Camden Courier-Post – June 19, 1933
Spectacular Run of Firemen and Steeds in ’79 When First Alarm System Was Given Try-out
By BEN COURTER
THERE were two alarms of fire Saturday evening, one at Fourth and Hamilton streets at 8:29 o’clock, and another at the West Jersey Ferry, an hour later. People in the vicinity of the first-named place turned out to look at the machines propelled at lightning speed by snorting equines, and wondered what it was all about; and some of them thought the wide-awake fire boys were beside themselves, as they asked, for the particular house, in the neighborhood of box 24 upon which, with steam up, their apparatus was able to put on, the water. The firemen and people were quietly informed by a party that drove away in a barouche that it was a designed deception.
Under date of October 6, 1879, that was the introduction to a two-column story under a display headline. But, it was, a single line “False Alarms.” Readers of the period must have been as much mystified as were the firemen and citizens mentioned in the article, for it was not until more than half a column had been devoted to that incident that the public was let into the great secret. It was a test of the first fire alarm system introduced into Camden.
Interest in that incident is revived by the city commissioners last week entering into a contract with that same concern to install in the new City Hall a system for somewhat more than $51,000. That first “system” cost the city $2000 but it was a big sum then and just about 10 times more space was devoted to it in the old Post than in the Courier-Post last Thursday week.
Paid Department 10 Years Old
Camden’s paid fire department in 1879 was just 10 years old. It already was winning approval of even the recalcitrants, who had asserted back in 1869, that the old volunteer companies would certainly be missed; that the “professionals” would not have as much interest in putting out a fire as the boys who ran with the Perseverance, the Weccacoe and other organizations, usually bitter rivals. Not infrequently the volunteers battled over hooking up their hose while the fire burned, a event by no means outgrown since that occasionally happens even now, as files of the newspapers prove.
But on that Saturday night 54 years ago, it developed that those who drove away in the mysterious barouche were J. W. Morgan, Crawford Miller and F. P. Pfeiffer; fire commissioners of city council, along with R. S. Bender and Thomas Beatty. They were but carrying out orders to see that the system worked and it was John T. Bottomley who issued those orders. He was Camden’s big mill owner but more to the purpose in that particular incident, president of city Council. He had approved the fire alarm system but did not intend putting his O. K. on that $2000 bill until he had seen it in practical operation.
So unknown to the firemen, and the citizens as well, it was determined to test that system by way of turning in the alarms. So an alarm was pulled at 8.29 and “Bart” Bonsall, son of Henry L. Bonsall, publisher of the Post, narrates, in just 15 seconds flat the bell was sounded at No.1 Engine House at Fourth and Pine Streets. In two minutes hose cart No. 1 went bounding out with Driver George Hunt at the reins, followed by Ben Cavanaugh and his faithful nag “Jim” with cart No. 2. Then came Jake Kellum and William Davies with the engine No. 2 drawn by “Dolly” in 2.45. After that was engine No.1 driven by Edmund Shaw and the horse “Alec,” coming along in 3 minutes and 5 seconds. It was explained Shaw was held up by the sandy roadway at Fourth and Line.
Anyhow, it must have been a great sight for the old-time families who then resided along the Middle Ward Streets as the racing steeds bounded over Fourth Street, then into Third over a mighty bumpy roadway.
But they arrived and vainly sought the blaze. It was while they were hunting that the barouche came along and the commissioners let them into the great secret. “Bart” doesn’t relate what the firemen said about the false alarm, but, like as not the heat of their expressions was a good substitution for the fire they failed to find.
The system was one of those nineday wonders that had the town on its toes. Everybody listened for the alarms in those days, for when they were sent in the bells in the fire houses pealed the number of the box. The strokes could be heard surprisingly far. Since there were but 11 boxes it was not long before many knew just where the fire was located and made a bee line for the scene. Old volunteers, particularly, never quite lost their interest in fires and, whenever they heard the alarm, hot footed it to the scene of excitement.
That was all right when Camden was little more than a village, but as the community grew it became a serious proposition, since the racing citizens often interfered with the firemen. Thus about 30 years ago the fire bells were silenced. Now none know of an alarm coming in save the various houses and the Courier-Post which has a wire attached from headquarters bringing in the alarms so that reporters and cameramen may get on the scene quickly as possible.
Ordinarily, little thought is given to the need for instant and accurate sounding of an alarm made possible through the expert work of City Electrician Jim Howell and his aides. If it were not for that perfection and the speed with which friend reach the scene the losses would he large. And the insurance companies would be around with a “pink slip” as they were some 20 years ago. That meant a 25 percent addition to fire rates. Camden’s motorized department plus the work of City Electrician John W. Kelly soon rid the city of that “slip.”
That system of long ago didn’t include the cops. Now it takes in both departments, as it has done since the days of Chief Samuel Dodd, back in the early 90’s.