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Fires were not frequent in the early days of Grand Rapids and most of the buildings were not very valuable, so it was comparatively late in the history of the village before there was an organized department. The village had no fire fighting apparatus of consequence until a small hand engine was ordered made by William Peaselee in 1846. Two years before that, however, three fire companies had been partially organized---the Bucket company and the Hook and Ladder companies Nos. 1 and 2. These companies were equipped with hooks and ladders and a stock of buckets, and when anyone gave the alarm of "Fire!" the volunteer members buried with their equipment to where the flames were doing their destructive work, followed by about everybody in the settlement. Buckets of water were carried from the nearest available supply, unusually the river, and poured on the blazing structure.

In 1846 the village thought it should have more adequate fire fighting apparatus, so the board of trustees ordered from William Peaselee for $325 a little hand engine of the tub pattern. This engine was of home manufacture and the villagers were quite proud of it when, with eight men at the brakes, it was tried and proved equal to throwing a stream of water over Irving hall, three stories high.

The people of today, especially the young folk, do not realize how crude some of the original fire-fighting apparatus was, so a description of the Peaselee "tub," taken from Baxter's history is presented.

"It was a box about five or six feet long, two and a half feet wide and about fifteen inches deep, and set upon four wheels perhaps thirty inches in diameter. In the bottom of the box was a force pump, with no suction attachment leading outside. It was fed by water brought and poured into it by the "bucket brigade." On either side, attached to the pump handles, was a brake of sufficient length for four men to work. From the pump was a short line of hose and a nozzle attached. In case of fire this little machine was hastily dragged to the spot by men with ropes. These were volunteers. "Man the brakes!" would be the order. Men would take their posts, and simultaneously the men with buckets would bring water from the nearest supply and pour it into the tub, then the work would begin, usually in the presence of many spectators gathered about "to see the thing squirt." Small as it was, it did good service at numerous fires."

William Peaselee built another and larger hand engine. This was provided with a double force pump and suction hose and it could throw two streams of water at the same time. Sixteen men operated this engine.

The village fire department was not really organized until in the fall of 1849, when Alert Fire Company No. 1 was formed, with Charles H. Taylor as foreman. Later in the same year Protective Fire Company No. 2 was organized, with Dudley Handley as foreman, and in January 1850, Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, with C. B. White as foreman came into existence.

A month before the last named company had been organized a hand engine, manufactured in Rochester, was tried, approved and lodged in the school house on Prospect hill. This engine cost $675.

During the next few years several other companies were organized. First of these was the Wolverine Fire company, formed February 25, 1850. This was on the west side and was a reorganization of the partly formed Cataract No. 3. Its foreman was Silas Hall. A hose company called the Young America No. 1 was organized in February, 1859; Adrian Yates, foreman. It had a brief existence.

Members of the city council in 1855 appropriated funds for building reservoirs for water supply at a number of convenient points. These reservoirs held from 500 to 1000 barrels of water. More of them were built in succeeding years, and as late as 1872 the council ordered seven new ones placed at convenient locations. They were used until the city reservoir was constructed in 1874.

Until 1860 the work of the gallant firemen was mostly one of love. At the April election in that year a proposition to pay each fireman $5 was carried by a majority of 1,081 votes. The next April a similar sum was voted.

The first steam fire engine arrived March 19, 1865. It was manufactured by H. C. Silsby of Seneca Falls, N.Y. Its cost, exclusive of freight charges, was $5,600.

A second steam engine, similar to the first and purchased from the same manufacturer in 1868, was named the "Louis Campau." A third and larger one was bought in 1872 and named the "Valley City."

In 1873 two chemical fire extinguishers were purchased and two years later the electric bell fire alarm system was established. In 1878 a large bell was hung in a wooden tower on the site of the present Michigan Trust building. This bell sounded the fire alarms. It was removed to the city hall when that structure was completed.

In 1855, the city built engine house No. 1 at Monroe and Spring (Commerce avenue), a brick structure. The second engine house was built at Bond avenue and Crescent street, the third, in 1859, on Scribner avenue near Bridge street.

The revised charter of 1857 authorized the common council to create fire districts and organize fire companies, and July 30, 1859, the council by ordinance organized the fire department of Grand Rapids. There were named a chief engineer with four assistants, two wardens for each ward and firemen to each engine, not exceeding fifty. The service, however, continued to be exclusively volunteer.

Following the disastrous west side fire of 1875, there was a citizens' indignation meeting, an official investigation and the removal of the chief, Michael Shields, on the charge of general incompetency and violation of the signal code.

After the removal of Michael Shields the department was managed by General Israel C. Smith and Captain Charles E. Belknap. These two refused to be influenced by the political maneuvers of some of the aldermen, and began an agitation which resulted in the appointment of a non-partisan board of police and fire commissioners. Since then the department has been efficient at all times. General Smith and Captain Belknap continued to manage the department until September, 1880.

September 6, 1880, the council appointed Henry Lemoin chief engineer, which title later was changed to fire marshal. Charles R. Swain was his assistant, succeeded by Solon Baxter.

There was a radical change in the management of the department in 1881, when by act of the legislature a board of police and fire commissioners was created, the members to be appointed by the mayor for a term of five years. The first members of this board were George G. Briggs, George W. Gay, Lewis Withey, William H. Powers and Israel C. Smith. The board of police and fire commissioners functioned until the new charter, creating the commission-manager form of government, was adopted.

After the gasoline motor car had developed into a reliable means of propulsion the department began to be motorized. In 1910 the first hose cart was thus equipped, the old tank being taken off the horse-drawn apparatus and placed upon a motor chassis. In 1911 and 1912 two chemical engines went through the same process of motorization. From one to two hose wagons and chemicals wee placed upon motor chassis in 1913, 1914 and 1915. Two aerial trucks, driven by electric batteries, were purchased in 1914 and 1916, and in 1914 three service trucks. All this battery-driven equipment is still in service.

In 1915 the first hose and pumper, gasoline-propelled, was bought and one added every year until 1926, when three were purchased. In 1916 and 1917 the department's shop procured Wisconsin motors and used them to motorize four hose wagons and to build five tractors for steam fire engines. Before the close of 1917 the Grand Rapids fire department was completely motorized.

The last horses used by the department, at No. 7 engine house, Madison avenue near Franklin street, then, like Othello, found their occupation gone.

The last of the part pay men was William Tufts, who resigned in 1895. In fact, he was the last of the part pay men after 1892. He was stationed at No. 4 truck company.

As this is written, in the summer of 1926, the fire department has twelve stations, housing twelve engine companies, three hose companies and five truck companies. The equipment consists of twelve pumpers, two aerial trucks, three city service trucks, two chemical engines, three combination chemical and hose wagons, a supply wagon and considerable reserve apparatus. It also has a well-equipped repair shop. The fire marshal is provided with a five passenger touring car, and the assistant marshal, three battalion chiefs, the master mechanic and an inspector each with a roadster. There are 349 alarm boxes, some of the very first installed being still in use.

The department carries on an effective fire-prevention campaign, sending out posters and providing speakers for lectures to school children and other groups. It makes periodically a thorough inspection of all dwellings, business blocks and factories, and when necessary, under city ordinance, forces careless individuals, factory owners and business men to remove inflammable waste and to isolate any matter liable to cause spontaneous combustion. It stations special firemen at theaters.

Marshal George T. Boughner has been a member of the department for thirty-eight years, starting in as part paid ladderman in September, 1888. He was promoted to his present office January 1, 1916. Under his able management the department is recognized as one of the best in the country. The personnel is capable and the equipment complete. For these reasons, and because the city's water works system also is able to meet all emergencies, the city enjoys enjoys fire insurance rates lower than those obtaining in all but a few American cities.


Following is a list of the managers of the fire department, the first named in each case being properly the chief.

1860-Benjamin B. Church and James Cavanaugh
1861-David Caswell and George H. White
1862-Adam Lawyer and William Grove
1863-Philip Edge and George R. Pierce
1864-George R. Pierce and Benjamin A. Harlan
1865-Josiah M. Cook and Charles Hilton
1866-Josiah M. Cook and Elliott Judd
1867-William Hyde and James Paul
1868-William A. Hyde and Benjamin F. Porter
1869 and 1870-William A. Hyde and John Gezon
1871-William A. Hyde and Josiah Peak
1872-William Hyde and Elisha A. Stevens
1873 to 1875- Michael Shields and Anthony Hydorn
1875 to 1880-Israel C. Smith and Charles E. Belknap
1880 to 1881-David L. Steven and Charles R. Swain

FIRE MARSHALS 1880 (September 26) to July 1, 1915: Henry Lemoin
1915 (July 1 to December 31): David Walker
1916 (January 1) to present: George T. Boughner


Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
Created: 16 January 2000
 URL: http://kent.migenweb.net/etten1926/firefighters.html