Early Walla Walla Fire Department History
Researched by Greg Van Donge, October, 1998
Beginning at a few minutes before 1:00 this morning, a fire, set in the old frame shop back of J. S. Cox’s house furnishing store, leveled all frame structures on the south side of Main Street between Third and Fourth, back to the alley, and all buildings in the opposite square bounded by Main, Fourth, Rose, and Third Streets except three frames on Fourth Street between the alley and Rose...
(This was the third fire of incendiary origin discovered in this area today; a man with a shotgun was stationed at the back of the City Hotel as a guard against further arson attempts.)
At about 12:50 o’clock this morning Dick Kelling, lessee of the Stine house, went out of the hotel to go home. A flicker of light in the old Eversz shop back of Cox’s store caught his eye, and after regarding it a moment he stepped back and called the clerk to ask if that didn’t look like a fire. The light seen between the boards of the shop grew brighter and Mr. Kelling ran across the street to arouse the chinamen in the washhouse next to the suspected building, and then with assistance he burst in the alley door of the shop and found the whole interior on the ground floor ablaze. All this occupied but a couple of minutes and the alarm was promptly given and was presently sounded from the bell towers. The old structure went like tinder; the store in front was soon ablaze and then the flames flew over and around Straight’s brick next east and caught Shell’s barber shop and LeBoucher’s saloon, while Schwarz’s saloon building and contiguous structures, from the corner on the west began to blaze furiously. The heat on all sides of Straight’s became so intense that the roof and interior seemed to burst at once into a mass of flame. The blaze progressed rapidly eastward till Dr. Day’s brick at Main and Third streets was reached. Meanwhile Our Boys, Tigers, and the ousted Rescues were fighting manfully against the overwhelming odds, and succeeded in saving Third street south from the alley.
Across the Street.
At nearly 2 o’clock the City Hotel took fire, the flames showing in the roof and upper interior at once. The wind was now so accelerated that this meant the doom of all the frame structures in the block, at least. West, north, and east went the blaze sweeping away the wooden buildings and taking hold on Bauers and the city hall. The alley and Rose street Chinese houses and bagnios (bordellos) were all licked up in a few minutes. The heat from the Palace saloon and city building now endangered the next block, beginning with the Q. P. store and the warehouse and frame row to the rear on Third. At one time the roof of Jones agricultural warehouse was on fire but an engine stream and work with the store hose conquered in this direction. About 1500 feet of hose on Third street caught fire and was destroyed.
The flames were not well subdued till 4 o’clock.
Two Men Burned Alive.
A man appeared on the roof of the City hotel when the structure was wrapped in flames below. Many saw him and thought him doomed. After looking about in a dazed way for a time, he caught hold of an iron rod, climbed along it up over the apex of the roof, and disappeared, not to be seen again by the crowd. In the ruins of the hotel, at the back end, the partly consumed remains of a man were found this morning in a mass of small debris, including bed springs. James A. Bell, lately of Wallula, and in the employ of Gus. Harras, the butcher, had gone to bed in room 16 of the hotel, the night before, while very much intoxicated. Bell is missing today and the corpse is supposed to be his.
Late this afternoon the remains of another human being , were found in the hotel ruins. A key check found in the same spot and marked “J. Sutherland, Portland, Or.,” may be a means of identification. One of these corpses is doubtless that of the man on the roof. The second find may be a dog’s remains. (It wasn’t- the remains were human).
This account was written in the Tuesday Walla Walla Statesman on March 8, 1887. The fire came to be known as Walla Walla’s Great fire.
Fires of course had been a concern since the first store, a tent structure, had been opened in 1857 by William McQuirk. By 1859 a half dozen businesses had opened for business along the banks of Mill Creek; The businesses, including sidewalks, were made entirely of wood. By late 1861 Gold was discovered in Orofino, Idaho, and Walla Walla was becoming a major boom town supplying miners on their way to the gold fields. On November 29, 1861 the first edition of The Washington Statesman was published. An interesting item from that edition reported the recent success of the Firemens Ball, sponsored by the Union Hook and Ladder Company No.1. This was apparently the earliest organized fire suppression effort in what was to become the City of Walla Walla. The Union Hook and Ladder was a volunteer group formed to raise money for purchasing fire fighting equipment. The proceeds from the Firemens Ball were used to purchase hooks and ladders which were distributed at convenient locations around town. 30 or 40 fire buckets were also purchased and distributed among various stores and saloons. Fire buckets are somewhat different than regular buckets: they have rounded bottoms so as to discourage their use for any other purpose. A standard fire bucket holds about 2 ½ gallons of water and has an effective range of 12 feet. If the fire bucket was rated by todays standards it would be rated as a 1A extinguisher; the most common extinguishers in businesses today have a 2A rating. Back in 1861 if a fire occurred the alarm was raised by running into the street and shouting Fire! Fire! Every able bodied person was expected to help with extinguishment. The first effort was to put the fire out at its source. If that failed, or the fire was already too big, the effort was to prevent the fire from extending to the next door businesses; bucket lines were formed from nearby Mill Creek, blankets were wetted and placed strategically as barriers to absorb the heat, and the Hook and Ladder Company went into action. Their motto was “We Destroy To Save”. Ladders were for rescue and access, but the hooks were for pulling down buildings to create a fire break preventing a conflagration. As you can imagine there was quite a bit of confusion in those days with no clear idea of who was in charge. Major fires destroying much of downtown occurred June 11, 1862; May 8, 1864; August 3, 1865; and July 4, 1866. Each time the town was rebuilt, again out of wood.
The original City Articles of Incorporation, adopted March 1 1862, included 3 sections relating specifically to fires: 1.The city was to provide for preventing and extinguishing fires; They could establish and organize fire companies. 2. Fire wardens could be appointed to enforce prevention of fires, they also had the power to compel any person to aid in the extinguishment of a fire. 3. Certain fire safety activities could be limited, regulated, or prohibited including storage of gunpowder, candles, and pitch. Owners could be compelled to repair unsafe conditions, in a fire wardens opinion, like a defective chimney for example. Even though the city could provide for fire prevention and protection they were fairly slow in doing so. After the first major fire in Walla Walla, in June 1862, a local brewer, Joseph Hellmuth, campaigned to organize a Fire Department and obtain a fire engine. He raised $1600. and contributed $500. himself toward purchase of a Hunneman “tub” engine. This engine was pulled by hand. Men on either side of the engine operated pump handles to produce a pressurized stream of water. It was called a “tub” engine because the water supply was provided by the bucket brigade filling the tub with water. The Washington Statesman also proposed, at about this time, laying iron pipe from upstream to provide water for fire fighting purposes; essentially proposing the first fire hydrant in town.
On May 23, 1865 the Washington Engine Company was formed by City ordinance. This included building an engine house on Third between Main and Alder to house the Hunneman “tub” engine. Although considered the beginning of the Walla Walla Fire Department, the Washington Engine Company languished and was re-organized three times over the next three years.
By 1880 the Fire Department consisted of three separate groups of volunteers organized as follows:
The Tiger Engine Company founded February 26, 1872, was located in city hall on the north side of Main at First Street. They were equipped with a Burton and Black Hand Engine (bought this year) which replaced the old Hunneman engine.
The Washington Engine Company founded April 1868 (originally founded 1865) was located on south Third between Main and Alder. They were equipped with a 3rd class Silsby steam fire engine which had been purchased in 1871, but owned no horses. The engine was either pulled by hand or by hired dray teams.
The Vigilant Hook and Ladder Company was located at 5 W Alder.
In 1882 a new city hall and engine house was constructed on third street between Main and Rose. The Tiger Engine Company moved into the ground floor along with their hand engine and the old Silsby steam fire engine, capable of pumping about 700 gallons of water a minute. A new 4th class Silsby was purchased for use by the Washington Engine Company.
In 1884, due to discontent, Washington and Vigilant fire companies disbanded. The City re-organized the fire Department again, with three fire companies: Tiger Engine Company #1, Rescue Engine Company #2, and Our Boys Hose Company #3. Tiger was still in City Hall, Rescue and Our Boys were probably in the old Washington Engine House. A steamer was housed at each station. At about this time, although the department still had no permanent horses to pull them, two Engineers had been hired to operate the steamer engines. By ordinance each fire company was limited to 60 members. When the 1887 fire occurred there were probably 2 paid fire fighters and around 160 volunteers on the Department.
The Great Fire is considered to be a pivotal event in the history of fire protection in the City of Walla Walla. While the business community had been moving towards more use of “fire proof” brick in construction, after the fire there was a concerted effort to rebuild every building as “fire-proof”, out of brick. Also, before the Great Fire fire protection was provided primarily by volunteers, with intense rivalry existing between the groups. The first engine team to “show” water was awarded a highly coveted fox tail which was kept at the engine house. This rivalry may have at times been at odds with the best interests of the citizens. Fire fighting was competitive rather than cooperative between engine companies; it was not unknown during that era for rival engine companies to fight each other rather than the fire or to sabotage fire fighting equipment, it was even hinted that some fires may have been started just to give their engine company the advantage in this rivalry. The city required 3 Volunteer Engine Companies to thwart this trend; Two companies fighting would automatically ensure that the third company would “show” first water. This strategy did help but it wasn’t until after the Great Fire that the Department began moving towards a cooperative way of fighting fire where Engine Companies worked together. Another factor which improved fire service in Walla Walla after the fire was a renewed effort to provide better equipment for fire fighting; A new brick engine house and city hall were constructed that year, 1887, on the corner of Third and Rose, and in 1889 the first horses were purchased. The first Driver, Robert Wolfe, was hired to tend the horses. In 1889 the Walla Walla Fire Department was just beginning one of the most colorful eras in its history; when horse drawn steam fire engines could be seen racing to the scene of fires.