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What sort of firefighters did Pittsburgh have before the city’s fire department? Was it a volunteer fire department, or what?

Question submitted by: Joseph Forbes, South Side

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Given the cost of Pittsburgh's fire bureau these days, residents can be forgiven for yearning for the good old days, when fires were put out by bucket brigades. Some observers have even suggested that city services face competition from outside parties. But as local history suggests, such initiatives can have unforeseen consequences.

Like the chance that rival fire companies will beat the crap out of each other.

Pittsburgh's first fire "engine" -- a hand-powered pump mounted on a wagon -- was put into service in the early 1790s. At the time, Pittsburgh residents were required to keep leather buckets on hand: When fire broke out, they set up a bucket brigade to supply the engine with water from the nearest source. According to Leland Baldwin's Pittsburgh: The Story of a City, even those physically unable to help with the buckets played a role: Older men guarded property rescued from the fire, for example. Baldwin also tells of the legendary Marina Betts, who saw to it that anyone not doing their share "could expect the contents of a leather bucket in their faces."

Firefighting, it seems, has always been a contentious business. One of Pittsburgh's earliest firefighting legends involves a fistfight between an onlooker and the captain of the fire engine -- a Quaker, no less. When the bystander laid his hand on the fire engine, the captain ordered him to remove it: "Friend, thee had better remove thy hand." (Quakers talked like this, apparently.) When the bystander refused to do so, the Quaker threatened "I shall smite thee then," and punched the guy.

That altercation set the tone for the decades to follow. Starting in the early 1800s, rival firefighter companies began springing up all over town. By 1815, there were at least three in service: the "Eagle," the "Vigilant" and the "Neptune." By mid-century, there were a few dozen. People didn't just volunteer for these companies; they paid to join. In a frontier town that lacked much in the way of entertainment or social functions, fire companies doubled as social clubs. Young, able-bodied Pittsburghers complained about a lack of things to do even back then, it seems, and fighting fires broke up the monotony.

Indeed, Frank C. Harper's Pittsburgh of Today lauds early fire companies for being "composed of leading members of the community." Their "only fault," he adds, "was their almost furious zeal and ambition to win distinction and earn the gratitude of their fellow citizens."

The zeal was so furious, in fact, that hotheaded firefighters ended up battling each other. By the 1840s, speculate historians, the well-to-do had established more traditional clubs for their amusement. Thus, Pittsburgh's fire companies became havens for younger, less prosperous men … who enjoyed fistfights as much as firefights.

One story Harper relates involves the captain of a fire company trying to kill a rival with a pitchfork. Other apocryphal stories involve firefighting companies showing up at the same blaze -- and then turning their hoses on each other, rather than the burning structure.

By the late 1860s, Pittsburgh was large enough that its citizens saw the need for a citywide, full-time fire department. The department acquired much of the equipment used by the volunteer fire companies, built a fire alarm system, and a network of reservoirs and fire hydrants.

The results were felt almost immediately. In the department's first year, Harper writes, fires did $751,465 in damage citywide. But that, Harper says, was the "high water-mark" -- so to speak -- of fire damage.

Even so, Harper waxes a bit nostalgic for the pre-Civil War days of feuding firefighters. "[T]he fights, disgraceful as they were, proved the interest taken in the engines of the different companies by the members," he observes. And "it appears from the records that the period of the most violent rivalry and furious fighting was also that of the greatest efficiency."

So if Bob O'Connor really wants to reduce costs in the city's fire bureau, this might be the answer after all.

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