Raging Fire, Bucket Brigade Sparked Birth of Pa. Fire Department

In 1789, the Union Fire Company in Carlisle came into existence.


A scare one Halloween night set in motion a legacy that has endured for 225 years.

A fire on Oct. 31, 1788, devastated four to five homes in the first block of North Hanover Street near the present-day Carlisle Vault reception hall.

Armed only with buckets, friends and neighbors rushed to the scene to save as much as possible in what was then a frontier town of about 1,500 residents, historian Randy Watts said.

Five months later, in early April 1789, Union Fire Company came into being when a hand pump officially arrived from Philadelphia. Though few records exist, Watts can make an educated guess of what transpired in between.

“It would be like today,” he said. “If there is a problem, people come together. They interact. They develop a plan.” And for Carlisle, that plan took the form of 70 charter members who pledged money and placed the order for the town’s first fire apparatus.

Most were property owners and community leaders. Many were early trustees of Dickinson College. They were a loosely organized group of men who borrowed language from the bylaws of Ben Franklin’s Union Fire Company in Philadelphia.

They got together once a month to run training drills on the hand pump, Watts said. The first fire hall in Carlisle was a storage shed in the town square near the current veterans’ monument.

Back then, the hand pump was state-of-the-art technology mounted on wheels and operated by about a dozen men. Well water was poured into a tub, cranked through a system of pistons and delivered via a nozzle on top to provide a step up in firefighting from the bucket brigade.

Fires were very different in the late 18th century, Watts said. Most homes were small with a common room and loft and not as much furniture. Many times the flames were confined to just the contents giving first responders more time to salvage valuables by way of a canvas bags.

In its early days, Union Fire Company could get by with smaller water volumes subjected to lower pressure. “Once the building caught fire, it was beyond the ability of the fire department,” Watts said.

The company was fairly active from 1789 until 1805. By then, very few people had joined the ranks and many of the charter members had died or moved away, Watts said. “There probably was only a major fire every couple years.”

That began to change in January 1809, when house fire in the middle of the night killed two residents and severely burned a third person. A month later, Cumberland organized as the second fire company in Carlisle and nine years later, in 1818, Union reorganized and rejuvenated.

In 1821, the Union and Cumberland fire companies joined together to build a two-story building next to the original courthouse that fronted present-day West High Street in the Square.

The first floor served as the equipment bay for the two fire companies while the second floor was the borough hall, Watts said. This building, along with the courthouse, was destroyed in March 1845 when an arsonist set a fire after using a rope to tie all the apparatus together.

By the early 1840s, each fire company in town began to exhibit its own identity as a social organization, Watts said. A group of men calling themselves the Alert Fire Company formed around 1842 and started to parade down Carlisle streets in uniform.

Friction developed between the young working-class members of the Alert Fire Company and the more conservative property owners of the older fire companies, Watts said. Tensions eased eventually and members of Alert folded into the Union Fire Company.

The March 1845 arson fire destroyed virtually all the apparatus in town, but the community came together and raised enough money for both the Union and Cumberland fire companies to purchase new equipment and build separate fire halls.

Union moved its location to the south side of Louther Street where a one-story wood building was constructed on what is today the borough parking lot adjacent to the post office, Watts said. A brick firehouse replaced the wooden building in 1859.

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