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160 Years of Service

In the winter of 1851 many were still alive who witnessed the birth of America; in August the yacht America won the first America’s cup;  November saw Herman Melville publish Moby Dick.  One of our least known presidents and the last Whig, Millard Fillmore, was in the White House.

Nyack was a very different village. The majority of the stores and homes were located on the east side of Old Hook Road—not yet called Broadway.  Nyack was growing; steamboats owned by David Smith and his brothers were making daily runs down the river to New York carrying farm produce from Rockland County.  Holiday plans were in full swing on the evening of December 18 when the cry of fire was heard. The steamboat Arrow, moored at the Main Street Dock, was on fire. The only fire truck in town was drawn to the scene by the men of Orangetown Fire Company.  Their fire truck worked hard, but the steamboat was consumed.  In the next day’s Rockland Journal, editor William G. Hasselbarth wrote the Arrow was terribly damaged due to lack of adequate means to combat the fire.  It was a few days later, two days before Christmas, a meeting of twenty-six members of the Fire Department and New York firemen living in Nyack held an organizational meeting at the Paint Shop of J.H. Oliver, over Taylor’s Carriage Factory on Main Street to organize a new fire company.

About the only thing historians know about the meeting was Nyack’s second fire company was born.  No minutes were kept, but it is apparent the company name was also chosen at the meeting: Mazeppa.

For years company members discussed the reasons for adopting this unusual name. Al Simons in his history of Mazeppa writes “a late member of Engine Company No. 48 of NY City Fire Department chose the name because his own company, organized in 1828, was also named Mazeppa.  Later Ron Bolson, in his history of Mazeppa, writes of the origin of the name.  Ivan Stefanovich Mazeppa was born in 1640 in Poland. His liaison with one of the royal ladies was discovered by her husband and Mazeppa was bound to a horse that was set loose to gallop across the steppes of the Ukraine.  He was rescued and became a leader of the Cossacks.  Portraits of Mazeppa’s steed adorned several volunteer fire trucks in NY City.  For whatever reason the name was chosen, each of Nyack’s Mazeppa Fire Engines proudly displays the gallant steed that has raced to the scene of fires for 160 years.

The first meeting of Mazeppa was held at the York House on the corner of Main & Piermont on January 6, 1852.  William Perry was elected Foreman. Shortly afterwards, Mazeppa purchased the latest in firefighting equipment: a piano-box side-arm pumping engine in NY City for the astronomical sum $1,000. Their truck was housed in several places until 1887 until the company moved into the fire house they still occupy today.

Mazeppa rightly claims to be the first Rockland County Fire Company to cross the Hudson River to fight a fire.  Their fire engine was placed on a ferry in 1867 and again in 1868 to aid firefighters in combatting blazes in Tarrytown.  Mazeppa was the first fire company in Nyack to have a fire bell.  It was placed on a pole in front of the engine house.  Company by-laws required the first member arriving at the engine house to ring the bell until a thorough alarm should be sounded or be fined 50¢.

When the Nyack Fire Department was formed in 1863 Mazeppa’s Charles G. Crawford was elected its first chief.  A member of that company, George Dickey, was the longest-serving chief in the NFD; he served for 12 years: 1877-1889. The first president of Mazeppa was the Honorable State Supreme Judge Arthur Tompkins. Elected in 1888, he served for 50 years.

For those who would like to read more, two  detailed histories of Mazeppa are at the Nyack Library: Alan E. Simmons history of Mazeppa A Century of Service, and Ron Bolson’s excellent Mazeppa.

Their 160 years of service is celebrated at their annual dinners when current members of Mazeppa stand in front of their guests and sing:

The old gray mare,
She ain’t what she used to be,
Ain’t what she used to be,
Ain’t what she used to be,
The old gray mare,
She ain’t what she used to be
Many long years ago.

The Nyack Villager thanks Jim Leiner for helping us all ‘Remember the Days .’