Posts Tagged Pioneer Hose Company No. 1

Evanston Fire Department history – Part 3

More from Phil Stenholm – Part 1, Part 2

On May 23, 1881,  the Village Board of Trustees was advised of a letter delivered earlier in the day to the Fire Marshal:

“To: W. R. Bailey, Esq.
Fire Marshal of the Village of Evanston


It having come to the knowledge of the members of the Evanston Fire  Department, that the trustees of said village have determined not to meet the requirements of said department, the Pioneer & C. J. Gilbert hose companies, in joint meeting assembled, have determined to resign as members of the Evanston Fire Department, and do hereby tender their resignations to take effect at once.

The members of said companies, however, agree to respond to all alarms of fire which may occur during the next 15 days, not as firemen, but as citizens.

A. Simpson, Foreman, C. J. Gilbert Fire Co.
A. Hallstrom, Foreman, Pioneer Hose Co.

May 23, 1881″

As requested by the firemen, Chief Bailey delivered the letter to the village board. It was reported that the trustees accepted the letter without comment. If the purpose of the mass resignation was to pressure the trustees into meeting the requirements of the fire department, then the firefighters were disappointed.

But the hose companies were frequently disappointed in their dealings with the village board. Whether it was a dispute over clothing or equipment, or the trustees’ indifference toward collecting the authorized 2% tax on “foreign” insurance companies doing business in Evanston, a tax that could have been used to provide financial compensation for members of the hose companies, the Pioneers and the Gilberts felt they never seemed to receive the respect and attention they deserved. The last straw was when the village board officially accepted the  Evanston Hook & Ladder Company for service with the EFD on April 21, 1881.

The new hook & ladder company had been in training for only a short time, but the village board hurriedly accepted the company for service after two children were killed in a house fire at the William Enders cottage on April 19th. The tragic deaths of the Enders children marked what is believed to be the first fire-related fatalities to occur in Evanston, certainly the first since formation of the Pioneer Fire Company in 1873. It was postulated that a hook & ladder company dedicated to rescue might have saved the two youngsters.

Neither the Pioneers nor the Gilberts wanted the hook & ladder company as it was constituted to be a part of the Evanston Fire Department. The Pioneers however, were especially upset because establishing a hook & ladder company to support the hose companies with rescue, ventilation, and salvage had been their idea in the first place, proposed to the village board in 1875, and the Pioneers wanted control over the hook & ladder company’s membership and training. They wanted the company to be the Pioneer Hook & Ladder Company. The trustees however, apparently wanted the new hook & ladder company kept separate from the Pioneers and from the Gilberts, so as to not give any additional power or influence to either of the hose companies.

The degree to which the Pioneers and the Gilberts were aroused can be measured by the unified stand in their letter to Chief Bailey. Prior to this, the only joint meeting assembled that the rival hose companies ever had was at a fire. But in this final chapter, the Pioneers and Gilberts stood united.

After the hose companies disbanded, the Village Board of Trustees’  Police & Fire Committee was given the task of devising a new fire protection plan. Chief Denis Swenie of the Chicago Fire Department was enlisted as an advisor/consultant, and in less than a week the Police & Fire Committee presented their report to the village board, with the following recommendations:

1. Purchase 1,000 feet of first-class 2-1/2 inch  hose, a four-wheeled horse-drawn hose cart, and a horse. The horse could be used by the street department to pull a wagon when not in use by the fire department;

2. Replace the volunteer fire companies with a paid fire department of approximately four-to-six men, with additional reserve manpower available for large fires.

The committee added that Chief Swenie believed the cost of operating a paid fire department would probably not exceed the funding required to operate the old volunteer fire department, since a smaller paid company–consisting of no more than six men total, would require far less clothing, gear, and equipment than did the much larger volunteer companies with as many as thirty men serving in each company.

However, it should be noted that Chief Swenie was probably somewhat prejudiced as far as whether volunteer firefighters should be the backbone of a fire department. The City of Chicago had been forced to disband several of its more famous (or infamous) volunteer fire companies in 1858, after firemen started a riot in downtown Chicago over the issue of acceptance of steam fire engines for service with the Chicago Fire Department. Because steam fire engines required considerably less manpower than did the labor-intensive hand-pumpers, fewer firemen would be needed, and fewer firemen translated into less political power and influence for the volunteer companies.

Despite the rapid completion and submission of the report, the implementation of the plan was delayed for almost four months, until a village board meeting in late September 1881. There were no significant fires in the village during this time. At this meeting, the trustees at first agreed that it was unfair to ask volunteers to serve as firefighters without some type of compensation, but three hours later the trustees decided that the fire department would remain 100% volunteer, with no compensation for its members. The trustees claimed that because of financial limitations, nothing could be done to change the fire department from volunteer to paid until the next fiscal year’s budget.

The new volunteer fire department would consist of the 15-man hook & ladder company that had been accepted for service in April 1881; one, 30-man hose company whose membership would be determined not by the Fire Marshal, but by the superintendent of the street department, that would definitely not be connected in any way with either Pioneer Hose Company, No. 1,  or the C. J. Gilbert Hose Company, and a new chemical company that would consist of eight Davis Street merchants utilizing the old Babcock chemical-engine in mothballs since 1875.

The new volunteer fire department really only existed on paper, however. Street Department Superintendent Peter Svedlund’s so-called “hose company” had no organizational structure or training drills, and because former Pioneer and Gilbert hose company members were excluded, the company also lacked experience and expertise. The Evanston Hook & Ladder Company, although also lacking experience and expertise, was at least trained and organized, but its mission was to provide rescue, ventilation, and salvage support. It was not trained or equipped for fire suppression. The proposed chemical company was never organized.

On November 1, 1881, after a couple of embarrassing performances by the Evanston Fire Department during the previous month, in which the so-called “volunteers” either failed to respond promptly or did not respond at all, Fire Marshal Bob Bailey offered to resign. The village board convinced Chief Bailey to reconsider, promising him that a better fire protection plan would be implemented in 1882.

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Evanston Fire Department history – Part 2

More Evanston Fire Department history from Phil Stenholm:

On May 2, 1875, the EFD responded to an early-morning blaze at the First Presbyterian Church at Lake & Chicago  Although firemen arrived promptly, the structure was lost, mainly because of a communication mix-up between firefighters at the scene and the engineer on duty at the Waterworks engine-house. Firefighters believed water-pressure was being increased when they heard what they thought was an acknowledgment from the Waterworks engineer (it was actually a whistle from a C&NW RR train), so by the time a messenger was sent on horseback to the engine-house, the church was destroyed.

Later that month, a telegraph connection was established between the village hall and the Waterworks. Even with improved communication (telephones replaced the telegraph in the 1880s), the fire at the First Presbyterian Church was not to be the only instance where poor communication between firefighters and a Waterworks engineer would give a black eye to the EFD. Meanwhile, the First Presbyterian Church was rebuilt on the same site, only to be destroyed by fire again in February 1894.

The Evanston Fire Department was legally established by ordinance on May 25, 1875 and took effect on May 29th, once it was published in the newspaper. The ordinance was only a technicality, however, as the origin of the fire department certainly was January 7, 1873, the night the Village Board of Trustees accepted the Pioneer Fire Company for service. 

The C. J. Gilbert Hose Company was organized in January 1875 and after a six-month period of evaluation was accepted for service by the village board in August 1875, joining Pioneer Hose Company No. 1 as one of Evanston’s two volunteer hose companies.

The Pioneers and the Gilberts were each assigned one hand-drawn, two-wheeled, one-axle hose cart (one built by Silsby, the other by G. W. Hannis), 1000 feet of 2-1/2 inch hose, an assortment of nozzles, related tools and equipment. Gilbert Hose Company foreman William Gamble, a local grocer, served as village Fire Marshal from November 1876 to May 1878. Pioneer Fire Company foreman (and butcher) W. R. “Bob” Bailey served as Fire Marshal from May 1878 to July 1883. Bailey’s Meat Market & Ice House was one of the shops destroyed in the Willard Block fire of 1872.

From January 1875 to April 1881, the Evanston Fire Department consisted of just the two volunteer hose companies. All of the apparatus, equipment, and gear were owned by the village. Both companies maintained their apparatus and held their respective monthly meetings on the first floor of the village hall. Each company gave its own Firemen’s Ball each year, the Pioneers on St. Patrick’s Day, and the Gilberts on New Year’s Eve. Which was the better party has been lost to antiquity.

Company officers included the foreman who was the company commander, a 1st assistant foreman, a 2nd assistant foreman, a 3rd assistant foreman, a secretary, and a treasurer. All company officers were elected annually by the members of the company, and new members were allowed to join only after receiving the approval of company members. Most of the members of the two companies were Evanston merchants or their employees.

Pioneer Hose Company, No. 1 was considered one of the elite hose companies in Illinois, and frequently competed in musters with other fire companies. The Pioneers had fancy uniforms featuring navy blue caps, red flannel shirts with black trim and a number “1” on the front, and black belts with white trim. They took their pick of new equipment acquired by the village, and usually got their “man” installed as the village fire marshal. Conversely, the C. J. Gilbert Hose Company, formed by a cadre of renegade outcasts from the Pioneer Fire Company, did NOT participate in state musters, did NOT have fancy uniforms, and were considered the “poor step-brothers” of the EFD.

As in many volunteer fire departments of the day, Evanston’s two hose companies were friendly rivals, and each enjoyed nothing better than blasting the other with water after extinguishing a “good fire.” They also would race each other to be first on scene, first with water on the fire, and first to extinguish the flames. Unfortunately, the Village Board of Trustees would sometimes play one company off against the other, by appointing one company’s foreman as the village fire marshal, or by distributing new equipment to one company but not to the other. And the Gilberts were usually the ones that got the short end of the pike pole.

Although fires in Evanston were rare, and big fires even more rare, the Pioneers and the Gilberts did have their moments, especially during the night of January 2, 1879. At 9 PM, firefighters responded in bitter cold (supposedly minus-20 degrees) to a report of a fire at Dempster Hall dormitory on the campus of Northwestern University. Constructed in 1854, Dempster Hall was one of the oldest structures in the village. Three hours later, the vacant residence hall stood gutted, and firefighters were frozen and exhausted. students were on Christmas Vacation at the time.

There was no rest for the weary, however, as the Pioneers and the Gilberts responded to another reported fire at 2 AM, this time at the Northwestern Gas Light & Coke Company (the “gasworks”) at Clark & Maple. Coal sheds, several tons of coal, and 20 barrels of tar were destroyed before firefighters quelled the conflagration. The companies then turned the hose streams on each other. Fortunately, today’s Evanston firefighters are not so childish…

Two more significant fires occurred during early 1879, both on the West Ridge in the vicinity of Church & Wesley. The first destroyed the home of Northwestern University Professor Kistler — where firefighters lost the house but saved the furniture and library, and the other destroyed the palatial domicile of real estate king Charles Browne, the founder of North Evanston, although firemen once again saved the furniture and library, as well as two nearby homes. The fires of ‘79 caused much agitation within the EFD, as both companies demanded some form of financial compensation, as well as additional equipment (play-pipes and hose) and clothing (coats, gloves, and boots) from the village trustees.

The village board did subsequently acquire coats, gloves, and boots, but not enough for both of the companies. The trustees gave EFD Chief Bob Bailey, one-time foreman of Pioneer Hose Company No. 1, the job of allocating the gear, and (surprise!) all of it went to the Pioneers. As one might imagine, the Gilberts were not happy campers. The trustees then acquired a new play-pipe, and this time the Pioneers offered to stage a muster with the Gilberts at the town picnic on July 4th, with the winner to take possession of the new appliance. The Gilberts refused, probably because they did not want to establish the precedent of competing with the Pioneers for gear and equipment, so the Pioneers kept the play-pipe.

By failing to compete with the Pioneers at the picnic however, the Gilberts became a town joke. In an attempt to restore their dignity, the Gilberts challenged the Pioneers to a muster later that summer. The two companies agreed to meet (or “muster”) on the afternoon of August 21, 1879.

Several hundred enthusiastic spectators lined University Place on a very hot summer Thursday afternoon. Gambling was rampant, with several side-wagers amongst the firemen themselves. Despite completing the run in 63.5 seconds  and besting their own state record, the Pioneers were disqualified by the judges on a technicality. The Gilberts were awarded the upset victory. The Pioneers protested, claiming the local judges either did not understand state tournament rules, had been bribed, or both, but the Gilbert victory stood.

On December 31, 1880 (New Year’s Eve), the Pioneers and Gilberts engaged in a far more difficult contest, the second blaze to strike the opulent home of prominent village resident John H. Kedzie in seven years. As was often the case in cold weather, many firemen missed the alarm because they couldn’t hear the fire-bell with their windows closed. Those who did respond fought a long, hard battle against flames buried within the walls of the home, saving the furniture, but ultimately losing the house. Harry Housel, one of the members of Pioneer Hose Company No. 1, contracted a respiratory infection either during or shortly after this fire, an infection that eventually lead to his death by “consumption” (tuberculosis) at the age of 24 in April 1882, after the Pioneer Hose Company had disbanded.

The Kedzie fire seemed to light a fuse inside the fire companies, leading once again to demands for financial compensation and improved clothing and equipment for Evanston’s firefighters. After their pleas were ignored, the two hose companies resigned en masse on May 23, 1881. The era of volunteer firefighting in Evanston would end with a whimper.

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Evanston Fire Department history – Part 1

From Phil Stenholm:

The Big Bang of the Evanston Fire Department

And in the beginning, there was the Pioneer Fire Company of Evanston… 

Evanston’s first fire company was the 63-man volunteer “Pioneer Fire Company of Evanston,” organized during the first week of January 1873, and accepted for service with the Village of Evanston at the Village Board meeting of January 7th.

The Pioneer Fire Company pre-dates ALL other organized fire-fighting outfits in Evanston. It even pre-dates the Evanston Fire Department itself! (The EFD was not officially and legally established by ordinance until May 1875).

The Pioneer Fire Company was formed in response to two big fires that occurred in Evanston in 1872.  

The first (and worst) blaze destroyed 18 businesses and residences in the Willard Block (located on the north side of Davis Street, between Sherman and Benson) in the early morning hours of Monday, October 14, 1872 (just over a year after the Great Chicago Fire). Despite heroic work by an ad hoc citizen “bucket brigade” (relaying water from a nearby well to a privately-owned 50-gallon hand-operated “garden pumper”), the conflagration was stopped only after Town Board President C. J. Gilbert ordered buildings at both ends of the block dismantled to remove potential fuel for the fire. The $49,300 in damage would stand as the highest loss from an Evanston fire until the Lincoln Avenue schoolhouse fire of March 1894.

Then on December 20th (a scant two months after the Willard Block fire), three residences on Hinman Avenue were destroyed by fire. Once again, a citizen “bucket brigade” could not stop the flames. However, within two weeks, Evanston would have a fire marshal, and an organized fire brigade.

Evanston’s first fire marshal was Colonel Wesley Brainerd.

A native of Rome, N. Y., Col. Brainerd was a prominent civil engineer and had been an officer in the Engineer Brigade of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. He was wounded by a sniper’s bullet while supervising deployment of a pontoon bridge over the Rappahannock River at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. Although Col. Brainerd had no background as a firefighter (he was brought to Evanston to construct sidewalks), he was appointed the first Fire Marshal of the Village of Evanston on January 1, 1873. 

The Fire Marshal was primarily responsible for enforcing the new “Fire Limits” ordinance, but he also helped to organize the Pioneer Fire Company. Col. Brainerd resigned his post as Fire Marshal in June 1873, at which time he left Evanston to continue his career as a civil engineer. He died on August 19, 1910, at the age of 77. (His papers are in a special collection at the University of Tennessee). Pioneer Fire Company foreman and fire insurance agent Joseph Humphrey replaced Col. Brainerd as Fire Marshal in the Summer of 1873.

The first firehouse was the Evanston Village Hall (a two-story wood-frame structure, located at the southwest corner of Orrington Avenue and the south alley of Church Street). The first-floor was altered to accommodate the fire company, as the two front windows were removed and replaced with double-doors. A room was made available for company meetings, and a bell was purchased to alert the company’s members when there was a fire.

The Pioneer Fire Company’s first apparatus were a hand-drawn Babcock hook & ladder wagon equipped with a ladder, pike-poles, axes, buckets, and rope, and a hand-drawn Babcock double 50-gallon self-acting chemical-engine.

The Babcock chemical-engine was all the rage in 1872, as the new invention was demonstrated at universities, conventions, and state and county fairs. Since it was manufactured in Chicago, the Chicago Fire Department acquired several in the aftermath of its infamous fire. The Babcock chemical-engine was advertised as “a fire extinguisher on wheels” and that’s essentially what it was, providing up to 100 gallons of soda-acid fire suppression almost immediately upon arrival at a fire.

Chemical fire suppression was gradually replaced by the so-called “booster” system — a water tank & auxiliary pump with a pre-connected hose-lead — after its invention by Ahrens-Fox President Charles H. Fox in 1913, but chemical fire suppression was the main-stay “first responder” of the American fire service for more than 40 years.

Evanston’s chemical-engine was taken out of service and kept in “mothballs” for almost ten years after the high-pressure waterworks was placed in service in January 1875, before being converted into a horse-drawn apparatus and returning to front-line duty in 1884. The rig was refurbished in 1902 and remained in front-line service as the second-section of Truck Co. 1 until November 1917 nearly 45 years after it was built .   

Unlike the Babcock chemical-engine, the Babcock H&L was not converted to a hose-drawn rig, and so it was scrapped when Evanston’s hand-drawn fire fighting apparatus were replaced by horse-drawn apparatus in 1883.

The Pioneer Fire Company included many prominent citizens, including several Civil War heroes, a doctor, a judge, and a banker who would later serve as U. S. Secretary of the Treasury. Although a volunteer entity, membership in the Pioneer Fire Company was considered a privilege and an honor. Not everyone who applied for membership was accepted. The company held meetings at the village hall on the first Thursday evening of each month, and company officers scheduled occasional surprise “practice drills” for company members.

The first such drill was held at the Northwestern Gas Light & Coke Company (the “gasworks”) on February 22, 1873, as Pioneer Fire Company officers set tar on fire and waited for the company to respond. They responded all right, but it was reported in the Evanston Index that “some firemen are exceedingly bitter over going to a practice fire on such a cold day.” (Note that at the next monthly meeting, the fine for insubordination was doubled!).

Actual fires were rare during the years 1873-1874. However, the company did battle a major blaze at the M. Bates Iott furniture store plus seven adjacent businesses in the Judson Block (south side of Davis Street, west of Sherman) on October 15, 1873. Aggregate damage totaled $14,650. Although firefighters were able to salvage much of Iott’s property, some of the salvaged goods were stolen by looters. Because Evanston’s two police officers were also members of the Pioneer Fire Company, there was no law enforcement presence outside the store to protect the goods from opportunistic thieves. Subsequently, the Village Board of Trustees would mandate that Evanston police officers could not serve as firefighters.

A sophisticated high-pressure waterworks was placed in service in Evanston in January 1875. Christened the C. J. Gilbert Waterworks in honor of the esteemed Village Board President and leader of the so-called “Waterworks Party”, it was built by the Holly Company of Lockport, New York, at a cost of $111,241.68. The project was funded by the sale of municipal bonds in the amount of $83,850 approved by Evanston voters in the elections of 1873 and 1874, and special assessment taxes collected from property owners as water mains and fire hydrants were extended into the various neighborhoods of the village. Because of the cost, no town as small as Evanston had ever built a Holly high-pressure waterworks before.

The Holly Company’s high-pressure waterworks was a technological marvel. The engine house was constructed at the northeast corner of Lincoln Street & Michigan Avenue (later known as Sheridan Road), and the crib, intake pipes, and rotary strainer were located in Lake Michigan 500 feet off-shore. The high-pressure rotary pump, designed by Burdsall Holly, was capable of pumping 3,000,000 gallons of water every 24 hours for general residential use and allowed water-pressure in the mains to be increased two or three times above normal “residential pressure” in the event of a fire so that firefighters would require only direct pressure (or “plug pressure”) to extinguish a blaze. Steam fire engines were not needed. A larger Holly engine & pump capable of pumping 12,000,000 gallons per 24 hours was acquired and installed in 1897.

The Pioneer Fire Company was reorganized as a 30-man hose company and changed its name to Pioneer Hose Company No. 1 in December 1874, as Evanston’s new Holly high-pressure waterworks was about ready to be placed in service.

The Holly waterworks system was officially tested and accepted by the Village of Evanston on January 21, 1875, as firefighters from Pioneer Hose Company No. 1 manning hose lines with one-inch diameter nozzles were able to simultaneously throw four streams of water between 104 – 117 feet into the air (using direct-pressure from hydrants), and then using a single 1-1/2-inch diameter nozzle were able to throw a single stream 153-1/2 feet into the air. Then using a 1-3/4-inch diameter nozzle with a three-hose lead from three hydrants, they were able to throw a single stream of water 217 feet into the air. Water pressure was measured at 100-110 psi at the engine house on Lincoln Street, and at 80-90 psi at the hydrants located on Church Street and Davis Street more than a mile from the pumping station.

Unfortunately, increasing water pressure during fires eventually led to broken and collapsed water-mains sometimes DURING a fire!  Therefore, beginning in 1912 plug pressure was used only rarely. There also was a problem with anchor-ice sometimes clogging the intake pipes during the coldest days of winter, causing the high-pressure pump to be less-effective. 

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