Sunday, August 16, 2015

Why Did the Fireman Take a Balloon Ride?

For the second consecutive year, the South Bound Brook Fire Company, under the leadership of Nashanock emeritus, Harry "Cappy" Roberts, hosted an afternoon of vintage base ball at Memorial Park in that central New Jersey community.  This year's event consisted of an 1864 match between long time rivals, the Elizabeth Resolutes and the Flemington Neshanock, followed by an exhibition match between the Neshanock (with some help from the Resolutes) and a team of firemen, much younger firemen.  Resolute-Neshanock matches are by definition close, intensely played games and today was no exception.  The early going indicated it was going to be a low scoring affair as the match was scoreless until the bottom of the third when Flemington broke through with one tally.  Elizabeth answered quickly in their next opportunity at the striker's line, scoring three times which the Neshanock answered with one in their half of the inning.  Elizabeth was busy again in the top of the fifth scoring twice, but Flemington responded with three tallies of their own to tie the match at 5-5 after five innings.

History of Jersey City 

Although both clubs put the lead off batter on base in the sixth inning, neither advanced any further and the game went to the seventh still tied, but it didn't stay that way for long.  Jesse Tomlinson belted a triple to lead off the inning and promptly scored on a singly by Shawn Kelly who shortly thereafter tallied a run of his own.  Flemington managed to put two runners on base with two out in the bottom of the seventh, but the Resolutes recorded the final hand without any damage.  Elizabeth batted in the eighth with a chance to expand their lead, but the Neshanock got three hands without allowing a base runner.  Having held the field in the top of the inning, the Flemington offense got going in the bottom of the eighth keyed by a resounding double by Mark "Gaslight" Granieri and extremely well placed hits by Chris "Low Ball" Lowry, Ken "Tumbles" Mandel and Will Murray.  By the time the third out was made, the Neshanock had scored four times to take a 9-7 lead into the top of the ninth.  Although the Resolutes got a man on with two out, Flemington recorded the final out to take the match behind a second consecutive strong pitching performance by Dave "Illinois" Harris.  Special thanks to Kyle and Mike Roberts, two muffins who helped out a somewhat shorthanded Flemington squad.  Thanks to "Cappy" and the fire company for sponsoring this fine event.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Like South Bound Brook, the majority of New Jersey communities rely upon volunteer fire companies for protection and related services.  Larger urban areas, like Newark and Jersey City, on the other hand, understandably have large full time professional fire companies.  It wasn't, however, always like that, back in the 19th century, New Jersey's largest cities also depended upon volunteers who were ready, willing and able to answer the alarm at a  moment's notice.  A case in point is Jersey City which, although it covered a smaller geographic area in the 19th century, was one of the state's largest communities.  Volunteer fire companies in Jersey City actually date back to 1829 when the local population was barely over a 1000.  However, the perceived danger was sufficiently lethal that residents demanded fire protection from the local selectmen.  Money for a fire engine was the first problem.  Alexander McLean wrote in his 1895 History of Jersey City that not only did the governing body lack funds, they had "no means of raising it [the money] by tax."  Fortunately the residents were prepared to back up their demands with their wallets and a public subscription raised the $800 needed to purchase the city's first fire engine.

Photo by Mark Granieri

With the equipment provided, manpower was next so an organizational meeting was held at the home of Hugh McCutcheon on September 21, 1829.  While this is a good 25 years before the first Jersey City base ball clubs (New York game any way), it's hard not to notice the similarities between volunteer fire companies and base ball clubs, a point discussed by Warren Goldstein in his book, Playing For Keeps.  This is hardly surprising since in both cases, young men joined a formal organization calling for both commitment and teamwork.  And just like the early base ball clubs, one of the new fire company's first actions was to establish a constitution to govern their affairs.  Since behavior was significantly more important in fighting fires than on the base ball grounds, it's no surprise that an even more extensive system of fines was adopted and applied.  According to excerpts from the company's minutes which appeared years later in the Evening Journal, multiple firemen were fined 12 1/2 cents (a penny went further in those days) in the department's first year of existence, primarily for not showing up for the onerous task of washing the fire engine.  One miscreant, William B. Jenkins was fined $1 (a hefty amount at the time) for an unspecified violation of section 12 of the constitution.  The constitution must have been both rigorous and all encompassing as on at least three separate occasions, members were fined 50 cents for declining to serve after being elected to a company office.

History of Jersey City

Many early base ball clubs were short lived due to the inability to recruit new members and Engine Company Number 1 in Jersey City experienced similar problems in 1834 when there ranks dwindled to  just 13 members.  Notice was sent to the Board of Alderman that "without some aid and more encouragement," that is, help in recruiting new members, the remnant would return the engine to the city.  Something must have worked as the company was able to continue serving the city and its residents.  Even with an engine and a sufficient number of men, fire fighting at the time presented challenges undreamed of today, especially regarding the supply of water.  Several of the accounts published in the Journal, describe the difficulty of connecting the engine to a pump or the Hudson River and then sucking out sufficient water to put out a fire.  Fortunately these accounts also reflect a relatively limited number of serious conflagrations.

Evening Journal - July 11, 1916

Neither base ball clubs nor fire companies lacked for unique personalities and Jersey City's first fire company certainly had one in Charles F. Durant.  Born in New York City in 1805, Durant's family moved to Jersey City in 1811 where he was a founding member of the fire company, including serving as its first secretary.  Durant also served for eight months as foreman (the company's highest elective office), but he was better known for his scientific and aeronautical feats.  Among his scientific works was Algae of the Bay and Harbor of New York, which almost a century later, the Evening Journal called "one of the greatest works on the subject."  As gripping as the title may sound, public demand did not, however, match the level of scholarly achievement as supposedly only a dozen copies were printed, one of which is reportedly in the Jersey City Public Library.  Durant also cultivated silk worms at his home at 103 Hudson Street which earned him a medal from the American Silk Institute for  the first silk made in the United States.

Durant's 1834 Ascent in Boston 

From a popular standpoint, however, these achievements paled in comparison to Durant's exploits as one of the country's first balloonists.  On September 9, 1830, he became the first American to make a balloon ascent (the Philadelphia Inquirer hoped he would be the last).  According to one newspaper account, some 10000 people crowded the the streets near Castle Garden in lower Manhattan "to witness the interesting spectacle."  Inflating the balloon took some three hours so it was not until 5:00 that the "undaunted voyager" stepped into "his frail bark."  The fragile vessel barely cleared Castle Garden's walls, but once past that impediment, the wind took Durant and his balloon southwest across Staten Island, eventually landing on Peter Johnson's farm in South Amboy, an journey of some 25 miles.  Later that month another large crowd, estimated at twice the original number watched a second launch which this time took Durant and his craft near Hackensack, New Jersey.  All told, Durant made 13 separate voyages, all before his 1837 marriage, including the one from Boston Common which could have proven fatal had not a boat in Boston Harbor come to the rescue.

Philadelphia Inquirer - September 11, 1830

Although Durant stayed on terra firma for the rest of his life, it was by no means a retired existence.  In 1841 he ran for Mayor of Jersey City as the Whig candidate, losing to Jacksonian and prominent Jersey City resident, Dudley S. Gregory by a three to one margin.  Vote totals of 201 for Gregory and 60 for Durant give an indication of the limited numbers of voters at the time.  Clearly not one to walk away from a fight, Durant's obituary commented that he had "many pugnacious encounters with the authorities" about "rights" and clearly enjoyed a full and robust life.  He is buried in the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery.  No record survives of any attempts at base ball, but like some of the firemen in South Bound Brook, it's not hard to envision him witnessing a match and taking a turn at the striker's line.

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