By LISA GENTES
Associated Press Writer
JAMESTOWN, R.I. (AP) - When flames and smoke ignited a building
in this coastal town at the turn-of-the-century, an ear-piercing
foghorn-like whistle would ring out, alerting communities from
Jamestown to Newport.
Volunteer firefighters grabbed hoses, water buckets and climbed
onto a steam engine to race toward the blaze.
"Back in those days, you very rarely saved a house. ... You
saved the neighbor's house," said Ken Caswell, a Jamestown
firefighter and manager of the Jamestown Fire Department Memorial
Museum.
The museum is one of a handful in the state aimed at preserving
Rhode Island's firefighting past. The museums honor the men and
women who served in departments and display some of the items used
to fight fires, from antique steam engines to old-fashioned water
pumps.
"You walk into the museum, you walk back into the 1800s," said
Warren Fire Chief Alexander Galinelli, whose volunteer department
runs The Fireman's Museum.
The chief, who has been on the department for 35 years, said the
museum, an old fire station, was founded in the late 1970s. The
single-story wooden structure sits in the city's historical
district and houses an original 1802 Hand Tub Pumper, the first
piece of firefighting equipment the town purchased.
Galinelli said the displays of older equipment, like leather
buckets, show the many changes in tools and technology used to
fight fires.
Jamestown, for example, once had five fire stations with
different apparatus at each. They acted more like storage sheds
than fire stations, Caswell said, and when a fire broke out,
neighbors would run to the stations to retrieve equipment to bring
to the scene of the blaze.
Pointing to an 1859 Jeffers Hand Pump, Caswell said it would
take 30 to 40 people to operate it, and an additional 40 to pull
the wagon by hand. He said the pump, which didn't have brakes,
would have been filled with water firefighters brought in through a
bucket brigade and been stabilized with ropes by a crew stationed
in the back.
Comparatively, today's all-volunteer fire department includes
three engines, one ladder truck, boats and rescue vehicles.
The centerpiece of the Jamestown museum is an antique LaFrance
steam engine, purchased by the department in 1894. The museum
building was constructed to house the apparatus, which was used to
fight fires in Jamestown until the 1930s. It was retired to storage
until 1957, when it was restored to its original condition.
"Almost every piece has a story," said Caswell.
For example, there is an ornamental eagle on display that had
been stolen from an antique fire truck in 1950, and was returned to
the department about 10 years ago by a woman who found it in her
home. There's also a turn of the century smoke escape hood, once
used by firefighters as a breathing aid, but later discovered in a
boiler room in Providence.
Additionally, there's a Dalmatian statute which appeared on the
old station's steps, compliments of an anonymous donor who wanted
to give the "pet" a good home.
Stacks of fire magazines from the 1940s and 50s fill shelves on
the first floor and hundreds of old photos are organized in albums.
An old fashioned fire alert system is nestled in one corner, and
Pompier Ladders hang on the walls. The single beam ladders were
once used to climb high rises, Caswell said.
Caswell said there was a period of 30 years when the museum,
which opened in the 1950s, did little more than collect dust. All
the previous keepers had either died or retired, he said.
It wasn't until Caswell joined the department 26 years ago that
the firefighters decided to "bring this wonderful place back to
the public."
He said the collection "is more of a memorial than a museum,"
honoring department members. The history buff said he's committed
to the museum because "the history should be known."
Added Galinelli, "the town is still here today because of the
history of the department."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)