Part II of the Fire Horse Heroes


“These old hero-horses, as I think they should be called, deserve a better fate than city pavements until they die of exhaustion. On the farm in Warwick we have 800 acres of wonderful rolling country. We have a lake over a mile long. We have hills and streams. We are growing more hay than we know how to dispose of.”—Charles Samson, New York Press, September 30, 1913

In my last post, I wrote about the final run for the last horse-drawn fire engine of the New York Fire Department (FDNY). According to news reports, the five retiring horses of Engine Company No. 205 in Brooklyn — Balgriffin, Danny Beg, Penrose, Waterboy, and Bucknell — were reportedly transferred to light duty on Blackwell’s Island or sent to upstate farms operated by the ASPCA (depending on their health).

New York City Department of Street Cleaning horses

Many retired fire horses were transferred to New York’s Street Cleaning Department, where they worked hauling equipment to clean streets, haul garbage, or remove snow. Some of the old horses that were sold or transferred still remembered responding to fires, and would often bolt when they heard the alarms.

Although horses had been “retiring” ever since the FDNY completely replaced manpower with horsepower in 1869, there was never much talk about the fate of these retired horses. The discussion picked up in 1911 when Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo proposed motor-driven fire apparatus for the FDNY, and again in 1913, when Fire Commissioner Joseph H. Johnson Jr. announced plans to retire all those horses still in service and replace them with motorized vehicles as soon as possible.

(I guess we could say that history does repeat itself – no one talked about retiring carriage horses until Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to replace them with motorized carriages.)

Up until the transition to a motorized fire department, the majority of discharged fire horses were either sold at auction on the cheap ($25 to $100) to peddlers who used them to pull their fruit and vegetable carts, or sent to other agencies in the city – like the Street Cleaning Department — that were still using horse-powered vehicles.

A few fortunate horses were placed on farms or the estates of wealthy people through the ASPCA or nonprofits like the Horse Aid Society. Others that were condemned from the auction block because of an injury or frailty were sent to the “pension farm” at Blackwell’s Island (Roosevelt Island) to do light hauling for the Department of Charities and Correction. Sadly, some horses were “humanely” dispatched by the ASPCA if the society’s vets determined they could no longer live a purposeful life.

Blackwell's Island Penitentiary

In the 1800s and early 1900s, many retired fire horses were sent to Blackwell’s Island on the East River to do light hauling for the city’s the Department of Charities and Correction (DOCC). The DOCC operated the Blackwell Penitentiary, which was erected in 1832 and demolished in 1936.

Charles Samson to the Rescue

Charles Samson, Executive Secretary of New York City’s Board of Inebriety, did not like reading all the articles in the newspaper about the passing of the fire horses and how the city “rewarded” them for their gallant service. He especially did not like the fact that hero horses, who had spent their strength and shortened lives in the service of the FDNY, were being auctioned to peddlers, hucksters, or anyone else who offered the highest bid for them.

And so in September 1913, Samson sent a letter to Fire Commissioner Johnson offering a plan that would allow every fire horse in service to live well into his or her old age at the agency’s Hospital and Industrial Colony in Warwick, New York, also known as the “City Farm.”

Engine Company 39 last horse-drawn engine

Fire horses leave the quarters of FDNY Engine 39 and Ladder 16 on East 67th Street for the last time in 1911. Their replacement: the first gasoline-powered pumper, seen in the background. Photo, Library of Congress

A Brief History of the Board of Inebriety

“If the hopes of the board are fulfilled, New York, five years hence, will be a sober city.”—The Chicago Medical Recorder, January-December 1911

In the early 1900s, there was a great social stigma attached to alcoholism. Not only were alcoholics (or “inebriates” or “drunkards” as they were called back then) considered immoral, they were also increasingly associated with homelessness, corruption, and crime.

In 1867, the Commissioners of Charities and Correction erected an Asylum for Inebriates on the southeastern end of Ward’s Island. The facility didn’t last long: With forcible detention losing favor as a means of treating alcoholism, the asylum closed in 1875. The building temporarily housed the overflow of patients from the Insane Asylum, also located on Ward’s Island, before becoming the Homeopathic Hospital (renamed the Metropolitan Hospital in 1894).

Inebriate Asylum, Ward's Island

The Inebriate Asylum on Ward’s Island was a short-term experiment that lasted only eight years.

In 1910, it was reported that 25,000 people were arrested annually for drunkenness in Manhattan and the Bronx alone. It was also estimated that habitual drunkenness cost the city, directly and indirectly, $2.4 million a year.

By this time, most inebriates were ending up at the Workhouse on Blackwell’s island, where, according to The New York Times, they simply “drag[ged] through the days of their discipline until such time as they may leave and begin all over again the process of being sent back.”

At this same point in time, medical doctors and criminologists were looking at rehabilitation through therapy and isolation as a viable alternative to the workhouse or severe punishment and imprisonment. One such rehabilitation solution was to send law-breaking inebriates to remote rural areas or farms, where, in an environment of fresh air, physical exercise, education, good food (no intoxicating beverages), and counseling, they could learn new trades, regain their pride, build character, and prepare for productive lives in society. In effect, inebriates would be treated as sick people with a disease rather than as law-breaking prisoners.

Charles Samson, Executive Secretary, NYC Board of Inebriety

At the age of 30, Charles Samson was appointed executive secretary of the Board of Inebriety in 1912. Prior to this appointment, Samson was secretary to Dr. John W. Brannan, president of the Board of Trustees and Bellevue and Allied Hospitals. He and his wife, Mary, had two daughters, Virginia and Margaret, and lived at 371 Manhattan Avenue.

In 1910, the New York State Legislature authorized the City of New York to establish a Board of Inebriety with power to “construct and maintain a hospital and industrial colony within or without the city for the care, treatment, and occupation of inebriates in accordance with methods approved by medical science” (Chapter 551 of the Laws of 1910).

Mayor William Jay Gaynor appointed five members to the board in July 1911 and three months later, the board opened its headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street (the former Police Headquarters building).

The Search for a Farm

The day after the board set up shop on Mulberry Street, newly appointed Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo (yes, the former Fire Commissioner) offered the board an 80-acre farm near Flushing, Long Island, that was worth $150,000. The board did not vote to approve the offer, as it was their intention to buy as much land as possible for the amount of money allocated.

Kings Park, Smithtown, Long Island

The Board of Inebriety considered a farm on the old H. Chatfield Smith estate (lower right side of this 1909 map) in 1912. The property was owned by Edgar T. and Joseph W. Smith, the sons of Henry Chatfield Smith and his wife, Mary Huntting. The farm was near today’s intersection of Lawrence Road and Boxwood Drive in Kings Park.

In February 1912, the board looked at another farm of about 520 acres in Smithtown, Long Island. The farm, part of the old Chatfield Smith Estate at Kings Park, was ideally located next to the Kings Park State Hospital for the Insane (Kings Park Psychiatric Center) between the Long Island Sound and the Long Island Railroad.

The board made an offer of $120,000, but the deal never went through. Not only did the Smithtown residents protest the sale, but Manhattan Borough President George McAneny criticized the purchase, saying it was too much to pay for farmland, especially since only 150 of the 500 acres were cleared and available for cultivation. Instead, he recommended a farm in Orange County, just 60 miles northwest of Manhattan.

The Hospital and Industrial Colony at Warwick (aka, the “City Farm”)

Wisner-Durland Manor House, Warwick NY

In 1842, Henry Board Wisner hired New York architect Thomas Austin and master mason John Earle to build a beautiful manor house on his farm, located on the 1766 Wisner Tract. Photo, courtesy Albert Wisner Public Library

In February 1912, members of the Board of Inebriety took a trip to Warwick, New York. There, they toured the old Wisner-Durland Farm — shown in the top center of this 1875 map of Orange County — which contained 640 acres of land and 160 acres of Wickham Lake.

The farm had been previously owned by descendents of Captain John Wisner, who acquired some 2064 acres in 1766. The Wisner family sold the property at the south end of the lake to Thomas E. Durland in 1893. Thomas and his Yale-educated son Jesse operated a progressive farm known for its high breed of milk cows and quality dairy products sold on the New York City Milk Exchange.

City Farm, Warwick, NY

Plans for the City Farm included a reception hospital for 60 patients; four cottages; buildings to furnish light, heat and power; laundry and kitchen buildings; and a recreation building with a reading room and gymnasium. Later plans included a chapel, administrative buildings, and numerous workshops.

The farm was beautifully maintained and well-equipped, and featured the original manor home as well as modern-equipped barns, a creamery, and an ice house. The land was also adjacent to the Lehigh & Hudson River Railway, which was perfect for transporting agricultural products to New York City (including hay for the city’s police and fire horses and produce for the city’s hospitals).

The board members liked what they saw in Warwick. Without further ado, the city purchased the farm from General Thomas Durland Landon, the nephew and only heir of Jesse Durland, for $75,000 (talk about a good deal!).

Thomas Durland Landon, 1865-1934

Thomas Durland Landon (1865-1934) was Commandant of the Bordentown Military Institute (BMI) in New Jersey from 1881 until his death in October 1934. He also served as Major of the 3rd New Jersey Infantry during the Spanish-American War and was commissioned as a Colonel in the Army during World War I. He is buried in Bordentown Cemetery.

There is a great deal of information about the farm (and photos) on the Albert Wisner Library website and on the website for Warwick Valley Living, so let’s get back to the untold story about the FDNY fire horses…

Charles Samson’s Proposal

On September 29, 1913, Fire Commissioner Johnson received a letter from Samson offering an honorable retirement for all the old fire horses – or most of them – on the farm in Warwick. He explained that there would be ample forage for the horses, and over the stall of each one there would be a plate bearing the horse’s name and record of service.

None of the horses, Samson stressed, would be used for work. Commissioner Johnson accepted the offer eagerly and said he would be sending three or four horses there the following week.

Now, where exactly Samson planned on putting all these horses is a mystery. According to The City Record of 1916, sometime after the contract for the purchase of the farm was made, but before the title was acquired, two barns were destroyed in a fire. Three years later, the board was still using a makeshift stable for the horses when it requested the Board of Aldermen for $10,000 to construct a new barn.

Bellevue Hospital ambulance horses

In addition to fire horses, the City Farm also accepted other retired city horses. The first horses to retire in Warwick were two ambulance horses from Bellevue Hospital. Museum of the City of New York Collections

Sadly, it doesn’t appear that the city took much advantage of Samson’s offer: By 1914, only five horses from the FDNY were living a life of ease on the Warwick farm. The farm itself — which had been expanded to include treatment for those addicted to heroine, opium, and other drugs in a “tent colony” — also didn’t last long: In 1918, only two board members remained and there were only 37 residents on the farm and six staff members to care for them.

The City Farm was shut down in 1918, and, on July 14, 1919 – the year Congress enacted Prohibition — the board adopted a resolution turning the farm over to the Commissioners of the Sinking Fund “for such disposition as they may desire to make of such land, buildings, and appurtenances.” Activities continued for another year, but on July 24, 1920, the Middletown Daily Herald reported that there were no more patients on the farm.

Wisner-Durland Manor, Warwick, NY

When the Mid-Orange prison closed for good in 2012, dozens of buildings, including the 1842 Wisner-Durland Manor, were left empty and boarded up. Photo, P. Gavan, 2015

Although several agencies inquired about the property (the U.S. Public Health Service wanted it for the care of discharged “insane soldiers and sailors”), the land was under-utilized until 1932, when the State Training School for Boys officially opened on July 1. The school for delinquent boys operated for almost 45 years until, in 1976, it was converted into a medium-security prison called Mid-Orange (the prison was ordered closed in 2011).

Today, 36 acres of the old City Farm – now called the Warwick Valley Office & Technology Corporate Park — has been converted into a sports training facility and summer camp called “The Yard” operated by Frozen Ropes training centers. Some of the land has also been set aside for a town park, and one of the old buildings on the site was donated to the Warwick Volunteer Fire Department for training purposes.

Warwick, New York

Once upon a time, a few lucky FDNY horses retired to the old Wisner-Durland farm in Warwick. I wonder if there are any equine descendents of these horse heroes in my hometown today?

  1. […] my next post, I’ll tell you about a special farm in upstate New York where retired fire horses grazed alongside New York City’s alcoholics and drug […]