Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

20th Century Man

Ever since the annexation of the Village of South Evanston by the Village of Evanston and the forming of the City of Evanston in 1892, the populace of South Evanston had felt politically neglected. But in 1901, mayoral candidate James Patten actively sought the South Evanston vote, and it helped him capture the election. Patten promised improved city services for South Evanston should he be elected mayor, and after the voters delivered for him, he delivered for them. 

Patten was the prime mover behind the establishment of Evanston Hospital in 1891 (which was initially located in a large residence at the southwest corner of Emerson & Sherman, before moving to its present site on Ridge Avenue north of Central Street). He was also a major donor to Northwestern University, so he already was a popular figure in the 7th ward (northeast Evanston), and now he was popular in the two South Evanstion wards (the 3rd and 4th) as well.  

On April 23, 1901, newly-elected Mayor Patten discharged long-time Evanston Chief Fire Marshal Sam Harrison. The flamboyant Harrison had made numerous enemies during his tenure as chief, and Patten was one of them. Officially, Mayor Patten cited three reasons for the dismissal: 

1. Conflict of interest. Harrison held two full-time jobs, Fire Marshal, and Township Constable;  

2. Laxity in discipline: Harrison supposedly allowed civilians to “visit” firemen in firehouse bunk-rooms;  

3. Malfeasance: Harrison purchased equipment without first attempting to find the cheapest price.  

Immediately after relieving Harrison of his duties, Patten selected Engine Co. 1 Assistant Engineer Ed Mersch to be the new Fire Marshal. Mersch was certainly a surprise choice. He was not a company officer, he wasn’t even the EFD’s senior engineer. But from Patten’s point of view, Mersch was the perfect choice to succeed Harrison as EFD chief. Although he was only an assistant engineer, with no experience as a company officer, Mersch hailed from South Evanston, and he had a college education, extremely rare for a fireman in 1901.

After selecting Mersch to be the new chief of the EFD, Mayor Patten proceeded to outline how he and his new Fire Marshal intended to bring the Evanston Fire Department into the 20th century. First and foremost was the upgrading of fire protection in South Evanston: more manpower, new apparatus and equipment, and renovation of the building that had served as Fire Station #2 since the annexation of South Evanston in 1892. 

By 1901, three firefighters (Hose Co. 2) occupied a large administrative-type building that was originally designed as a combination village hall/firehouse/police station-jail. The Evanston Police Department operated a South Precinct at the facility 1892-97, but by 1901 just the EFD occupied the building. The apparatus bay was small with room for just one hose cart and one horse. Patten and Mersch planned to have the facility remodeled, but after cost-estimates showed that the remodeling would cost almost as much as a new building, the mayor and the Fire Marshal decided to push for a new fire station instead. And the city council concurred. 

Although only 15 years old and in good condition, the former South Evanston village hall was demolished and replaced on the same site by a new, $6,000. three-bay fire station. Opening on Sunday February 15, 1903, new Evanston Fire Station #2 at 750 Chicago Avenue now boasted six firefighters including a captain, a lieutenant, four firemen, and four horses. The two rigs assigned to the new Fire Station #2 were a four-wheeled, two-axle hose cart with a two-horse hitch and capacity to carry 1,250 feet of hose, and a modern 1902 Seagrave “combination truck,” so-called because it combined hook & ladder and chemical engine functions in one vehicle. The Seagrave combination truck was very popular at the time. The Wilmette Fire Department  operated a Seagrave combination truck from 1905-1923, and the Chicago Fire Department assigned Seagrave combination trucks to most of the truck companies located in outlying areas of the city.  

While Patten and Mersch together engineered the upgrading of fire protection in South Evanston, Mersch used his mechanical engineering background to make several technical and safety improvements to EFD apparatus during his tenure, including the refurbishing of the Babcock chemical engine in 1902 that kept the rig in service for another 15 years. The team of Patten & Mersch would not last as long, however.

Mayor Patten served just one, two-year term, and Mersch’s tenure was marred by disputes and conflicts with the firefighters he commanded. He was fired by Mayor James Barker in May 1905, amid loud protests from the residents of South Evanston who claimed he was fired only for political reasons, and he died at the age of 38 in 1911. Meanwhile, deposed Chief Fire Marshal Sam Harrison had far greater success going forward. He served several terms as a Justice of the Peace in Evanston, and he also served as a Deputy County Assessor and City Building Inspector. He died at the ripe of old age of 86 in 1939. 

Tags: , , , , , , ,