On April 23, 1861 during the early days of the civil war, Firemen’s Hall hosted an elaborate flag raising ceremony. The event even included a live eagle.
Patriotic symbols and small flags festooned Firemen’s Hall in honor of the event. The city’s fire companies gathered around a speaking platform. Volunteer company Engine 9 had a live eagle at the head of their ranks. (This was less than a year after the city initiated paid fire companies, and most of the volunteer fire companies were still in active service.)
A large crowd of citizens surrounded the firemen filling up the avenue for a considerable distance. Ladies crowded onto balconies to watch the proceedings.
During it’s time Firemen’s Hall was a premier Detroit location, hosting cultural events and entertainment of all kinds. It was located on the corner of Jefferson and Randolph. Mariners’ Church now occupies this site.
Raising The Flag
Benjamin Vernor (brother to James Vernor, who would soon become famous for his ginger ale) gave a brief address. Then a large American flag was hoisted above the high roof of of the Hall. Three cheers and a tiger rang out. “Hip, Hip, Hooray! – Hip, Hip, Hooray! – Hip, Hip, Hooray!” followed by a loud the shrieking roar and clapping of the crowd.
Benjamin Vernor, firefighter during Detroit’s volunteer era, Detroit Fire Commissioner for the early paid department.
The Star-Spangled Banner was performed by the Zouave Band while a firemen’s “glee club”, specifically organized for the occasion, sang along. When they reached the chorus the entire fire department joined in the singing.
More speeches were given. Firemen who had served their country in previous wars were honored. And the large number of firemen who had volunteered to serve in the current war were given special mention.
Parading Through The Streets
When the speeches were done, the department formed up. The band lead the procession and citizens following behind the firemen. As they paraded through the streets, the group temporarily halted at several locations, giving three rousing cheers at each stop. An employee had just hoisted a flag above Mayor Buhl’s place of business when the procession passed. A spontaneous raucous cheer was raised among the firemen’s ranks.
The event was characterized as showing the “spirit, enthusiasm, and heartiness which distinguishes our firemen in all their undertakings” and “one of the most spirited demonstrations that have taken place since the inauguration of the war times.”
Firemen’s Hall was owned and operated by an organization composed of the membership of the Detroit’s various volunteer fire companies. The first floor of the building contained storefronts that were rented to provide income for the organization.
Today in Detroit Fire Department History: October 24, 1919
Early the morning of October 24, 1919, Detroit Firefighter Felix Straub suffered severe smoke inhalation and was thought to be dying as the results of his efforts in fighting a fire in a 3 story building on Woodward Avenue.
The fire started in an elevator shaft and quickly moved throughout the building. The 2 lower floors of the building contained businesses and the upper floor used for lodging.
Detroit Firefighter Felix Straub and a October 24, 1919 Detroit Free Press Article
One 50 year old woman made her escape from the 3rd floor by sliding down a rope. Despite injuring her hands during the rope slide, she was able to save a boy from harm by catching him after his parents threw him to safety from a 3rd floor window. Unfortunately one man who lived in the building died while being transported to Grace Hospital.
Firefighter Straub’s condition improve dramatically throughout the day, and by the evening doctors pronounced him to be out of danger.
Follow up article from October 25, 1919 Detroit Free Press
On this day, February 25, 1923. After being retired for nearly a year Detroit’s fire horses pressed into service to “respond” to The Third Alarm.
In April 1922 the Detroit Fire Department became fully mechanized when the last horse drawn steamer in the fleet was replaced by a motor propelled fire engine. Engine 37’s fire horses, the last in service, were officially retired in an elaborate ceremonial last running of the horses.
Now the last of the hooved firefighters (Peter, Jim, Tom, Babe & Rusty formerly of Engine 37) were being called away of their cushy retirement at Rouge Park. They were taken to the Madison Theater.
The horses were loaned to the Madison to appear in conjunction with the silent film “The Third Alarm”. The Firemen’s Quartet were also appeared, taking second billing to the horses, of course.
“The Third Alarm” tells the story of fireman Dan McDowell, who for years has cared for the beloved fire horses. When the department is mechanized both Dan and the fire horses are retired.
The film was rather poignant as it came out at a time when fire departments across the nation were replacing horse drawn equipment with motorized rigs.
Detroit had it’s own Dan McDowell. Captain Frank Stocks retired on the same day as Peter, Jim, Tom, Babe & Rusty. He had been with the department since 1891. During the last 5 years of his career he served as Assistant Superintendent of Horses, where he would have been responsible for the care and training of all of the department’s horses.
Thanks to You Tube, you we can still watch The Last Alarm. Even if you’re not a fan of old movies, it’s worth a glance. It give a fantastic look into firefighting during this era.
On This Day, February 13, 1942, more than 500 firemen participated in an early registered for the draft at Fire Department Headquarters.
Compulsory draft registration was scheduled for February 16th, so this early registration was scheduled to accommodate firefighters who would be on duty that day.
Early registration was also done for auto workers at Ford, Chrysler, Murray Corp. of America, Briggs Manufacturing and Hudson Motor Car Company.
This picture above shows a copy of one Detroit Firefighter’s draft registration card. The card contains some hand written and some typed information. The typing was likely done to help speed up the early registration process as the typed info would have applied to every Detroit firefighter who registered that day.
On this day, February 4, 1945 the crews stationed at Engine 40’s quarters at Twelfth and Labelle had a rude awakening during the night. They woke to find smoke filling the engine house.
Engine 40 and Ladder 17 were set up and they went to work. Fire was found in the walls and attic of the two story station.
Early in the fire it was decided to call in supporting fire companies to assist with extinguishment. Unfortunately the fire had disrupted telephone service in the station. One fireman ran to a neighbor’s home and called central office.
Additional fire companies arrived and the fire was extinguished with only a small amount of damage to the building.
At 2:30 pm on December 5, 1944 Detroit Firefighter responded to a call from Box 246. Fire was raging in the second floor sewing room of the National Tent & Awning Company. The company was located at 2150 Bagley (the corner of Bagley and 14th street). Because the fire was fueled by stockpiles of paraffin coated canvas, it spread quickly.
Company president, Elmer C. Ray, was in his 2nd floor office. When he smelled smoke he ran downstairs and discovered the fire. He returned to the second floor to warn employees who were in the office and back rooms of the company.
Twenty of the company’s thirty employees were trapped among piles of burning canvas on the building’s second floor. They were forced to escape through windows. Three people were slightly injured when they jumped from second story windows to escape the flames. Others were helped down ladders.
Three women were not able to escape. They perished in the fire. An investigator later discovered they had all passed open doorways to save their coats and pocketbooks before they were trapped by the rapidly spreading blaze.
Cause of the Fire
The cause of the fire was determined to be a carelessly disposed of cigarette or match. The company rules prohibited smoking except in restrooms. During his investigation, Arson Inspector George Smith, discovered that when a foreman left the sewing room employees lit cigarettes.
The floor of the sewing room was made of wood slats. It was old, and in some places there were gaps between the slats wide enough to stick your finger through. It was concluded that an employee discarded a cigarette or match that fell into one of these gaps. The match or cigarette smoldered and eventually ignited.
Fire grew, undetected beneath the floor. Eventually flames rose through the gaps in the floor boards, igniting bundles of canvas stored on the sewing room floor.
National Tent & Awning Company was a manufacturer of canvas covers for Army vehicles. Some of the canvas in the sewing room was coated in paraffin (wax) to make it water-proof. The paraffin ignited, turning the sewing room into a inferno.
As the fire spread, the building’s tar roof added fuel to the flames. The fire went to 5-alarms. At one point, flames leaped 20 feet above a second floor window. It raged for more than 2 hours before being brought under control.
The building was nearly entirely gutted. Nine automobiles, parked in the garages attached to the building, were also destroyed. Firemen prevented the fire from spreading to a newly completed addition to the Roosevelt Park branch of the post office, located next door to the building.
Changes in Fire Prevention Code Enforcement
Although the company had complied with all current ordinances the fatal fire brought attention to the need for better fire prevention codes, and the need to provide enforcement authority to the city’s Fire Marshal.
At this time there was conflict between the authority of safety engineering and the fire department of several large cities in enforcement of fire prevention measures. In Detroit this conflict was coming to a head. The city’s Chief Assistant Corporate Counsel had been working for nearly a year on an a comprehensive Fire Prevention Code. That code would transfer the enforcement of fire prevention measures from the Department of Buildings and Safety Engineering to the Fire Marshal.
Detroit voters overwhelmingly approve the “Firemen’s 24 Hour Amendment” which amended the city charter to set new working hours for Detroit Firefighters. the election also determined many state and local positions, including Governor and Detroit Mayor, as well as allowing women the right to vote in Michigan.
Prior to the 24 Hour Amendment firefighters were on duty 72 hours, then off duty 24 hours. The amendment created a 24 hours on duty 24 hours off duty schedule, the 2 unit system we have today.
The move to shorten working hours came in part because the department had become increasingly motorized (instead of horse drawn apparatus). Motorized vehicles could effectively cover more ground than horses and the population of Detroit had skyrocketed in the 10 years since motorization began. That meant that Detroit Firefighters were fighting far more fires than ever before, but the number of fire companies had not increased proportionately.
The new schedule was not immediately implemented as the department was dangerously low on manpower. At the time there were 255 Detroit Firefighters in WWI military service. The ranks also dwindled as department members left the fire service for higher paying factory jobs with better working conditions. Top that off with the deaths and severe illness caused by the growing Spanish flu epidemic and the department was running with nearly 1/3 fewer men than they required.
After the vote, firefighters continued to work their previous schedule, but were paid overtime for the extra hours, until manpower was brought up to a level where the 2 unit system could be implemented.
Today In Detroit Fire Department History - March 16, 1922
Today in Detroit Fire History – March 16, 1922
Ladder 22 was officially placed in service after a brief 10 am ceremony at their quarters. Fire Commissioner Murphy, Chief Timothy E. Callahan and Battalion Chief William Higby attended the ceremony. The company was in command of Captain Frank Malicke. Shortly after noon, Ladder 22 received their first alarm to a small fire on Hartford Avenue.
Their newly built fire house, located on Martin & McGraw Avenues, was among the first Detroit fire stations to be built without stables. It was built at the end of the horse drawn steam pumper era of the Detroit Fire Department. The last running of Detroit’s fire horses would take place less than a month after the opening of this station
More than 5,000,000 gallons of water was pumped into a five-story brick building at 23 W. Jefferson before this 5-alarm fire was brought under control. The fire started around 4 am at the Advance Glove Manufacturing Company, on the building’s second floor. Fueled by the large bales of cotton the glove makers used, the fire quickly extended to the upper floors of the building.
More than 25 pieces of fire apparatus responded to the fire. By 9:30 am a section of the building’s roof had caved in.
While fighting this stubborn fire, Pipeman Ray C. DeRosia, Engine 30, was injured when he speared his leg with a piece of equipment used to help support hose lines. He was treated by the department doctor at Fire Department Headquarters. Several other firemen suffered minor cuts and bruises but remained on duty.
The first floor of the building housed the David J. Knopman Company a wholesale luggage dealer, General Tobacco and Grocery Company and the Harris Linen Company. The companies had considerable damage from the tons of water that poured in from overhead.
Firefighters were able to keep the flames from spreading to the adjoining Traymore Hotel, where over 100 guests were roused from their beds due to the fire. The Traymore did have minor damages due to smoke and water.
The department discontinued wakeful night watches. A new system called the Silent Watch System went into effect. Use of running boards to track which companies were in or out of service was also discontinued.
Prior to the Silent Watch System a man stood wakeful night watch. From midnight to 6:30 am the man on watch listened for alarms punched out on the Gamewell system. The system punched out box numbers for every alarm that was dispatched throughout the city and the status of every fire company was kept up to date on the station’s running board.
When an alarm came in the man on watch was responsible for determining if his company was due on the alarm. If their company was due he would activate the house bell to wake the other firefighters and turning on station lights.
With the Silent Watch System first alarms would only be received in firehouses that are due on the alarm. The dispatcher pushes an alert button that wakes the man on watch and tells him an alarm is coming in. All second alarms and higher were still sounded via the “big bells” in all stations.
Chief of Department Ed Blohm, who was scheduled to retire in June of 1958, did not like the new system, but went along with it. He said “It doesn’t look right. Imagine a citizen dashing up to turn in an alarm and there is Julius, snoozing.”
Dan Delegato, Detroit Firefighters’ Association (union) President said “The most sought after working condition since the inception of this association has been the elimination of the wakeful night watch.” (NOTE: The Detroit Firefighters’ Association was chartered on May 8, 1933)
The Association hailed this step as removing one of the most tedious chores connected with the work of a Detroit firefighter.