Q: What can you tell me about the early days of the Hartford Fire Department?
A: Until 1783, the Connecticut General Court required only that every household keep a ladder and bucket ready for fires. But when the roof of the wooden statehouse caught fire, Hartford residents realized the need for something more organized.
In 1785, the town council authorized the purchase of a fire engine, a hand-operated pumper that firefighters pulled with ropes, and the beginning of a public water system cisterns around the statehouse. The town enacted its first fire-safety ordinance in 1788 by prohibiting bonfires in the streets.
In 1789, the town council appropriated 300 pounds sterling to buy more engines and build more cisterns. The forerunner of the Hartford Fire Department was organized that same year with the appointment of an engineer and three foremen. Silversmith Miles Beach was the first chief of the volunteer department. The first company on the scene of a fire received a $10 premium, and whoever rang a church bell to announce a fire received $1.
The first hook-and-ladder company was organized in 1812, and in 1816, the Silas Sack and Bucket company was organized. Firefighters used leather buckets to bring water to the fire and sacks to carry valuables from burning property.
In 1840, the fire department had 500 volunteers who managed seven engine companies, one hose company and one hook-and-ladder company. The department bought its first steam engine in 1861, and within three years eliminated the hand-operated engines.
The 1864 fire at the Colt Firearms factory that resulted in one death and $1.5 million in damage prompted the city to consider a paid department, and on Oct. 1 the common council authorized one. The ordinance went into effect Dec. 1, 1864. At the time, the fire department had four fire companies, two hose companies and a ladder company.
In 1867, the city purchased and installed a 9,000-pound fire bell in a tower behind the Alert Hose Co. at 43 Pearl St. Including installation, the bell cost $9,860. It was first put to use in October for a fire at the steamboat storehouse. It also rang a single note at noon and 6 p.m. daily. The bell, used for 37 years, was operated electrically and connected to 170 fireboxes throughout the city by 50 miles of wire. It is now situated on the east lawn of the Connecticut Historical Society on Elizabeth Street.
More information is available in "Greater Hartford Firefighting (CT) (Images of America)," published by the Connecticut Fire Museum.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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