this particular fire was followed by a formalization of Rattle-watch rules.

1776 Plan of the City of New York, showing wards:

The original fire companies were organized according to ward. At the time, Lower Manhattan was divided into the South Ward, Dock Ward, East Ward, Montgomerie Ward, West Ward, and North Ward. According to ward map, St. Paul’s Chapel stood on the northern edge of the West Ward.

St. Paul’s Fire Company

St. Paul’s Chapel was consecrated in 1766. A 1761 city ordinance had instituted tougher fire regulations, but those rules proved expensive and onerous and were suspended until January 1, 1768. St. Paul’s leadership may have planned the fire bucket purchase to comply with the ordinance. This is one possible explanation for why the fire bucket found at St. Paul’s was dated 1768, rather than 1766.

City records from 1768 include a complete list of volunteer firefighters, organized by ward. The Archivist’s Mailbag compared the list of firefighters to the first extant St. Paul’s pew register, which is from 1782. Jacob Roome, foreman of the West Ward company, and John Roome, of the East Ward company, shared pew 79. Were Jacob and John Roome part of the Rev. Inglis’ bucket brigade? Given that St. Paul’s Chapel is located in the West Ward, it’s likely that Jacob Roome, as foreman of the West Ward company, participated in the bucket brigade.

In 1778, John Roome was named fire inspector:

The Roome family played an important role in early fire companies--but they also appear to have been active members of Trinity’s parish. John and Jacob Roome each sponsored several baptisms during the 1780s. Many other Roomes were baptized, married and buried in the parish. There were several Henry Roomes active in firefighting and in parish life in the late 1700s.  In 1756 a Henry Roome married Anne Griggs at Trinity Church, and in 1762 the couple buried two children in Trinity churchyard.  Five nearby graves belong to Griggs and Roome family members. 

Grave of Henry Roome, aged 5, and his sister Sarah Roome, aged 2, both of whom died during the summer of 1762:

Jacob Roome is credited with manufacturing the first American-made fire engine, for Company 1 in Brooklyn in 1785. John P. Roome, likely from a later generation of Roomes, was foreman and assistant engineer of Company 14 from 1808 until 1824. 

Two John P. Roome’s—possibly his sons—died as children and were buried in St. John’s churchyard. (Mary Alice Tisdall, subject of an earlier blog entry, was also buried in St. John's Cemetery.) The churchyard no longer exists; in 1897 it was converted into a park, now known as the James J. Walker Park. A William H. Roome also served in Company 14 in 1788.

Firehouses in the Churchyard

St. Paul's Churchyard as it looked in 1812, showing both Engine Company 14 and Engine Company 39:

Interestingly, Company 14, known as “Columbian,” was headquartered in St. Paul’s Chapel from 1780 until 1812, after which it was located in the churchyard, at the corner of Church and Vesey Streets. Company 39, known as “Franklin” or “Old Skiver,” was headquartered at the opposite side of the churchyard, at the corner of Church and Fulton Streets, from 1812 until 1820.

Drawing of a water-pumping contest between Engine Company 14 and Engine Company 34 held around 1850:

Having fire companies in the churchyard would prove useful, as St. Paul’s Chapel survived several major fires of the nineteenth century. Check back next week for part two of the story of St. Paul’s fire bucket.