“One of the best organized, best disciplined and most efficient fire departments in existence.” This quote from the 1888 “A Souvenir of Erie, Penna. Illustrated” is true today I’m sure. Without the brave men and women of our fire departments, and the state-of-the- art equipment maintained by them; our city would not be the safe, comfortable place it is to reside. Let’s look at its history.
Fire protection officially began in Erie in 1826 with the establishment of the Active Fire Company. An all-volunteer organization, almost all the adult men in town joined. Buckets were used until 1830 when a hand operated pump was purchased. This vehicle used water from wells and tanks sunk at street intersections.
Other volunteer companies followed the Active Fire Company. In 1870 a scandal involving these various companies took place. In that year a series of more fires than usual began to seriously threaten the city. An investigation occurred and it was determined that members of one volunteer company were setting the fires so that they were the first to respond, gaining notoriety as the best. The perpetrators were found guilty and sent to jail.
This company rivalry ended in 1871 when a paid fire department was established. The first equipment utilized by the fire department were steamers, hose wagons, hose reels, hook and ladder trucks, and eventually a chemical truck.
By 1888, six engine houses were scattered throughout the city, one in each ward. They were Station #1, built in 1862 and remodeled in 1870, located on the north side of 5th Street between State and French;
Station #2, built in 1876, located on Parade Street between 11th and 12th Streets;
Station #3, built in 1873, located on Peach Street between 13th and 14th Streets, which was the fire department headquarters (no picture found);
Station #4, built in 1872, located on the northwest corner of 5th and Chestnut Streets, currently the home of the Firefighters Museum;
Station #5, built in 1870, located on the east side of Peach Street between 20th and 21st Streets;
Station #6, built in 1881, located on the north side of 19th Street between Myrtle and Chestnut Streets.
Each building was a two-story brick structure with a barn next door for the horses which were used to pull the equipment. The first floor stored the firefighting apparatus, and the 2nd floor were the dormitories for the men.
In 1888, the horses were so well trained that when the fire alarm went off, they rushed to their places under the harnesses in front of the cart or engine before the firemen slid down the pole. The touch of a spring fastened the harnesses and opened the doors of the station at the same time, and in less than 20 seconds they were on their way.
In 1886, a Gamewell system of fire alarms was placed throughout the city. By 1888, 42 fire alarms were in use with 26 miles of wire running between the signal boxes and the nearest station.
In those days before employee provided health insurance and death benefits, the city established a relief fund to pay firemen or their families money in case of death or serious injury. I’m sure it was nothing like what exists today.
Erie has a first-class fire museum that has temporarily closed due to the pandemic. When they reopen, please make plans to visit! This incredible collection is run by off duty fire fighters and is the best collection I have ever seen (finer than the Firefighter’s Museum in New York City in my opinion).
I am very appreciative and proud of the Erie City Fire Department, and in awe of all the volunteer departments throughout the County. Although fire related tragedies do occur, the happiness and long life of Erie’s citizens rests on the strong shoulders of our fire fighters. Thank you!