Wherever and whenever people group together, build homes, and raise families, there is the need for protection from the dangers of wind, rain, and fire. Buildings serve to shelter from the first two elements, but only human effort can protect people from fire.
- Building a Fire Department
- Establishing Chain of Command
- Growth of More Companies
On June 27 1883, a number of concerned and aroused citizens of Bloomfield took steps to protect their lives and property by organizing the Bloomfield Fire Association. This was done after a series of memorable fires during the winter of 1882 through 1883 destroyed many homes causing the insurance rates to increase sharply. The final blow was a disastrous fire which destroyed the old John Archdeacon's Hotel which stood at the northeast corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Washington Street, and threatened to burn out the entire business district. Men and equipment were summoned from Newark, but their late arrival made it obvious that Bloomfield needed it's own fire department.
A special "Firemen's Edition" of the Newark Star Ledger published in 1933, the 50th Anniversary of the Bloomfield Fire Department, carried the following wry account of the incident:
The man most responsible for the formation of the Bloomfield Fire Department in 1883 was a chagrined Newark Fire Chief - For Bloomfield citizens in the late 19th century, there were few more things more exciting than a fire. The only persons who didn't enjoy a fire were the owners of the burning property, friends and relatives of the owners, and the Newark Fire Department. When the fire bell clanged in Bloomfield it wasn't the signal for volunteer firemen to rush to the scene, as much as it was for the citizens to head for the blaze and watch the drama unfold. But they had to wait for the Newark Fire Department, the nearest fire fighters. Some time later.. more often than not, when the building was burning to the ground, the crowd would hear the clatter and clop clop clop of horses charging up the road from Newark, and into the view would come the gallant horses, men, and wagons of Newark.
Time and time again the drama was repeated. the bell clanging bell, the wait, the thrilling arrival of the high spirited horses hauling men and equipment, and the usually futile effort to cut off a fire that had too much of a head start. The Newark chief who responded each time was David E Benedict, a man who honestly felt he had to help any community in need, but for Bloomfield, even with the patient Benedict, the party was about over. The end came the night the John Archdeacon's Hotel, at the corner of Broad and Washington Streets, caught fire. When Benedict and his men arrived, the fire had burned through the roof and the walls had already started to crumble. Cursing and frustrated the Newarkers did their best, but the hotel was a total loss. With smoke still rising and water still sizzling in the ruins, the Chief Benedict climbed atop a pile of rubble and called for the large crowd to draw closer.
"Enough is enough" he announced, 'Get busy with your fire department for I am not coming again until you do!"
The crowd murmured and muttered, and after time began drifting away, most scoffing at the thought the chief would fail to respond to a call for help. "I warn you", he yelled, "I will only come to help again when you've started to do something to help yourselves."
Three times citizens looked in vain to the road from Newark. The chief had meant what he said and the buildings burned to the ground without much organized effort to save them.
Building a Fire Department
According to an old Bloomfield Fire Department document, this state of affairs has 'hastened action' on the part of a citizens committee. Some $1,600 was raised for a horse-drawn fire truck and from that 'hastened' beginning, grew the modern Bloomfield Fire Department.
For year after it's organization the Fire Association was depending on its own resources. The $1,600 was raised from townsfolk and businessmen and contracts were drawn up to purchase a Hook & Ladder truck, construct a bell tower, and purchase an alarm bell. At the same time the town contracted with the Orange Water Company to construct about ten miles of water mains and 96 fire hydrants. The first hydrant was tested and put into service on Thanksgiving Day, 1883: The rest were in service by June of the following year.
The Essex Hook and Ladder Co. Number 1 was organized on June 27th 1883 with about 25 members of The Bloomfield Fire Association met in Wilde's Hall to form an active truck company. About six weeks later Bloomfield's first fire truck, a horse drawn Hook & Ladder, arrived in town amidst much celebration.
On November 2nd of the same year, another group of interested and concerned citizens organized Bloomfield Hose Co. No. 1. The township committee provided the new company with a "Jumper", a and drawn hose reel and some hose. Department archives record that the Bloomfield Hose Company at first shared quarters with the Essex Hook & Ladder, then was moved to new quarters in "Ward's Shop" on the evening of March 15th 1884, in which a room was given for the use of then (first) Chief A. G. Marsh.
A horse drawn carriage was purchased from Phoenix Hose Company of Poughkeepsie NY for the sum of $500, which was paid for by the proceeds of a picnic, and by the members. Bloomfield Hose Co. No. 1 changed it's name to Phoenix Hose Co. No. 1 upon receiving it's new wagon. The Bloomfield Fire Association went out of existence in May 1885, and the Township Council took over responsibility for the various fire companies. On Decoration Day 1905, Essex Hook & Ladder Co. and Phoenix Hose Co. moved into the new Fire Headquarters built for them by the town on Bloomfield Avenue. The building still stands today, next to the Royal Theater. They remained on Bloomfield Avenue until 1931, when a new Headquarters building was raised on the corner of Franklin and Montgomery Streets.
Establishing a Chain of Command
Although each fire company was under the command of a foreman, as the town expanded, and more companies were organized, there was a need for establishing a chain of command. Finally, on August 8, 1884, Fire Marshall Andrew J. Marsh was appointed first Fire Chief Engineer, as they were called in those early years. Chief Marsh served until 1888, when the job was taken by T. Howell Johnson who retired in 1893. From 1893 until 1897 the position of fire chief was held by William U. Oakes. a brief two year term was served by Edgar D. Ackerman from 1897 to 1899. Chief Bernard F. Higgins served two terms, from 1899 to 1903, and a again from 1905 to 1912, interrupted for two years by Chief James Y. Nicholl, whose complete uniform is still in the possession of the Historical Society.
Growth of More Fire Companies
Active Hose Co. No. 2 was organized May 1885. A month later they were accepted by the town and given a two wheeled jumper, "The Pride of Watsessing". Which was housed in John Wilde's carpenter shop on Myrtle St. and he boasted, "The boys were second to none in getting to fires". In 1898, a "modern" horse drawn apparatus was purchased by the town from Mr. N. Dodd, its builder, and eventually moved to the new firehouse at 45-47 Orange St. where Co. No. 2 remained for the better part of a century. New Station No. 2 was built in 1975 on Watsessing Ave. Just south of Bloomfield Ave. In 1983 the venerable old brick Station 2 on Orange St. fell to the wrecker's ball.
Excelsior Hose Co. No. 3 was incorporated on November 9 1886 and purchased a two wheeled hand drawn hose carriage, which was housed in a barn at 22 Maple St. The next year, property at the corner of Broad and James St. was purchased for $100 and the members erected a firehouse on the site. In 1902, a horse drawn hose wagon, built in Bloomfield by W. A. Ritscher, was put in to service. This company provided for the entire north end of town. In 1937 Engine 3 moved to new quarters on East Passaic Ave., opposite St. Valentine's Church, and became the training center for the department.
In 1904 the residents of the Montgomery and Fairview sections of town requested better fire protection, resulting in the founding of Montgomery Hose Co. No. 4, on November 22. A small one story building on the corner of Berkley Ave. and Jerome Pl. housed a two wheeled jumper with 500 feet of hose until 1913, when a new two story building, complete with shower baths, was constructed at the same location. That building stands today and houses a printing firm.
That same year, Montgomery Hose Co. received the horse drawn hose wagon used by Phoenix Hose Co. when that company replaced it with a motor driven apparatus. In 1924 Montgomery Hose Co. raised funds to purchase their first motor driven apparatus; a Ford. Shortly afterwards, this was replaced by a REO Chemical and Hose Wagon, again purchased with money raised by the membership. As of 1933, Montgomery Hose Co. was the only remaining volunteer company in Bloomfield. Soon afterward, when the Bloomfield Fire Department went to all paid personnel in 1938, Montgomery Hose Co. was disbanded, and sold their apparatus to the town.
After several serious fires north of Bay Ave. culminated in the total destruction of the Brookdale Reformed Church on Good Friday, 1911, town officials recognized that fire protection was badly needed in that part of town. At this time the city water system extended only as far north as Bay Ave. So, on December 1, 1911, a number of Brookdale residents formally organized themselves into a fire company, to be known as Brookdale Hose Co. No. 5. But the new company had no equipment. So, when the barn of F.W. Brokaw was struck by lightning and totally destroyed, the heroic men of Hose Co. 5 saved the surrounding buildings with apparatus borrowed from Montclair. A few days later, Montgomery Hose Co. presented their comrades in Brookdale with their old hand jumper and 500 feet of hose. A month later the town gave Hose Co. 5 an old school building on Broad St. to be used as a firehouse. When Montgomery Hose Co. No. 4 was phased out shortly before 1938, Brookdale Hose Co. changed it's designation to No. 4, although for many years afterwards, diehard firefighters still referred to it as Engine 5.
The last volunteer chief of the department was George Koeber, who held the position for an incredible twenty five years, from 1912 to 1937.
Modernizing the Fire Department
Around the turn of the century, members of the Fire Department appealed to the town for the installation of an electric fire alarm system. The township committee responded by voting $3,500 for the purchase of an alarm system from the Gamewell Company. And a contract for 13 alarm boxes, an automatic bell, striker, and indicator for each firehouse brought the department into the 20th century. The Gamewell system was decommissioned in early 2012. Its age and lack of spare parts rendered it unreliable. It served the township well for over 100 years.
Though several chiefs and many firefighters have come and gone throughout the years, hand pulled hose carts have given way to diesel fueled pumpers, and horns have become two-way radios. Many pieces of old equipment still linger, tucked away in various corners of our firehouses. Many traditions from the early years remain as well, from giving a rookie his "Firehouse name" to the bell sounding nightly at 9 P.M. to remind us to put up the horses for the night.