JAMES W. AYERS was born in New York City on November 24, 1822. He was apprenticed at the age of 10 in the hair cloth and curled hair trade. He became a journeyman in the trade at the age of 18, and in 1841 he moved to Camden, where he found work with Samuel Ross, at Ross's Haircloth Factory at Fourth and Federal Streets. He remained with the firm after the 1849 fire in which the plant burned down.
A Republican, James W. Ayers was elected to City Council from the Middle Ward in 1859. He was a member of the Camden Police Department in 1861, and again from 1864 to 1874, under Mayors Paul C. Budd, Charles Cox, and Samuel M. Gaul. While not on the force, he worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in a variety of positions, and was a volunteer fireman. In 1866 he was named Chief Engineer of the Volunteer Fire Department.
On June 7, 1866 Camden's City Council enacted an ordinance reorganizing the volunteer fire service to improve efficiency in operations. This ordinance provided for increased compensation to the fire companies (Weccacoe and Independence got $800 per annum to be paid quarterly, the Weccacoe and Shiffler Hose companies and the United States Fire Company received $200 annually). The volunteer fire companies were also directed to select a Chief Fire Marshal and three Assistant Marshals, one from each district. The selections were subject to approval by Council. The new department was called "The Fire Department of the City of Camden". In protest of this ordinance the New Jersey Fire Company No.4 withdrew from the new, organized volunteer department.
James W. Ayers of the Weccacoe Engine Company No. 2 was elected Chief Marshal and served until 1868 when he was succeeded by Wesley P. Murray of the Weccacoe Hose Company No.2. Murray was aided by Assistant Engineers William Abels, First District; Simeon H. Long, Second District; and Charles H. Knox, Third District. Both Ayers and Murray were well organized and popular with the volunteers. For this reason the New Jersey Fire Company No.4 petitioned City Council to be readmitted to the volunteer department. Although the petition was supported by all the fire companies, it was rejected by the Council which had already sold the New Jersey apparatus on June 13, 1866 for $100.
Late in 1867 three major fires occurred in the city. The first, on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 20 about 3 P.M. destroyed the Third Street Methodist Episcopal Church located above Bridge Avenue. This disastrous blaze was one of the largest fires in the history of the City destroying five dwellings and seriously damaging several others while leaving the church in ruins. A roof fire was discovered on the south side of the church; the cause believed to be a defective flue but some said it was a spark from a passing locomotive. A stiff southwest breeze quickly spread the flames, overwhelming all efforts by the firemen. Chief Ayers summoned assistance from several Philadelphia volunteer companies as Camden's fire fighters turned their efforts toward saving exposures. These efforts were greatly hampered by an inadequate water supply. The dwellings at 229, 231 and 233 Taylor Avenue burned to the ground while 227 sustained heavy damage to the roof and top floor. Properties at #9 and #11 South Third Street also were damaged as flying embers ignited their roofs. A dwelling at #13 South Third Street was heavily damaged by the flames. Only due to the valiant efforts of the combined fire forces was the conflagration halted late that night. Both Chief Ayers and Captain Wesley P. Murray were commended for their judgment and action while directing firefighting efforts. Citizens felt that if the water supply had been better the: efforts of the firemen would have contained the blaze much earlier.
Nearly a month later the second blaze occurred; the Nickel Works, owned by Wharton and Fleightman and located in the block bounded by York, State Tenth Streets and Cooper's Creek. The fire started about 6 P.M. on Sunday: the 15th, when the dryers in the drying house overheated. A total effort by the Independence and Weccacoe steam engines, the United States ladder company and the hose companies of the department contained the fire to the original 40 by 50 foot building. A good water supply from the creek nearby and a quick response by fire companies contained the spread of fire resulting in only minor damage to several surrounding buildings.
Eight days later, on December 23, 1867 the Camden Rolling Mills Company was severely damaged by fire. The mill was one of the city's largest industries and stood at the head of Third Street on the Delaware River. The blaze began in the machine shop when a cinder was thrown from one of the puddling furnaces. Flames spread rapidly through the wood frame building that covered almost an acre of ground. A prompt response and assistance from Philadelphia enabled fire fighters to save the other buildings in the complex.
The Good Intent Steam Fire Engine Company and the William Penn Hose Company were the first Philadelphia companies to arrive on the scene to aid the Camden fire fighters. Steamers from the Mechanic, Philadelphia and Fame Fire Companies subsequently arrived and were followed by additional hose and hook & ladder companies. Good Intent's steamer had to pass through a section of the burning building to reach a wharf from which to supply much needed water to combat the blaze. While doing so, it became jammed between a pair of shears. Fire fighters were successful in freeing the apparatus but not before the horses were badly singed.
Lost in the fire were seven puddling furnaces, four heating furnaces, one scrap furnace, twenty-two boilers, six steam powered drive engines, thirty-two nail machines, three trains of bar rollers and other machinery and stock.
After the Nickel Works fire in 1867 another, more destructive blaze occurred at the complex on Sunday night, July 12, 1868. Flames were discovered in the southwest corner of the main building and as firemen arrived, the fire was extending to several nearby occupied dwellings and to the roof of the mill's power house. Fire fighters placed their apparatus effectively and were able to darken the flames on the power house roof and contain the blaze. The original fire building and the homes were destroyed. Damage was estimated at $30,000 to $40,000, far more than the $10,000 damage estimate of the earlier fire. Firemen had to contend with high temperatures and humidity as well as the heat from the blaze while quelling this mid-summer fire.
Still another destructive fire occurred less than a week later. About 5 P.M. the following Saturday, July 18, flames were discovered coming from the engine room of Goldey & Cohn's large box factory on Taylor Avenue. Flames spread through the building, feeding on the highly combustible stock. The entire building was soon engulfed in fire as was the late R.H. Middleton's brick stable. A brisk southwest wind carried the flames across Taylor Avenue to the company's lumber pile and onward to Middleton's warerooms at #7 South Second Street and also his two and one-half story frame dwelling at #5 South Second Street.
Chief Engineer Ayers realized that additional help was needed and telegraphed Chief McClusker of Philadelphia for assistance. The blaze was already threatening to consume the most densely populated and most valuable section of the City. Chief McClusker responded with steamers from the Vigilant and Hibernia Fire Companies, the Fairmount, Lafayette, Neptune, America and Diligent Hose Companies and the Empire Hook & Ladder Company.
As the firemen placed the steamers along the Delaware River and laid their hose lines, the fire spread to the Ware & Marshall meat and provision store, a two story brick property at #3 South Second Street and to a two and one-half story brick dwelling at #1 South Second Street (owned by Joab Scull and occupied by Charles Armstrong). These buildings were destroyed as was Joab Scull's wood frame grocery store on the southwest corner of Second and Federal Streets and an adjacent three story brick dwelling (also owned by Scull but occupied by Mr. Goldey).
The fire continued to spread destroying Mr. Test's frame drugstore and extending to the home of James M. Cassady, Esquire's house at 128 Federal Street. Firemen were successful in saving Cassady's residence from complete destruction. Although the property sustained heavy water damage, only the rear of the building was destroyed. The fire fighters continued their determined stand against the oncoming flames and were able to save the property of the late Samuel McLain which adjoined Cassady's residence.
Conrad Hoell's saloon at the corner of Second and Federal Streets and the adjoining building occupied by L.G. Peterson ignited several times, but the flames were quenched by what the West Jersey Press called the "superhuman exertions" of the fire fighters.
Several firemen were overcome by the intense heat, including Captain Wesley P. Murray and Joseph Flanigan of the Weccacoe Hose and Robert S. Bender, Thomas McCowan and Thomas Allibone of the Independence Steam Engine. These men had to be removed from the scene.
Combined losses exceeding $54,000 were reported as a result of this devastating conflagration. Chief Engineer Ayers praised the efforts of his men and the good work done by Chief McClusker and his forces from Philadelphia. The grateful citizens joined in this praise.
Later that year Chief Ayers was succeeded as Chief Engineer by Captain Murray, and turned his attention to police work.
James W. Ayers was elected Mayor in March of 1877, defeating John Morgan, who had been appointed Mayor by City Council upon the death of John H. Jones on October 27, 1876. He served one term, not running for re-election in 1880. He returned to police work with the Pennsylvania Railroad after leaving office. He was succeeded by Claudius W. Bradshaw.
During Mayor Ayers' term the first telephones were installed in Camden, and the first train ran from Camden to Atlantic City. The city also suffered through a hurricane in October of 1878 which caused great damage.
At the time of the 1880 census, James W. Ayers and wife Priscilla resided at 423 Arch Street in Camden. The family included six children at the time ranging in age from 23 to 11, Mary, Maggie, John, Anne, James W., and Harry R. Ayers. Mayor Ayers died at his home at 423 Arch Street on August 27, 1896.
|Philadelphia Inquirer - March 2, 1869|
Hufty - William
Abels - Robert S. Bender
Jacob Daubman - James W. Ayers - Frank B. Holt
|Philadelphia Inquirer - April 19, 1871|
W. Curlis - John I. Smith - Charles M.
Thomas E. Mason - James W. Ayers - Daniel Johntra
Charles Catting - William Chambers - Theodore W. Jones
Abraham Lower - William H. Hawkins - William D. Middleton
Thomas H. Coles - John W. Campbell - Samuel Mortland
William A. White - John J. Brown - Jesse C. Chew
Cornelius M. Brown - Joseph Muinbaeck - Jacob Hefflenger
Miles Morgan - Henry L. Johnson - William Campbell
|Philadelphia Inquirer - July 1, 1872|
|Frank Holt - Samuel Hufty - William Maguire|
November 13, 1877
Philadelphia Inquirer * December 8, 1877
|James Ayers - Liberty Street - Mrs. Eddine - William Suders|
Philadelphia Inquirer - April 27, 1880
James M. Cassady - James
W. Ayers - Elmer Barr
H.H. Franks - P. Gallagher - John W. Streeper -
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