On the Frontlines: A History of Essential Workers in Cayuga County


In honor of all the essential workers who are continuing to work to keep us safe and provided for,
this week we are taking a look into the history of some of these institutions.


Auburn Police Department and the Cayuga County Sheriff’s Office

Early 1900’s Indian Motorcycle

Early law enforcement in the United States consisted mainly of an informal watch system which quickly became inadequate as population growth increased and became concentrated in urban centers. By the 1830s, fear of social disorder led to the creation of formalized police departments. Riots were sweeping across major cities as economic and social changes caused unrest, leading the commercial elites to push for a way to ensure a stable and orderly workforce.

In Cayuga County

Law enforcement has always been written into the history of Cayuga County. The County Sheriff’s Office was formed on March 5, 1794, the same day as Onondaga County was formed, which encompassed what is now Cayuga County. 

In 1848 Auburn became a City and the Mayor submitted a list of standing committees which included a Committee on Police and Licenses. 

In 1858 the Auburn city Marshal Joseph White petitioned to hire a special policeman. He was granted permission and by 1869, up to 20 policemen could be appointed by the Mayor.  By 1879 the Committee on Police and Licenses was replaced by the Board of Charities and Police. This Board could appoint a Chief of Police, the first being C.W. Jennings.

Auburn Police Department Today

Mission: “To enhance the quality of life in the City of Auburn by working cooperatively with the citizenry to enforce the laws, preserve the peace, and provide for a safe environment.

Paddy Wagon, 1911
Kroehler Car Accident

The Police Department is made up of eight divisions today, including the Chief, Command Unit, Detective Bureau, Finger Lakes Drug Task Force, I.D. Bureau, K-9 Unit, Patrol Division, and Records Bureau.

The Auburn Police Department is committed to their community by offering such programs as community policing, D.A.R.E., Neighborhood Watch, and the School Resource Officer Program.


Cayuga County Sheriff‘s Office

The mission of the Cayuga County Sheriff’s Office is to secure and maintain a safe community and enhance the quality of life of all citizens by providing responsive, caring, unbiased, and professional Law Enforcement, Custody, Correctional, Security, and Civil Enforcement services. The Sheriff’s Office is committed to utilizing community partnerships to accomplish this mission and to maintain the trust and respect of those we serve.


1955 Chevy

The County Sheriff’s office serves a jurisdiction that covers close to 900 square miles, and encompasses 23 towns and 9 villages with over 76,000 residents. 

Policemen are still responding to all in-progress and emergency calls but have had to make changes to how they operate. Officers must wear masks and gloves when necessary, 911 operators are required to ask callers if anyone in their household has had flu-like symptoms, and non-emergency complaints are being handled by phone whenever possible.






Fire Department

Fire protection was not always the public service which we consider it to be today. In the early days of firefighting, insurance companies employed firefighters and only those homes who paid insurance were guaranteed fire protection. Outside of these agencies, it was the responsibility of each and every member of the community to aid in battling a fire.  A large number of people were required to haul the heavy fire fighting equipment to the scene of the fire, and bucket brigades were necessary to transport water from cisterns and reservoirs.

The first recorded fire in Auburn took place on  December 21, 1816 at the Samuel Dill Saw and Carding Mill. The fire was noticed around 11:45 pm. It was snowing and the temperature was below freezing. When the call for help went out through the village, there was little response. In addition to the lack of manpower, the people fighting the fire found their water supplies frozen. Within a week, the Village Fathers ordered a fire engine and by September of that year, every citizen of Auburn was responsible for aiding in the Village’s fire protection.

In January 1817 Auburn received its first fire engine, a “Goose Neck Engine.”  This hand drawn engine was housed on Market Street, the site of the present day Police Station. At this time, there were no professional fire fighters, rather, the Village President acted as fire Chief, and every year the Village Fathers picked a group of men to act as fire fighters. These men had to obey a set of rules and could be fined up to $3.00 if they failed to respond to a fire. When a fire broke out, any man or boy might become a volunteer in the fire fighting effort.

By 1848, Auburn was a center of growth, and the City Fathers felt that an organized fire department would help attract more businesses to Auburn. Over the next 20 years, ten fire departments were founded in the city by businessmen, commissioners, insurance companies, and citizens. 


Downtown Fire

Until the 1850s, fire fighting apparatus was hand drawn and operated. Fire fighters and citizens were required to run to the scene of the fire, pulling along their equipment. Hand pumpers were used to direct water on the fire, but these required teams of already exhausted fire fighters to operate. The 1850s brought the invention of the steam pump which used a wood or coal boiler to power the pump. These new pumps were much heavier than the earlier hand pumps and required the use of horses to convey them to the fire. Horse drawn fire equipment became the norm, with running boards eventually installed so the fire fighters could ride along, rather than run, to the fire.

Firefighters Playing Cards (pictured: Charles Hardy, Auburn’s first African American Firefighter)

As new advances in fire fighting apparatus continued, motorized apparatus began to be used. The first motorized apparatus in Cayuga County was a chief’s car, used by Chief Jewhurst of the Auburn Fire Department. Purchased in 1905, this was also the first motorized chiefs car in the entire state. 

By the 1920s, motorized apparatus was replacing those that were horse-drawn. In 1911, Auburn purchased its second motorized vehicle, a Combination Engine No. 4, which incorporated the steamer, hose, and chemical unit (fire extinguisher) on one vehicle. Weedsport and Port Byron followed, each purchasing Combination Engines in the early 1920s.

While they don’t face quite the number of challenges fire fighters did in the past, today’s fire fighters still risk their lives to protect lives and property. There are 28 fire departments in Cayuga County all of which, except the City of Auburn, rely on the dedicated service of volunteers. 




Auburn Community Hospital

Recognizing the growing healthcare needs of Auburn and Cayuga County, in 1875 James S. Seymour, President of the Bank of Auburn, made a bequest of $30,000 to be held in trust for the building of a hospital. 

The chosen site for this hospital was the former home of Rev. Dirck C. Lansing, the principal founder of the Auburn Theological Seminary. A committee raised the money to purchase the site by public subscription from 32 contributors and the home was remodeled to serve as a hospital in 1879.

Auburn City Hospital Men’s Ward, 1910’s



The dedication was held with Rev. Charles Hawley, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, as a principal speaker. In his address, Dr. Hawley stated: “The hospital was among the last things needed to complete the circle of benevolent agencies and beautiful charities that grace our fair city.”

The original 13 bed Auburn City Hospital admitted its first patient in 1880, and it was quickly apparent that more beds were needed. The hospital was expensive to run, and it relied on community help in the form of food basket contributions, donation days, and charity balls.

Nurses at Auburn Hospital

A Board of Lady Managers was added early in the hospital’s history and a training school for nurses was founded in 1888. In 1905, this School of Nursing was registered with the New York State Department of Education, becoming the fourth school in the state to do so. The School of Nursing eventually closed in 1973 with the last class graduating in 1976. It was an important and prestigious school during its 80 year history. 

Several early additions to the hospital building were made but by 1923 the Board of Trustees began planning for a new modern hospital which was completed by 1927. The hospital has continued to expand after this renovation, as demand for services increased. Today the hospital serves around 80,000 residents and offers a wide range of health services.




Studying Operating Room Techniques, Dr. Raymond Johnson Operating

The current pandemic has greatly disrupted the health care system. At Auburn Community Hospital, many non-emergency procedures have had to be postponed, visitors are limited, and staff must take extra precautions to keep their patients and themselves safe. Health care providers in the county are navigating new ways to serve their patients, from virtual doctor appointments to online support groups.


Are you an essential worker or do you know an essential worker?

How has your/their job changed during the pandemic?

We would love to record your story as part of our oral history collection. This will help future historians learn about the impacts of the pandemic on our community.

Click Here to Share Your Story!




While public safety and health care workers are always working to keep us safe, we want to send an extra thank you to them for their services during this time. 

We couldn’t include all the essential workers in this post, but we give a huge thanks to all the grocery store employees, food service workers, delivery drivers, and others who are continuing to work during this time. Join us in our Museum at Home activity this week by using your artistic talents to let all our essential workers know how appreciated they are!