The Matthews Monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Remembering Their Selflessness

Slatington Union Cemetery, Slatington, PA

This past week, on Wednesday, I typed the date, 9-11-13.  When I realized the significance, I inhaled a little sharply as I remembered that day twelve years ago.  I thought about the passengers on the three planes who didn’t have time to react, who didn’t have a choice about being involved.  Even on the fourth plane, passengers’ choices were very limited, though they chose the bravest one.  I thought about the workers in the towers, who didn’t have a choice about being involved, who didn’t know that it would have been a good day to call in sick.  And while I would never question the bravery of those groups of people, I also thought of people who did have a choice about being involved…the firemen that went into the towers to try to battle the flames and rescue those trapped on the upper floors.  They ran in as others ran out.  That level of bravery, of utter disregard for their own safety in deference to service for the greater good…I wonder if I would be able to rise to that level in a similar situation.  I’d like to think I would, but I know that it takes a special type of person to do that.  Firemen do that every time they battle a fire, whether it was the result of an international terrorist attack or an oily rag near a faulty electrical outlet.  This blog will discuss fire fighting in the 19th century, and show ways we memorialize our firemen in cemeteries, both then and still.


Early fire fighting in America in the 18th century consisted of the “bucket brigade,” with townspeople forming a line to pass leather buckets from the closest well to the fire.  Usually it didn’t work very well.  This high degree of failure was the impetus for Benjamin Franklin to create a fire company in Philadelphia, the Union Volunteer Fire Company, as well as an insurance company called the Philadelphia Contributionship in 1736.  And yet, Boston had been well ahead of Franklin, establishing a publicly funded fire department in the city as early as 1679.  The problem was the funding part, as most cities didn’t have the money to pay for fire departments on a continual basis. 


In the 1800s, while rural communities rarely had an organized volunteer fire company, small towns and cities usually did, and many times, more than one.   In particular, a city fireman was kept busy, with work that was difficult and dangerous.  Cities were crowded with wooden buildings and gas lighting.  Early water pumps were hand-operated and labor-intensive, and the delay of obtaining water was frequently the cause of failure to out the fire.  Of course there was also competition between neighborhood fire companies, which often resulted in brawls right in front of the burning buildings, as the firemen fought to decide who would put out the fire.  Fire companies also would refuse to fight fires in uninsured buildings, as there would be no monetary compensation from insurance companies if they saved the buildings.


By the late 1800s, middle-class reformers, insurance companies and the Republican Party were all advocating for professional fire departments.  It’s easy to comprehend why reformers and insurance officials wanted this change, but why the Republicans?  At the time, most firemen in cities were Irish immigrants, supporters of the Democratic Party, and Republicans felt the dissolution of these volunteer companies, replaced by paid fire departments, would grant them greater political leverage.  And by the middle of the 19th century, cities were better able to fund a professional fire force because of the invention of steam-powered pumps drawn by horses, which reduced the size of the human workforce needed.


In doing this research, I found out that George Washington was a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria, VA, before the Revolutionary War, and he bought the first fire engine for the town.  (Remember, this was 1774, so think of “engine” rather loosely!)  Boss Tweed, head of the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City during the mid-1800s, made the leap into politics after serving as a volunteer fireman in Americus Engine Company Number 6, a politically well-connected department.  And the first known female firefighter was Molly Williams, an African American slave in New York City who fought fires in her dress and apron during the blizzard of 1818.  An influenza outbreak had limited the number of men available to fight fires, but when a fire started during the blizzard, Williams took her place with the men and pulled the pumper by ropes to the fire through the deep snow.  The weaker sex, my butt.   To all the men and women who have served their communities fighting fires and saving lives---thank you. (A special thanks to the 400 firefighters who fought Thursday's devastating blaze on the New Jersey boardwalk.)

Most cemetery symbols regarding firefighters come in the form of metal markers inserted in the ground next to the tombstones.  I have however found a few beautiful community monuments expressing their gratitude to their local firefighters.  Thanks for reading, and contact me at


  One of the most common things you'll see for firefighters is the Maltese Cross. 
The Maltese Cross traces its origins back to the Crusades, when the Knights of St. John fought the Saracens for control of the Holy Land.  The Saracens unleashed a weapon unknown to the Europeans:  first, they were bombed with naphtha, a highly flammable liquid, and then the Saracens hurled flaming torches at them.  Many knights were burned alive, and others risked their lives to save their comrades.  These were the first firefighters, and were awarded a badge of honor.  The Knights of St. John came from the small island of Malta, and hence, the badge was called the Maltese Cross.  Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

An old steam engine, Kizer Cemetery, Cortez, PA

The pike (by the ladder) was an early tool used to pull down burning roof straw and wooden shingles, Belfast Union Cemetery, Belfast, PA

Moscow Cemetery, Moscow, PA

Chase Cemetery, Fleetville, PA

In the center, the speaking trumpet used by the chief at a fire, and the nozzle put on the hose, Evergreen Cemetery, Pen Argyl, PA

Fairview Cemetery, Middletown, NJ

Fairview Cemetery, Middletown, NJ

Under the hat, the nozzle for the hose, the fire pot used to light the gaslights on the way to a night fire, the ladder, the pike to remove burning roof material, and the speaking trumpet for the chief, Freeland Cemetery, Freeland, PA

Speaking trumpet used by the chief, Glenwood Cemetery, West Long Branch, NJ

Glenwood Cemetery, West Long Branch, NJ

Glenwood Cemetery, West Long Branch, NJ

Nozzle and speaking trumpet, Glenwood Cemetery, West Long Branch, NJ

Lamb Cemetery, Jackson, PA

Morrisville Cemetery, Morrisville, PA

Mount Prospect Cemetery, Neptune, NJ

Daughters of America to the left, Mount Prospect Cemetery, Neptune, NJ

Plumsteadville Cemetery, Plumsteadville, PA

Ladies Auxiliary, Prospect Hill Cemetery, Peckville, PA

I love the hose curled around the outside, Durham Cemetery, Durham, PA

Named for General Winfield Scott Hancock, Riverside Cemetery, Norristown, PA

St. Patrick's Cemetery, Norristown, PA

St. Peter's Episcopal Cemetery, Perth Amboy, NJ

Milwaukee Cemetery, Milwaukee, PA

Richlandtown Cemetery, Richlandtown, PA

Pike and ladder, St. Paul's Cemetery, Stone Church, PA

Towamencin Mennonite Cemetery, Harleysville, PA

East Bangor Cemetery, East Bangor, PA

Steam-powered fire engine, Fairview Cemetery, Middletown, NJ

Springtown Cemetery, Springtown, PA


Carving on Firemen's Monument with speaking trumpet used by the chief at the fire, the fire pot used to light the gas street lights on the way to a nighttime fire, and a symbol I can't identify, Lawnview Cemetery, Rockledge, PA

Slatington Union Cemetery, Slatington, PA

Image of a steam-powered fire engine, Mount Zion Cemetery, Pottsgrove, PA


Firemen's Monument, Ivy Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Close-up of above monument, with speaking trumpet used by the chief at the fire, the torch carried in case the steam engine's fire went out, and I think suspenders, Ivy Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Close-up of the above monument, listing the many firefighting companies in Philadelphia, among others, Ivy Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

The entrance to the large firefighting memorial in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Newark, NJ


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