||When the Gong Rings
|A Fire History of Charleston,
the Table of Contents
PERIOD OF HEROISM & RESCUE 1869-1879
FOR AN ORGANIZED
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
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.
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
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.
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
COLES COUNTY HISTORY BOOK TELLS OF LATE 1800'S CHARLESTON FIRE
"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.
VOLUNTEER FIREMEN OF THE EARLY DAYS OF CHARLESTON FIRE FIGHTING
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.