As it were

Fire services grew slowly in Columbus

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COURTESY OF THE COLUMBUS METROPOLITAN LIBRARY
"The Pride of Columbus," 1888.
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If there was one thing early settlers of central Ohio's frontier villages feared as much attacks by Native Americans or gangs of bandits, it was fire. If one was living alone in a cabin in the woods, a fire could often be extinguished by a couple of people with buckets before it got out of hand. But when people started living in towns, firefighting became considerably more complicated.

Founded in 1812 on a heavily wooded ridge at the Forks of the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers, Columbus was a small village of about 700 people when the Borough of Columbus was formed in 1816. At that time most of Columbus -- with the exception of a brick tavern and a few public buildings -- consisted of wooden structures. Remarkably, for the first decade of its history, no one felt the need to form any sort of organized firefighting group.

The situation changed in 1822. Writing to family and friends in Pennsylvania, pioneer settler Betsy Green Deshler reported, "The first fire of any consequence that ever took place in this town happened a few weeks since. Eight buildings were consumed. They were all small shops except one dwelling house."

Shortly thereafter, on Feb. 21, 1822, the local council passed "an ordinance to prevent destruction by fire in the borough of Columbus." The legislation called for the formation "of the following companies, to wit: one hook and axe company of fifteen men; one ladder company of twelve men, and one company consisting of twelve men, as a guard to property." The mayor was authorized to fill the companies by drafting if necessary and provided that remaining citizens between 15 and 50 years of age would serve as "bucket men." It also required each person living or working in a home, shop or store to "furnish as many water buckets of good jacked leather, each to contain ten quarts."

In 1824, the Ohio General Assembly consented to a request by the Borough of Columbus to build an "engine house" on the Public Square east of the small brick Statehouse at State and High streets. The "engine" in use was described in a later account of a fire at the original Ohio Penitentiary where, the Cultural Arts Center is today.

"An old citizen informs the writer that a fire in the penitentiary, in 1830, was quenched by forming two rows of men, one of which passed buckets of water up from the river while the other passed the buckets back again. The water was poured from the buckets into a hand engine consisting of a force pump worked by levers moving up and down, and called "The Tub." Apparently this rather strenuous method of firefighting worked since the penitentiary was saved.

The system of volunteer firefighting seems to have worked for the next several years but by 1837, problems began to appear. One history of the period put the matter simply. "Participation in the organizations ... was quite active at first, but after a time lost its novelty and became quite languid. In 1837, the fire engine companies became so indifferent to their meetings and practice that their dissolution was seriously proposed."

But fire continued to pose a threat. Columbus grew quite rapidly after the arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road and by 1834 was a city of more than 5,000 people. The volunteer fire companies not only did not quit, they actually grew in number and became quite competitive one with the other. Competing companies often raced each other to reach the fire and then more than once proceeded to fight each other for the honor of service rather than fighting the fire. In essence, the fire companies became social clubs as well as service organizations.

This was all well and good as long as fires were put out. But all too often, they were not. Some of the fires were small and did relatively little damage. Other fires, like the one that burned the old brick Statehouse to the ground in 1852 were definitely more spectacular. By 1855, the City Council became convinced that at least some of the city's firefighting should be undertaken by paid professional firefighters.

The road to a professional full-time fire department in Columbus was neither easy nor painless. Political infighting combined with equipment difficulties to make actual firefighting a real challenge.

For example, "On May 15, 1856, Ridgway and Kimball's car factory, on the west bank of the Scioto, fell prey to the flames. The Franklin Engine Company was promptly on hand, and saved the adjoining buildings. The steam fire engine could not render any service because its chimney was too high to let it go through the bridge, and for the additional reason that it if it could have got through, it might have set the (covered) bridge on fire."

Over time, an efficient and professional force would emerge. By 1888, Columbus firefighters would come to be called with some justification, "The Pride of Columbus." They still are.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

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