The Harrisburg Fire Department as we know it today has been the result of gradual transitions from one era to another.
In 1791, Harrisburg became a borough with its population at 2,200 souls. In that year several concerned and leading citizens met and formed the Union Fire Company. The Union members manned a small hand pumper and were aided by the citizenry with bucket brigades to fight the few fires that happened. In 1801, the Friendship Fire Company was formed. The Upper Ward Fire Company held organizational meetings in 1812 and 1813 but never materialized. By 1814 however, another company, the Hope came on the scene. In the 1819-20 period, another company began organizing known as the State Capitol Fire Company. They too quickly faded. Early in 1829, the Harrisburg Fire Company organized, held meetings, and turned out members to alarms. The company faded into obscurity by the 1840's. In 1834, we find a fleeting glimpse of a Workingmen's Fire Company. Apparatus of the Union, Friendship, Hope and Harrisburg companies consisted of small hand pumpers which had to be supplied with water by bucket brigades and stored in small, usually frame, sheds.
The next major changes appear in 1836 and 1841. By that time the Union Fire Company was living on borrowed time as was the Harrisburg Fire Company. Territorial arguments were becoming prevalent among all the companies. In 1836, several dissident factions got together and formed the Citizen Fire Company. The Citizen immediately purchased a hand pumper which could lift its own water and had several hundred feet of leather fire hose. In 1841, Harrisburg's water system was finished. With it came fire hydrants, an almost unlimited ready source of water to fight fires and the formation of the Washington Hose Company. During this period all of the engine companies began using hose and hose carriages to carry it to augment their hand drawn and operated pumpers.
In 1858, after a disastrous fire plainly showed the need for ladders, the Mt. Vernon Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 formed and both it and the Hope Engine Company No. 2 placed ladder trucks in service. The companies also started using numbers. This practice would continue with city council assigning numbers as the companies were accepted into the department regardless of what type they were. The following year the Paxton Engine Company No. 6 was formed in South Harrisburg. In 1860, Harrisburg became a city and the Good Will Engine Company No. 7 formed in Verbeketown (above Forster Street).
During the period of the Civil War (1861-1865) and the decades after, the city expanded into quite a railroad and industrial town. Steam fire engines replaced hand pumpers at the Friendship No. 1, Hope No. 2, Citizen No. 3, Paxton No. 6, and Goodwill No. 7. It soon became apparent that the individual companies, requesting and receiving their fiscal needs from city council, needed to be under one head. This was accomplished in 1868, when council passed an ordinance establishing a yearly convention of the "fire department's" companies to elect chief officers.
In 1870, the Lochiel Fire Company No. 8 in South Harrisburg, was admitted into the fire department. Within a year, due to a massive strike at the Lochiel rolling mills, the company waned greatly but was still shown as a unit until 1883. In 1872, the Mechanical Fire Company No. 9 was formed mainly as the fire brigade of the sprawling Harrisburg Car Company (present site of HARSCO at 9th & Herr). It was listed for twenty years as part of the fire department although not officially recognized by city council.
The year 1872, becomes another milestone when the Paxton No. 6 placed horses on full time duty to pull their steam fire engine. Three years later they petitioned council to meet the expenses of hiring a full time driver. Within the next decade most of the department's apparatus would be adapted for horses. Most firehouses would have stables added and the horses would be either city owned, company owned, or rented from local livery stables.
By the mid 1870's, the population on Allison's Hill was growing. A movement for fire protection was undertaken due to that area being somewhat inaccessible from downtown and in 1877; the Mount Pleasant Fire Company No. 8 was organized. With the disappearance of the Lochiel Company, better fire protection was needed in South Harrisburg. So in 1884, the Susquehanna Fire Company No. 9 was formed. One year later, the West End section of the city greeted the formation of the Reilly Hose Company No. 10. And in 1888, the Shamrock Fire Company No. 11 was organized in that growing area around Cameron and Herr Streets.
As the city grew from the 1860's to the turn of the century, fire apparatus improved, the fire alarm telegraph system was installed, and the water system was expanded to handle the growth. From 1888 to 1893, disgruntled factions among the companies and politics played a major part in council passing an ordinance to abolish the system of electing officers and established a fire department with the chief officers appointed, and paid, by the city. For the next fifteen years various ordinances would be put on the table to abolish the existing volunteer fire department, close firehouses and consolidate companies into an all paid force as other city's had done but they never came to fruition.
In the early part of the new century, the city again exploded in development. Three fire companies were organized all at the same time and petitioned the city for new quarters and apparatus. The first was the Allison Hook & Ladder Company No. 2 late in 1905, then the Camp Curtin Fire Company No. 12, three months later. At the same time the Allison was forming, organizational meetings were occurring in the vicinity of 15th & State Streets to start the Enterprise Fire Company No. 12. The Enterprise had strong backing but council balked at equipping three companies, so within six months its effort to become the second engine company on Allison's Hill waned enough that it simply disappeared. It would be another two years before the Allison and CampCurtin would be officially accepted into the fire department as the 12th and 13th companies.
In 1910, two more companies would organize. The Royal Fire Company No. 14 in the Eastmere section and the Pleasant View Fire Company No. 15 in that part of Susquehanna Township east of 18th Street having the same name. The Pleasant View section eventually was annexed to the city in 1920, but not before the Riverside Fire Company No. 15 was formed and admitted to the fire department, one year sooner. Thus the youngest company did not receive the highest number.
In 1913, Pennsylvania Legislature passed what was known as the Clark act allowing Pennsylvania cities to switch to a commission form of government. Thus on December 1, 1913, the Bureau of Fire took effect and was headed by a fire commissioner. The fire chief and assistant chief remained, as did the common term Harrisburg Fire Department, and to this day both terms are correct.
For almost a century each company received an appropriation from the city to pay drivers, handle maintenance on the firehouses, equipment and apparatus and pay utility bills. Gradually the city chipped away at what the companies were responsible for. In May, 1914, all paid fire drivers would be paid directly by the city. In 1917, the final year (except for the Paxton No. 6 wagon) for the horses, apparatus maintenance would be undertaken by the city in a centralized shop located at the Shamrock. The dust settled somewhat but finally in 1960, the final notice was given that appropriations would cease due in part to the lack of volunteer participation and also when a central supply room was formed to take advantage of bulk purchases.
From the disappearance of the horses, through the 1950's, the makeup of the fire department didn't change much. The Citizen and Mt.Vernon lost their houses in 1917 due to the capitol expanding. In 1937, the Friendship was closed. The city paid drivers handled the apparatus and the volunteers fought the fires. Companies remained strong. Organizations such as the Harrisburg Firemen's Union (not associated with today's International Association of Fire Fighters Local 428 which organized in 1935 to represent the paid drivers), the Allison Coffee Association, the Veteran Volunteer Firemen's Association, the Friendship Home Association, the Harrisburg Firemen's Marching Club flourished as did minor and twilight league baseball teams, hunting clubs and other social entities. During the 1950's volunteer turnout generally declined for various reasons and the paid members of the Bureau of Fire had to fight more and more fires. In 1959, Robert M. Houseal was promoted to Fire Chief. He was the first chief to be promoted from the paid ranks exclusively, being Assistant Chief since 1942. In the absence of strong volunteer companies, he promoted a paid fire department organization asking more work from the career firefighters. This only aggravated the friction already in existence between paid and volunteer. During the decade of the 1960's, more neighborhoods changed in appearance as city residents sought homes in the suburbs. Several of the volunteer companies in those neighborhoods chose closing their charters instead of admitting new members.
In 1961 and 1962, the Washington Hose Company No. 4 and the Citizen Engine Company No. 3 respectively disbanded and dissolved their charters. These two companies of the fire department have been the only ones to ever disappear gracefully.
By the early 1970's only the Mt. Pleasant No. 8 and Camp Curtin No. 13 remained very active entities of the once grand Harrisburg Volunteer Fire Department, although the other twelve companies existed in some form. During this very busy decade and into the 1980's, membership remained strong at Stations 8 and 13. Many younger members were admitted and gained tremendous experience in fighting fires on the "training grounds" of a declining city. Engine 8 and Engine 13 rivaled Squad 1, the all paid manpower company, for excellence, camaraderie and hard hitting fire fighting abilities.
In 1980, the city consolidated most of the old stations into new Stations 1 and 2. The CampCurtin lost their home. As with most of the volunteers in the past it was extremely difficult to live alongside a large concentration of career members in the same firehouse. There are fundamental mindset differences. This was aggravated over the lean years in the fiscal condition of the city. The Fire Bureau management didn't do much to help promote volunteers since the 1970's either, nor did city government. The city did however maintain the Mt.Pleasant firehouse on S. 13th Street in hopes that it would be effective in attracting more young volunteer members. In 1983, there was a reorganization within the Bureau of Fire. Apparatus was consolidated and moved around and the city went to three firehouses. The Mt.Pleasant was given its older Mack and made into a separate squad company changing their assignment. Bolstering their role, the company decided to venture into the heavy rescue business. This idea failed and interest declined.
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Fourteen volunteer fire companies of the Harrisburg Fire Department "exist" today. It is doubtful that some have any living members and it is also doubtful that several have enough members to hold a legal meeting. Occasionally though, other companies will hold a banquet or annual meeting. In 1914, the Harrisburg Fire Department sponsored the State Firemen's Association convention. The parade at the end of the convention was so huge they estimated 12,000 firemen representing 141 companies and 136 bands in 14 divisions were in line of march taking six hours to pass a given point. At that time the department alone could muster probably 2,000 active members. This truly was the hey day of the volunteer fire department in Harrisburg.
In the two hundred, ten year history of the Harrisburg Fire Bureau, well over 100,000 alarms have been answered with a high percentage occurring in the past 30 years. Noteworthy incidents include the Capitol fire (1897), Lochiel Train Wreck(1905), Grand Opera House(1907), Floods of 1889, 1936, 1972, and 1996, Civil Disturbances of 1968 and 1969, TRW (1985), and Vernon Industrial(1990), but this is just a mere footnote in the voluminous record of fires and incidents, of which a large amount were serious, expensive and tragic.
The Fire Department is extremely proud of the fact that it has given aid outside the City to those in need from time to time. Over the past two centuries, city apparatus and manpower has responded countless times to the call for assistance within the suburban and regional area. But there were also times when aid was sent far away. Some of the more noteworthy incidents occurred in 1904, when the Hope Engine No. 2 traveled by rail to Baltimore to help fight the devastating conflagration that leveled block after block. In 1937, eighteen members and the Friendship Engine 1 spent a week in Louisville, KY on flood duty. Undoubtedly, one of its finest duties occurred following the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001. Seventeen members making up part of the PA. TaskForce1, assisted the hard pressed FDNY in searching the ruins of the WorldTradeCenter disaster for survivors, then returning two weeks later.
By the turn of the new millennium, the Harrisburg Fire Bureau has evolved into a force of 100 highly trained and motivated career firefighters manning six companies in a city that has made a vibrant and tremendous comeback from the dark days of near bankruptcy of the early 1980’s. Volunteerism is in a gradual decline across the nation today and almost all volunteer fire departments feel this constriction. Harrisburg's once strong volunteer tradition is now left to those few Mt. Pleasant No. 8 and Camp Curtin No. 13 members who hold regular meetings, admit new blood, and answer alarms. And to preserve the fire department’s rich heritage, the city restored the old Reilly No. 10 house to the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum for all to enjoy.
David W. Houseal
Harrisburg Fire Historian