homepage logo

Forged in Fire: Two tragedies led to founding of Montgomery Volunteer Fire Company

By Staff | Apr 19, 2017

PHOTO PROVIDED/Montgomery Area Public Library This photo of the Montgomery Volunteer Fire Company was taken in 1899.   The equipment was in use until 1925 when the first fire truck was purchased. On the engine from left are Benjamin Hartline and Nate Sterner.   Standing from left are: Thomas Grady, Charles Edward Strouse, Chester Wagner, William Waltman, Clinton Zellers, David F. Love, John Derr, Jerry Brunner, and Calvin Mackey.  

Today the Montgomery Volunteer Fire Company is known as “The Fighting Thirteen.” But when the organization began 125 years ago, all “The Fire Laddies” had was determination. With no equipment or experience, they quickly went to work to organize and run a modern fire department. This decision to take action occurred shortly after two major fires devastated several businesses in just five short days.

The first fire was on Sunday, November 27, 1892, in what was known as “The Decker Block,” a large stretch of wooden storefronts and offices on the corner of South Main Street and Houston Avenue. The Montgomery Mirror reported that the fire began in a ladies’ hat shop that was opposite the Montgomery House, and no one noticed the fire until it was burning out of control.

Back in a time when most businesses were closed on Sundays, it wasn’t until people in the street noticed an unusually bright glow in the window of the shop that a blaze had started. Two trainmen signaled the fire by a long blast of the locomotive whistle. The hat shop was completely destroyed, and it spread to the Montgomery Mirror and burned the offices and all of the equipment, leaving the newspaper out of commission for over a month.

The fire then spread to the Henderson & Son store and destroyed it as well. On the other side of the hat shop, a butcher shop named Lillie & Stitzler was badly damaged before the fire was extinguished. According to The Mirror’s January 6, 1893 edition, “Had the fire not been arrested at this building, it would in all probability have destroyed the Decker Block, and there is no telling where it would have stopped. It was a very close call, however, and demonstrated to the satisfaction of all our citizens the necessity of fire protection . . . People should not deluge themselves into the belief that it was the good work of the bucket brigade that saved the Post office building. While the bucket brigade did noble work, it was the small line of hose from Henderson, Hull & Co’s mill that effectually quenched the flames, the continuous stream of water although very small, and thrown where it was impossible to reach it by buckets was what saved the meat market building, and consequently the other buildings on Main Street.” The cause of the fire wasn’t reported.

Tragedy struck again on December 2nd, when The Montgomery Tables Works caught on fire. The mill went up quickly. The Mirror reported both fires in the January 6th issue, stating that “Many willing hands cleaned out the office and all the books and papers of the firm were saved. After the office was cleaned out it caught fire and was soon in ruins.”

A “gallant fight” of the bucket brigade and the assistance of the Watsontown Fire Company truck made an attempt to salvage a lumber pile in the yard. It was saved, but the fire was barely extinguished when the well ran dry. H.M. Weller, one of the owners of the mill, stated that he believed the cause of the fire was spontaneous combustion. The fire was reported to have begun in the mill’s finishing room that contained many highly flammable substances such as varnishes and oils.

The citizens of Montgomery knew that immediate action had to be taken. A meeting to discuss plans for establishing a fire department took place on December 5th in Zeller’s Hall, just three days after the second fire. It was attended by 55 people, according to Montgomery’s 1962 Diamond Jubilee Booklet.

The Montgomery Mirror reported that while it was obvious that Montgomery needed protection beyond a bucket brigade, there was much debate on whether a fire engine should be purchased or waterworks should be installed. Both of these options had limitations. Fire engines were only effective when there was a plentiful source of water nearby, but the installation of a waterworks would cost $12,000, an astronomical sum that the borough couldn’t afford.

Plans for a less expensive option was presented by a Mr. Herdic, who suggested that the town could build a reservoir that could have water pumped into it twice a week. He further explained that if an engineer from one of the town’s many factories could fill it two nights a week after his factory shift, it could be more cost effective than the need to hire an engineer just to take care of the reservoir. Herdic assured the town that investors in Philadelphia were actively looking to build waterworks in small towns and that a proposal could be made. The Mirror wrote, “One thing is reasonably certain we are likely to have fire protection of some kind. This will no doubt decrease the insurance rates and be some safeguard against total annihilation of the town.”

Many articles in the Montgomery Mirror appeared over the next few months that traced the growth of the new Fire Department. On January 20th, the Mirror reported, “The engine may be here in a few days and we must have a company to run it.” Montgomery Borough Council had purchased a second-hand engine which cost between $2,000-$3,000. The borough also accepted the responsibility to store and maintain it.

On January 23, 1893, a meeting was held to formally establish the fire company. The proposed constitution and bylaws were read, revised, and adopted. A few officers had already been named, and the rest of the officers were elected. David F. Love was foreman, Pearce Fowler was first assistant, J.A. Bruner was third assistant, John L. Miller was secretary, James G. McCutchean was assistant secretary, H.M. Weller was financial secretary, John F. Derr was treasurer, C.C. Mackey, J.A. Bruner, N.E. Sterner were trustees, Chester Wagner was Engineer, and Henry Hartline was Fireman. The second assistant foreman was named simply as Decker, and may have been William Decker who was a co-owner of Montgomery Table Works.

On March 1st the fire engine arrived by train and was taken to Brook Street where it was to be housed. Although there was excitement about its arrival and was quickly named “Yellow Sal” by The Fire Laddies, the engine proved to be a disappointment. Yellow Sal had undergone some test runs and had performed well. In mid-March it was taken to the bridge over Black Hole Creek on Houston Avenue and it pumped water from the creek. Although the engine performed well, as The Fire Laddies were ending the test, a pin broke on the engine and put Yellow Sal out of commission. Since many other parts on the engine were worn, it was returned.

As time marched on and fire fighting technology improved, the Montgomery Volunteer Fire Company became better equipped. In May of 1893, Dr. B.F. Carey organized a benefit to buy the fire company hats. He stated that if the benefit didn’t raise enough money he would contribute the needed remainder himself. The benefit raised $21.60.

Sometime after the return of Yellow Sal, The Diamond Jubilee Booklet recorded that “two hand drawn horsecarts and one horsedrawn steam engine” had been acquired. These were in use until 1925 when they were replaced by a fire truck. An alarm bell was added in 1894 and was eventually replaced by a whistle in 1910. The borough’s first fire hall was built next to Black Hole Creek in the 1890s. According to Joan Wheal-Blank’s “Around Montgomery” a second garage was built on Second Street to house another engine in 1930. This was done to make sure that if any fires happened in the southern part of Montgomery, a fire truck could respond without having to wait for trains obstructing the tracks.

Other highlights of the department’s history include the addition of an ambulance in 1949 and communication radios in 1953. The current fire house on Montgomery Street was purchased sometime after 1962.