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Volunteer Fire Department Grew into Professional Company
Article first published in Vol. 19, 2000.
By Karla Marquez, Cesar Gonzalez, Eddie Caldera and Maria Chavez
Fire Departments in ancient Rome consisted of patrols charged with looking for fires. They were called "vigiles," a word familiar to us as "vigil," keeping watch. When a sentry spotted a fire, he sounded an alarm and others would lend a hand in extinguishing the fire.
Early American settlers used bucket brigades, as did the small border town of El Paso. The first fire to cause real alarm in the town occurred in early 1881, when a shed at the corral of the Overland Mail Company burned down. The inadequacy of a bucket brigade became obvious.
Before the arrival of the railroad, El Paso had about 400 residents, and most of its houses and commercial buildings were made of adobe, a naturally fireproof material. After the Southern Pacific came through in 1881, the population swelled to over 3,000 and residents began using more wood in construction of hotels, restaurants, stores and houses.
On January 18, 1882, William Fewel, Charles Pierce and several other men met to organize the first volunteer fire department. In April, the city contracted with Sylvester Watts to build a water company. Along with drinking water, the first water system made it possible to locate 25 water hydrants throughout the town.
In August, businessman W. H. Carter presided over a meeting resulting in the El Paso Hose Company with Pierce as Chief. City Council agreed to supply the company with carts, hose reels and 1,000 feet of hose. The city, however, did not keep its promise and supplied only 100 feet.
On November 11, 1882, the fire department had its first big test. A frame business building on El Paso Street caught fire and spread to two boarding houses, one occupied, the other empty. A hydrant stood directly across the street. But with only 100 feet of hose, the firemen could do little besides spray water on the front doors of the buildings.
One irony of this fire involved the owner of the occupied building: W. H. Carter, Assistant Chief of the El Paso Fire Department. To his embarrassed volunteers, Fire Chief Pierce quipped, "There is one consolation, boys. We saved the lot."
City Council telegraphed St. Louis for additional fire equipment two days after this disgrace. The fire department was also reorganized to provide another hose company and a hook-and- ladder company. Forced to provide some of their own equipment like their counterparts all over the country, the firemen held their first benefit ball on December 16, 1882. They held various social events over the years to pay for uniforms, equipment and even their quarters.
In February 1883, two-wheeled hose carts and a hook-and-ladder truck arrived. These heavy vehicles had to be operated by the men themselves, no small feat especially at night, since El Paso streets still were unlighted. At least one pedestrian was killed by a hose cart and several injured. Additionally, the volunteer firemen often arrived at a fire already exhausted from pushing or dragging their equipment.
Leon Metz writes that the city began offering $3 to $5 to any driver of a team of horses willing to pull the hose carts and hook-and-ladder vehicles. Fist fights sometimes ensued as men fought each other to be the first driver on the scene.
In April 1883, boxes and trash caught fire in an alley behind Williamson's drug store and P. E. Kern's jewelry store on El Paso Street. Heavy winds helped spread the blaze to three other businesses. The wind also prevented many firemen from hearing the alarm - a volley of gun shots.
The fire company saved the buildings on the east side of the street. But an entire block on the west side of El Paso Street burned to the ground, resulting in $37,000 in damage to the businesses and destruction of eight sections of fire hose.
Later in 1883, El Paso bought its first bell to summon fire fighters. The men also received water‑resistant uniforms and badges of recognition as city firemen. The company participated in "tournaments," practicing their skills against other teams from Texas and New Mexico, winning the state championship in 1885. They joined the State Firemen's Association, hosting the state convention in 1897.
The department continued to grow and the most prominent citizens were members. Sonnichsen says that the Fire Department "came close to being the focus of the town's social life." Big donors to the department were made honorary members and wore their badges proudly at social events.
The first official fire station was established in 1888 on the corner of Santa Fe and Overland Streets and was also used as a city hall and police headquarters. In 1899, a new fire station was built on the original site.
By 1890, the El Paso Fire Department consisted of one hook-and-ladder company and three hose companies, each of which had 1,700 feet of two-ply hose and two hose reels. Horses now moved equipment. But the Watts water company was becoming obsolete.
Since the water came from wells sunk in the bed of the Rio Grande, when the river went dry, so did the wells. Two huge fires would prove the inadequacy of El Paso's waterworks. Pomeroy's Transfer Company suffered $25,000 worth of damage because water pressure was too low for the firemen to be effective.
The second, more spectacular fire destroyed the "pride" of El Paso - the Grand Central Hotel, located where the Mills Building downtown stands today. Anson Mills and Josiah Crosby had built the luxury hotel in 1883, and it had fast become the social center of the city. The four-story hotel was considered the most exquisite in the entire Southwest. Begun by a burning candle inside a linen closet on the hotel's fourth floor, the blaze consumed the Grand Central on February 11, 1892, burning from 4:30 a.m. to 5:30 in the evening.
In November 1892, the city responded to this disaster by purchasing a Silsby, a steam fire engine that could keep up with water pressure demands of fighting large fires. Horses pulled the engine, and practice runs provided entertainment for onlookers. In 1894, the old hook-and-ladder truck was replaced by a 65-foot aerial truck with a burgundy colored ladder, white wheels and gold trimming. Three horses pulled the truck which weighed 7,000 pounds.
By December 1899, 50 locked alarm boxes had been placed outside various businesses. When a fire broke out, a citizen could send the alarm to the fire station by acquiring a key from the business and operating the alarm.
Another of early El Paso's fine social centers burned on November 4, 1905: the Myar Opera House, host to some of the greatest shows and performers in the country. Some say the fire was due to faulty wiring. Others say a misplaced cigar started the blaze. In any case, the fire was out of control by the time the volunteers arrived. Telegraph and electric wires snapped, and the entire block went up in smoke. Firemen used dynamite to help remove standing walls of the Myar. This fire resulted in calls for paid firemen.
As El Paso grew, so did the fire department. Fort Bliss established its own fire department in 1907. Mayor Joseph Sweeney organized the first paid, professional fire department for the city of El Paso in 1909, presided over by the first Fire Marshall in 1910. Firefighters received their first helmets with attached oxygen tanks in 1911. By 1914, the number of fire alarm boxes had increased to 100 and were supported by five fire stations and a crew of 41 firefighters. Gasoline powered vehicles had replaced horse-drawn trucks by 1917.
By the end of World War I, El Paso's professional fire department had the reputation of being the finest in the state. The city had the lowest fire insurance rates in Texas. In 1930, the department finally established its own training center. (See related article on Firemen's wives).
Today's Fire Department continues to be one of the best in the region. The vision and commitment of its leaders have continued Chief Pierce's determination to succeed. Many of today's calls are medically related, since firefighters are considered "first responders," whether the emergency is a fire, traffic accident or cat stuck in a tree. Firefighters are trained for first aid, emergency medical needs, fighting petroleum fires, high angle rescue, trench rescue, mountain rescue and water rescue.
Recently, seven hand-held thermal imaging cameras were purchased for the department, allowing firefighters to locate the center of a fire inside a smoke-filled room. They can also find people who may be trapped by the fire.
From the bucket brigade to today's high tech firefighting techniques, the El Paso Fire Department has evolved into a highly respected and well-trained organization.