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

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.

By then, Union Fire Company was such an entity onto itself that local men would hang out at the hall during the day and participate in meetings and group events. The population of Carlisle grew rapidly after the town installed a water system and hydrants in 1854.

“Hundreds of new buildings were built in the town,” Watts said. “Industry came to Carlisle. The buildings got bigger and taller and the big change that took place was a ladder or truck company.”

Prior to the formation of the Empire Fire Company ladders were strategically placed around Carlisle to allow first responders access to multi-story structures. The trouble was ladders that were supposed to be used for firefighting were being borrowed for home repair and improvement projects.

Union Fire Company members formed two militia companies in the early days of the Civil War that became part of the Pennsylvania Reserves, Watts said. Of the 120 members who went off to war, eight died in combat or of disease, including two at the Battle of Antietam and one who was a prisoner at Andersonville.

In the decades that followed, Union Fire Company suffered a financial downturn and in the early 1880s came very close to bankruptcy. Despite that, company leaders took a huge risk in 1885 when they placed an order for an elaborate hose carriage at a cost of $1,500 — about $38,300 in today’s money. It was an investment born of pride to take to the state firemen’s convention and parade.

“It had every accessory on it that you could think of — lanterns, etched glass, nickel and brass plate,” Watts said. “It really was a status symbol ... a kind of plumage.” The risk paid off and spurred Union on to economic recovery as the fire company prepared to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1889.

That year, Union purchased land on the north side of Louther Street for the construction of the original section of its current fire hall. That year Carlisle hosted the convention and parade which draw tens of thousands of people to the town.

The decades that followed saw the introduction of electricity and trolleys to Carlisle that spurred the growth of social organizations. It was around this time that fire companies began to lose some of their importance in the Carlisle community, Watts said.

In researching his book, Watts tracked the membership records by decade and noticed a steady decline in participation rates from 1890 to the present. The resulting loss of manpower forced the company in 1910 to switch to horses to haul the steam-powered water pump to fire calls. Before that, the Union could call on the brawn of dozens of men to push the two-and-a-half ton apparatus to the scene.

The horse-powered era only lasted three years because the animals “ate us out of house and home,” Watts said. “It cost $600 to $800 a year to feed a horse.” In 1913, the fire company issued its own bonds to purchase an American LaFrance fire engine which was the first motorized apparatus in Cumberland County, according to Watts.

The decades shortly before and after World War II saw the introduction of various forms of plastic which tend to produce more smoke and a faster burning fire.

“The late 1960s to the early 1980s is what we call ‘the war years’ because of the large number of very serious fires,” Watts said. “A big part of that was the plastics and foam material. There were no regulations. A very common call was a mattress fire.”

Since then, safety regulations and building codes have changed and firefighters have seen a significant drop in the number of fires related to this material and to the construction of mobile homes.

In 1977, Union Fire Company expanded its fire hall. It remodeled the buidling in 2009 to 2010.


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