Chapter Seventeen: Behind the Bloomfield door


Ever since I moved to Hoboken in 1992, I wondered about the door on Bloomfield Street, arched garage-like and painted green and red with plaques above it saying  ``Ass'n of Exempt Firemen, Fire Department Museum.''

Although people came and went from the place, it did not seem a public accommodation like the library or City Hall. Frequently, broad-shouldered men pulled up with ``I love firemen'' stickers on their cars, men, I guessed, who served in other firehouses around town.

Occasionally, a pack of kids would climb out of a bus in front of the building, corralled by teachers who led them through the door in single file. More than once, I considered sneaking in behind them for a peek.

Fortunately, I didn't have to risk it: the curators of this curious museum granted me and nearly 60 other equally curious residents a tour, giving me a glimpse of the challenges other fire fighting companies faced in the area.

The tour was organized by Steve Hefler as part of a working lecture series that has been highlighting history here in Hoboken. Along with a dozen tours of various historic places per year, Hefler's group also has a regular art exhibit in City Hall. From the tour, I not only learned that Frank Sinatra father had been a fire captain here in Hoboken, but I gained a bit more relevant information about the history of the town.

            The original Exempt Fireman's Hall stood at Second and Hudson streets, where there is now a bank parking lot. Many of the artifacts on display in the new building were recovered from a trash bin during the demolition.

No one's really sure when the present hall was built or for what purpose. Over the years the garage area was used for numerous city vehicles over the years, including ambulances, fire trucks, city water trucks as well as the traditional black-and-white paddy wagons. The upstairs was always used by the firefighters for as long as the building belonged to the city.

In 1982, renovations began downstairs. Volunteers, largely from the fire department, began to reshape the interior of the building in anticipation of the 125th anniversary of the Hoboken Fire Department. To fund the project and maintain the museum, firemen sold beer mugs, T-shirts, bus rides to Atlantic City and raffle tickets. Over the years, such methods have raised nearly $15,000, said Bill Bergin, the museum's unofficial curator. Organizers are looking into ways of opening the museum full time to the public.

One of the early motorized fire engines forms the centerpiece, with a circular ladder in one corner. The walls are covered with memorabilia collected over the years, such as a slightly tattered firefighter's flag dating from the department's inception in 1860.

The total collection provides a glimpse of a changing city and how Hoboken's firemen struggled to keep it safe. Photos of past fires, firemen and equipment, and paintings of firefighters from the horse-drawn days decorate the walls. A varied assortment firefighting equipment ancient and modern is displayed along the walls.

            Although all-volunteer at the start, members of the Hoboken Fire Department began to receive pay in 1891. A hand-written payroll document shows the wages for the total department at $2,000 per month, with the chief's annual salary at $125. (The city now pays the fire department over $4.5 million a year.)

The early fire department had horse-drawn equipment. In 1912, the City of Hoboken owned 35 fire horses. The department's biggest expense was horse feed. In 1916, the last horse-drawn vehicles were phased out as the department became wholly motorized. Shoe-horning the much larger modern equipment into the city's firehouses <197> all four of which were built for horse-drawn vehicles <197> can tax the skills of even the most adept chauffeurs, as the men who drive the trucks are called.

The earliest trucks had hard rubber tires and flat steering wheels. Wooden ladders used to be spring-loaded so as to launch them out from their beds, then they would be cranked up to the height of the fire.

One display shows the changes in firemen's breathing apparatus over the years. Early breathing devices contained chemicals that merely filtered the air <197> as opposed to supplying oxygen, the way tanks firefighters now carry do. Although the chemical variety allowed firemen to operate more freely, they depended upon some oxygen in the air. But when several firefighters died of suffocation in a New York City fire, the devices were outlawed. Another variation involved a red canister <197> which under certain circumstances caused the fireman to explode.

            The museum also displays some artifacts of Hoboken's early fire alarm systems, including a clapboard with the names of Hoboken streets. The early system used a bell code that firemen used to count to determine where the fire was. Though it led to occasional confusion, for the most part it worked. It served the department from the 1940s until the 1970s. In those decades the bells rang almost constantly with as many as 20 fires a day.

Fires, unfortunately, became a cheap method of urban renewal with a high cost in human suffering and great risk to the firefighters. Hoboken fires have always been unique from fires in other Hudson County towns, and methods for fighting those fires just as unique. Unlike towns like Weehawken and West New York, 90 percent of Hoboken is made up of five-story walk-up buildings; with the buildings so closely packed, firefighting calls for a different and more dangerous technique. Hoboken firefighters, unlike other towns, fights fires from the inside.

``Our department is 100 percent interior,'' said Vince Guinta, a firefighter from Engine Company No. 2 at 14th Street. ``Very few other fire departments fight fires this way. Most fight fires from outside. We go inside to fight it. With the type of structure you have here in Hoboken, if you wait for the fire to come to you, the building is lost <197> and so are the buildings around it.''

Hoboken firefighters, he said, arrive at a fire within 3 minutes and are usually at the source within 6 minutes of being called.

``It is the most dangerous kind of firefighting in the world,'' he said.

            One consistent question asked is what is ``exempt fireman'' means. In setting up the hall, Bergin said the staff did a little research and found that years ago, when the city's firemen were still volunteers, they granted certain privileges after seven years of duty. They were, for instance, exempted from jury duty, and granted a hawker's license <197> favors granted Veterans of Foreign War under law in New York City. Over time an exempt fireman's association arose to represent firemen's interests throughout the state.


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