The History of the Lexington Fire Department

Below, the Lexington Fire Department assembled before the Minute Man Statue in Lexington Center.

Below, the Lexington Fire Department assembled before the Minute Man Statue in Lexington Center.

 

By Digney Fignus

 

When I was a little I loved playing with my fire truck. I even had a bright red pedal car fashioned after a hook and ladder. I was awed by the big shiny trucks rolling along at the end of the Patriot’s Day parade blasting their sirens and bells. Doesn’t every school child at some point want to be a fire fighter?

Fire was one of the first elements of nature that we supposedly tamed.  But Prometheus’ gift to civilization is still held by the most tenuous grasp.  Like a powerful genie, fire is always ready to escape its restraints and wreak havoc upon those who would try to be its master.  Since ancient times, fire was both a great comforter and a great destroyer.  It cooked our food and warmed our homes but could also take our lives and reduce our property to ashes.  Fire was the scourge of every city large and small from the beginning of known civilization.

Rome was the first to try to solve the problem.  Rome was often plagued by fire, most famously when Nero was blamed for burning down 70% of the city in a fire that lasted six days and seven nights.  Emperor Augustus in 24 BC is credited with creating the first fire fighters called “vigiles,” Latin for watchmen.  This was the model for fire prevention up until the early Industrial Age.  The water bucket was the main firefighting tool.  Needless to say, it was hardly effective against a massive blaze.

As a result, as cities became larger and more densely populated conflagrations became more costly.  The problem of urban fires befuddled governments and politicians.  Fire brigades were only established after the tremendous destruction of the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Surprisingly they were first organized by insurance companies in an effort to avoid the massive financial losses that large fires created.  Government lagged far behind, only becoming involved after nearly 200 years when in 1865 London’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade was established.

In North America, Boston was the first city in the then Massachusetts Bay Colony to enact fire prevention legislation.  A year after the city was founded it suffered a major fire, so in 1631 the city banned thatched roofs and wooden chimneys.  But despite the best efforts of governments and insurance companies, until the twentieth century, cities burned to the ground fairly regularly.  Although fire departments started to become more common throughout the nineteenth century, large fires remained an urban nightmare.  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, supposedly started in a small barn when Mrs. Murphy’s cow knocked over a lantern, burned for three days.  It destroyed much of the city’s business district, killing nearly 300, and left 100,000 homeless.  After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, deadly fires destroyed 80% of the city, and left a death toll of nearly 3000.

Throughout the 1800s Boston continued to burn down periodically.  On July 6, 1861, the New York Herald reported “Terrible Conflagrations in Boston” that started in a rigging shop and burned down most of the seaport.  A year after the Chicago fire made headlines, Boston’s Great Fire of 1872 consumed a huge section of the city’s downtown and finally led to the appointment of the first board of fire commissioners.

During this time new fire codes were enacted and there were many improvements made to firefighting equipment in an effort to curb the great destruction caused by these disasters.  In addition to the time-tested water bucket and fire axe, which had been around since Roman times, leather hoses had been added to the Boston firefighting arsenal by 1799.  Firefighting wagons began to arrive on the scene in the 1800s.

At first these were little more than a big water tub on wheels to aid the bucket brigade.  Most Colonial homes had a fire bucket ready to be deployed at the first sign of smoke.  An example of one still hangs by the stairs in the Hancock Clarke House.  Wagons with hand pumps were soon replaced by controlled chemical reactions that increased water pressure so fires could be fought from a safer distance.  These first machines were hand-drawn or horse-drawn carriages.  Even though the carriages were equipped with large water containers, pumps, hoses, and ladders, they remained only marginally effective.  Most cities still had watchmen that reported fires until 1851 when the first fire alarm was installed in Boston using the then new invention: the telegraph.  Until 1895 Lexington had fire bells that were rung in East Village and the Centre to alert citizens of a fire.

As innovations continued, cities and towns scrambled to update their firefighting equipment with the most modern improvements.  Lexington was no different.  In 1855 Massachusetts passed legislation requiring cities and towns to establish fire departments.  The Fireman’s Standard of March 1, 1915 reports that prior to the Lexington Water Company laying water lines in 1885, fires were fought by “valiant attempts in which practically all the people participated, (using) hand tubs, (and) buckets such as the Liberty, the first known machine in town.”  The Liberty was essentially a bucket on two wheels. According to The Fireman’s Standard, it was painted “ bright yellow and kept in the barn of Bowen Harrington…There were no suction pipes in these machines…the tubs being filled by the use of buckets in a double line.”  At the start, fire equipment was often provided by private citizens.  Soon after the Liberty was put in service, a similar machine the “Water Witch” was purchased by Benjamin Muzzey and presented to the town.

The legislation of 1855 demanded that towns have a suction engine before they could create their fire departments.  In 1857 Lexington budgeted $2100.00 to purchase “two of the most up-to-date suction engines known, the Hancock and the Adams.”  A suction engine could draw water from any water source.  It was a huge improvement on the bucket brigade approach.  Areas that were not close to a natural source of water were encouraged to dig a “fire pond” that would feed water to the engine in case of fire.  An example of one can be seen today near Wilson Farm.  Built in 1856, after many years of service, the Adams suction engine still survives.  It has been lovingly preserved and is currently in the care of the Lexington Historical Society.

Since its early days, the Lexington Fire Department has gone through many changes.  One man has made it his life work to chart those changes.  Bob “The Goose” Washburn is a self-described dedicated fire buff.  He’s also a Lexington treasure.   Over the years he has compiled a complete history of Lexington’s Fire Department and its equipment.  Bob has written several detailed books regarding the subject.  He not only talks the talk, but with 31 years of service on the Lexington Fire Department, “The Goose” is an expert on how to walk the walk.  I had a chance to talk with this local legend about a subject that he loves: “Most of the first firemen were Civil War veterans or their sons. Before the Civil War, all firemen were volunteers.” We sat down over a cup of Joe at the “Dunk” on Woburn St. just outside the center.  “The pumpers weren’t very effective.  Hoses were made out of leather.  You had to oil the hose so it wouldn’t crack.  Horses were rented from the residents of the town.”

Bob Washburn was dressed casually in his Lexington fireman’s T-shirt and arrived with a stack of research papers.  He lit up when we began to talk about his research, fire engines he’d known, and the fires he’d put out.  The Dunk is a regular stop for our local fire crews and I soon began to notice the nods of recognition and respect for “The Goose” from the men waiting to order.   Even though Bob has been retired since 2002 he knew every one of the fire fighters in line, and every one of them knew him.  Bob can’t remember when he wasn’t fascinated by fire fighting.  In large part he thanks his mother Gladys.  She would often bring him to the fire house to play when he was a child.  Gladys encouraged her two boys to be fire fighters.  Both Bob and his older brother Arthur became firemen and for many years served together on the Lexington Fire Department.

Up until 1895 there were few changes in Lexington’s firefighting tactics.  The Adams and Hancock were upgraded and retired for chemical engines that provided better water pressure. But it wasn’t until the Cary Mansion fire on January 24, 1895 that real changes began to take place.  The Cary Estate was built by one of the town’s most beloved benefactors, Maria Hastings Cary.  In 1895 her adopted daughter Alice lived there.  While Alice was visiting her niece in Boston, a fire in the laundry quickly got out of control and consumed the mansion.  Efforts to put out the inferno were hampered by an inadequate water supply.  The Boston Herald reports a bit of mischief as well: “At some point during the blaze the firemen came across a large amount of stored liquor in the mansion and partook of same.  Some of the men evidentially indulged too much.  Two of the firemen were removed from the scene by Lexington Police Chief WB Foster.”

After the fire, in Miss Cary’s letter of thanks to the town she writes, “if only this calamity should result in a better equipped fire department and more generous and progressive town government, I shall feel I have not suffered in vain.” Her message was heard loud and clear. Before the end of the year, a town water system was established, a fire alarm box system was approved, three new pieces of firefighting equipment were ordered, the fire department was reorganized, and the first permanent fireman was employed.

The “father” of the modern Lexington Fire Department is considered George W. Taylor.  Taylor was one of the most powerful insurance men in North America and for a time Chairman of Lexington’s Board of Selectmen.  He pushed hard to improve the fire department.  In 1913 Edward Taylor, George’s son, was appointed Chief of the Lexington Fire Department.  He served as Chief until 1942.  Shortly after his appointment in 1915 The Fireman’s Standard concluded that the “Lexington fire department has evolved from a bucket brigade to one of the most up-to-date firefighting machines in the State.”

The current steward of much of the Lexington Fire Department’s history is the Lexington Historical Society.  I had a chance to talk with Elaine Doran, Archivist  and Collections Manager for the Historical Society, who invited me to research the archives that are in the basement of the Hancock Clarke House.  Besides a wonderful pictorial history of the Fire Department the Historical Society maintains two of the Lexington Fire Department’s most precious artifacts: the 1856 Adams suction engine, and the 1911 La France, Lexington’s first motorized fire engine.  Both are proudly displayed along with the rest of Lexington’s firefighting equipment at the annual Patriots’ Day parade.

Lexington’s newest Fire Chief, John Wilson, was appointed in 2012.  I had a chance to talk with Chief Wilson about the future of the Lexington Fire Department. This year the Department is celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the fire department’s Ambulance Service started in 1940.  Before that, if you needed an ambulance, the McCarthy Funeral Home dispatched one of its hearses to transport you to the hospital. With new state-of-the-art fire engines costing up to a million dollars things have certainly changed since the department’s meager beginnings.  The Chief likens the fire fighters to a large family, “It’s unlike any other job.  You eat, sleep, and train together.”  Chief Wilson is a lifelong Lexington resident.  When he was growing up “one of the Lexington firefighters lived across the street” and like Bob Washburn, when the Chief was growing up he was a frequent visitor to the fire station.  The Chief admits, “I always wanted to be a fireman.  Every little kid wants to be a fireman.”

The Lexington Fire Department has a long and proud history.  They are pledged to be there to help you when you need them most.  Be sure to give these career heroes a loud cheer this year at the Patriots’ Day parade, as they celebrate their 75th Anniversary and continue their tradition of service to the community.

 

Colonial Times contributor DIGNEY FIGNUS is a Lexington native and musician. His band perform in clubs and festivals around New England.  Check www.digney.com for the latest information on upcoming shows.

 

Share this:

Speak Your Mind

*

*


Warning: Unknown: open(/home/content/76/3361076/tmp/sess_p1aa8b7aeje8sh3re6v0rl3ap0, O_RDWR) failed: No such file or directory (2) in Unknown on line 0

Warning: Unknown: Failed to write session data (files). Please verify that the current setting of session.save_path is correct () in Unknown on line 0