When the Gong Rings
A Fire History of Charleston, Illinois



About the Charleston Fire Horses--Tom & Alex


         Fire Horses arrived in Charleston after the turn of the century and lasted until 1917, when the horse wagon was mounted onto the chassis of an REO Speedwagon truck.   Until horses,  the backs and strength of men and  took all the equipment to the scene.  Henry Snyder at the driver's seat of the Babcock.  The men have by now received uniforms including caps and coats.
By: the Honorable Lee Lynch

          "...The old time fire bell still possesses charm... it calleth the officers together in case of emergency... its clear tones resound over town and we are placed in a frame of mind that takes us back to the 'Tom and Alex days'-- the roan horses which pulled the wagon to all blazes... in those days, the horses and men went to blazes... we remember the fire horses and how they would prance to the wagon and the mechanical manner in which they were harnessed... they would be taken on trial runs of mornings to keep them in good shape and man how they could gallop... they were big horses, weighing 1700 or 1800 it seems to us... anyway, the late Will Fitzpatrick bought them when they were replaced with motorized equipment and one day, Will was coming to town with a load of hay when the fire bell rang... the team, hay and Will came to town and would have wound up at the fire, but Will got lost in the hay... "

        NOTE:  [Lee Lynch was a pioneer broadcaster on our nation's third radio station, WDZ at nearby Tuscola, Illinois.  WDZ would move to larger Decatur, Illinois.  Lee would spend many hours loafing and visiting the firefighters at the old 500 Jackson firehouse.  Lee wrote many a colorful story in the Daily News and Courier about the everyday activities of the volunteers and the first paid department.  See the Web Page on Central Illinois radio and newspaper industry and the Coles County Reporter  Coles County Reporter Radio History Page.]

These panoramic picture-postcard depicts Charleston in the 1890's
 North Side of the Square 

Note the Interurban rails imbedded in the brick streets.
Courthouse and South Side of the Square. 

       The Courthouse was brand new in this picture, along with Old Main a mile south, the first building of the then brand new Eastern Illinois Normal College (now Eastern Illinois University). 

Quick Hitch Harness System in the CFD Firehouse
Two drawings to depict the System to get the horses going quickly!




       The popular and effective automatic harnessing system was invented by a Boston Fire Department member in the mid 1800's.  Charleston had a form of the system for Tom & Alex.  A quick pull of ropes from the ceiling would drop the suspended spider pattern harnesses and the men would then fasten the under straps.  The horses were highly trained to automatically leave their stalls, prance and back into their positions, while the driver would jump into his seat and "fasten" in.  The horses were usually large, powerful and very knowledgeable in maneuvering busy streets.  Stories of fire horses in San Francisco and Boston are very exciting.  Evidently the "three horse spike teams" used to pull the larger fire apparatus in the big cities would have an older and more mature lead horse in the middle to maintain the stability and rhythm of the outside horses of the team.  A strong central horse could hold up a sliding outer horse, and sometimes visa-versa.  There are many really interesting horse stories about Fire Horses, their relationships with the drivers, the very luxurious  living styles in larger cities (warmed oats, daily cleaning, relaxation, training and love and care by the men.  The old-time chiefs would conduct white glove inspections of fire houses and of conditions in the stables.

Pointers Offered to Charleston Volunteers   from the Charleston Daily Courier December 27, 1898
       In the aftermath of a great fire a few days earlier in which the beautiful Charleston High School would burn, we hear of a new idea for the department.

TO: Editor, Courier
       "In looking over your valuable paper of the 26th last, and reading about the ancient fire apparatus of this city, I wish to say something in regard to fire service, having had three and a half years experience in the Underwriters Salvage Corps, of St. Louis;  I wish to state that although the volunteers of Charleston have done their duty well, it could not be done better under the same circumstances; but that is not the case.
        The people and especially the property owners cannot afford to be without fire protection.  The fire in the school house could have been extinguished with one or two chemicals, such as used by the Salvage Corp. in St. Louis, with very little loss to building or contents.
        What we would do is this; get a hose wagon with a fifty gallon chemical tank under drivers seat with 300 feet two-inch rubber hose connection, two pompier ladders, one ladder that can be spliced and carried underneath or on the sides of the wagon.  It would not take but a week at least, to break in the most stupid pair of horses; have broken in a team very satisfactory in two days, with patience, kindness and a piece of garden hose to help them along.
         It would not cost much to remodel the old engine house.  I think that a first class hose wagon as I described can be purchased for $900 or $1,000, a team of good horses for $250.  Under the supervision of a chief, a driver and three men with proper training will pay for themselves in a short time.  What it will cost to build a new school house would maintain a fire department for a good many years.
        The insurance people figure this way:  the first ten minutes a a fire are worth $1,000 per minute to them for to get to a fire and catch it at the start, is what you want.  Now here for instance, people living near the school house saw a little blaze in the top story, boys cried fire until they were hoarse.  Finally somebody ran to the engine house and rang the bell and it took some time for the members to come from their homes, to run to the engine house and then to the scene of the fire and when they got there they were so exhausted that they could do nothing.  Not so with a modern department."

        Horses were the way of life into the 1920's and even later in the rural areas.  Many Central Illinois farmers used horses into the 1940's and 50's.  Charleston also had Interurban connection with area towns.   The Clover Leaf (later Nickel Plate) and Big Four Railroad roundhouses and terminals were prominent in the north end of Charleston.  Dray wagons would travel back and forth between the railroad depots and the square (several blocks apart).  Way at the other end of Charleston (a good mile down Sixth Street) would be the castle of Old Main-- Eastern Illinois University-- brand new in the 1890's.

        As with any vehicle and the pulling force, the Babcock and Tom & Alex would have to have regular service.  It seems that kids and neighbors like to pose with the popular fire wagon, just like today.  The "Gong" is located on the front of the kick board under the driver

        Fire horses came a little later in Charleston, Illinois.  The little town always was slow about spending money and acquiring new equipment...  Sounds familiar even in this day and age.  Here are a few photos depicting the Babcock, Tom & Alex, and old Charleston.

       The Interurban (single car electric trains) shared the same streets with CFD Babcock fire wagon.  It was important in bringing bystanders over to Charleston from Mattoon to view some of the "Great Fires" such as the Grand Opry House fire in the teens.  Extra rubber hose was also brought over on the speedy train.  This particular car travelled the mile loop from Old Main on the Eastern Illinois University campus to the square.
In addition to interurban, there were many dray wagons (horse pulled) from the Clover Leaf and Big Four Railroad terminals a few blocks north of the square.

       The men were willing to be "Volunteers" for the first Charleston Fire Department.   Their firefighting efforts were often frustrating because of such primitive water delivery systems.  The first real booster engine wouldn't arrive until 1928.   (Picture 4) A postcard from the W.K. Hill  Co. displaying in color the CFD Babcock Hook & Ladder.





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