Come see our Exhibit:

 History of Firefighting Timeline Display

Created in part, through a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council!

Really Early Firefighting History

      First attempts at firefighting can be traced as far back as the 2nd Century. It was then that an Egyptian from Alexandria named Ctesibus built a basic hand pump that could squirt a jet of water, but the idea was lost until the fire pump was reinvented about AD 1500. After nearly being destroyed by uncontrollable conflagrations, ancient Rome developed a fire department consisting of approximately 7,000 paid firefighters. These fire brigades not only responded to and fought fires, but also patrolled the streets with the authority to impose corporal punishment upon those who violated fire prevention codes.

      The United States has been plagued by catastrophic fires for almost 400 years. The development of fire fighting forces in the United States, especially in the Northeast, have brought innovations in modern fire fighting throughout the world. The first recorded structure fire occurred in 1608 in the Jamestown Colony. On January 7th a fire leveled most of the fragile colony which was just barely a year old. Captain John Smith wrote of the fire in his journal: "Most of our apparel, lodging and private provisions were destroyed...I begin to think that it is safer for me to dwell in the wild Indian country than in this stockade, where fools accidentally discharge their muskets and others burn down their homes at night".

      In earlier times, most fire companies were volunteer or privately operated. There was competition for services. Some firefighters were actually recruited not only for their strength in fighting fire but for their fighting abilities to protect the company and its equipment. Insurance companies paid the fire company that put out the fire, so the one that made it to the scene, hooked up to a hydrant and completed the task, got paid. The dogs worked well at this task of protecting not only the horses, but the equipment in the stations and at the fire as well. Equipment was rudimentary at best, leather buckets, hooks and chains, swabs, ladders and archaic pumps were the tools of the trade.

      Fire buckets in colonial towns had the owners names painted on them. Laws often required residents to purchase them and keep them in repair. "Bucket Brigades" were commonly used  which consisted of 2 lines of people stretching from the town well or river to the fire. They passed buckets of water to the fire, and empty buckets back to the water source to be refilled. Later, with the invention of the hand pumper, bucket brigades were used to keep the burning building from spreading to other buildings. Swabs (mops) were used to extinguish embers on roofs. Fire fighting got an edge with the invention of the hand pumper, or hand tub. The Foreman of the pump companies would use a large "speaking trumpet" to give orders to his crew (The museum has a large collection of trumpets, fire buckets, and several  hand tubs).

      Fire Prevention was born in Boston in 1630. The Selectmen ordered that "Noe man shall build his chimney with wood, nor cover his house with thatch." In 1648, Governor Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam (New York City)  was the first to appoint fire inspectors with the authority to impose fire code violations. When a fire was spotted, the cry "throw out your buckets" would be sounded and a brigade would be formed. Many homes burnt to the ground.

      In 1666 London suffered a catastrophic fire. The only equipment available to fight the fire was two-quart hand syringes and a slightly larger one; it burned for 4 days. The development of a 2 person operated piston pump on wheels came about after the London Fire. About 1672 leather hose and couplings for joining lengths together were produced; though leather hose had to be sewn like a fine boot, fabric and rubber-treated hose did not come into general use until 1870. in 1679. Boston imported the first fire engine to reach America from London.

     In 1736 young Ben Franklin began urging readers of his "Pennsylvanian Gazette" to establish fire-fighting companies. In 1752, insurance companies in the colonies began issuing plaques, or "fire marks", to be displayed on building fronts as an incentive for volunteer fire fighters to save their insured buildings. These fire marks are very rare due to them being made of lead and were melted to make ammunition for the Revolutionary War. With bonuses offered as incentives, rivalries ensued between groups. Marked homes and businesses were brawled over, while buildings on the same street without fire marks burned to the ground.

      On festive occasions or town parades firemen dressed in their most colorful uniforms trying to outdo each others party. Lavish helmets and uniforms, fancy fire axes, decorative parade torch, and painted stovepipe-shaped "fire hats", fancy painted fire buckets and engraved silver speaking trumpets were commissioned for these parades. If they had a hand pumper, it too was decorated often by celebrated artists.

      A steam fire engine was built in London in 1829, but the volunteer fire companies were slow to accept it, until the public forced them to use it.

      In 1852 William F, Channing, a Doctor in Boston used telegraph technology developed in the early 1840s to create the first fire alarm box system. Within the year, Boston had fire alarm boxes all over the city. The first box was struck on April 29, 1852.

     In 1832, the New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 volunteers purchased a horse to pull their engine. The idea caught on fast. Horses became a beloved part of the fire service all over the country. The horses were often trained to the sound of the bell to come out of their stalls and stand and wait at the front of the apparatus.

     Dalmatians were originally chosen as fire dogs because they formed strong bonds with the horses. They guarded the valuable horses and kept them company. At the sound of the bell, they would rouse the horses, then run out to the apron to bark at people trying to cross in front of the fire house. They would then chase the apparatus to the scene. Motorized vehicles put an end to both dogs and horses. Some dogs are still on duty at firehouses as companions.

      Gasoline engines were at first used either as pumping engines or as tractors to pull apparatus. In 1910 it did both, propelled the truck and driving the pump.

Credits: History of Municipal Fire Fighting in the City of Quincy, Ma & Dennis Smith's History of Firefighting in America.


 Haverhill’s Fires and Other Disasters Throughout the Years *


Haverhill, a city in Northeastern Massachusetts, is located in the Merrimack Valley approximately thirty-two  miles north of Boston and sixteen miles up river from the Atlantic ocean. The Merrimack River flows along twelve miles of Haverhill’s shore. Known as Pentucket in 1642, this Colonial river port was bought from the Passaquo and Saggahew Indians by English settlers twelve years after the Pilgrims had left England aboard the ship Mayflower and landed at Plymouth. 

            Over a span of two hundred and eighty years--since 1671, when Haverhill’s historians first started keeping records of disasters and other phenomena, Haverhill has experienced fires and conflagrations, train wrecks and plane crashes, freshets and floods, gales and hurricanes, twisters and tornadoes, blizzards and hailstorms, tremors and earthquakes, drought, "dark days," and meteorites.  Many have been responsible for property loss and/or loss of life. But the two major disasters that stand out in the city of Haverhill’s annals are the conflagration of 1882,  which nearly obliterated Haverhill’s shoe industry and took a fire fighters life, and the flood of 1936 where 636 families, and 549 buildings in Haverhill were affected.


Haverhill’s Fires and Conflagrations   ---1671- 2000’s


 There have been several memorable fires in Haverhill’s history.  Some very serious fires that took human lives and many very destructive, causing heavy financial loss.  Those reflected in this chapter were chosen to cover a variety of different types of fires.  Some serious, others destructive but hopefully all capturing the interest of the reader. Often the colorful style of newspaper reporters, reporting their interpretation of an exciting fire, or other disaster, has been purposely reflected without change in this chapter to tweak the interest of the reader.

            Note: See the list in this chapter that reflects “Other Significant Haverhill Fires” that have taken place between the 1820's and 2000's.


Though these fires are not elaborated on, the list does reflect the property involved, the extent of fire loss, when known, and the approximate date of the fire.


Haverhill’s First Recorded Fire




            The first fire recorded in Haverhill’s annals, in 1671, completely destroyed the Matthias button homestead, a thatched roof house near the Edward Bricket mansion on Pond Street (present-day Kenoza Avenue).


Haverhill’s Need for an Organized Response to Fires

---1697---  ---1708---




            During the early years of the 18th century, many of Haverhill’s fires were reportedly set by "marauding Indians," urged on by the French in Canada. On at least two occasions--one on March 15, 1697 and another on August 29, 1708--the Indians massacred settlers, took others captive, and torched their homesteads. These incidents, and others, demonstrated Haverhill’s need for an organized response to fires as well as Indians.



The Disastrous Fire

of  1775


            On Sunday afternoon, April 16, 1775, a disastrous blaze swept down the west side of Haverhill’s Main street from Court street to Merrimack street at White's corner. Before the flames had been finally checked at nightfall, seventeen buildings in all had been destroyed. It was obvious that one engine would not hold back the ravages of such a fire. Among the principal structures lost were a large brick tavern of John White, the stores of Joseph Dodge and James Duncan, a distillery, and several residences.

Handtubs Supplied Water by Bucket Brigade



            On New Years day, 1847, the first parish meeting house (Unitarian church), located on the Common, caught fire. The flames had gained much headway before the handtubs arrived.  The roads were in bad condition and "Veto," the Bradford East Parish engine, arrived at the fire too late to be of any service.


            The Haverhill handtubs were supplied water from the river by a bucket brigade made up of men, women, and children.  Despite their heroic efforts, they were unable to save the edifice, which had been erected only ten years earlier.  The fire caused twelve thousand dollars damage, including the loss of a fine organ and the town clock. The Haverhill firefighters thanked and complimented the Bradford company for responding so quickly to the alarm.  The handtub "Veto" and company were returned home to East Bradford on a horse sled by Haverhill’s Chief Engineer; Rufus Slocomb, they crossed the river on the ice at chain ferry, which was owned and operated at the time by George Mitchell, Sr.  

            Later that year, the Stage street stables burned; the same method of obtaining water was used, with similar results.  This time, however, the flames were prevented from spreading to adjacent buildings. 



Bradford’s “Franklin” Handtub




            In 1855, an independent engine company in West Bradford was formed. It purchased a new first-class handtub from the William Jeffers company In Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for $1200 and christened it the "Franklin."  The "Franklin" responded to its first alarm of fire on the morning of February 20, 1856. The fire, in Haverhill, involved a building and an adjoining stable on Fleet street. While Haverhill engines pumped water from the river, the "Franklin" connected to the town pump, opposite town hall, and played through Court street, saving the stable. See Table G  in the appendix for Bradford’s original list of Franklin engine company members.




The Oliver Roberts Fire



            On the afternoon of August 7, 1860,  a serious fire totally destroyed many wooden buildings, and badly damaged or greatly endangered numerous others, in the Washington Square area.  It was the town of Haverhill’s most destructive fire since April 16, 1775.

            The fire started shortly after three o'clock in a barn owned by Oliver H. Roberts and his brother Stephen, in the rear of their homes on the corner of Washington and Essex streets.  The barn contained, among other things, more than ten tons of hay recently stored there.  The blaze was so intense that in minutes the barn was fully involved.  The fire,  fanned by high winds,  spread quickly in a westerly direction completely destroying another barn owned by Stephen Roberts and badly damaging Oliver Roberts' house on Washington street and Stephen Roberts' house on Essex street.  Firemen found it necessary to completely flood Stephen Roberts' house in order to extinguish the flames, causing extensive water damage.   

            The fire then spread to a small shop, then north to a one-and-a-half story house, both in the rear of Essex street and belonging to the Farnham Plummer estate.  It then spread to a large duplex house belonging to Mrs. S. Hale and J. J. Marsh, esq. All three buildings were totally destroyed. A house belonging to Charlotte Pettingell and William Goss,  on the easterly side of Essex street, was in imminent danger and was only saved because citizens passed water to the roof of the house by means of a ladder.   

            The "Torrent" hand engine No.2,  usually housed at the Essex street fire station,  would have had the fastest response time due to the stations proximity to the fire area; unfortunately, the "Torrent was unable to respond because it was at the Hunneman & Company in Boston, being repaired and overhauled due to damage it had sustained in a Bradford fire four months earlier.  Those companies that did respond were the "G .W. Lee" handtub No.4 company, housed at the Court street fire station; the Zouave hook-and-ladder company, out of the Fleet street fire station; the "Tiger" double-deck handtub No.1 company, housed at the Water street fire station; and the "Franklin" handtub company, out of the Bradford station.    

Haverhill’s first engine house was constructed on Water street in the summer of 1769 to house, the newly acquired  hand-tub, the “Philadelphia.”  The new engine house was a small structure, just large enough to hold the hand-tub. It  remained in service until a more up-to-date station was built in 1842. 

In 1842, Mr. Paul Fletcher purchased the old engine house and moved it to a location, close by on Water street, opposite Mill street. Mr. Fletcher used it as a shoe shop in the days when shoes were hand-pegged. The engine house remained on this spot until the flood of 1936 when the Merrimack River overflowed and moved it some distance from its second  site.  Due to its historical value the Haverhill Historical Society acquired and razed the structure with the intention of rebuilding it on the Society’s property. However, before the lumber of the razed structure could be removed, it was carried away in the flood of 1938.

The Use of Horses in Haverhill’s

Early Fire Department


The first horses used by the Haverhill fire department was in 1872.[1] A pair of bays, driven by Abraham Cham­pion, was used to draw the steam fire engine “General Grant,” and a pair of grays, driven by C. W. Foster, was used to draw the steam fire engine “City of Haverhill.”

The drivers, Mr. A. Champion and Mr. C. W. Foster, were the first permanent men in Haverhill’s fire department.  When the alarm sounded, the stable doors would fly open, the trained horses would come running out and stand in place, and the men would lock the collar and jump on the wagon. In taking up the reins, the men would unhook the apparatus which held the harness in place, and it would fly up to the roof. In practically no time, the rig was rushing down the street to a fire.


[1] Fifty years after the introduction of horses into Haverhill’s fire service, the department would be com­pletely motorized. The last pair of horses being retired from the fire service on October 1, 1922.

Haverhill’s Remedies to Fire Fighting Problems


In 1875, Haverhill had only sixteen hydrants in the entire city. The hydrants were often ineffective since they  provided little or no water pressure. Since the rebuilding of Washington street and the construction of new wooden blocks and sheds in the rear of the stores on Merrimack street, it was often impossible to set Haverhill’s steam fire engines at the river. 

What follows are some remedies that Haverhill, and its fire department, used to combat the aforementioned problems: 

(1) Fire patrols  were  instituted in the shoe district to keep fire loss in that area to an absolute minimum.

(2) As many as  thirteen reservoirs were constructed in various strategic locations in Haverhill’s city proper. Four additional reservoirs were constructed in Bradford, three in Ayers Village, and two in  Rocks Village.

(3) Existing reservoirs were made larger to increase their volume of water in needed areas.

(4) Arrangements were made with private parties owning the land that adjoined the river to provide accommoda­tions for setting Haverhill’s steam fire engines.

(5) Grading at  Little river and Essex street fire station landings allowed engines to be set at low water. 

(6) Additional gates  and  larger water mains  were adopted to control and increase water pressure and Patent hydrants were installed at suitable locations.

(7) The board of engineers  adopted a list of suggested locations to set engines taking more effective advan­tage of the water resources in the city.

(8) The introduction of the chemical engine to Haverhill’s complement of firefighting apparatus resulted in faster response time,  decreased water damage, and afforded increased protection to citizens living far from water supplies. Chemical engines also required less men to operate them.  For these reasons a decision was made to supplement and finally replace hand engines with chemical engines at both  Ayers Village and  Rocks Village.