FROM LEATHER BUCKETS TO MODERN FIRE DEPARTMENT AT WILMINGTON
History of Wilmington Fire Department Passes Through All Phases of Fire-Fighting—Some Unique Duties of Members Present Efficiency
THE history of a fire department, founded in 1775, and which has passed through the vicissitudes of a volunteer servive, to emerge as an efficient paid organization, must of necessity be of interest. It is well told by the last volunteer and first and only paid chief of the department:
The history of the Wilmington, Del., fire department, dating back to a period previous to the War of Independence, shows in an interesting manner the development of our fire-fighting system from the time of the leather-bucket brigade down to the present day of modern high powered triple combination cars and aerial trucks. We have ever been among the first to adopt new apparatus, appliances and methods, as the following narration will show. The methods of fighting fires in the early days, while they seem primitive to us now, were no doubt the system in vogue at that time. Fire Prevention was almost unheard of until the Twentieth Century, and even then this important matter received but scant attention from the volunteer fire companies.
First Fire Company Organized in 1775
Our first fire company was organized by fifty-two young men of the Borough of Wilmington, on December 22, 1775, and was called the Friendship Fire Company No. 1. Each man pledged himself to furnish one wicker basket and two leather buckets, the former in which to carry articles from a burning building, ami the latter to carry water with which to extinguish the fires.
Shortly thereafter, this company built the first fire house in the borough, at Sixth & Market, next to where the old City Hall now stands, and installed therein two old hand pumping engines, which the burgess, Dr. John McGinley, loaned them. These engines had been purchased some time previous by the borough from a French Frigate lying off the borough of New Castle in the Delaware River. A watchman was placed in the tower of the borough hall, and upon sighting a fire would strike a different number of blows on the tower hell to designate the section of the borough in which the fire was discovered.
Dates of Other Companies’ Formation
On March 4, 1796, our second fire company, the Reliance, was formed by thirty-four men, among whom was Caesar Rodney, son of the famous signer of the Declaration of Independence. A hand engine, and buckets were purchased and placed in operation by this company. On April 2, 1819, the Delaware was formed, and a hand engine was bought, but instead of purchasing buckets to furnish water for the engine, they bought a hydraulin, as they contended that “too much water was wasted when carried to the engine in buckets.” The Lost company, or the Brandywine, was formed shortly after this, and no doubt did good service, but no records can be located of this company, and therefore we do not know much about it.
Some Unique Duties of Members
Most of these companies elected six engineers, two to take care of the apparatus, two for the hose and nozzles, and two to run before the apparatus with a long white pole to clear the way and find water to supply the pumping engines. The hose used in those days was made of leather with copper rivets, and screw couplings. All the members were forced to respond to fires in full uniform, and when they went to a night fire they had to display a lighted candle in their front window to signify that they had responded, otherwise a fellow member passing the darkened house was supposed to stop and notify the occupant of the fire. Failure to respond to a fire, or wash off apparatus after a fire, or to take apparatus out on Sunday or after dark, except in cases of emergency, resulted in fines ranging from six and one-quarter to twenty-five cents.
On December 3, 1825, the Phoenix company was formed, and a hand engine purchased from a Philadelphia concern. The bell for their new home was presented to them by the factory workers in the vicinity of the new company. In 1832 the hand hose carriage, a two-wheel affair, with hose wrapped around a reel on axle made its appearance in this borough. On March 13th of the next year the Water Witch organized, borrowing the old hydraulin of the Delaware Company which had since been replaced with a newer engine. The Fame Hose No. 1, later called the Fame Steam Fire Engine Co. No. 6 was formed on January 1, 1839, and the Washington No. 7 in 1840.
First Chief Engineer Elected
In the year 1864 the first steam engine, hand drawn, made its appearance in town, being purchased by the Water Witch Company. In 1868, Henry W. Perkins, a member of the Delaware Company, and a veteran of the Civil War, was honored by being elected the first Chief Engineer of the entire department. Mr. Perkins has just recently died in this city. On July 19, 1869, the Western Hose No. 2, later called the Weccaco No. 8, was formed to take care of the western part of the town. In 1872 the first gum suction hose was used in this town.
On the first of the year 1873 the Delaware placed in service a new four-wheel hose reel, and purchased two horses, the first in town, to draw it. This company beat the Water Witch by a few hours to getting the first horses. The first telephone was used in fire service by the Delaware Company in 1878, and this company installed for a trial the Gamewell System in 1881, the system being adopted by the Borough the next year. The Delaware disposed of their engines and purchased a ladder truck, the first of any account, and placed it in service in their new house.
The First Motor Pumping Engine
On September 11, 1890, the Liberty was formed over Third Street Bridge to take care of the southern part of the town. During this year combination hose and chemical wagons made a rapid appearance, replacing the old hose reels. Up to this time whenever a fire alarm sounded, all companies in town went to the fire, in 1892, however, the town was laid out in two districts, so that only one half of the apparatus was out at a time. The Rescue Co. No. 10 was formed this year, but did not exist long, and when the Independence was later organized they merged with that company. In 1898 Chief Sassee (Chiefs were elected every two years) rode the first horse and buggy used by officers in the fire department of this town. The Phoenix purchased and operated at their own expense an ambulance for free service to the citizens. On Oct. 21st, 1901, the Independence company was formed, but they were not recognized by the City Council until 1902, after the Brandywine had organized on Oct. 24th, 1901, and the Union on May 17th, 1902. In 1905 the Fairview company tried to organize in Hedgeville, a south-western section of the city but failed to get recognition of the council.
The first automobile pumping engine, a triple combination was placed in service by the Reliance Company in 1909. Other companies quickly followed, some replacing horses with tractors under their steamers, and others getting the new automobile pumpers. The first auto truck, and the only one in service by the volunteers was purchased in 1914 by the Delaware Company and remained in service until this present year when it was replaced by a modern truck.
Paid Department in 1921
On March 6, 1921, Governor Denney signed the bill creating a paid fire department for the city of Wilmington, and naming the police commissioners as commissioners of public safety. Operations of starting a fire department were commenced on May 1, when the Croker National Fire Protection Company was hired to assist the commissioners. The department was to start on September 1, but could not operate until December 1, 1921, on account of an injunction being granted one of the volunteer companies whose house the commissioners had not purchased. All the apparatus, and ten of the twelve houses of the volunteers were bought by the new department, as well as furnishings, hose, tools, etc. The new department started with all apparatus in active service except the horse-drawn equipment of the Phoenix company, which had never motorized. Thirteen companies, three trucks and ten engines were formed, new apparatus, hose, equipment and appliances purchased so that the new department would have everything to work with. A fire prevention division was organized, the fire department worked on the two-platoon basis, working ten and fourteen hours’ watch was maintained in the fire houses, a drill school erected, and drills were given the firemen regularly.
On August 15, 1922, nine months after being organized, the Council cut appropriations to such an extent that two companies, an engine and truck, had to be abandoned. The truck, however, was replaced in service in July, 1923. In this year all lieutenants were given examinations, and twelve of them were appointed captains. Firemen built a smoke house at the drill school so that they could get practical experience in entering and working in buildings containing smoke and gases. The famous Wilmington Fire Prevention Plan for Fire Prevention Week was organized by our department. Regular inspections of the entire cities houses and yards are made twice each year, and inspectors of the Fire Marshal’s office are continually on the street looking for fire hazards. We have had passed by our Council a Fire Prevention Ordinance, covering all the points for the prevention of fire and safety of the firemen. Our motto is, “Let the citizens be the fire preventers, and the firemen the firefighters.”
Personnel of Present Department
At the present time our department consists of the following:
1 Chief Engineer.
1 Deputy Chief Engineer.
2 Assistant Chief Engineers.
1 Fire Marshal.
3 Fire Inspectors.
1 Master Mechanic.
There are 25,000 feet of first-class hose, nine triple combination pumpers, four of which are not two years old, and two about six months old. We have ten combination hose and chemical wagons, emergency wagon, three aerial trucks (two in service) and one service truck. Five officers cars are in service, three of which were just installed last week.
In addition to this we have an auxiliary First Aid brigade, the Second Alarmers, consisting of fifteen men, who have presented us with a modern hospital and kitchen on wheels, and who operate same. Two doctors respond to all large fires and administer first aid, and the members of the Second Alarmers furnish coffee and sandwiches in winter, and ice cold orange-ade and sandwiches in summer.
Losses Cut 83% First Year of Paid Force
After 150 years of service, the Wilmington fire department still ranks among the leaders of fire prevention and fire extinguishment. The losses by fire in this city were cut 83 per cent the first year of the paid system, and has gradually decreased, with the exception of last year, when we had three large fires which caused losses to exceed the previous year. The loss for the year ending December 1, 1924, amounted to only $231,769.