As long as people have been living together in groups, there has been admiration and healthy respect for fire.

As long as people have been living together in groups, there has been admiration and healthy respect for fire.

The admiration has come from the value of fire in providing light, warmth and the delight of home cooking. The healthy respect has come from the simple understanding that a fire out of control is not only dangerous but potentially deadly.

This is true today, and it was even truer in the years when Columbus and central Ohio were being wrested from the great forests of frontier Ohio. It is no accident that for hundreds of years, arson -- the intentional burning of another's structure or property -- has been a serious crime.

It's not hard to see why.

Most cities in America were built of wood for most of the country's early history. In an era before zoning codes, building codes and fire codes, many of these houses, barns and stores were built very close together.

Often they were not -- to be diplomatic -- of the best construction. And in close proximity to the houses and stores where people lived and worked were barns full of grain and straw for the horses that moved both people and goods from place to place.

To make all of this even more interesting, most people got their water from wells or rivers near their homes. So if a fire broke out, finding the water to fight it might be difficult, as well.

None of this went unnoticed by the people who first came to Columbus to make new lives for themselves in a new country.

Columbus was about as new as any place one was likely to find. There was no city on the "High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto" until the Ohio General Assembly chose the spot to be the new capital of the state of Ohio in 1812.

People were living across the Scioto in the frontier village of Franklinton, and a 40-foot mound testified that Native Americans had lived here once as well. But it was obvious to the early settlers of the new town that no one had lived here all that recently.

The crest of the ridge was a forest of large hickory, elm, maple, walnut and sycamore trees whose trunks were 30 feet or more in diameter. This old growth forest was interspersed by underbrush and occasional ponds and "other vile morasses."

In 1816, the Ohio General Assembly came to Columbus to meet for the first time. The village of 700 people did not amount to all that much. Statehouse Square had been at least partially cleared and a modest two-story brick statehouse had been built. Nearby were modest frame homes and stores. High Street had been cleared to roughly its current width, but the mud road was still obstructed by numerous large tree stumps.

The stumps would not be removed until Gov. Thomas Worthington contracted with Jarvis Pike to personally remove them. Pike, the first mayor of Columbus, did just that.

With the coming of the legislature, Columbus began to grow in both size and population. As early as 1819, residents asked the state to provide money for fire equipment for the town. The request was not granted.

In fact, it appears that not all that much was done about fire protection at all until 1822. In February, a major fire broke out and burned eight buildings before it was brought under control. At this point, the Borough Council of Columbus decided that something needed to be done. An ordinance was passed that said:

"There shall be formed by enrollment at the Mayor's office in said borough, the following companies. To wit: One Hook and Axe Company consisting of fifteen men; One Ladder Company consisting of twelve men; and One Company of twelve men to act as a guard to property."

The ordinance also provided that the rest of the able-bodied men in town would serve as "bucket men" and provide their own buckets to do so.

Organized fire protection of a sort began in Columbus. In 1824, permission was received from the state to build an Engine House on Statehouse Square east of the brick statehouse. It soon would be the home of "a force pump worked by levers moving and up and down and called 'The Tub.' "

Apparently The Tub provided good service during a fire at the Ohio Penitentiary in 1830. The difficulty of moving water to fires led to an ordinance to spend $130 each on 6,000 gallon cisterns to be placed near the intersection of High Street with Broad, State, Town, Rich and Friend (Main) streets. They were soon put to use.

In 1839, a steam sawmill and 40,000 board feet of lumber burned in the worst fire seen in the city to that time.

Over the next several years other fires persuaded the city to begin to look to horse-drawn steam-powered fire engines. The first went into service on Oct. 2, 1855, with a paid crew. Others soon followed, and they arrived not a moment too soon. The Neil House hotel burned in 1860 and fighting a fire in a four-story building convinced the city that perhaps the time had come to improve the fire department.

Over the next several years, the fire-fighting resources of the city would be tested as the city grew rapidly in the years after the American Civil War. In the years that followed, a modern fire protection service came into being in Columbus.

It did not come without a price. Beginning with the death of firefighter Mark Newman in 1870, 39 people have died in the line of duty protecting the people of Columbus.

A monument to their memory is in the Battelle Riverfront Park to the immediate west of Columbus City Hall.

It is well worth a visit.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.

Ed

Lentz