The History of Volunteer Firefighting
FFRS Associate -- Missouri, USA
Volunteer fire departments have been around for a long time. Where did they originate and who started them?
The man who established the first volunteer fire department also invented bifocals, wrote and printed Poor Richard’s Almanack, studied electricity and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. His name was Benjamin Franklin. The first volunteer fire department began in Philadelphia in 1736.
Ben Franklin moved to Philadelphia from Boston at the age of eighteen. Boston had been greatly affected by fire. The city of Boston experienced major fires in 1653 and 1676. After the fire in 1676, Boston purchased a London pumper. The city then hired Thomas Atkins and twelve other men to fight fires. These were the first paid firefighters in the United States. In 1711, another major fire occurred in Boston. One hundred ten families lost their homes. At the age of six Benjamin Franklin witnessed this fire. Concerned citizens banded together and formed The Mutual Fire Societies in 1711. When fire struck a member of the Mutual Fire Society, other members of the club rushed to help battle the blaze. Each society had approximately twenty members. Dennis Smith stated the following: “The Mutual Fire Societies became social as well as protective associations, setting a pattern for organized volunteer firefighting groups, which would one day be the backbone of firefighting in America and would dominate it for a century and a half.”
In 1682, the city of Philadelphia was founded by William Penn. When determining where to locate the city Penn gave careful thought to the dangers of fire. He had witnessed the London fire in 1666 and did not want Philadelphia to suffer the same fate. To reduce the possibility of fire, a fire ordinance in Philadelphia in 1696 required chimney cleaning. Philadelphia also had a large number of brick buildings that made it less susceptible to fire.
In 1718, Philadelphia bought its first engine. It was named The Shag Rag but it was not put into service until 1730 when Philadelphia had a fire that destroyed much of the commercial district along the river. The Shag Rag was no match for the conflagration because it only produced a trickle of water. In the twelve years the city owned it no one had maintained it. Ben Franklin urged the city to get better organized to fight fires. Shortly thereafter the city bought four hundred fire buckets, twenty ladders and hooks and two additional engines.
In 1733, Ben Franklin often wrote about the dangers of fire and the need for organized fire protection in his newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette. Ben Franklin was familiar with Boston’s Mutual Fire Societies which were also known as “Fire Clubs.” But the “Fire Clubs” existed for the protection of its members, not the community at large. Collins wrote that [Ben Franklin] “wanted organizations that would battle all fires, regardless of whose property was burning.”
After an extensive fire in Philadelphia in 1736, Franklin created a fire brigade called The Union Fire company with 30 volunteers. The first full-fledged volunteer firefighter in America was Isaac Paschall. The idea of volunteer fire brigades gained popularity. Not wanting more than 30-40 men per company, additional companies were formed in Philadelphia. Some of them were: The Fellowship, Hand-in-Hand and Heart-in-Hand, and Friendship Companies. Each of the companies paid for their own equipment and located it throughout town at strategic places. Most early fire companies in Philadelphia and other cities had professionals, wealthier merchants and tradespeople serving in the volunteer fire department. These citizens were able to afford to purchase equipment and pay fines for missing meetings and fires.
Some famous Americans who served as volunteer firefighters were: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Barry, Aaron Burr, Benedict Arnold, James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore also served as volunteer firemen.
In 1818, women began serving as volunteer firefighters. The first recorded female volunteer was Molly Williams, a black slave who belonged to a New York merchant, Benjamin Aymar of Oceanus No. 11. Paul Ditzel in Fire Engines, Firefighters provided the following information: “Molly was a very distinguished volunteer of No. 11 Engine. She used to be called ‘Volunteer No. 11.’” Molly fought fires wearing a calico dress and checked apron. During a blizzard in 1818, she helped drag the engine to the scene of a fire. She always told those who asked, “‘I belongs to ole ‘Leven; I allers runs wid dat ole bull-gine.’”
In 1820, Marina Betts served as a volunteer in Pittsburgh and claimed she never missed an alarm during her ten years as a firefighter. Paul Ditzel stated: “Betts became famous for dumping buckets of water over male bystanders who refused to help fight fires.”
Lillie Hitchcock, a resident of San Francisco, was America’s most famous female firefighter. She worked with Knickbocker Engine Company No. 5 beginning in 1851. According to Frederick J. Bowlen’s account, one day on the way to a fire there were not enough men to pull the engine for the Knickerbocker Company. Not only that but when the Knickerbocker Company’s engine was passed by the Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3 on the way to a fire, the men received humiliating remarks from the other firefighters. Fifteen year-old Lillie Hitchcock saw their plight and dashed to the vacant spot on the rope. Pulling with all her might she shouted to the bystanders, “Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat them!” This teenage socialite began attending fires and the company gave her an honorary membership. Even after her marriage to Howard Coit she was still interested in firefighting. As time passed she no longer followed the engine to fires but she visited many an injured firefighter and sent flowers when firemen died in the line of duty. Her estate provided funds to build a monument to honor volunteer firefighters.
Before 1850 no city in the United States had fully paid, full-time firefighters. Volunteer firefighters played and continue to play an invaluable role in protecting lives and property.
Bowlen, Frederick J. “Elizabeth Wyche “Lillie” Hitchcock Coit.” San Francisco
Chronicle. 30 May 1939. Museum of the City of San Francisco Web Page.
Collins, Donald. Our Volunteer Firemen, 1736-1882. Ephrata, PA: Science Press, 1982.
Smith, Dennis. Dennis Smith’s History of Firefighting in America: 300 years. New
York: Dial, 1978.