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James Baldwin

The Bootblack from Ann Street

Several years ago near the corner of Park Row and Beekman Street, New York, there stood a large frame building. It was four or five stories in height. On the ground floor there were several stores; the upper floors were occupied by offices.

Like all the old-fashioned buildings of that time, it contained but one stairway, and there was no fire escape. Elevators had not yet come into use. The only way, therefore, of passing to or from the upper rooms was by means of the rickety wooden stairs. No such building would now be permitted to exist in the city.

One cold day in January the end came to that old structure. A fire broke out, nobody knew exactly where. The stairway was soon filled with smoke and flame. The people in the offices above were cut off—there seemed to be no way for them to escape. Some were burned to death. Some were smothered by the smoke. A few were rescued from the windows by means of ladders.

The Fire Department was not then equipped as it is now. There were no ladders long enough to reach to the topmost floor; and yet there were three men on that floor looking out at a window and calling for help. What could be done to save them? Was there no way of getting them down from their perilous position? If they remained where they were, the flames would soon reach and destroy them. If they leaped to the pavement below, they would surely be crushed to death.

While the firemen were vainly throwing water on the flames, and everybody was wondering what should be done, a little bootblack rushed into the crowd. He saw the men, with hopeless, beseeching faces, standing at the window. He saw, too, what no other person had seen, the only way of saying them.

"Hey there! give me that jimmy!" he cried, and he snatched a wrench from the hands of a mechanic who was standing by. He rushed to a telegraph pole that stood directly across the street from the burning building. In a moment he was "shinning it" up the pole, with the heavy wrench stuck in his belt.

"What's he going to do up there?" inquired the bystanders. Then they noticed for the first time that a wire rope—a stay rope, as it was called—extended from the top of the pole to the roof of the building at a point just above the window where the men were standing. If the rope could be cut from the pole, it would fall right across the window, and the men could slide down it to the ground.

Not a moment was to be lost. The fire was already beginning to take hold of the woodwork beneath the window. The smoke was rolling up in heavy clouds. The wind was blowing a gale. Would the little fellow ever get to the top of the pole? Small though he was, he was agile and strong, and he went up rapidly. When he reached the first crosspiece, the crowd below him gave a great cheer. In another moment he was on the upper crosspiece, his wrench was in his hands, he was hard at work twisting the wire rope from its fastening. The crowd cheered again.

Oh, how well that rope was fastened, and how long it took to loosen it! But at last it fell. It fell just as the boy expected it to fall, and hung straight down in front of the window. The men saw it. They seized it, and one after another slid quickly down to the ground. A few minutes later the whole of the upper floor of the building fell in with a fearful crash.

The little hero who had saved three lives by his quick wit came leisurely down the telegraph pule, returned the wrench to its owner, and again mingled with the crowd. He did not expect to be rewarded. He never thought of thanks. He had only done his duty.

"Where is the boy who cut that wire?" inquired a gentleman who had seen the brave deed.

"Yes, where is he?" inquired others, seeming now to remember that he deserved some reward. "Who is he?"

"Oh, it's Charlie Wright, the little bootblack from Ann Street," said one who knew him.

An agent of the American Humane Society soon afterward found him busy at work in his accustomed place. "Well, Charlie," he said, "you did a brave and noble deed, and our society wishes to thank you for it by giving you a medal."

The story of his exploit was told in London. The English Humane Society wished also to thank him, and it sent him a gold medal inscribed with these words: Presented to Charles Wright, for saving three lives.