Kansas City Fire History

All photos from William Keith Collection. Special thanks to Kansas City Public Library Special Collections

George C. Hale, chief of the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department from 1882 to 1902. Hale made a great impact on the U.S. fire service through his various inventions, including the Hale water tower, the Hale swinging harness, the Hale tin roof cutter, the Hale cellar pipe and others. During his tenure as chief, the fire department became known internationally by walking away with top honors in competition at the International Fire Congress in London, England, in 1893 and in Paris, France, in 1900.

This is the second version of the Hale Water Tower. Production of these began in July 1891. For seven years, all water towers built and sold in America were made on Hale's design. The manual raise system on the first two towers was abandoned in favor of a chemical-hydraulic raise system. A water tower was manufactured for Hale and his crew to take to the International Fire Congress competition in London, England, in 1893. Upon its return, that water tower was sold to the city of St. Joseph, MO, where it is now in a museum.

This is the entire Kansas City Fire Department in 1874. In the circle at the center of the photo is Michael E. Burnett, who served as chief from July 1874 to July 1875. The young firefighter in the center of the front row of Engine 2 (standing with legs crossed) is Engineer George C. Hale, later to become chief of the department.

Hale's firefighters in 1893 at the Crystal Palace in London, England, with the famous Arabian horses Dan and Joe. The team won top honors for fast hitching before a crowd of 90,000 people at the International Fire Congress. They competed against teams from England, France, Belgium, Italy, Russia, Holland, Portugal, India, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The time for Hale's men to bunk out, dress, hitch the horses and exit the station was 8 1/2 seconds. The next best time was 1 minute 7 1/2 seconds .

Another of Hale's inventions which received widespread use in the fire service throughout the country was the Hale Water Tower. The chief was the founder, owner and proprietor of the Kansas City Fire Department Supply Co., which constructed and sold Hale Water Towers throughout the country beginning in 1886. This is the prototype water tower made by Hale and successfully tested in Kansas City in the fall of 1886. Only two towers like this were built. This tower served Kansas City for less than two years. The other one was placed in service in Milwaukee, WI.

Hose Reel 6 in front of the headquarters station at 807 Walnut. This station served as headquarters from 1873 to 1905, when headquarters moved to 1020 Central.

Motorization continues in this 1916 photo with Hook and Ladder 1 receiving a Nott tractor to pull its formerly horse-drawn aerial. Steamer 2 and Hose 2 are still horse-drawn in this picture of headquarters at 1020 Central.

Station 2 (headquarters) at 1020 Central in 1909 (closed in 1980). The early effects of motorization can be seen. The chief and the assistant chief each had Pope-Hartford automobiles. The hose wagon, steamer, hook and ladder and Hale water tower were all horse-drawn.

Motorization of fire apparatus continues in this 1917 photo of Station 3 at 215 W. 19th St. (closed in 1978). The horse-drawn chemical and turret wagon is shown with a 1915 double combination Velie hose and chemical truck. The department relied heavily on Velie when first making the switch to motorized apparatus, with a total of 18 rigs, all Velie.

An important adjunct to the Kansas City Fire Department was the Fire Insurance Patrol. This photo, taken in the 1890s, shows the Fire Patrol's Station 1 at 706 Wyandotte and Station 2 at 1310 St. Louis. The Fire Patrol was active in Kansas City until 1956, when its duties (and some personnel) were absorbed by the fire department.

Flooding has been a recurring problem in Kansas City over the years, with the Missouri and Kaw rivers meeting there. Major flooding and accompanying fires occurred in 1951, as shown in this view along Southwest Boulevard at 31st Street. Note the gasoline bulk plant in the center foreground with storage tanks overturned and floating. This bulk plant played a tragic part in the history of the fire department just eight years later.

The Kansas City Fire Department handled its largest-ever mass casualty and rescue incident on July 17, 1981, when two aerial walkways collapsed in the lobby of the Hyatt-Regency Hotel. Hundreds of couples were dancing at a popular big-band tea dance in the lobby when the "skywalks" collapsed, trapping many people under tons of debris. The death toll was 114, with 188 people injured.

The gasoline bulk plant at 31st and Southwest Boulevard made its mark again in the history of the Kansas City Fire Department. On Aug. 18, 1959, a fire in that bulk plant erupted in a major explosion which brought death to five firefighters. On a stifling hot, humid day, firefighters in boots, helmets and little other protective equipment man hose streams in the middle of Southwest Boulevard, directing them at gasoline burning around four 21,000-gallon horizontal storage tanks.

Feb. 14, 1986, was a memorable Valentine's Day for the Kansas City Fire Department. A fire in a vacant apartment building under renovation went to five alarms. The three-story structure was fully involved when the first companies arrived at 8:55 P.M. The photo shows a turret stream protecting a school just 14 feet south of the fire building. Then, with the same shift on duty, at 4:08 A.M. Pumper 25 responded to what was reported as a truck fire at 11th and Hickory. Upon arrival, they found fire showing from the second floor of a three-story tire warehouse. This fire also went to five alarms, the first time ever that a single shift caught two five-alarm fires.

A five-alarm fire in the historic Coates House Hotel on Jan. 28, 1978, resulted in the deaths of 20 residents. A firefighter is seen assisting a resident down an aerial ladder from the north wing of the building, while the upper two floors of the south wing of the six-story building become fully involved with fire. The south wing of the building was a total loss.

Memorials Pay Tribute To KC's Fallen Firefighters

The history of any big-city fire department is remembered in terms of its tragedies and its losses. The miraculous rescues and heroic saves are all but lost with the passage of time. The tragedies live on in the minds of everyone citizens as well as firefighters forever. Nothing can ease the pain of the loss of a life but when it is the life of someone who has dedicated his or her life to protecting others, it is particularly painful.

Photos from the William Keith Collection



Early monuments to Kansas City, MO, firefighters who were killed in the line of duty took the form of elaborate grave markers. Shown above (from left) are those in memory of Barney McBreen, Joseph McArdle and Michael Haney.

Kansas City, MO, has had its share of pain over the years but probably none more painful than on Nov. 29, 1988, when an act of arson took the lives of six Kansas City firefighters.

The first firefighter to give his life in service to his city was Barney McBreen, a member of Hook and Ladder 1. At age 27, McBreen was drilling with a Pompier ladder at the Midland Building when he fell eight stories to his death on Sept. 3, 1889. That was 18 years after the first paid hoseman was hired by the city. Five more line-of-duty deaths occurred in the following 10 years.

Over the years, firefighter deaths have occurred all too frequently. Whether one at a time, or two or more at a time, it is always hard to deal with and impossible to understand. For many years, there was no memorial to these fallen firefighters, nothing to honor their passing except the memories of the survivors. A wooden "Last Alarm" plaque with a metal plate inscribed with the name and date of death of each firefighter was made and displayed at the firefighters' union hall. Later, it was moved to a display at the fire academy.

Photo by William Keith
The figure of a firefighter, helmet in hand and with head bowed, is surrounded by slabs of stone engraved with the names and dates of death for Kansas City firefighters killed in the line of duty.

Photo by William Keith
This fountain is in honor of all firefighters in the metropolitan Kansas City area.

Many felt that this was not enough of a remembrance, and in 1958 Captain Mike Dello Russo brought together a committee to raise money for a firefighters' memorial. This early effort failed to gain support. In 1962, another committee was formed to continue the effort but this effort failed as well.

Photo by William Keith
The memorial very near the site of the explosion which took the lives of six Kansas City firefighters on Nov. 29, 1988.

Following the deaths of six firefighters in an explosion in 1988, renewed interest was expressed in continuing the efforts to get a memorial built. A design was agreed on, as well as a location in a city park near 31st Street and Pennsylvania Ave-nue. Kansas City's fire chief supported the building of memorial, as did Mayor Richard Berkley. Captain Joe D. Galetti agreed to head the renewed effort, and a new committee was formed.

Donations were solicited from throughout the community. Support was received from the city council as well as the business community and the Metro Fire Chief's Association. Funding was obtained from contributions from the business community as well as from the city. Several large donations helped push the project over the top.

Twenty months later, the memorial was a reality. It is in two parts, a circular fountain which is a tribute to all firefighters in the metropolitan area. The second part is a memorial to those Kansas City firefighters who have died in the line of duty. This is a sculpture of a firefighter standing with helmet removed and bowed head, surrounded by stone tablets inscribed with the names and dates of death of those who gave their lives. The dream of a proper memorial had finally become a reality.

Another effort to remember the six firefighters killed in the arson and explosion in south Kansas City also became a reality as well. Soon after the explosion, retired Captain Charles Oldham, who lost his son in the explosion, made six crosses and placed them on a hill to the west of the present site near 87th Street and U.S. Highway 71. A flag was also placed there but the flags kept getting stolen.

Media coverage about the memorial and the problem with the flags being stolen prompted state highway department officials to donate a site to the fire department for a permanent memorial. A local funeral home also wanted to donate a flag pole to keep the flag more secure. The site has evolved from the early beginnings to an impressive memorial to the memory of the six who perished that day.

The Kansas City, MO, Retired Firefighters Association has taken on the project of caring for the site. Area funeral homes have donated six marble crosses, each inscribed with the name of one of the firefighters. A plaque is in place which dedicates the memorial to the crews of Pumper 30 and Pumper 41 who died that day. The memorial continues to evolve, with improvements being made as time goes on.

William Keith

William Keith is a former assistant superintendent of fire alarm and communications for the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department.