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Second Thursday Talk – Fire Fighting in the 1890s – The Calm Before the Revolution

Second Thursday Talk
Fire Fighting in the 1890s – The Calm Before the Revolution

Presented by Historian and author Steve Frady

Enjoy a 30-minute talk, Q&A, refreshments and a unique piece of history.

Free to Museum members. Included with paid admission. Otherwise, $5 per person to attend the talk.

The decade of the 1890s was the calm before the revolution for the American fire service that incorporated the firefighting technology advances made in the decades since the 1840s, while giving occasional hints of the coming revolution.

The fire service of the 1890s was comprised of two different organizations with the same goal of protecting life and property, and facing the same dangers in meeting that goal. The heritage of the volunteer fire departments of the late 19th century dated to the colonial period. The nature of the firefighting force would change in 1853 with the establishment of the first “paid” fire department in the City of Cincinnati. As communities grew into large towns and cities, the adoption of paid fire departments generally displaced the volunteer forces, while fire protection in a few communities was a combination of a paid department and volunteers.

The working conditions of the paid firefighters could be somewhat harsh, especially by today’s labor standards. And, with stables of horses to maintain, duties were naturally more extensive than those of the volunteer companies that typically pulled their fire apparatus by hand.

An active social life was common to the paid firefighters, and especially to the volunteers who were always a colorful entry in any Fourth of July parade with their trademark, traditional red shirts and decorated fire apparatus. As the paid departments evolved, the red shirt was abandoned for “Union blue” uniform shirts, marking a distinction between the two entities.

Despite their differences, the volunteer and paid firefighters operated the same firefighting equipment, much of which had been developed, and often improved, in the decades leading up to the 1890s. While hand-pumped fire engines remained in many communities for decades, steam fire engines belching great columns of black smoke began displacing them throughout the nation. Supporting equipment, for both volunteer and paid fire departments, could include hose carts and hosewagons, ladder wagons, and water towers. Hints of the coming revolution would appear from time to time in the decade of the 1890s as new approaches to firefighting equipment were developed. The turn of the century would be ushered in with considerable fanfare across the nation. Shortly after, a revolution that would forever change the fire service would begin with less fanfare in LaRue, Ohio.

Speaker: Historian and author Steve Frady is the retired police and fire public information officer for the City of Reno. He is a former editor of the Nevada Appeal and served 10 years as chief of the Virginia City Fire Department where he was involved in researching and restoring historic Virginia City and Gold Hill firefighting equipment. He is a founding member and current vice chairman of the Comstock Fire Museum that opened in 1979, and is the author of Red Shirts and Leather Helmets, A History of the Fire Departments of Virginia City and Gold Hill, published by the University of Nevada, Reno; and Where Duty Calls — a history of Warren Engine Co. No. 1 and the Carson City Fire Department.