Information Obtained from the History of Stoneham Fire Department Book by Captain William E. Abbott
There was little written of the fire protection in Stoneham from 1725-1834. The first real firefighting equipment was a leather fire bucket, with about a 3 gallon capacity. These buckets were used in the Bucket Brigade, which consisted of two lines of townspeople stretched between the burning building and the nearest source of water. The able bodied men of the town passed the full buckets to the blaze, while the other line consisted of women and children, who would return the empties to the water source. When a fire did occur, this brigade was the only hope of saving the building. Unless the fire was discovered in its earliest stage, a total loss was inevitable.
In 1834, Stoneham purchased its first piece of fire apparatus, a hand tub. Water still had to be supplied by the bucket brigade. The brigade would empty water into the tub of the engine, while the members of the volunteer company manned the brakes or handles. By pumping these handles the water in the tub was forced through a nozzle attached to the engine onto the fire. In 1849, the next engine purchased by the town was another hand tub, called the Phoenix. The first Hook and Ladder truck was purchased in 1855 and was built in Stoneham by W. Ward Child and B. F. Richardson. It was named the Resolute.
In 1857 the Fire Department was organized in the following manner: The Selectmen chose, as head of the Fire Department, a Board of Engineers. These Engineers were nominated by the members of the volunteer companies and were usually members of one of these companies. They served a one year term and had the authority to accept or reject any person nominated to be a member of any volunteer company. The board made rules and regulations governing the operations and conduct of the four companies. They also dispensed all monies allocated by the town for the operation of the department. 1858 was the first year the fire calls in Stoneham were recorded. The volunteers responded to eight fire alarms. Six of these calls were for fires in Reading. One was to Wakefield and one was for a house fire in Stoneham.
The first use of cotton hose is mentioned in 1865, hose prior to that was leather. Thirteen reservoirs were located throughout the town to be used in case of fire. These reservoirs were man made water supplies which were close to the street for easy access for the engine company. They were sometimes interconnected and the one in the square contained 40,000 gallons of water. The town’s first steam engine was purchased in 1870 and was named the Col. Gould. That year, a new engine house was constructed to house the engine. These two items cost $8,000, which for that time was a large investment. On September 3, 1872, a fire destroyed the Forrest’s Stable and Dunn’s Boarding House, killing a 15 year old boy. The town purchased a Fire Bell in 1873 and mounted it in the tower of the new Col. Gould house.
Inventory in 1875 consisted of: one Hook and Ladder Carriage, one Steam Engine, one Hand Engine, one horse Hose Carriage, carrying one thousand feet of hose, and two Hand Carriages, carrying three hundred feet of hose. There were 93 members of the department with W.H. Eastman as Chief Engineer and Moses Downs as Assistant Engineer. Most of the hose purchased by the department up to this time was made of leather. This hose was 2 1/2 inches in diameter and 50 feet in length. The leather was stitched or riveted together by at least 22 copper rivets to the running foot. The total weight of each 50 foot length was between 80 and 90 pounds. Leather hose will dry out if not oiled from time to time. The job of oiling the hose originally fell to the Chief Engineer but later, as the amount of hose grew, it was delegated to the Stewards of each company. To improve and simplify the process of oiling, a trough made of sheet iron was purchased by the Engineers in 1878. The trough was made in three 18 foot sections and had a total length of 54 feet. The 50 foot length of leather hose was then laid in the trough and neat foot oil was applied with sponges.
On September 3, 1877 a fire at the R.C. Huntress Planning and Moulding Mill and Box Manufacturing Company destroyed the main building and badly scorched the Gen. Worth fire engine. This year the Col. Gould was changed from a hand engine to a horse drawn engine, and manning dropped to 10. In 1881 a new Hook and Ladder was purchased to replace the Resolute. A horse Hose Sled, which carried 700 feet of hose was also purchased for winter use. On October 21, 1883 The Engine House of B&L Railroad was destroyed by fire along with two steam engines, a total loss of $25,000. In 1883 a new water system was introduced to the town, with water being supplied by underground pipes from the Wakefield Water Works to 58 post hydrants located throughout the town and one Lowry hydrant head. The post hydrants only had one connection, while the Lowry hydrants had two connections. No longer were the engines at the mercy of wells running dry or reservoirs being depleted. Now, for the first time there was a steady supply of water available. While this supply was not adequate for all fire situations or available in all areas of the town, it was a giant step in the right direction. These hydrants were put to use quickly, when they were used to extinguish a fire at the Hill & Rose Shoe Factory on December 1, 1883.
With the advent of the new water system, the engineers decided to reduce the size of the volunteers. The Gen. Worth engine company was disbanded and the hand tub retired. The Gen. Worth hose company was formed and the strength of the company was cut from 54 to 15. This was the beginning of the end for the volunteer companies. 1884 saw a major reorganization of the Fire Department. The Gen. Worth Engine Company was disbanded and the engine was put out of commission. The Col. Gould Steamer and Hose Company was reduced to 15 men. The Gen. Worth Company was reduced to 12 men and the name changed to Gen. Worth Hose Company. Compensation of members of the Department shall be as follows: Chief Engineer-$50, Assistant Engineer-$30. The Board to consist of three members: Engineer of Steamer,-$30, Stewards of Gen. Worth and Col. Gould Hose Companies- $150, included care and cleaning of hose and the Clerks of each company- $20. In less than two years, the department was reduced from 98 men to 52. The town also discontinued the purchase of leather hose.
1886 saw an even further reduction in the Gen. Worth Company. Their ranks were reduced to only nine men. The town purchased a new horse hose carriage, the E.R. Seaver No. 3 built by T.T. Marston of Stoneham. on July 12, 1889 a nine year old boy died in a house fire on Hancock St. 1890 saw the introduction of an electric alarm system. It was a Gamewell System comprised of 17 alarm boxes and a whistle machine for a gong on the Sanborn and Mann Factory. A bell striker was provided for the bell on the Congregational Church. The system went into use in November and the first recorded box was box 27 for a fire in the woods on Franklin St. The first false alarm was recorded on the same day from box 65. In 1891, the Col. Gould was traded in for a Amosheag Steam Fire Engine.
The Fire Department owned no horses, but had a contract with James Forrest to use his horses to pull the steam engine to fires for $200 a year. B.B. Batcheller received $3 for each alarm for the use of his horse in pulling the Resolute. Tredick Bros. provided a supply wagon for each alarm at $3 each. Levi Hill’s horse was used to pull the Gen. Worth Hose Carriage for $100 a year. The Department had harnesses for the horses hung from the ceiling of the station. The horses would be moved under the harnesses and a man would pull a cord, dropping the harnesses on the horses backs. The collar was then snapped into place. In 1895, because of the ability of the new steamer to produce much greater water pressure, the department found it necessary to discontinue the use of single ply cotton hose. This created another problem. Because of the new and much heavier two ply hose, the hose real of Hose No. 3 was unable to carry more than 400 feet. A new hose wagon was purchased in 1896, which could accommodate more hose.
In 1901, the Fire Alarm system was cut into two circuits so that in the event of accident to one part of the system, the whole system would not be out of operation. On April 1, 1902, The Hotel Langwood was destroyed by fire. Until this point, Engineers at the Tidd Factory had been paid $50 a year to supply steam to blow the gong for fires. In 1901 this charge was increased to $200 a year and it was decided it would be more economical to purchase a compressor air plant for this purpose. On July 5, 1903 Box 62 was struck for a fire which started in the Hayward and Litch Stable. Before this fire was brought under control, it had destroyed Carlin’s Market, Glidden’s Fish market, Marcey’s Bakery, Pinkham’s Carriage Shop, and a Chinese laundry. The area from Block to Emerson St. was completely gutted. Eight horses perished in this fire. In 1904, a new two horse hose wagon was purchased to replace Hose No. 1. this wagon was designed to carry a chemical tank, but due to the added expense, the tank itself was not purchased until 1905. November 26, 1907 is the first recorded automobile fire, for an automobile belonging to Dr. Sheahan on Pine St.
On November 13, 1908, there was a fire in the Shawmut Motor Company factory. This fire, which started with a gasoline explosion in the Shawmut factory, destroyed several houses and stables. The fire house of the Hook and Ladder and Hose Company No. 2 was also damaged. Also lost in the blaze was 1000 feet of hose. A lack of water pressure was blamed for the inability to contain this blaze. Stoneham may have lost more than a few buildings in this fire because the Shawmut Motor Company was building its own automobiles here in Stoneham. The owners were never able to acquire enough money to rebuild, thus eliminating the chances of Stoneham becoming the Detroit of the East Coast. The E.R. Seavers Hose House was also damaged by a fire that same year.
July 10, 1910 saw the first alarm of fire received by telephone. September 24, 1910, the Farm Hill Elevator burned to the ground. The fire raged for 12 hours on the property of the Vera Chemical Company. In 1912 the department purchased its first motorized piece of apparatus. Combination A was a 1912 Seagrave combination hose and chemical wagon. A universal fire alarm box was purchased and installed in the house occupied by Combination A. This made it possible for the permanent man on duty at the station, upon receipt of a reported fire, to ring in the alarm of the box nearest to the fire. This saved valuable time for call men who would respond directly to the fire. On February 18, 1913, a shoe factory owned and occupied by Healey Brothers was destroyed by fire. Several houses were also set afire by flying embers.
In 1914, E.R. Seaver Hose No. 3 was disbanded and Hose House No. 3 was sold. The members were assigned to other companies. One reason given for this actions was the difficulty in getting horses. In 1916, a building was constructed to house both the Fire and Police Departments. This building is still occupied by the Fire Department today. In 1921, Stoneham purchased its second motorized piece of apparatus. In 1922, the Gen. Worth was renamed Engine Company No. 1. 1923 saw the end of horse-drawn fire apparatus with the purchase of a Seagrave city service ladder truck. This also saw the end to the old way of naming apparatus. The ladder company was no longer the Resolute, but Ladder 1. The Gen. Worth 1921 Seagrave pumper was renamed Engine 1. In 1924 a Reo Motor Chassis was purchased and the body of the old horse-drawn combination mounted on it by members of the department. It served as both a brush fire and fire alarm maintenance truck. The Reo carried a 35 gallon chemical tank, 600 feet of hose, 150 feet of chemical hose, and 13 soda and acid extinguishers.
A siren was installed at the corner of Franklin and Central Streets in the square to help clear traffic when apparatus was responding to alarms. In 1925 there were 3 Engineers, 5 permanent firefighters, 22 call firefighters, and 4 pieces of apparatus. In 1927 on-duty members went to a 2-platoon system. Until this time, a firefighter was required to work one 24 hour shift every other day, or 96 hours a week. The two platoon system divided each 24 hour period into a ten hour day and fourteen hour night. This reduced the work week to 84 hours a week and saw the appointment of two more firefighters. A new Seagrave pumper was purchased in 1931, as was the first CO2 extinguishers. A second hand Ford truck was purchased in 1926 for use as a fire alarm truck. The first Chief’s car was purchased in 1928. In 1935, the town purchased a new Ford fire alarm truck.
In 1936, the department completely rebuilt the fire alarm system. In 1937, red oscillating lights were installed on all apparatus. In 1940 the town purchased a Seagrave 750 GPM pumper and designated it Engine 3. This was the first piece to be delivered with an enclosed cab. February 14, 1940 the Bell Block fire, which occurred during a blizzard. During World War II, the permanent department added two more firefighters, however, the call department was hard hit by the need of men for the military. An Auxiliary Fire Unit was organized to help fill the void. This auxiliary worked well over the next several years and received some much deserved praise. A 65 foot Seagrave aerial ladder truck was purchased in 1944. With no chrome available due to the war, this truck was painted entirely red. In 1945, a Dodge 200 GPM pumper will 200 gallon booster tank was purchased to replace the Reo as a brush unit. In 1946, the work week was reduced from 84 hours to 72 hours and two more permanent men were hired.
An event occurred in 1948 which had a profound effect on the members of the Stoneham Fire Department. A tragic fire on the morning of September 27th took the lives of three children of the O’Connell family on Chestnut Street. This fire and its aftermath was responsible for the hiring of 6 more permanent firefighters. For years prior to this tragic fire, Chief McCall had asked for additional manpower. He had explained that while the population of Stoneham had increased dramatically, the membership of the department had stood still. The investigation after the fire brought out very clearly that while a call force can be of assistance to a department, they never can replace a permanent fire fighting force ready for instant response. The 1950’s saw an increase in fire prevention work as the hospital, nursing homes, and schools required quarterly inspections.
Further progress in Stoneham fire protection was made with the installation of a two way radio in the Chief’s car and a remote control unit in the fire station to operate in conjunction with the Police Department. This equipment allowed the Chief to be in constant communication with the fire station and enable him to order additional alarms without the delay of calling on a phone or re-routing his request though a police cruiser. From this time on, all new trucks were equipped with two way radios. The members of the department formed the Stoneham Firefighters Association in 1950. In 1952 six more permanent firefighters were hired and a Seagrave 750 GPM pumper was purchased. In 1953 the work week was reduced from 72 hours a week to 56 hours and five new firefighters were hired. In 1955 Stoneham became a civil service community. In 1956 a Seagrave 750 GPM pumper was purchased and assigned as Engine 5.
On September 12, 1957 an alarm was sounded for a fire in the Redmen’s Hall. On October 6, a general alarm was struck for Box 44, Fredrick’s Drug Store on Main St. Seven Stoneham firefighters and 1 Winchester firefighter were taken to the hospital when overcome by considerable amounts of carbon monoxide gas. Just eight days after this fire, Stoneham had another general alarm fire in the Superior Electric Company. In 1958 the department installed their own base station, equipped all fire vehicles with two way radios and added four portable radios. In 1960 the permanent force was increased to 29 firefighters. Many apartment houses were built during the 1960’s with an additional 1100 families to be protected. Chief Raymond Sorensen had by-laws passed which required sprinklers, standpipes, and other fire safety features. This was a first in Massachusetts and other communities were quick to follow. The work week was reduced from 56 hours to 50.4 hours.
A Dodge 200 GPM pumper with 300 gallon tank was purchased in 1962 and assigned as Engine 4. On November 11, 1962 it was decided to discontinue sounding the whistle on first alarms, as this created a traffic problem and that the call force had been reduced to only 2 men. 1963 saw the end of the call department. In 1967 seven firefighters were hired, which increased shift manning from 9 to 11. In 1968 Engines 1 and 5 were re-piped to give them the feature of 1 1/2 pre-connected lines. A Pirsch 85 foot ladder truck was purchased in 1969. A boat was added to the department in 1970. Three Stoneham residents lost their lives in 1971 by fire. In February of 1972, the department joined the International Association of Firefighters. In 1972 a new Pirsch pumper was purchased with a 1000 GPM pump and 500 gallon tank. It was assigned to Engine 2. In 1975, the work hours were reduced to 42 hours and eight firefighters were hired.