I love fire trucks. And when I say I love fire trucks, what I’m really saying is: I LOVE FIRE TRUCKS! Since I know I’m not alone in that love, I ventured over to the Fort Wayne Fire Fighters Museum the other day to take some photos and entice you to go visit too. The museum is at 226 West Washington, right next door to the downtown branch of the Allen County Public Library. Not only does the facility house artifacts from the history of the Fire Department, they also use the building to teach fire safety, something we all should learn.
George K. Bradley wrote a history of the fire department in 1964 for the Historical Society, detailing the history of the fire department from 1839 to the year of publication.
We offer here some highlights of that history.
• Most of the officials of Fort Wayne’s first city government –including the mayor—were members of Fire Company No. 1.
• The first fire engine in Fort Wayne was purchased in 1839 and a fire company formed on August 30 of that year. The first fire house was built at the corner of Clinton and Main on the northeast corner, with the land being leased from W.G. Ewing for $6 per year for a three year period. • The Fire Department is the oldest unit of local government as it was created one year before Fort Wayne became a city in 1840.
• Early fires of note were on Columbia Street in April, 1841 for which the Fire Department was praised for its response in saving a great portion of downtown Fort Wayne, and at the Hanna and Work Tannery on June 1, 1848 in which the “wrath of the Fort Wayne Times descended upon the inefficiency of the fire company and its dilapidated engine.” It was time to buy a new fire truck. It arrived on December 7.
• A fire the evening of May 20, 1849 destroyed fifteen buildings on Calhoun between Main and Columbia Streets. As a result of the efforts of residents and the recognized need for a backup fire engine, $268.00 was expended to repair “Fire Engine No. 1”. George Buchanan and Socrates Bacon did the work. New wooden buildings were also prohibited from being built in an area bounded by Main, Barr, Harrison and the canal. “This was truly a progressive step for the city.”
• Large fires continued and one in particular brought more publicity to the fire department. “….most damaging of all, as far as the Fire Department was concerned, was the destruction of the Dawson Daily Times’ newspaper plant, on March 24. The fire would not have been so bad if the paper had been burned out of business. John Dawson did not quit easily and was soon back in print, with a special target for his editorial darts.” Dawson had been highly critical of the Fire Department in the past.
• The early city hall “was frequently on fire, but was saved each time by the assisting citizens”. This may explain, in part, the construction and design of the City Hall built in 1893, where the History Center is now housed.
• The first fireman to die in the line of duty was Frederick Hilsman, who is buried in Lindenwood Cemetery. On June 7, 1871, “tragedy struck the fire department. A barrel of ‘rose oil’ in the Boltz Grocery on South Calhoun created a tragedy. This kerosene type mixture sat next to a pile of sacks that caught fire, or at least smoldered enough to call the fireman. Boltz, himself, was an active fireman and a member of the Alerts. …The fire was apparently out but Chief Mannix sent Joseph Aubry and Fredrick Hilsman, a torch bearer, into the basement to investigate. It was as deadly as searching for a gas leak with a match as the basement was filled with gas from the leaking barrel and there was no question about a fire. Fredrick Hilsman was trapped and suffocated in the smoke as he wandered through the basement seeking an exit. Aubry was injured and unconscious. He was pulled through a basement window by a fire hook. A series of explosions followed and both Mannix and Boltz were injured. A crowd gathered to watch the flames climb skyward and hindered the firemen. They were quite literally pushed back with singed hair and scorched faces by one of the firey (sic) explosions.”
• The Fire Department was not without strife in its early years and disagreements abounded over the purchase of a new engine. Volunteer companies resigned one by one and were replaced by semi-professional fire fighters. “By 1878, there were eight full-time firemen and seventeen paid ‘minute men’.”
• The Bloomingdale Brewery was among famous fires when it burned on November 2, 1880. An arsonist started the $36,000 blaze but $500 worth of beer helped to check the fire when it “broke loose in the ruins”.
• The biggest fire of the 19th century, in terms of dollars lost, was on November 23, 1888. Fort Wayne Electric Works, which later became part of the GE Plant, suffered a $207,000 loss.
• Firemen earned $70 a month and had one day off per month. Most lived near their respective fire houses and could go home for “40 minute meals” and another half hour for “family duties”. Routine fire house duty included chores and exercise of the horses.
• On May 3, 1908, the Aveline Hotel burned and the Preston truck, which had been purchased because the hotel was five stories tall, “made its last useful run to the building it was purchased to protect”. A short circuit in the basement elevator machinery was discovered at 3:30 in the morning. Most of the seventy guests asleep in the hotel escaped but some people did jump to their deaths, not waiting for the aerial ladders. Others were badly burned. In total, 11 people died.
• Horses that pulled fire engines were well trained and also neighborhood pets. Three of the better known horses were named Sam, Pete and Max. • The Fort Wayne Fire Department became “motorized” around 1912 and the last official horse drawn run occurred on October 6, 1920.
• The 1930s saw less tax money for new equipment and so the department purchased an “International Harvester truck chassis and a 1000 g.p.m. Northern Rotary pump” and turned them over to the Master Mechanic, who built a fire truck. “On May 9, 1938, the Chief demonstrated his brand new, home-built, pumper to the Board of Safety.” The fire department built a second unit and ‘used some of the parts and equipment recovered from two old Seagrave pumpers scrapped at the same time’.”
• “…The department’s construction program was widely hailed and followed with interest by fire officials in many cities. The program ended abruptly with the outbreak of war. Had it continued, some interesting equipment might have resulted, as at least one aerial ladder truck was planned. For Wayne entered the war period with an up-to-date fire department and once again, one of the most modern in the country.”
• In 1951, the Fire Prevention Bureau of the Fort Wayne Fire Department won three national awards in a competition among 3500 principal cities. The awards were for: Finest Fire Prevention Program in the United States; Best Radio Presentation of Fire Prevention (awarded to WOWO); and Best Industrial Fire Prevention Program (awarded to Fort Wayne works of General Electric). You can learn more about the history of the Fort Wayne Fire Department by reading the book “Fort Wayne’s Fire Department 1839-1964” by George K. Bradley, available for sale at the Firefighter’s Museum. You can also find information about the fire department in the Genealogy Department of the Allen County Public Library. http://archive.org/details/historyoffortway03webe And do visit the Firefighters Museum. As the child of a former volunteer firefighter in my hometown of Kearney, NE, I can tell you that anyone who chooses to fight fires either as a volunteer or as a paid member of the department has chosen one of the most difficult of tasks. As Mayor Harold Zeis said in his introduction to Bradley’s book: “Good fire protection does not come easily or cheaply. The fireman is prepared, at any moment, to risk life and limb in protection of the taxpayer and his property. We can ill afford to have anything less than the best firemen and fire-fighting equipment. None of us can know when he may suddenly and unexpectedly have to depend on the efforts of our Fire Department to preserve his home or the lives of his loved ones.” And on a final note: Amy Biggs became the first female fire chief in Fort Wayne on June 30, 2012. According to the city’s web site, Fort Wayne has the second largest fire department in Indiana. The FWFD has responsibility for 110 square miles of the City of Fort Wayne and has a department of more than 380 firefighters, posted at 18 fire stations.