Born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1789, the son of William, a sea captain, and Abigail Lawton Engs, Philip came to New York City as a youth and apparently went to work in the mercantile trades. His passion, however, was fighting fires, a lifelong preoccupation. While still in his teens he joined Fulton Engine Co. No. 21, a volunteer fire company organized in 1795 that originally met in Crooks Tavern until it acquired a fire house, shown here. Engs rose rapidly in the ranks of his fellow firefighters, after three years chosen secretary of the company and by 1815, age 26, elected foreman (commander), a position he held until 1820.
Meanwhile in 1808 Engs had established his own business, selling whiskey and wine but also molasses, groceries and ships stores. A descendant explaining how the youthful Engs came by his entrepreneurial talent, cited a grandfather who had been a successful merchant and added: “You will see…from his antecedents that Mr. Engs was a trained businessman and thoroughly commercial in his instincts and aspirations.” Those instincts ultimately caused him to jettison selling other goods to concentrate on wholesale spirits and wine.
Engs' headquarters was at 131 Front Street in Manhattan, described later as a “quaint old building.” From there he not only carried on a vigorous wholesale trade, he also was operating as a “rectifier,” that is, blending raw whiskeys to achieve a particular taste and color. For one blend he adopted the brand name of “Engs Baltimore Rye,” despite being a considerable distance from the Maryland city. He sold it in an elegantly glazed ewer-like jug.
In 1812 Philip married Anna T. Franklin, a native New Yorker, whose father was a prominent local merchant. The couple would go on to have a family of ten children, among them two sons who eventually would be taken into the liquor business, Samuel F. and George. According to city directories, the burgeoning Engs family were living at 162 Grand Street in lower Manhattan.
As he rose in wealth and influence, Engs increasingly was becoming involved in the civic affairs of a rapidly expanding metropolis where the unmet needs of the populace, particularly the poor, were a growing concern. In December 1817 Engs was among what he called “a number of philanthropic gentlemen” who met at a New York hospital to consider the causes of poverty and adopt efforts to remedy them. Out of these discussions came a number of initiatives including creation of an alms house to provide shelter for the indigent, a medical dispensary, and free public schools. Philip Engs would play a pivotal role in each of those efforts.
In 1934, after serving at two terms as an elected “assistant alderman” in New York’s 14th Ward, Engs was named one of five Commissioners of the Alms House. Their job was to supervise those sanctuaries and provide general relief to poor people living outside them. Shown above is a drawing of the largest of the facilities, located on Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island, in the East River. The commissioners also had responsibilities for medical care and those duties may have propelled Engs into still another philanthropic effort.
The Northern Dispensary, shown here still standing, was erected in Greenwich Village just off Christopher Street in 1831 for the purpose of providing medical and hospital care for the indigent. The dispensary was designed to serve 40,000 people living between Spring and 21st Streets and from Broadway to the Hudson River. A dispensary annual report of 1832 listed 3,296 patients treated. Edgar Allan Poe is recorded as having obtained medicine there for a winter cold in 1837, but many patients were treated right in their own homes. In 1834, Engs was named Commissioner of Supplies for the dispensary, responsible for seeing that it had necessary medicines and other supplies.
That same year Engs was named one of the Commissioners for Common Schools. These were neighborhood schools for the children of families not able to pay for a private eduction. Laws passed after 1812 authorized New York State to create such institutions of learning. Soon the state had 10,000 public school districts. The typical district had a one- or two-room schoolhouse where children learned reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, and geography. In the Big Apple, however, schools, as shown here, often were larger and offered better educational opportunity. Their success also became Engs’ responsibility.
In addition to these civic duties, Engs never forgot his first love — fighting fires. At the time he had joined the Fulton firefighters, the scene of a blaze often was chaotic. Volunteers companies often fought among themselves for prominence while the flames raged on.
As he gained experience Engs recognized the need for professionalized fire services in New York. Accordingly, he became a driving force behind a paid fire department, as one observer ironically put it, “sweeping away the romantic past.” It was established by the New York Legislature in 1865. More than 3,800 volunteers were expunged from the rolls and a professional New York Fire Department was born. Among five fire commissioners appointed by the governor was Philip W. Engs.
He amply had earned the post. Earlier, with other investors he had incorporated “The Fireman’s Insurance Fund” to insure against loss or damage by fire and to afford charitable funds for firefighters and their families. He also served as president of the Association of Exempt Firemen. Those and other Engs' initiatives figured prominently in an 1887 history of Big Apple firefighting called “Our Firemen.” The book contained a portrait of the 76-year-old Commissioner Engs, shown here. The liquor dealer also was an historian of New York’s fire service. Although he never published it, another author credited an Engs' manuscript for “most of the facts” about the early days of firefighting.
Despite his manifold civic involvements, Engs continued to prosper in the liquor trade. In 1848 his son, Samuel F., was taken as a partner and the firm became P.W. Engs & Son. In 1855, George Engs was admitted to partnership and “Sons” added to the company name. In time, E. L. Snyder, his grandson through his daughter Vida, was brought into the hierarchy. Philip Engs died in 1875, his final resting place was Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, below.
With Samuel now the president of the firm, the liquor firm continued to thrive into the next century although facing problems. The first occurred when George Engs died and his widow contested the value of his shares given to her. A court agreed with the remaining two partners. Subsequently Snyder took over as head of the company, moving the offices to 268 West Broadway. On August 25, 1890, that building was engulfed in fire, likely started in a novelty company upstairs. When the smoke cleared, the building and liquor stocks were just smoldering ruins. Everything was covered by insurance, however, and by the next morning P. W. Engs & Sons Company had opened in the adjoining Wool Exchange Building and said to be “ready to do business as usual.”
Within a few months, Snyder had rebuilt on West Broadway but later moved to 632 West 34th Street, where the company remained until shut down after 1915 because of National Prohibition. P. W. Engs & Sons had survived for more than 107 years. Snyder told a trade paper: “We are the oldest house in New York, and with a single exception, the oldest in the United States in so far as the continuous use of one firm name is considered.” Philip Engs had built a whiskey dynasty.
That said, my thoughts about Engs turn mostly to the major contributions he made to his city and particularly to its less fortunate residents. Many “whiskey men” profiled in this blog have been positive forces in their communities but none played the pivotal role of Philip Engs in New York City at a critical point in its history. A last word on this public spirited whiskey man is a quote from Thomas Carlyle that the Engs’ family attached to his portrait when they presented it to city officials: “Blessed be heaven there is, here and there, a man born who loves truth as truth should be loved and hates untruth with a corresponding hatred.”