Axemen & Laddermen & Firehook Men, Oh My!

Reading through a book published in 1898, “Landmarks of Detroit- A History of the City”, I found a passage on the history of the Detroit Fire Department. This is from a passage describing the time period around 1805, when nearly the entire city was destroyed by fire. Hope you find it as interesting as I did.

  • Axemen were selected from the best choppers in the settlement, and most of these were Frenchmen.”
  • Adventurous young fellows of the dare-devil sort were made laddermen, and they scaled the two story roofs to dash water on blazing thatch or down the roaring- chimneys. “
  • Firehook men were those who tore down blazing ruins.”
  • Battering ram men dashed the old log houses to pieces when there was no longer hope of saving them.”
  • Bagmen were selected from the men of lesser thews and sinews, and they were usually the merchants and professional men of mature years.”

Thews and sinews refer to muscles or physical strengths.  The text doesn’t clarify what function bagmen played in fighting a fire.

  • “In fact it was quite the proper thing for young men who had social or political ambitions to connect themselves with the fire department, for the firemen of seventy years age was as much idolized by the fair sex as is the shaggy and uncouth hero of the football field in this fin de siccle period.”

Fin de siccle translated in French is turn of the century. It often refers to a cultural period of cynicism, pessimism, and a widespread belief that civilization leads to decadence.

  • “The first company to get a stream on a fire was greeted with cheers by the bystanders. Ladies rushed to the vicinity of the fire, and in adjacent buildings made hot coffee, which was passed about among the workers, who were the heroes of the hour.”


Although we no longer call ourselves Axemen, Bagmen, Laddermen, Firehook Men, and Battering Ram Men, these passages show you some things never change. Firefighters are still cheered by bystanders, hot coffee is still a welcomed relief when you’re cold and wet, and the ladies still love firemen!


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