Philadelphia endured six riots in the 1840s. The city’s streets were seething and dangerous. But they also could be glorious.
“Grand beyond description,” is how the Inquirer described the May Day display put on by the city’s sixty-six volunteer fire companies in 1849. “The gorgeous banners of every hue and shade, the beautifully decorated engines and hose carriages, the unnumbered fire horns, the wreaths, bouquets, and different emblems of the respective fire company, were showered from nearly every window, added greatly to one of the most grand and lovely spectacles that has ever taken place in the Quaker City. [It] is an occasion that will doubtless be remembered for years to come.”
Especially excited were members of the city’s newest group of firefighters, the General Taylor Hose Company, who were assigned to bring up the rear of the procession. The Taylor Hose men were last, but not least. Each of the 34 members in this Kensington-based brigade were dressed in their new uniforms with gaudily painted hats—standard firefighter processional regalia of the day. The top hats featured portraits of Zachary Taylor, whose battlefield prowess in the Mexican-American War had won him the White House. Only a few months before, Taylor had been inaugurated as the 12th President of the United States.
As the parade snaked up and down the city streets, marchers attracted attention from “notorious rowdies,” gangs known as The Stingers and The Killers. At 6th and Fitzwater they disrupted the procession. And at 8th and Catherine, just as the Good Will Hose Company passed, they initiated “a brutal attack” with stones. Pistol shots were heard over the music of marching bands.
Guilty or not, ready or not, the General Taylor Hose Company joined the city’s culture of street violence that day. It would be a rough ride for the next two decades, until the volunteer fire companies were replaced by a professional fire department. How did it play out for the men of Taylor Hose? Here are few incidents culled from the Inquirer:
March 19, 1850: “Another Fire Apparatus Destroyed.—On Saturday night, the carriage of the Taylor Hose Company of Kensington, was captured by a party of rioters, ran out Ninth street, a considerable distance, and there nearly demolished. The hose was unreeled, and the screws cut off both ends. The apparatus was a borrowed one. It is only a month or so since the Taylor Hose had their own carriage destroyed in a similar manner.”
January 17, 1854: “Narrow Escape.—In the course of the riot on Saturday night, in the vicinity of Second and Jefferson street, between two rival gangs of ruffians attached respectively to the Hibernia and Taylor Hose Company, a ball from one of the pistols which was discharged on the occasion, entered an upper window of a house in the neighborhood, a struck near the spot where an infant was lying. How long are these disgraceful proceedings to continue?”
August 16, 1854: “More Ruffians.— A number of rowdies, said to be adherents of the Taylor Hose, assailed the house of Wm. Henry Haverkemps, on Monday afternoon, broke his windows and assaulted several citizen residing in the vicinity. Officer Clemens arrested two of the assailants…”
August 31, 1858: “Fireman’s Riot. About one o’clock on Sunday morning, the quiet of the Eighteenth Ward was disturbed by the Globe Engine and Taylor Hose Companies engaging in a desperate riot, in which horns, spanners and stones were freely used. Officer Ketcham, of the 19th Ward, was struck in the face by a brick, and severely cut: two or three other officers were struck by the flying stones. During the fight, Robert Squibb, a prize fighter and notorious bully, was arrested by officer John Watt, of the 128th Ward, and held to bail for his appearance at Court.”
By 1864, when the state incorporated Taylor Hose as the General Taylor Steam Forcing Hose Company, its members were long part of the established demonic, heroic underworld of Philadelphia firefighting. Seven years after that, on March 15, 1871, their brick and marble building at Howard Street and Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, would be designated Philadelphia Fire Department’s Engine No. 15.
Six of the charter members showed up for a reunion of “The Taylor Hose Boys” in May, 1891. According to the Inquirer, “the Taylor Hose Company, of the old Volunteer Fire Department, celebrated their forty-fourth anniversary last evening by a banquet at their hall, Columbia avenue and Mascher street. About 100 members and their friends sat down to a splendid collation, followed by several speeches and music.”
We’ll never know the stories shared that evening.
The 19th century firehouse remained in service until the 1920s when it was replaced by an undated facility by city architect John Molitor. That firehouse, decommissioned in the 1960s, remains a Kensington curiosity to this day.