Long before I started writing this column, when work permitted, I was out shooting photographs of what I considered to be historic firehouses. As the light faded at the end of the day, I would rush back to wherever I was laying my head, so I could view what I captured. As the years passed and I continued to pursue my passion, I began to feel differently about the firehouses. I knew documenting the structures visually was important, but I found that recording the compelling stories behind them was even more valuable. You know the saying, “If these walls could talk…”
The next phase was researching the firehouses I had photographed. No detail was insignificant to me. If I discovered that I had missed shooting a particular house, I would almost immediately create a plan to go back and find that house. Later, I learned to do the research before the photo shoot. As I continued my project, many times, especially when I was in a not-so-nice neighborhood, I wondered, “Why am I doing this, and to what end?”
About four years ago, I began posting these photos online after I joined a social media site. From the beginning, friends began suggesting places I needed to visit. One of those places was Pottsville, Pennsylvania. These friends said that Pottsville was a treasure trove of history with wonderful 19th-century firehouses, and the stories behind those houses were even better. However, I knew it would not have the immense history of a big city. It was not Baltimore, Boston, or Chicago, so I put it off. A friend, Deputy Chief Gregory Halpin (retired) from York, Pennsylvania, and quite the fire historian, pointed out (without hurting my feelings) that I had represented the career departments fairly well in my column, but what about the volunteers? Apart from having a career chief, Pottsville’s fire department was an all-volunteer department. I finally went to check it out.
Pottsville, located in Schuylkill County, is a third-class city with a population of approximately 14,000. Like many northeastern United States cities, Pottsville was once a booming town of just under 25,000 citizens. Pottsville was incorporated as a borough in 1829 and became a city in 1911. Pottsville’s fortunes were tied to coal. Anthracite coal was discovered in Pennsylvania around 1790, just in time for the Industrial Revolution, at which time Pottsville was off and running. Between 1820 and 1830, Pottsville saw a 75-percent increase in population, and another 73-percent increase was recorded between 1830 and 1840. In fact, Pottsville would see its population grow decade after decade until 1950 when coal was not king anymore.
Pottsville, Drollies, and the Good Intent Fire Co.
When Pottsville was incorporated in 1829, its civic-minded citizens were already thinking about fire protection. During that year, the first two fire companies were formed and received their charters: the Pottsville Fire Co. and the Schuylkill Hydraulian Fire Co. (affectionately known as the “Drollies”). Tragedy came quickly. The first death in the line of duty was recorded in 1832 when Stephen Stapleton was killed. A member of the Drollies, Stapleton died of a skull fracture after being struck by his apparatus. In 1844, the Pottsville Fire Co. changed its name to the Humane Hose Co. The former Pottsville Fire Co. would change its name again, but so would the Drollies, and today there is controversy as to which company is the oldest. More on that later.
In 1846, a third company, the Good Intent Fire Co., was formed and recognized by the borough, but it did not receive a charter until 1860. The fourth, Rough and Ready Fire Co., came into existence in 1848. They, too, would change their name.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became the 15th U.S. president and inherited a broken country. Shortly after, southern states began to secede from the Union. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces began to bombard Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The Union garrison, which occupied the fort, surrendered the next day. The Civil War had begun. Five days later on April 17, the Schuylkill Hydraulian Fire Co. held a meeting and passed its “war resolution,” which stated: “Resolved, that the members of the Schuylkill Hydraulian Fire Company form themselves into a military company and offer their services to the United States government.” Every man enlisted, and the company adopted the name “Union Guards of Pottsville,” eventually forming elements of the 16th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. The troop left for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, seven days later and reported to Governor Andrew Curtin.
The Drollies would not meet again until September 1867. At this meeting, the members voted to call themselves Phoenix Fire Co. No. 2. At that time, the company equipment was housed at various locations throughout the borough, as the company did not have a firehouse. Finally, on Nov. 7, 1885, the cornerstone was laid for a new firehouse. A two-story brick “storefront” house, with stables in the rear, was built on East Norwegian Street. Phoenix Fire has occupied the same house for 131 years. The history of a fire company is partly written by the tragedies that unfold within its house. On Feb. 12, 1955, Daniel Clouser fell and struck his head in the firehouse and subsequently died there.
The Rough and Ready boys closed shop just after the Drollies so they, too, could fight in the “Brothers War.” As men began to trickle back after the war, regular meetings began again. A name change to the American Hose Co. No. 2 was voted on and passed in May 1866.
On Sept. 9, 1876, the cornerstone was laid for the company’s two-story brick storefront firehouse, which included stables in the rear. Except for some alterations to the front of the house that were made in the 1950s, the firehouse has remained virtually unchanged since it was built. The stable’s walls and doors remain, along with the ceiling-mounted pulleys that held the harnesses and collars for the horses. Beautiful pressed tin, added early in the 1900s, remains on the ceilings and walls. The apparatus floor has a slight grade, being higher at the rear of the house and sloping downward toward the front so the steamer and horses could get a running start.
In 1866, the steam pumper era began. Humane Hose Co. received a Clapp and Jones steamer, thus changing its name a second time to Humane Hose and Steam Co. At about the same time, the boys from Good Intent received an Amoskeag third-class steamer.
Like the “Drollies,” Humane, and the Rough and Ready crews, the Good Intent boys had seen a significant amount of its membership head to war, and its story was the same. As veterans found their way back to their respective companies and business meetings, they fought not only fires, but also the ghastly memories of their battlefield experiences. The veterans at Good Intent had even more pain to endure when they were faced with a bitter irony. On April 14, 1872, Charles Ewing, having survived the slaughter of the Civil War, was killed when he was struck by apparatus while responding to a call.
Members probably hoped that better times were ahead, but there were a few more disasters to come. A cornerstone was laid at the intersection of Second Street and Go Forth Alley for a new home in June 1882. The firehouse, a two-story brick storefront, opened the following November. The horses were kept in a stable to the rear of the house. This house suffered an arson fire on April 17, 1904. The fire significantly damaged the house including the company’s steamer and hose wagons. Early in the morning of Nov. 15, 1972, another fire occurred, which started in the social quarters. While the fire was held to the basement, the rest of the house received significant smoke damage.
Forming Pottsville Fire Dept.
In 1877, the four borough companies, along with the Atkins Fire Co. (formed in 1873 and disbanded in 1894), came together as the charter members of the Pottsville Fire Dept. It is interesting to note that only the charter members were allowed red fire apparatus. Other companies that joined had to choose another color; this practice was known as the “Red Rule.”
The Good Will Hose Co. formed in March 1882 and received its charter the following June. In 1884, it occupied its new firehouse on Prospect Street. Good Will was there for only 17 years before it moved into a two-bay, two-story Victorian house located at Coal and Nichols Streets. This house had large stables at the rear and a bell tower that doubled as a hose tower. It remains the company’s house today. The two bay doors have been reworked into one large door, but the house remains largely untouched. The Good Will gang chose white for its apparatus color.
The West End Hose Co. formed because of the rapid growth at the west end of Pottsville. Concerned citizens met for the first time on Sept. 7, 1886, and the company received its charter on May 23, 1887. A firehouse—a handsome, two-story brick storefront—was constructed on Market Street between 12th and 13th Streets. Horses were stabled in the rear of the house. Beautiful pressed tin remains on the walls and ceiling today. A grand staircase leads from the apparatus floor to the second-floor bunkroom, meeting room, and social quarters. The West End boys decided to go with a striking forest green for its color. While the Red Rule has not been enforced in many years, its 1928 Ahrens-Fox piston pumper is still painted forest green and is quartered in the former horse stable.
In 1890, the city of Pottsville purchased a Gamewell fire alarm system that remains in operation today. The system includes 98 street corner boxes. Like in 1890, when a box is pulled in the city, all firehouses will receive the four rounds of the box number. Even more amazing is that every firehouse continues to operate the large 18-inch house gong and joker system; some still have the functioning box indicator, which is rare.
In 1907, the Borough of Yorkville was annexed and became part of Pottsville City. The borough had a fire company, the Yorkville Hose and Fire Co., which was organized in October 1891. The Yorkville Hose and Fire Co. became the seventh member of the Pottsville Fire Dept. Of course, it had to start painting its apparatus blue because of the Red Rule. Also in that year, 1907, they moved into a new two-story brick Victorian. A fire significantly damaged their social quarters located in the basement on Dec. 22, 1970.
Lieutenant Mike Glore of the Reading Fire Dept. and co-author of Pottsville Firefighting relayed the following account. On Feb. 28, 1922, the Yorkville boys were holding a dance at their firehouse. They owned a 1912 White chemical and hose truck. The fellows did not want to park their pride and joy out on the apron and made arrangements to house the truck at the Portland Contracting Co. garage. This was a large, two-story building with a boiler room in the rear, vehicle storage on the first floor, and additional storage on the second floor. August Portland, nephew of owner Charles Portland, had just fired the boiler and was leaving for the evening when he noticed what he thought was a light on in the second-floor window. As he was going to investigate, fire blew out of the same window. A passerby pulled box 72 and another pulled box 73. The Yorkville firefighters were quick on the scene and attempted to rescue their rig, but were driven back by the flames that had spread to the first floor. Both the building and the 1912 White were total losses.
This column would not have been possible without the guidance of Dan Kelly, a member of the West End Hose Co., who, on a beautiful fall morning, took me on a fascinating tour of Pottsville. Thanks also to Lt. Glore of the Reading Fire Dept. and Phoenix Fire Co. of Pottsville. Lt. Glore, along with Mike Kitsock, wrote the definitive work Pottsville Firefighting.