Long lost 137-year-old FDNY ledger discovered in Fla.

An FDNY ledger from 1881, assumed forever lost, emerged from the shadows of history in the hands of a school administrator

By Adam Schrader and Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — A piece of New York City firefighting history is back in the hands of the Bravest — after more than 130 years.

An FDNY ledger from 1881, assumed forever lost, emerged from the shadows of history in the hands of a St. Augustine, Fla., school administrator.

Handwritten in elegant black and red script, the 400-page, 137-year-old ledger lives today as a minute-to-minute chronicle of the first year in the life of the nascent Engine Co. 48 in the Bronx.

Recorded therein is everything from the mundane — fetching a hay bale to feed the horses or trips to the barber or lunch — to the serious: three-alarm fires.

“Received by telegraph 2nd alarm station 339,” read entries from Nov. 7, 1881. “Received by telegraph 3rd alarm for station 339.”

The authors noted down routine checks of the telegraph system they used to communicate in those pre-radio days. The journal notes firefighters relieving each other from “house watch,” a practice still in use today.

“Horses hitched for practice time, consumed 10 minutes,” reads another entry.

The company typically had two officers and 11 “firemen” — with names such as Owens, Moore, Fogarty, Steele, Purroy and Reilly.

“This is our first connection to the original firefighters. We didn't know much about them until now,” said Deputy Chief Jay Jonas, the unit commander. “There wasn't a lot of down time back then. Essentially the firemen lived in the firehouse and saw their families one day a week. Back in that time, all the water was horse drawn.”

In 1881, James A. Garfield became President. He was shot dead four months later. Billy the Kid escaped from jail, the famed Gunfight at the OK Corral happened, and the American Red Cross was established. It was just 16 years after the end of the Civil War.

The ledger notations were critical to the early fire service to know what was happening in its firehouses as the city entered the industrial age and really began to grow. Back then, the Bronx was still considered the country.

Jonas said the firefighters were nervous about paging through the delicate tome, its survival doubly amazing because the FDNY typically keeps ledgers for only 20 years. "We want to look through to see when the first big fires were, but as you can see, the pages are so brittle," he said.

The chief noted despite technology, time, and the advent of highly combustible material like plastic, the core of the job hasn’t changed all that much. “You still have to put water on fire to put it out," he said. "The fire environment itself has changed but the way we fight fires is more or less the same.”

When Paul Pelletier, a maintenance supervisor at the R.J. Murray Middle School in St. Augustine, found the book in an old house a few years ago, he recognized that it wasn’t just some dusty relic.

“I grew up in Vermont in an old home, and I’ve been around antiques all my life,” Pelletier, 48, recalled. “I just knew it was something I didn’t want to see lost. I thought it would interest the history teachers.”

Pelletier’s hobby of repurposing and rebuilding old furniture led to the find, which he would look at it from time to time, read the carefully scrawled entries and imagine what it was like to fight fires in those days.

About a month ago, he decided to return it to the engine company.

He turned to St. John’s County Deputy Sheriff Jack Brush, a 53-year-old youth resources officer.

Brush, 53, happens to know an FDNY battalion chief from the Bronx, Daniel Sheridan, who he met on a 600-mile bicycle ride in memory of fallen emergency responders.

Pelletier penned a letter to Sheridan and the FDNY.

“I have come into possession of something that belongs to you,” he wrote. “It’s truly a piece of history that has become lost in time. I wish to return this book to you in hopes that you will keep it safe and that it may find its place into a place of honor.”

Sheridan delivered the package to the engine company, and the rest is, well, history.

Pelletier’s only regret is that he doesn’t remember the location of the house where he found the journal. So, the mystery of its 1,000-mile journey from a firehouse in the Bronx to a house in St. Augustine may never be solved.

“It’s been exciting to be a part of this,” he said.

Engine 48 Lt. James McCarren said he hopes to display the book soon and invite Pelletier to come see it. The firehouse first plans to bring in someone to rebind the ledger and preserve it.

“It's lucky that a guy was willing to give us our treasure back. The chances of that happening are rare. That they have the integrity to do that is a gift in of itself,” he said.

“It makes you a better firefighter to know where you started, not just the technological advances that have happened since, but that things have stayed the same. The camaraderie and traditions still hold true.”

Copyright 2018 New York Daily News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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