When the Gong Rings
A Fire History of Charleston, Illinois

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       Charleston city government was formed in the 1870's, and many problems arose during its early formative days. "The issue of a municipal fire department was apparently almost as difficult as that of a municipal water works. On October 13, 1869, a special meeting was called by A.H. Prevo in the absence of Mayor George Parker. The council voted at that time to purchase two village fire engines at $250.00 each. Two days later, Mayor Parker called another special meeting and after his address to the council, the council voted to order the city clerk to telegraph the Chemical Engine Company of Chicago and cancel the order. The council further passed a resolution requesting insurance agents of the town to communicate with their respective companies to establish a city fire department.

       Numerous fires, lack of an adequate water supply, and non-existent fire-fighting equipment created high insurance rates for the town. The listing of thirty-six dif­ferent fire insurance companies in an 1870s Charleston city directory by far outnumbered other business listings. Immediately after the cancellation of the order for two fire wagons the city council passed a resolution which requested that local insurance agents ask their fire insurance companies for help in construction of facilities and establishment of a city fire department.

        It is not known what role, if any, the insurance companies played in the development of Charleston's early fire department. But it was not until several years later (1874) that the town's first fire company came into being. At that time, the city council pur­chased a Babcock hook and ladder fire wagon. The wagon had a large tank filled with a dry powdered extinguishing agent, six chemical fire extinguishers, four ladders, and two hooks. The first fire company was   called   the   Charleston Hook and Ladder Company Number One. Before the decade was over, the name would be changed to the Hope Hook and Ladder   Company.   Other   hook and ladder, and hose companies were formed and by 1881, 138 men served as volunteer firemen.

         The city supplied the first all-volunteer fire company with caps Second fire bell purchased in 1876 and belts, red shirts, leather rubber buckets, and a small fire-alarm bell. The red shirts were cut by local tailor Isaac Winter and assembled by Eileen Whalen. The small fire bell was also made locally and was used until 1876 when a larger bell was purchased.
          Fire-fighting was a community effort. It was the duty of any citizen who spotted a fire to alarm the town by ringing the fire bell. Upon hearing the bell ring, members of the fire company would rush to the place where the fire wagon was stored, then quickly "repair to the place of the fire" pulling behind them the Babcock wagon loaded with fire-fighting apparatus. It is thought that horse power did not replace manpower to pull fire wagons in Charleston until the turn of the century.
          In the 1870s, nobody was exempt from fire duty, and nobody received pay for fighting fires. Not only were all members of the fire company required to be present at all fires, but the mayor and other city officials also had to be in attendance. Failure to show up resulted in fines being levied. Even bystanders were expected to assist the firefighters, and could be ordered to help, or stay out of the way by those in charge.
           By 1878, Charleston had three volunteer fire companies. If the alarm sounded during working hours, firemen would aban­don their jobs as blacksmiths, carpenters, stable hands, mill workers, grocers, and harness shop workers to attend to fire duty. Then-mayor of Charleston, Dr. William R. Patton credited the companies—the Tom Dean Hose Company Number One; the Excelsior Hose Company: and the Hope Hook and Ladder Company—with having saved the city from several thousand dollars worth of fire loss.
           Charleston's early fire department could boast that they were among the fastest fire fighters in Illinois. Firemen regularly competed against each other as they showed off speed and skill-­acquired through racing, and training to race through the streets to fight fires. State-wide gatherings were held to deter­mine which fire companies were fastest. The Charleston firemen were declared state champions at a meet held in Decatur in 1877. In 1878, they came in second at Galesburg, and in the United States Tournament held in Chicago in 1879, the Charleston Hook and Ladder Company had the best running time by one and one-half seconds. The feat would have won them first place except for a lack of agility on the part of the ladder man. His slip cost the Charleston team four seconds, and the championship

         "The city has an excellent Fire Department, consisting of Engine, Hose Company and Hook and Ladder Company, well organized and equipped. Water Works have been added to the city's convenience, welfare and safety, which, in connection with its splendid Fire Department, have saved the city many thousands of dollars. The Water Works were built in 1875, and are of a substantial character. The water is brought two miles, from the Embarrass River, thus utilizing that beautiful little stream in another capacity than mills and navigation." The history book tells of the story of the once village of Charleston, incorporated into a city in 1865.

         Taylor stated in an interview that "For many years during the volunteer days, firemen were loved, respected, and largely ignored as friendly, not-so-bright, but harmless people who would go to fires and go through a lot of motions while a building burned to the ground." The 1874 department would "manually pull the equipment to the fire scene. The old "officer list" showed different officers about every 2-3 years. There was no real training, except for practice drills, in the pre-1920 days. After the twenties, Illinois firemen could attend "Fire College" at the U. of I., Champaign-Urbana. He said fireman in the early days of Charleston's fire department put an emphasis on "Heroism and rescue, while often neglecting professionalism in their work." This description sounds rather harsh, but even Hackett and Taylor in the late 1940's and 50's would fight fires with none of the safety equipment and training that came after the 1960's. [Note: I can even remember the first Scott Air-Pacs, purchased in the 1960's]. In the early days crowds were encouraged to witness the Great Fires. Often-times spectators would be called upon to help. Bucket brigades were used for many years. Sometimes a bucket brigade worked very well. Charleston would do with a tiny ill-equipped fire department for decades before catching up in the 1970's-80's.

Charleston's 1874 Fire Department