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Friday, December 04, 2009

Early Fires and Fire Fighting in Worcester

This month as we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragedy in which six Worcester fire fighters died, I‘d like to share a few words on the early history of firefighting in this city.

In 1675 the Reverend Increase Mather wrote, “’All the houses of Quonsuckamuck were burned to the ground” by native Americans fighting on the side of the great Wampanoag chief, King Philip. Fortunately, all the inhabitants of the infant settlement had long since fled, and there was no loss of life. Eventually, Quinsigamond ( a less distasteful and more common rendering of Worcester’s original name),was resettled and rebuilt. Worcester’s first catastrophic fire was far from its last, however. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries fire posed a continuous threat. Worcester appointed fire wardens to patrol the streets and assigned others to inspect potentially defective chimneys. The Worcester Fire Society, a private organization, was founded in 1793 , ostensibly to fight fires, although the social advantages of membership were much enjoyed by the many prominent residents who belonged. Money was allotted for the purchase of a fire engine in 1793, but it was not until 1835 that a publicly-funded full-time fire department was first established in Worcester, with nine engineers, three assistants, six hand engines and one hook and ladder truck. “This was fine equipment for a town of only 6,600 inhabitants” a nineteenth century commentator wrote. They would be needed. According to historian William Lincoln, there were 17 “disastrous” fires between 1836 and 1858, among them the School Street fire which is portrayed in a dramatic engraving available through Digital Treasures. On June 14th 1854, fire struck what was then Worcester’s most important factory complex, the Merrifield Building on Union Street. No lives were lost and construction on a new building commenced the next day. However, financial losses totaled a staggering half million dollars and 1,000 employees (out of a city-wide work force of approximately 10,000) were left without work. By that time, according to writer H.R Williamson, the”Worcester firemen had ceased to be a volunteer militia, and had become a standing army.”

The information above has been extracted from a rich body of material, including standard histories of Worcester by William Lincoln and Margaret Erskine, fire department annual reports, and delightful work entitled Fire Service of Worcester, published in 1887, which contains many illustrations in pen and ink of 19th century fire engines, fire houses, hoses, pumps, uniforms, and other items. All of these materials, while non circulating, are available for perusal at the Worcester Public Library.

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