I have traveled to the Motor City every January for 15 years to attend Detroit’s North American International Auto Show. This event has given me an opportunity to pursue two interests. As a car guy, the obvious attraction is the hundreds of hot cars and trucks. My other passion is cutting cars.
As a Pennsylvania State Fire Academy instructor who has taught vehicle rescue since 1991, there is nothing more revealing for me than seeing the manufacturers’ displays and talking with the engineers. Safety sells these days, so the manufacturers pull out all the stops to demonstrate how well their cars are designed. The best way to show integral safety equipment is with the cutaway car.
With camera in hand, I take hundreds of images. In a classroom, my photos show the students all the exotic metals, where a rescuer can safely cut, and where it is best to avoid. Onboard vehicle safety systems pose some of the most challenging issues faced by rescuers today, as airbags and their stored gas cylinders never react well to being cut! Also, the growing number of hybrid and electric cars on the road means that up-to-date information about high-voltage cables and components is critical.
It was at the 2007 show that I met Sgt. Arn “Arnie” Nowicki of the Detroit Fire Dept. He was showing a partially restored 1937 Seagrave Safety Sedan Pumper on the lower floor of the Cobo Center—the show’s home since 1965. The display, which was built around the former Detroit Engine 13, resembled the interior of a Detroit firehouse of that time period. The display featured a watch desk, including the Gamewell joker and gong. The Seagrave was a passionate project of his and the members of the Detroit Firemen’s Fund Assoc. The pumper, now beautifully restored, is a tribute to Detroit fire history. It serves to convey firefighters to their final resting places.
Fast-forward to a hot summer day in 2016. Lt. Nowicki (soon to be captain) is giving me a tour of the city, while detailing its history with an emphasis on its firehouses. When I approached Deputy Commissioner Dave Fornell about the project and explained that my interest was in older firehouses, he must have gotten a chuckle, because I learned the average age of a Detroit firehouse is 90 years. They are pretty much all older!
Detroit Fire History
Like most American cities, Detroit traces its early fire protection to volunteers. Sadly, none of those volunteer firehouses still exist. Detroit Fire Dept. began serving as a paid operation Oct. 4, 1860, with the delivery of an Amoskeag steamer. It was assigned as Lafayette No. 1 and operated out of a firehouse (long gone) located on Wayne Street between Larned and Congress Streets. Three firehouses occupied this location until the closing of Detroit Fire headquarters in 2013. By 1861, Detroit had a population of 46,000. Detroit would soon drop the tradition of naming companies and adopt a numbers-only system. Work began on a Gamewell system in September 1868 and was completed in 1870. The fireboxes were locked, however, and—unless you could find a resident or a merchant who had a key—you were out of luck. The fireboxes did not go keyless until 1892.
On Oct. 9, 1871, Engines 2 and 6 were loaded onto a train and sent to assist the city of Chicago with what we now call the Great Chicago Fire. Unfortunately, the engines were not able to reach the fire. The tracks into Chicago were choked with trains trying to evacuate, so Detroit’s firefighters hiked into the city on foot to assist.
Detroit expanded very quickly through the late 1800s, and firehouses were built at a fast pace. All firehouses from the period had attached towers that served three purposes: the tower offered a place to hang wet hose; the tower bell was better able to ring out the alarm; and the tower served as a lookout for fires in the city. It is interesting to note that watch tower duty was not assigned to a fireman but to a man hired to do nothing but watch for fire. Watch was discontinued in 1896 with Engine 11 being the last house to phase it out of service. Engine 11 was disbanded in 1975; however, its former quarters at Gratiot Avenue and Grandy Street still exists, with part of the tower remaining. It opened Jan. 1, 1884, and is the oldest former firehouse in the city.
Detroit’s population exploded in the early twentieth century, when technology permitted the economical manufacturing of automobiles that anyone with a steady job could afford. Soon, the Big Three of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler were located in and around the city. Ford’s opening of the River Rouge complex in nearby Dearborn in 1928 brought more than 90,000 workers. World War II resulted in a wave of even more people, as peacetime manufacturing switched to defense contracts. The Allied forces desperately needed airplanes, tanks, and an assortment of vehicles and armaments. Detroit responded by essentially shuttering civilian auto manufacturing, and going into 24/7 operations, supplying both the European and Pacific theaters. Workers flocked to the city for good-paying jobs and, by 1950, Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the U.S. with a peak population of more than 1.8 million people.
Unfortunately, Detroit’s fortunes went into reverse, and the city has been plagued with race, labor, and trade problems since the 1960s. A massive flight from the city began, and today the population hovers at 680,000. More than 70,000 vacant structures make the Detroit Fire Dept. one of the busiest in the world. It is also a mecca for fire buffs and photographers, who come from all over the country and even from abroad—peaking on the evening before Halloween, known famously as Devil’s Night. In 1984, Detroit Fire responded to over 800 working fires on Devil’s Night with the majority being arson fires.
Engine 35 and the Ghost
The first station I visited was Engine 35, where I met Sgt. Tony Riggs. This guy is a fireman’s fireman. He graciously provided the history of this historic house and shared a cool ghost story.
Engine 35, running in the 5th Battalion, is the oldest active engine house in the city and is located at 111 Kenilworth Ave. When the house was built in 1899, it was home to Engine 24, which was disbanded in 1940. Engine 35 moved from Mt. Vernon and Beaubien Street, and this has been its home ever since. Ladder 15 was located here from May 1947 until its disbanding in June 1980. In November 1982, Ladder 11 moved in. Ladder 11 went into service in January 1906, originally located at E. Milwaukee and Riopelle. That house closed November 1982 and Ladder 11 stayed with Engine 35 for 10 more years before being disbanded in June 1992.
At one time, the house had three brass sliding poles, but they are long gone. Following two deaths—one at the since-disbanded Engine 6 (the house has been demolished) and the other at former house of Engine 27 (still standing)—and many injuries from pole use, Detroit phased poles out of firehouses starting in the late 1970s.
Engine 35’s hose tower remains and is still used. Its narrow steps lead to a great view of the neighborhood. The original wainscoting on the second floor is wonderfully maintained, along with the original twist-and-push, button-type electric light switches. The bathroom is relatively unchanged, as well. The sinks and light sconces all appear to be vintage. It is in this large bathroom where my tour guide had a ghostly experience. He once heard a stall door next to him open and close. When he looked under the stall partition, he could see no legs or feet. While contemplating what he heard but did not see, the automatic paper towel dispenser came on and dispensed paper to unseen hands.
Company journals are stored in the large, spacious attic. They must be an amazing read on the rare slow day. Carved, painted, or penciled into the attic structural beams are many past members’ names and initials. Back on the first floor, I was shown a photo of a vehicle that had driven through the empty bay, smashing through a wall and ending up in the crew’s office. Fortunately, no firefighters were hurt.
Engine 37 was my next visit of Motor City firehouses. Engine 37 went into service November 1916 and served faithfully for 60 years before it was disbanded in 1976. It was reorganized in 1978 and served an additional 27 years before being disbanded again in 2005. Today, it is home to Detroit Fire Dept.’s Medic 9.
Situated at Central and Dix streets, it was the final Detroit firehouse to have horses. Jim, Pete, Tom, Babe, and Rusty pulled a steamer and hose wagon for a ceremonial last run down Woodward Avenue on April 10, 1922. From Grand Circus to Cadillac Square, 50,000 citizens watched the spectacle while the Detroit Fire Department Band played Auld Lang Syne. Unlike most city fire departments, Detroit didn’t keep their horses quartered in the station but used a stable to the rear. While in somewhat of a dilapidated state, the stables remain. A clear outline of the original horse access door can be seen at the back of the house.
Ladder 22 is assigned to the 5th Battalion and located at 6830 McGraw Ave.
It is the last of the purpose-built ladder houses. It has been home to the “Double Deuce” since its opening in March 1922. The house was built at the close of the horse-drawn era, so it was one of the first built without stables. Like most Detroit firehouses, it has been beautifully maintained. The ladder bay and common area walls are all constructed with white subway tile; coffered wood ceiling with inlaid bead board is deep bourbon brown-stained oak.
Engine 17, Ladder 7 and Battalion 5
Engine 17, Ladder 7 and Battalion 5 are all quartered in this 1922 firehouse, which is located at 2nd Avenue and Burroughs Street. The engine and the ladder enter on 2nd Avenue, and the chief enters on Burroughs. This house retains its original wagon-style doors, which were built by the Detroit Fire Shops. Originally, this house was equipped with four poles—three in the ladder and engine bay and one in the chief’s buggy bay. As with Ladder 22, walls on the first floor engine and ladder bay, kitchen hallways, and stairway into the second floor are all finished in the white subway tile.
Effectionately known as the “Lords of Livernois,” has occupied this house, located at Livernois Avenue and Walton Street since November 1918. This house is unique, with a fireplace in the dayroom. Oak paneling and trim, along with the original ceiling lighting that includes most of the original globes, remain.
Lots of ink and paper have documented Detroit’s ills. I am here to tell you that the Detroit Fire Dept., despite the distractions of a beleaguered city, has maintained its dedication, pride, and professionalism. You see it in the city’s firehouses. You hear it when the crew members talk about their city. If you ever get the chance, stop into a Detroit firehouse. These guys will take good care of you.
My deep appreciation goes to Detroit Fire Dept. Deputy Commissioner Dave Fornell and Lt. Arn “Arnie” Nowicki, as well as Retired Chief Dave Traiforos of Franklin Park, Illinois in assisting me with this column.