Saturday, June 2, 2018

Boise Replaces Volunteer Fire Department with Professional Firefighters [otd 06/02]

On June 2, 1902, Boise’s volunteer fire crew disbanded and fire protection became the responsibility of the new professional Boise Fire Department.
Early Boise Fire Station. Boise Fire Dept.

Boise City “survived” without an organized fire brigade for quite a long time, considering the threat. As in every other early town, pioneers built almost all their structures out of wooden logs and rough-sawn lumber. It was not like they did not see the risk. They knew that Idaho City had almost been wiped out twice, once in 1865 and again in 1867 [blog, May 17]. Serious fires had also hit several large businesses in Boise City.

In March 1867, hopeful organizers called a meeting at the courthouse, “for the purpose of organizing a hook and ladder company.” According to James H. Hawley’s History, “The meeting was well attended and a volunteer company was formed, but its records appear to have been lost.”

Many towns had a succession of volunteer companies, earlier ones falling apart when a key leader moved away or lost interest. That’s basically what seems to have happened in Boise City. Even when citizens threw together an abortive volunteer brigade, they had no equipment. People simply grabbed whatever ladders and buckets they could.

A fire in December 1875, in the heart of downtown Boise, finally catalyzed the creation of a permanent volunteer fire brigade. Witnesses felt sure the fire could have been quickly controlled, but the large crowd that gathered had no equipment. More importantly, the Idaho Statesman (December 27, 1875) asserted, “There was no one to lead or direct what to do.”

A month later, a group gathered to organize a fire company, and met again three weeks after that for the election of officers (Idaho Statesman, February 17, 1876). The company had enrolled 56 members by mid-May.

Less than a month after that, they had their first “hook and ladder” wagon. In this context, by the way, the “hook” refers to a metal pike and side-hook device mounted on the end of a long pole. Firemen use it to snag burning materials (walls, ceilings, timbers, etc.) and pull them out of the way.

Three years later the company got its first steam pumper, equipped with a thousand feet of hose. When the engine arrived, Boise City was still building its first emergency water cisterns. They soon had a basic system  in place, and added piped water to some areas in 1881. Fireman parked the pumper at the nearest cistern, hydrant, or ditch and hoped the hose would reach the fire.

Most of us have seen the stirring vintage photos of an old-time fire wagon that thundered down the street behind straining horses. For a long time, that picture was not accurate for Boise City. To save time, the volunteers themselves hauled their wagons, including the steam pumper. Not until 1895 did the department procure horse teams.

Boise fire wagon. Boise State University Library.
The volunteers initially converted a blacksmith shop on Main Street as their fire station. They eventually moved into a portion of the then city hall. In 1889, that facility was designated the Central Fire Station.

After the transition to a paid unit, the city began to upgrade their equipment, and eventually added two more fire stations. My blog of January 28, about Fire Chief William A. Foster, outlines how the Department expanded in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.
References: [Hawley]
“The Department's History,” Boise Fire Department, (1999-2010).
Arthur Hart, Fighting Fire on the Frontier, Boise Fire Department Association (1976).

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