New York City Fire Museum

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 62 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned This incredible 1872 punch bowl and goblets, 36 pieces and 800 ounces worth (that’s 50 pounds!  22.68kg!) of sterling silver.  A gift to Isaac Newton Marks, president of the New Orleans Fireman’s Charitable Association.  It’s hard to see in the picture but the stem of each goblet is a fire fighter.

New York City Fire MuseumThe Fire Museum is like the attic of the New York City Fire Department.  It’s where all the old interesting stuff is, and exploring it is very much like sifting through a collection of fire-related artifacts that someone at some point considered worth keeping.

Good boy.

Including a taxidermied fire dog, whose name goes unrecorded but who became much loved by the staff of Engine Co. No. 2013 in Brooklyn after he wandered in out of the cold in 1929.  Little No-Name actually earned some medals for helping rescue people and such, before being hit by car in 1939.  Dog that good, you don’t just bury him.  You stuff him.  And he eventually ends up in the Fire Museum.

That was my first impression of this place, installed across two large floors of an old firehouse.  Alas, while they have stairs and an elevator, there is no pole for quick descents.

It’s definitely of the old school of museums –there are a couple of videos playing on loops to watch, but nothing remotely touchscreen-enabled or otherwise interactive.  It’s also old school in the sense of having a ton of stuff, and making use of every possible scrap of space –there’s a bit of sensory overload relative to sparer, leaner, modern museum design.

New York City Fire Museum

Jaws of LIfe at the New York City Fire Museum

Trucks, clocks, medals, hats, speaking horns, pumps, gear, buckets, a portable last rites kit, the jaws of life…just about anything remotely fire-related you can imagine is here.

But it’s not just a random jumble. In its somewhat cluttered way it tells a number of fascinating stories about how the city couldn’t exist without the fire department, and how technology has changed the way we deal with fires over the years. 

The upstairs covers the history before there was a single fire department (created in 1865), when rival volunteer companies kept the city safe.  And fought with one another.  And marched in parades.  The ground floor covers the fire department from 1865 to today.  Appropriately and movingly including a room that serves as a 9/11 memorial.

But the story it tells is broad and deep.  For instance, fire departments don’t work without water, so there’s a detailed history of the city’s water supply.  I’d really only thought about the water system in terms of getting us safe water for drinking, so the fire fighting perspective was interesting.  And it serves as the Fire Museum’s Hamilton connection:  in 1799, the state legislature approved a plan proposed by a committee he chaired (and with Burr as a member, no less!), authorizing the creation of a private company — the Manhattan Company — to build a water supply for the city.

(Digression:  Although chartered as a water company, the Manhattan Company quickly diversified into finance, and survives, sort of, to this day:  it was the “Manhattan” in “Chase Manhattan Bank,” and so was the earliest predecessor of today’s JP Morgan Chase.)

New York City Fire Museum - Sprinkler HeadsSprinkler systems in buildings, so ubiquitous we don’t even think about them, matter a lot too.  In-building sprinklers date to the 1850s, with automated ones invented by a guy named Henry Parmelee in 1874.  A whole row of sprinkler head designs testifies to how fast that idea was copied and iterated on.

New York City Fire Museum - Old Pump and Medals

I learned a surprising amount at the Fire Museum.  I could write a lot more. But in the interest of brevity I’d say you should definitely visit the fire museum if you have kids; or if you’re at all interested in the history of New York (or urban history in general); or if you like heroes, pageantry, tradition, or firefighter-encrusted chandeliers.  They have one of those, too.

New York City Fire Museum -- Helmets

For Reference:

Address 278 Spring Street, Manhattan
Cost General Admission:  $8
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