Mount Morris Fire Watchtower: An Innovation to Change History

By: Dylan Rodgers

Well before air surveillance, security cameras, fire hydrants, and smoke detectors, fire was far more devastating to communities; especially ones built like New York City (wooden buildings densely packed together).  Because household electricity had not yet been invented in the early 19th century, cooking, lighting, and heating were all accomplished by open flame, raising the risk of fire-related incidents.

To combat this risk, New York City installed an extensive reservoir system for a quick water supply and placed fire watch towers throughout the city with watchmen on guard 24/7.  The watchmen used bells, flags, and lanterns for communication.

Everything was running smoothly until they noticed how flammable their wooden, fire watchtowers actually were.  But with a stroke of innovative genius from inventor James Bogardus, fireproof construction became available.  The Mount Morris Fire Watchtower, a cast-iron citadel of fire watching power, was the third tower of its kind built in the world.  Constructed in 1855 in Marcus Garvey Park because of massive petition by Harlem residents, the tower remains the only surviving example of its kind.  It came equipped with a bell (though the one on it now is not the original) and a structural design that paved the way to the steel, skeletal structure of modern skyscrapers.

The fire watchtower network became obsolete in the 1870s once the Fire Department began using telegraphic alarms on street corners.  The Mount Morris Watchtower was used for timekeeping until 1909 by sounding the bell and noon and 9pm on weekdays and 9am and 9pm on Sundays.

The Mount Morris Fire Watchtower represents an architectural innovation that helped protect Harlem with a vigilant eye while simultaneously giving birth to the massive New York cityscape that causes awe-inspiring, whiplash injuries to countless visitors every year.  It is exciting to see something so integral to our modern lives be cared for and embraced by the community that it was designed to protect.

The Mount Morris Fire Watchtower Location: The Center of Marcus Garvey Park From 120th Street to 124th Street In Between Lenox Ave. and Park Ave.

Photo: Jeremy Seto