John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Incredible footage from the 1920s shows New York's traffic has always been a problem (especially when you're rushing to put out a fire).
The most battle-hardened taxi driver of today has got nothing on whoever's clutching the wheel of Chief John Kenlon's fire mobile during this madcap dash through 1920s New York.
The call for a warehouse blaze on East 123rd Street went out in the afternoon and in an instant firefighters were sliding down the pole to respond. Kenlon, who became the chief of New York's Fire Department in 1911 and later earned the title of "World's Most Famous Firefighter," had the presence of mind to record the journey by mounting a camera on the hood of his car. And a good thing he did, because otherwise we might not know how utterly abysmal the traffic was in the Roaring Twenties.
The roads are clogged with aimless pedestrians, slow-moving cars and imposing trolleys that Kenlon's crew play chicken with. Faced with a clot of gridlock, the driver crunches gears and guns it onto the sidewalk. That's led one YouTube commenter to wonder, "how many innocent bystanders were killed on the way to the fire?" Hey, it's a dang conflagration, people. Would you rather the building burned to the ground or the firefighters tenderized a couple of toes?
The movie is taken from the Stillman Fires Collection at the always-engaging Prelinger Archives. The original version was silent. But that was boring, so Norman “Doc” Zaffater of the Shreveport-based Signal 51 Group added in plenty of adrenalin-spiking toots and whistles in this version. Writes the late Zaffater:
This is a rare glimpse back at how it was for NYC's fire apparatus to respond to fires in the early 1920s.
There was a great deal of traffic on the streets of NYC back then and with only a bell, no Federal Q or electronic sirens, no airhorn and no LED flashing lights it had to be sheer guts and outstanding driving skills that got firemen to the fire in time to do their job.
If you're wondering why this old footage seems so familiar, perhaps you're thinking of this: