Raleigh Fire Department History

Essay


Mutual Aid in the Late 1920s

Long before the expression "mutual aid" was coined, North Carolina's fire departments stood ready to assist their neighboring firefighters. In the Capital City, Raleigh's firemen frequently both gave and received "outside aid." In 1885, a hotel fire in Fayetteville saw the Rescue Company's steamer sent via a special train. In 1886, the Goldsboro Fire Department was requested to stand by while Raleigh's firefighter's controlled a cotton platform fire. In 1897, two railroad flatcars and a passenger car carried personnel equipment from Raleigh to Durham to assist with a morning blaze. In 1904, when four buildings in Louisburg burned, similar preparations were being made until it was learned that the structures had since burned themselves out. In 1927, units from Durham assisted the Raleigh Fire Department when the State Insane Asylum burned. The Bull City's bravest returned in 1928, along with firemen from Smithfield, to assist at the great Yarborough Hotel blaze on Fayetteville Street. A National Board of Fire Underwriters report dated August 1931 summed up "outside aid" as "available within an hour from Durham, 26 miles distant; two adapters for Durham hose are carried by Engine 1. Additional aid could be obtained in from one to two hours from Dunn, 40 miles, Henderson, 45 miles, Goldsboro, 49 miles, and Wilson, 60 miles distant."

Once the Raleigh Fire Department became motorized, beginning in 1912, rendering assistance outside of the City no longer required railroad cars. Only a road and, at the destination, a water supply were required. Let's look back, then, to the late 1920s. The fire department's fleet of pumping engines consisted of five "triple combinations," American LaFrance apparatus of model years 1918, 1922, 1925, and 1926 times two. Each is equipped with a 73 H.P. motor and either a 750 or 1000 GPM pump. There are no windshields on these early trucks, nor do the firefighters have fire helmets. Two or three can sit comfortably up front; the rest must hang along the sides or on the tail board. The roads of the period are dirt and probably quite bumpy. Imagine, now, riding for ten or twenty or thirty minutes to a neighboring town. And if at night, there are no electric street lights past the perimeter of the city. Only a blanket of darkness and the distant glow of a burning building. Maybe in the direction of Clayton, or Louisburg, or another town, as these accounts of the Raleigh Fire Department rendering "outside aid" recount in the late 1920s:

Apex, January 24, 1929

A warehouse and a cotton gin were destroyed by a 6:30 a.m. fire that brought the Raleigh Fire Department to western Wake County. Discovered in a warehouse, which was "formerly the property of Mr. Sorrell" and now "belonged to a man who lives in the Eastern part of the State," the flames spread to a gin owned by Beasley and Williams after the wind shifted and blew sparks onto the neighboring building. Alas, the Raleigh firemen arrived after the buildings had burned down. Apex is located 14.83 miles from Raleigh. Reference: "News & Observer," January 25, 1929.

Cary, May 5, 1927

Raleigh Engine Company 4 unleashed a "speed burst" with a 12-minute run to the West Side Inn in Cary. Firefighters arrived in time to save the lower half of the two-story wooden structure. The town's firefighting equipment was already in use, but flames "had gained such headway" that the Raleigh Fire Department was summoned. Select furniture was saved and the kitchen was not damaged. The entire upper story was destroyed, however, with only the frame work remaining. Cary is located 10.17 miles from old Station 4 at 505 Jefferson Street in Raleigh. The fire department's 12-minute run averaged 60 mph. References: "News & Observer," May 6, 1927; "The Raleigh Times, May 5, 1927.

Clayton, October 8, 1926

The Johnston County town suffered about $90,000 in losses when an early Friday morning fire, originating in the L.H. Johnson Hardware Building, swept through three other stores. Believed started in a pile of rags, "possibly by spontaneous combustion," the fire was discovered about 3:45 a.m. The Clayton Fire Department responded but soon called Raleigh for help. Engine Company 5 arrived shortly after 5:00 a.m. and "were of material assistance in preventing the spread of the flames." The stores that suffered losses were The Clayton Department Store, the L.H. Johnson Hardware Company, and the Owen Gulley Company, Inc. (general merchandise). Clayton is located 18.87 miles from old Station 5 at 1914 Park Drive in Raleigh. Reference: "Raleigh Times," October 8, 1926.

Garner, September 29, 1928

"Gas Blast at Garner" read the newspaper headline after an explosion and fire destroyed a service station early Saturday morning. Lynn Broughton, employed at the filling station, was killed and another employee, W.M. Wall, was injured. Another person, Arch Wood, was injured by the 3:45 a.m. blast, after stopping at the station while en route to Raleigh. He was preparing to leave when he was hurled "to the top of the station" where he "cut his head." Despite his injury, he "pushed his automobile to safety from beneath the shed of the burning building." The Raleigh Fire Department was called "by telephone" shortly before 4:00 a.m. Despite making a "quick run," the building was completely destroyed by the time they arrived. "Chemicals" were "thrown" on the smoldering debris and "hastened the recovery" of Broughton's body. An examination by Henry Allen, manager of the station, and Brooky Poole, owner of the building, led to the conclusion that the explosion followed the fire, and that an oil barrel rather than the gas tank had exploded. The scene also drew spectators. By that evening, "thousands of Raleigh people" had visited the "charred mass of wreckage." Garner is located 6.2 miles from Raleigh. Reference: "The Raleigh Times," September 29, 1928.

Louisburg, December 5, 1928

Flames consumed the west wing and two top stories of the old Central Building at Louisburg College about 1 a.m. Some 150 girls were asleep inside when the fire was discovered. They walked to safety, albeit being "forced to flee in scanty attire." Units from Raleigh, Henderson, Rocky Mount, and Franklinton rushed to the scene to assist Louisburg firefighters, with the Capital City's crew reaching the scene in 38 minutes. They "made a world's record," Louisburg Fire Chief B.H. Meadows noted. When they arrived, noted Raleigh Fire Chief W.E. Holland, the main building appeared "doomed." Thus they concentrated their efforts on saving the front section and the kitchen. With Raleigh firefighters working on one side and Rocky Mount firemen on the other side of the T-shaped building, the blaze was brought under control by 4 a.m. Three people were slightly injured: a local banker, when he was struck in the head by a chair thrown from a building; a Henderson fireman struck by falling brick; and an unidentified Raleigh fireman. The Capital City crew remained on scene until dawn. "The boys did a good piece of work," said Chief Holland. Louisburg is located 31.58 miles from Raleigh. The fire department's 38-minute run averaged 49.86 mph. Reference: "The Raleigh Times," December 5, 1928.

Wake Forest, March 22, 1927

Three buildings, housing two cafes and the town's only movie theater, were destroyed by a late morning fire. Discovered about 11:00 a.m., the flames also consumed a pair of barbershops housed in the second stories of two of the buildings. The Raleigh Fire Department was "summoned immediately," arriving at the college town in a mere 17 minutes. They aided Wake Forest firefighters in "checking the flames" and preventing their spread to other structures. Total damage was estimated at between $40,000 and $50,000. (Nearly all of the fixtures of H.E. Joyner's luncheonette were rescued; the other two buildings were "but superficially furnished.") Wake Forest is located 18.94 miles from Raleigh. The fire department's 17-minute run averaged 66.93 mph. Reference: "News & Observer," April 23, 1927.

Wendell, September 9, 1929

Six men were injured, two "possibly seriously," when J.P. Richardson's livery stable caught fire shortly before midnight. Four of the injured were Wendell firefighters, struck by a brick wall that collapsed "during the height of the fire." The Raleigh Fire Department rushed to the scene, "arrived in time to be of assistance," but found that the Wendell firefighters "appeared to have the situation in hand." No livestock was in the building at the time of the fire, and the estimated property loss was $7,000. Wendell is located 17.54 miles from Raleigh. Reference: "News & Observer," September 10, 1929.

Zebulon, November 14, 1928

The Wakelon High School building, located in "district No. 4, Little River Township, white race," was destroyed by an early Wednesday morning fire. Discovered in the basement, the $60,000 conflagration consumed both the building and its entire contents. Zebulon's fire department and a truck from Raleigh responded to the 4:00 a.m. alarm. The lack of a sufficient water supply prevented firefighters from saving the structure. The two-story, brick building was built two years ago to "relieve congestion" in the older school building. Zebulon is located 20.73 miles from Raleigh. References: "The Raleigh Times," November 14, 1928; Wake County Board of Commissioners Minutes, November 22, 1928.

Copyright 2006 by Michael J. Legeros.

 


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