Fire Department History

Fenn Street FireFenn Street Fire

 Pittsfield Firefighters at Fenn Street Fire - 2006


1713-1948 A Brief Outline of the History of the Pittsfield Fire Department


Since the dawn of civilization mankind has struggled with and against the force of fire. He has used the force released by the flickering flames to do his will in his home life, his industries and his transportation. But often, in a single unguarded or careless moment, this same powerful force which but an instant before was the servant of man, has become a roaring, uncontrolled monster, devouring both man and his possessions.

Down through the years the city of Pittsfield has also played its part in the drama of man against fire. From the pioneer settlement of Pittsfield up to 1850, there was a town enactment requiring every householder to keep a number of waterbuckets and ladders in readiness for fire fighting.

When the dread cry of fire awoke the little settlement in the dark hours of the night or when the ringing of the church bells sounded the alarm, all the able bodied population, men and boys, women and girls, responded. Long lines were formed and the water was passed along in buckets. These first self-constituted fire companies were known as Bucket Brigades.

In 1812 a rude box-engine was purchased by subscription. By 1822 there was a Pittsfield Engine Company, of which Bartlett A. Luce was master and Robert Campbell, clerk. It held monthly meetings, deriving funds by fining members for non-attendance and tardiness.

It was during the existence of this company that two box-fire engines, built after the Newsham patterns, one owned by Lemuel Pomeroy and Sons, the other by the Pontoosuc Woolen Company, were stationed at the factories of their owners.

These three engines constituted Pittsfield’s early defense against fire. They disappeared in 1834 when the company was disbanded. Attempts were made annually to induce the town to purchase a new engine and to increase the efficiency of fire protection, but all such attempts were defeated. The burning of the middle brick building of the Young Ladies’ Institute in 1844, however, aroused the citizens to form the First Fire District. At this time the town made a grant of land and donated $1000 for fire district purposes.

On June 3rd, 1844, the center, east and west center districts organized as the Pittsfield Fire District, taking in 2 square miles of territory. Its boundaries were very irregular however, those of the school districts having been arbitrarily followed.

At its first meeting the Fire District taxed itself $2100, the town’s grant being on condition that it should raise $2000. A Committee was appointed to recommend and appoint candidates to the various offices. Levi Goodrich was appointed the first Chief Engineer with seven assistants and a prudential committee of three on June 8, 1844.

Upon recommendation of the Committee an engine house was built on what is now School Street at a cost of approximately $500. This building was 30 feet square, two stories high and contained apartments for two engines and the hook and ladder cart, as well as rooms for several companies to meet.

On October 9, 1844, the first company in Pittsfield and the oldest in the United States, was formed of the young men of the town and was called the Housatonic Engine Company. An elegant hand fire engine was purchased of Henry Waterman, Hudson, New York, for $680 with 328 feet of hose (the hose costing $228) and was delivered to the Housatonic Engine Company, October 12, 1844. This engine became known as the Housatonic and was described as a 7 ¼ inch hydraulion complete with suction hose, drag ropes and all necessary tools.

In the fall of 1844, the Western Railroad Company bought a fire engine called the Union and brought it to Pittsfield. This fire engine was stationed near the depot and soon became part of the town’s fire department. However, this was not formally accepted by the district until after a second engine had been purchased which made it number three in rank.

The second fire engine company to form in Pittsfield was called The Fame. They had a Waterman machine which was received in June 1845 and was equipped like its companion engines. In a short time (1848) this company was disbanded and the Pontoosuc Engine Company was formed.

In 1853 the Western Railroad Company put a better engine in place of the old Union. This new fire engine was called The Eagle, then later this name was changed to The Taconic. This company was also disbanded and a new company was formed, which called itself the S.W. Morton. Again the name was changed, this time to The Protection. At a final assemblage, December 23, 1871, they changed to the George Y. Learned Company.

Between September 1845 and July 1875, the Fire Department was called out 171 times, seven of these fires being outside of Pittsfield, ten beyond the limits of the fire district and thirteen were in the larger manufacturing plants and their buildings.

The Greylock Hook and Ladder Company was formed October 20, 1848 and organized with 27 members. Its first truck was built by Jason Clapp and Son and the ladders were purchased in Boston. In later years the Department added a second hook and ladder, both continuing in service until about 1904.

The records of the Greylock Hook and Ladder Company, prior to 1867, were lost. They kept their truck equipment in the north half of the wooden house at the end of School Street. In 1850 this fire house was damaged by fire and a brick building was erected for the use of Number One Company.

It is interesting to note at this time the social activities of the firemen which helped to keep alive the interest of the community in the department. One of the early Balls given by the firemen was a Washington Birthday Ball, given Friday evening, February 21, 1851 at West’s Hall. Music for dancing was furnished by Undemir and Godfey’s Quadrille Band of Albany, New York. Tickets were sold at $2.50. This included a supper at the Berkshire Hotel. Invitations to the affair were printed by Axtel, Bull and Marsh.

Mention is also made of the Seventh Annual Grand Concert and Ball given at the Burbank Hall on West Street, Wednesday evening, December 27, 1871. Music was furnished by Gilmore’s Band of Boston with Professor Walcott of Northampton as prompter. The decorations were arranged by Colonel Beals of Boston. Tickets were $2.50.

The anniversary Sociables of the Housatonic Company were festal events. They consisted of dining, music, dancing and oratory, especially a lot of oratory. In 1885 the Goerge Y. Learned Company and Protective Company joined in organizing a yearly Union Firemen’s Ball which was given at the Academy of Music. This event took the place of the former anniversary celebrations and soon became occasions of great renown.

The increase in property and its value which was exposed to fire, made it necessary with the passing of the years to provide a more powerful defense against fire and the purchase of a steam engine was recommended in 1865. As usual, no action was taken on the matter at that time, but later two steamers were purchased and received January 19, 1872. These two steamers were drawn by firemen, later they were provided with horses. Both steamers were purchased from the Clapp and Jones Manufacturing Company of Hudson, New York. They were of the fourth class. One was painted red and one painted blue, the colors of the two companies who had charge of these engines.

The Committee voted Steamer Number 1 to be the Edwin Clapp and that Number 2 should be the Pontoosuc. The hose carriage for No. 1 was made by George Grost, a Pittsfield carriage manufacturer. Each engineer at first received a salary of $100 yearly and the firemen of each machine received $50. In time this was increased to $120 for each engineer and $80 each for the firemen. Prior to 1870 when the Fire District first purchased uniforms for the firemen, they had purchased their own.

There were now four Fire Companies, as follows: The first and the oldest was the Housatonic with the steamer Edwin Clapp. This was housed on School Street behind the Baptist Church. Next was the George Y. Learned Company with its steamer bearing the same name (the Pontoosuc Company had changed to this name in honor of George Y. Learned, a liberal and popular manufacturer), in the south half of the wooden building facing the east termination of School Street. The S.W. Morton was still used as the name of the hand engine belonging to the Boston and Albany Railroad which had quarters on Depot Street. These engines were more familiarly known at No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. They maintained hose carts in addition to the engines and each had a full complement of 50 men. The fourth company was the Greylock Hook and Ladder Company, previously mentioned, housed with its equipment in the north half of the building at the end of School Street. The two hand engines purchased by the District in 1844 constituted, in 1876, the reserve equipment of the department. A few years later one was stationed at the factory village of Pontoosuc.

Rivalry between the companies was strong. Each company was an individual organization choosing its own officers, etc., under the approval of the district’s board of engineers. It was, on the whole, a picturesque age in the history of the Pittsfield Fire Department. The silver trumpets, the helmets, the dress and ornament worn by the firemen appealed to the imagination as the four torch boys of the Housatonic Company (1858) ran ahead of the company at night, carrying huge flambeaus to light the way through the streets at night in answer to alarms.

In 1875 a motion was made and voted on by the George Y. Learned Company that ladies be admitted to the company, as honorary members. It does not appear, however, that this was carried into effect.

In 1873 the engine house on School Street was partly rebuilt and on July 3, 1874, $2000 was appropriated to erect a brick hose tower. In 1876 the first district’s area was 4 square miles. There were 61 street hydrants and 16 water tanks. By 1880 this had increased to 72 hydrants. “Within a radius of 400 feet of the west end of the Park” reported the Fire Chief, “there are contained in 7 fire tanks more than 133,000 gallons of water, a quantity sufficient in case of Ashley water being shut off, to supply both our steamers nearly 6 hours.”

Until 1878, fire alarms were rung on church bells. Then the electric system was inaugurated. Alarms, however, were more or less haphazard. They were often supplemented with the steam whistle at Butler & Merrill’s woodworking shop on North Street. In 1881 the district appropriated $150 for putting in a telephonic alarm in the Police Headquarters and to provide a watchman at night to answer telephone fire alarms. In 1882 money was voted by the district to install a telegraphic alarm system, then valued at $5000, for which the bell of the First Church was the sounder. This was placed in commission in January, 1883, with 22 street boxes. This was reinforced in 1884 by utilizing the steam whistle at the Terry Clock Company on South Church Street. Subsequently the fire alarm system was connected with the Shop whistle of the Pittsfield Electric Company.

Through the final fifteen years of the Fire District Government, the improvement of the apparatus and the companies kept a reasonable pace with the needs of the public. Each company provided itself with a hose cart at its own expense. In 1880 the district bought a ladder capable of a 50 foot extension for the use of the Hook and Ladder Company. In 1886 the efficiency of this company was further increased when the district purchased a new truck. The town had purchased a fire engine which was held in reserve at first.

Mr. George S. Willis, elected in 1882, was the first Chief to receive a salary (1883) and was also provided with office room for the transaction of fire department business. In 1883, a fifth volunteer Company was organized. They were called Protectives, Number One and were formally accepted by the District in 1884. This company was the idea of Chief Willis and they proved of great value from the time of their organization up to 1892. Their first apparatus was a hand wagon. Later they were furnished with a horse, wagon and all necessary equipment. This branch of the service was admirably managed and saved a great amount of property from fire, smoke and water damage. The value of this service resulted in the attachment to the department of three combination chemical, hose and protective wagons.

In 1884, arrangements were made for four or five men to sleep every night in each engine house. These “bunkers” so-called, began to receive yearly compensation of $30. But until the town became a city (1891) and until the old Fire District went out of existence, the department remained volunteer.

The Veteran Fireman’s Association was organized in 1888, having as qualification for membership, 25 years of continuous service by firemen. Men joined the Department merely because they wanted to for the sake of adventure and good fellowship, although an earnest desire to be of help prompted many to join. There was no monetary inducement to cause them to join for until Chief Willis first received a salary, only 5 members of the Department were paid. They were an engineer, a stoker for each steamer, and a caretaker of the hose-tower. At this time the Chief Engineer was elected yearly at the meeting of the Fire District. In glancing briefly back, we find that no report of the Chief Engineer was printed in 1872, as there were no fires and no alarms for that year.

Horses were first used about 1885 to draw the heavier apparatus. At first, they were provided by the various livery stables. Horses were purchased in 1896 for the Central Station and by 1898, no dependence was placed on the livery stables.

A new house had also been provided by 1887 for the S.W. Morton Company. The new house, of brick, stood on the east side of North Street between the railroad bridge and Melville Street. The 3rd or Silsby Engine was consigned to this building.

The year 1891 may be considered as the termination of the volunteer system and the management and conduct of the Fire Department passed from the Fire District into the control of the city and became a paid department. The reorganization of the department under the ordinances of the city government proceeded rapidly. A chemical engine was added to the apparatus in 1899 and in the following year, three wagons which were used to carry combined chemical and hose equipment were added.

In 1895, the present Central Fire Station was erected at the end of School Street. Events were now moving rapidly with the turn of the century. In 1905, a revision of the Fire Department Ordinances became effective and prescribed 14 men in the department on permanent duty and 50 on the call force.

A brick station was completed in 1906 on Tyler Street and apparatus from the department’s North Street house was taken there and the North Street house abandoned. An additional steamer was purchased in 1909, and in 1911 the first Automobile Fire Truck in the Pittsfield Fire Department was used for the first time.

In 1912, the Pittsfield Permanent Firemen’s Benefit Association was organized. This organization has grown with the years and has become an active and successful society. In 1912, the department was equipped with a so-called aerial ladder truck propelled by a gasoline and electric motor. The purchase of this ladder was hastened by a series of disastrous fires on North Street, beginning the Academy of Music fire on January 28, 1912, followed by the burning of two blocks, February 9th on the west side of North Street above Summer Street and by two fires, February 23 and July 14, in a block on the west side of North Street below Summer Street. The fire loss in 1912 is quoted at $328,000 with 160 alarms.

The wooden building tenanted by a volunteer company in West Pittsfield was damaged by fire in 1913. The next year, 1914, it was restored and enlarged. This company in West Pittsfield was formally organized as part of the City Department in 1905. A steam fire engine was assigned to it in 1913. Volunteer fire companies have existed from time to time in the outlying districts and at the General Electric Plant in Pittsfield.

The year 1915 saw an apparatus installed at the Central Station which gave the alarm by a “hooter” operated by compressed air. It was also used for other purposes than fire alarms as 2 blasts of the hooter at 7:45 A.M. meant “no school,” 10 blasts called out the militia. In reference to fires, 1 blast and one box repeated meant a second alarm. The use of this hooter was discontinued in 1935 and the hooter was turned over to the General Electric Company where it is now used morning, noon and night as the company’s starting and closing signal. Since combination chemical and hose trucks had been provided in 1914, the use of horses was completely given up by the department in 1915. The permanent force now numbered 35 and the call force 18. There were 71 fire alarm boxes at this time.

On March 10, 1919, the 2 Platoon system was granted by the Mayor and the City Council and in November of the same year it was voted on by the people. Each fireman had a tour of duty each week of 84 hours. This system was in effect until 1947 when the 70-Hour Week Law for firemen, which had been passed in the preceding November election, was inaugurated on February 3rd, thus reducing the working hours for firemen from 84 hours per week to 70 hours. To put this law into effect, it was necessary to appoint 20 provisional firemen at the time of its inauguration. During 1947 there were 25 provisional firemen appointed, of which number, 18 were appointed to the permanent firefighting force March 1, 1948 by Mayor Robert T. Capeless.

In 1947,an Ordinance was also passed establishing a Fire Department which should consist of one Chief Engineer, 3 Deputy Fire Chiefs, 7 Captains,5 Lieutenants, 1 Motor Equipment Technician and 72 Permanent Firemen (Privates).

The First Annual Old-Fashioned Firemen’s Muster was held July 4th, 1947 at Wahconah Park. The affair was very successful and was greatly enjoyed by the people of Pittsfield and also by many summer residents and visitors to the city. Various Fire Companies from surrounding towns and cities in the state and from neighboring states participated in the different events and contests.

The fire alarm system known as the Fire and Police Signal Department, which was formerly housed in a room at Central Station, now occupies a building on Tyler Street near the Tyler Street Fire Station. This building, for the use of this department, was erected in 1937.

The Signal Department has had 3 Superintendents. The first was Bartley Cummings, the second was John E. Grady and the third and present Superintendent is John H. Sturgeon, who has held this position since 1947. There are two linemen and three telephone operators. The Signal Department has two trucks for its use. There are 143 boxes and 22 phantom boxes. The present General Alarm System has been in use since 1883.

A parking meter system has been installed on certain streets of the city and this system has been placed under the supervision of the Fire and Police Signal Department. A meter maintenance man has been appointed for the purpose of repairing the meters and keeping them in proper working order.

The old building formerly used by the department as a hose and drill tower was torn down in 1938 to make way for the building now used by the Police and Welfare Department. Since then, the Fire Department has been without a drill tower.

At present time the Pittsfield Fire Department consists of 3 fire stations; Central Station on Allen Street, Engine No. 2 on Tyler Street and Engine No. 1 on Lebanon Avenue. Engine No. 1 opened on March 10, 1931.

The personnel consists of one Chief Engineer, the present Chief being Thomas F. Burke who has held this office since 1933, three Deputy Fire Chiefs, seven Captains, one Motor Equipment Technician, two Clerks and sixty-one Privates.

The department has in service 2-one thousand gallon combination pump engines and hose cars, 2 seven hundred fifty gallon pump engines and hose cars, 1 hose car equipped with a 4 inch deck gun capable of delivering 1200 to 1500 gallons of water per minute, 1 combination Booster and hose car, 1 eight-five foot aerial ladder truck, 1 city service ladder truck, 1 forest fire truck, 1 rescue and light truck and 2 touring cars (sedans). There are over 1000 feet of 3 inch hose, 9900 feet of 2 ½ inch hose, 3250 feet of 1 ½ inch hose and 2350 feet of booster hose. The city now has approximately 970 hydrants.

The work of the Fire Department has increased in volume with the passing years and the rapid and continued growth of the city. Today an important part of the work of the Fire Department is not merely the extinguishing of fires after they have started, but the teaching of fire prevention to the public and making them more fie conscious. That the fire department has worked hard in this respect is proved by the high honors they repeatedly win in the annual Fire Prevention Contests.

Under Chapter 148 of the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Fire Department is required to make routine inspections for fire hazards, and inspections where hazards are known to exist and where violations of the various rules and ordinances may have been violated. This work is carried on under the supervision of Chief Burke who appointed Alexander D. Sturgeon as Fire Inspector September 22, 1947. Thus the work of fire prevention is carried on daily throughout the year.

During the year 1949 approximately 7,371 inspections were made by the Inspection Bureau and the other members of the Fire Department. These included inspections made in public buildings and business places, private homes and wherever any known fire hazard might exist.

For better fire protection and safety in the local hospitals, a Fire Prevention and Fire Training program was set up in 1950 by Chief Burke, and is now being carried out under the capable leadership of Deputy Chief Francis P. Maher in cooperation with the staff and members of hospitals. Fire drills are now being held at frequent intervals in the hospitals and it is intended to add fire prevention studies to the Student Nurse’s Training Curriculum.

Other steps forward in 1948 were the establishment of a Fire Department Survey Commission to study the needs of the Fire Department to provide for more fire stations with the necessary apparatus and personnel for the same. On recommendation of the Mayor and City Council, $5000 was made available for the employment of architects to obtain estimated costs to study designs and construction of fire stations.

In 1949 a Fire Department Building Commission consisting of six members was appointed. These members were Donald P. Gerst, Chairman, Robert B. Dillon, William H. Cooney, Thomas F. Burke, Joseph A. Powers and Frederick DuBois. Under this Commission, an order was adopted by the City Council in September of 1949 appropriating money for the purpose of building one fire station unit on West Housatonic Street to replace the present station on Lebanon Avenue no known as Engine No. 1, and to build one fire station unit including drill tower, smoke house, tanks and other installations for the complete training facilities for firemen, on Pecks Road, and to purchase the equipment necessary to fully equip those buildings and in the spring of 1950 ground was broken at the two above locations for the purpose of erecting these two stations.

The city can well be proud of its Fire Department, which has struggled through the years under the handicap of being undermanned, and lacking in stations, apparatus and equipment, but which has continued to give the people of Pittsfield efficient and well-trained service.

The can indeed be proud of their firemen, who under the skilled management of Chief Thomas F. Burke, do not hesitate to give their health and lives if necessary to save the lives and property of the people of Pittsfield.