Camden Courier-Post – June 25, 1933
First Act of Camden City Council, Over Century Ago, Was to Cut Down Fire Hazard By Way of Ordinance for ‘Sweeps’
By Ben Courter
COMPARING Camden’s fire-fighting equipment of today with what the city had when it was incorporated, 103 years ago, the wonder is that some of the fires did not wipe out the tiny community. With their pumpers, chemicals and water mains, the average suburb an town is protected like a metropolis when we consider the methods in vogue a century ago.
Fire ever has been man’s most implacable foe, and eve yet it is merely a matter of degree from barbarian ancestors and their rude thatched shacks, to modern skyscraper as to the terror it inspires. Camden, in the late 20s of the last century, was merely a clutter of tiny dwellings, only the more prosperous citizenry such as the Coopers and Kaighns having brick domiciles graced with attics.
It was thus in keeping with the times to have thought first for safety from the fire demon when City Council held its first session, April 11, 1828. That was by way, of an ordinance directed against those inclined to be careless and let their chimneys collect through the years, a great mass of soot. There were those who kept their chimneys clean as the proverbial whistle, first, so the fire would draw, and again to remove the fire hazard, But many apparently, took pot luck and let things go with little thought of what might happen until it did- oft-times in the dead of night with long tongues of flames wiping out their humble domicile.
Wood Exclusively Used
Electricity was little more than the mysterious force Ben Franklin had toyed with over the Delaware. Coal still was to be brought from its carboniferous beds in Pennsylvania. It had not even been proposed as “stones that would burn and give heat.” Oil came from whales and such and was used sparingly on new-fangled mysteries called machinery. So the thick, clumps of trees here about were hewed down for heat in winter and to cook the meals. It was that constant use of wood that filled the chimneys with soot and soot evidently was most of the cause of fire.
When a fire started in Camden village it was a serious affair. If it wasn’t caught in the nick of time the house burned to the ground. So council passed its first ordinance to help the boys of old Perseverance in keeping down the fire record although in those days there were no records kept, of course. That first company, by the way, was on Second Street above Market, about where the National State Bank first built. The little frame shack was still there in the 70’s when the bank enlarged its building and tore it down, the company meanwhile having taken its quarters to Third Street.
But getting back to the ordinance of council, it required the thorough sweeping of every chimney at least once in three months. If a sweep tried the short cut to earning his money by burning out a chimney he was fined $1 because that method was declared to endanger surrounding property. The sweep was supposed to get into the chimney or at least sweep it in regulation fashion and not “cut corners,” as some persons have a habit of doing whether it’s sweeping chimneys or building a house.
That part of the ordinance is interesting for it provides “that if any person from or after the first day of May next, ensuing, shall burn his, her or their chimney, or suffer the same to burn or blaze out of the top thereof, unless the roof of the house thereof is covered with snow, or during the time of a storm of rain or snow, every such person shall forfeit and pay the sum of one dollar.” If a chimney should take fire the house owner was required to prove that it had been properly swept out within three months.
Further, it was provided if such a chimney burst into flame after it had been swept out the chimney sweep was to forfeit a dollar. That evidently was due to the determination of Laning, Cowperthwaite, Sloan and Lawrence, the city fathers, to make more and better chimney sweeps and to aid the Perseverance boys in staying the ravages of the flaming foe.
And if any of the boys of the present generation imagine they have the niftiest apparatus hereabouts; with all their compound engines, extension ladders and what not, they have nothing on Samuel D. Elfreth, who “ran” with old Perseverance so soon as he came to Camden, in 1824. Old annals relate, he was always on the spot when “she” was needed, meaning the hand engine, and was regarded as the outstanding fireman of Camden. In 1882 my grandfather wrote in the Courier that Elfreth, although verging on 80, was then still one of the most active volunteer firemen in Camden. He then resided within the shadow of his beloved old company and was filled with reminiscences of the days when he ran with the boys. His son, Samuel (S. Elfreth), then was chief of the paid fire department as he was in later years until his death some 15 years ago. Charles F. Elfreth, a veteran attache of the city’s finance department, is a grandson of the first Elfreth, a nephew of the late chief.
Those old ordinances relative to keeping chimneys clean seem amusing now, but they were vitally important then. They were, in fact, the very beginning of the present day system of keeping down fire losses by way of every possible method in alarms, in equipment, in man efficiency. It is from such humble beginnings that have evolved the methods in battling blazes in skyscrapers, in extensive plants, in keeping tabs on the very last thing in conquering the foe ever ready, and seemingly willing, to raze the works of man.