The history of Louisville's Fire Department begins in 1780; only two years after the city came into existence. Having begun with a mere handful of settlers Louisville soon recognized its need for fire protection. Accordingly, the first fire brigade was initiated in 1780 in order to meet the demands of a growing population. Records provide no evidence of major blazes at this time; indeed, the city had scarcely developed past the possibility of minor fires involving little damage of property. Nevertheless, our ever-practical ancestors realized that threat of fires goes hand in hand with a City's development, and these same practical people were ever prepared to meet the challenge.
The Bucket Brigade was the prime method of fighting fires in early Louisville. The many volunteers would simply form two rows, extending from one of the town's many ponds, to the site of the fire, passing leather buckets from hand to hand. While the men admittedly outnumbered females in this endeavor, women nonetheless performed their civic duty as well; however, they primarily were stationed in the "return' line, passing empty buckets back to the water's source. Although this brigade might appear haphazard in its approach, early records point not only to its effectiveness, but the seriousness with which the duty was carried out. In fact, the formation and functioning of the Bucket Brigade closely resembled the Volunteer Military Units, especially in terms of discipline within its organization.
In 1798, the Kentucky Legislature granted townspeople the right to form their own fire companies, which they quickly organized. Five companies were originally formed, each consisting of forty men. The number of units would eventually grow to eleven, before the disbanding of volunteer units in 1858.
Manpower, then, was really no problem in the early days, but there was a desperate need for equipment and no funds were available for its purchase. Once again, however, our ancestors proved resourceful - if a bit unorthodox in their solution. In 1807, a traveling show by the name of Arnold & Company, exhibited an elephant (the first in the United States) in Louisville. The City's Trustees promptly levied a ten-dollar entertainment tax on the display, thereby raising enough money to purchase ladders for all the volunteer companies. In a further attempt to strengthen the city's firefighting apparatus, an ordinance was passed in 1812 requiring all property owners of $40 annual income or higher to provide two fire buckets per house for fire protection. In 1816, more revenue was raised by fining disorderly spectators at fires. These funds were used to purchase hand-engines and suction hoses. As equipment was added, the need for its transportation grew, hence the first fire wagons - simply carts to haul firefighting apparatus, but how to haul it? So far, men had Dulled the carts to the scenes of the fire, but manpower was no longer enough, especially since the city limits were growing; more practical method was needed.
"Hi Ho Baldy!"
The next phase of the Fire Department's growth is literally a testament to brute strength, for horses began to provide a faster means of reaching the city's fires. The first horse driven engine appeared in 1813; "Baldy" was the first horse ever to pull a Louisville fire engine. He was harnessed to the old "Hope Engine". The company returned to its former practice of drawing the engines by hand when "Baldy" died. The addition of horses to the volunteer units was gradual, and it was accompanied by rising maintenance costs. By 1872, for instance, records indicate the following expenses: Horse feed - $5,316.83; horse shoeing - $4,655.57; harness - $1,150.60. It was nevertheless progress at a small price, for horses provided faster protection, which in turn saved much in damages. Horses then, were here to stay - until eventually replaced by motorized "horse power".
In 1831, one of the city's first fire prevention acts was witnessed, when a safety committee requested General R. Breckinridge to relocate his cabin to facilitate fire protection. Yet another measure was enforced in 1822, involving prescribed stovepipes for homes in Louisville. Of much greater significance, however, was the action taken two years prior, 1820. Due to the city's rapid growth, City Trustees divided Louisville into three districts, each with its own volunteer firemen and engine. Coleman Daniel, Peter Wolford, and Daniel McAllister were authorized to recruit forty male volunteers per district, while Thomas Prather, Peter B. Ormsby and Cuthbert Bullitt were assigned the task of purchasing pumpers, which now consisted of hand-pumpers.
These pumpers consisted of a watertight box, mounted on a frame, with a force pump. Ropes attached to the sides of the wagon, provided the means of transportation. There were two handles at each end, allowing room for four men per handle. As the handles were elevated or depressed, water was forced through copper-riveted leather hoses. Records indicate these pumps were only of a tolerable performance, but they nevertheless constituted another step forward. By 1823, a system of two cisterns and wells had been established. Three hand engines, equipped with leather hoses, were now able to draw water directly from these sources, some of which were capable of holding a thousand barrels of water.
Despite these advancements, fire remained a constant threat and in 1827, Louisville experienced its first large fire. The blaze destroyed most of the south side of Main Street between Third and Fourth Streets, causing $200,000 in losses. Little is known of its origin, but it is clear the Fire Department was not adequately equipped to handle the emergency; but a providential rainfall averted a potentially much worse disaster.
In 1829, the Washington Independent Fire Company was begun, (housed on Jefferson Street between Third and Fourth Streets) but because of friction and competition, it was inactive after a few years of operation, only to be reorganized on May 16, 1838.
Meanwhile, additional companies had been organized. By 1832, five more companies existed: "The Neptune", "The Merchants", "The Hose", "The Perseverance", and the "The Union". By 1836, "The Hook and Ladder" had joined them, and "The Lafayette" Companies were still comprised of volunteers, many still using hand-drawn hose-reels and pumpers, and all still operating without a Chief.
In 1839, the Independent purchased a pumper for $2,000 and 800 feet of 2 1/2 inch hose at 85 cents per foot. A copy of the company's Bylaws, as adopted in 1851, indicates a rather strict code for working and operating conditions, with-listing of fines to members for rule violations. In 1852, the Company resolved to "suspend active service within one month' unless the City Council appropriated enough money to build a new engine house. The firemen considered their present quarters "not safe for keeping their apparatus or for any purposes of a fire company". Victory was not long coming. Two years later they paraded to their red fire house, sixty-five strong. Unfortunately, dissension with the City Administration caused the company to disband several months later, with their entire inventory of equipment and supplies conveyed to the city by a contract.
Make no mistake, however, about their dedication and professionalism. Attendance was strictly enforced, and any member absent during roll call or immediately following a fire (without exceptionally good excuses) was fired. The pride of these early firemen was fierce; they were especially devoted to their individual companies - too much so at times. Early fires in Louisville resembled modern day sports events; firefighting became a center for social and athletic entertainment for many men. When an alarm sounded, the "race" was on, with each company attempting to "win", that is, to reach the fire and put it out. At times, the companies even fought among themselves, even as the fire raged. Each unit had its director, usually a Captain, who used a large brass or copper trumpet to convey orders. Lots of noise could be heard, such as "Down the Relief, Hurrah for Mechanics," etc. whenever the height of a rival's hose stream would increase or decrease. Even Louisville's early volunteer units wore uniforms, which aided in their identification. Spectators rallied around their own companies, "cheerleaders" who widely encouraged their "team's" effort to extinguish the fire, thus winning a silver trumpet presented by the city. This competition spilled over into the fire engines themselves, as well. Companies "dressed them up" in an effort to outdo each other. It is interesting to note that the earliest engines were dull gray, but after a few circuses had been to town, they were painted red, in imitation of the circus wagons!
The "Great Fire of 1840" provided a real test for the pumps. Details are sketchy, but the fire engulfed forty houses, originating at John Hawkin's Chair Factory, consuming an area between Third and Fourth Streets, Market and Main Streets and north to the river. This disaster, followed by others, soon made it clear that a change was in order. Volunteer firemen, pulling tiny engines and pumping water by hand were simply incapable of providing adequate fire protection for the city. Competition among the volunteer units also persisted, and when a newly built school at Fifth and York was completely destroyed by fire in the spring of 1855, many said the loss was due "more to lack of harmony among the fire companies than want of water". The obvious need, then, was to replace the "flashy" but pitifully inadequate hand-apparatus with new steam-powered pumpers that were revolutionizing firefighting.
The newly organized Louisville Board of Fire Underwriters (known today as the Louisville Board of Independent Insurance Agents) quickly decided that these new pumps were absolutely imperative and strongly urged their adoption. Louisville's General Council responded favorably, and the Fire Department itself participated in the local building of two such machines. Unfortunately, they proved unsuccessful, so the city instead turned to a Cincinnati firm, which in 1858 delivered "The Eclipse", Louisville's first steam engine. Before an excited crowd on Main Street, between Second and Third Streets, the "Eclipse" was brought in to duel with one of the volunteer firemen's hand-operated machines. The crowd cheered as the volunteer firemen sent a stream of water eighty feet into the air, to the top of the city's only "skyscraper". The "Eclipse", in turn, sent two streams of water many feet higher, and needless to say, hand pumpers were "gracefully retired".
Dramatic change in equipment was promptly followed by dramatic change in fire personnel. On the evening of May 27, 1858, the General Council organized the Steam Engine Fire Department of Louisville, to be effective June 1, 1858. The Division of Fire consisted of three fire stations: #1 at Preston and Jefferson; #2 on Jefferson Street between Sixth and Seventh; and #3 on Main above Shelby Street. A. Y. Johnson (a- member of the mechanics company) was appointed Louisville's First Fire chief, and his responsibility, with the aid of 65 men, 23 horses and 5 newly purchased steam engines, was to provide fire protection for the 70,000 inhabitants of the city. The first official fire run was on July 2, 1858 to the home of a Mr. Waters, on Campbell Street between Main and Creek Street. The fire damage was estimated at $500.00 and the cause was incendiary. The newly formed Fire Department answered 6 alarms the first month and 2 of them were false.
During the first six months of operation, the Department responded to 27 fires, with property loss estimated at $19,990.00, and they made 11 false alarms. Chief Johnson's success was amazing; immediately following the formation of a professional department, fire destruction in Louisville was reduced by seventy-five percent. Johnson led the department until 1861, when he enlisted during the Civil War. George W. Levi took over as Chief in 1861 until the end of 1862. M. J. Paul was selected Chief of the Division in 1862.
The first "General Alarm" fire occurred on July 1, 1864. It involved ten buildings on the north side of Main Street, between Eighth and Ninth Streets. The loss of the first was a total of $1,197,800-00. The largest of the one-owner buildings was the Federal Government and their loss was $800,000.00. The Federal Government blamed the Chief, M. J. Paul, for the loss and arrested him, along with 39 other "southern sympathizers", and sent him to Federal Prison. A. Y. Johnson had returned from the war and resumed the position of Chief for Chief Paul's last six months.
Six months later, on January 11, 1865, six establishments, between First and Second Streets on Main Street, were set ablaze. Included was the original Galt House, which suffered $400,000.00 in damage; two people were also killed in the fire. Along with the Galt House, Balad Hurs, Owen Thomas and Company, Thomas T. Martin, Andrew Buchan and Company and McGill and Mullen were damaged. Firemen worked six and one half hours in high winds and bitter cold to extinguish the blaze.
In May of that same year, Louisville installed its first telegraphic fire alarm system. Prior to its installation, the city was alerted of fires by a chain reaction of bells. The bell on the nearest firehouse would begin to clang, after which the alarm was "taken up" and sounded by the other houses. The telegraphic system was a great stride in the city's growth, as it made easier the location of the fire by all the companies, not just the one at which the bells first rang. The new system was promptly put to use; the first alarm occurred on May 21, 1865 at 5:15 p.m. from Box 14 at Shelby and Broadway.
Chief Johnson completed his second term in 1868; that same year the City Charter was amended, giving Louisville's citizens the legal right to elect Fire Chiefs by vote. Accordingly, Chief M. J. Paul was elected to a second term and served till 1870. There is little recorded history of the Fire Department during this time period.
In 1870, Chief George W. Levi was elected to his second term of office as Fire Chief.
By 1872 the Division of Fire had increased its complement to nine Pumper Companies and two hook and Ladder Companies. The Headquarters was on Jefferson, between Sixth and Seventh Streets. Most of the newly formed companies were housed in stations formerly occupied by the volunteer fire companies.
At this time, the Chief's pay was $166.67 per month; Chief Operator (Fire Alarm Office) was $125.00 per month; Captain's pay was $68.75 per month (which was a 48% increase from the salary of 1858). The Engineer of the Steam Engine was paid $100.00 per month and the firemen, drivers and pipe men were paid $62.50 per month.
A Steam Engine Company consisted of a Captain, an Engineer, Engine Driver, Reel Driver, a pipe man, a fireman and two runners.
A Hook and Ladder Company was made up of a Captain, Steersman, Driver, Coal Cart Driver and seven runners.
The Department's total membership was ninety-nine men, thirty-one pieces of fire apparatus, forty-eight horses and 13,100 feet of hose.
Estimated Value of Property Pertaining To The Louisville Fire Department -1872
Fire Alarm Telegraph $30,500.00
#1 Engine House and Lot 8,000.00
#2 Engine House and Lot 5,000.00
#3 Engine House and Lot 8,000.00
#4 Engine House and Lot 8,700.00
#5 Engine House and Lot 12,500.00
#6 Engine House and Lot 6,150.00
#7 Engine House and Lot 9,500.00
#8 Engine House and Lot 11,300.00
#9 Engine House and Lot 11,300.00
#1 Hook and Ladder House and Lot 10,000.00
#2 Hook and Ladder House and Lot 5,000.00
9 Steam Fire Engines (Latta) 40,000.00
1 Steam Fire Engine (J. B. Davis) 3,000.00
9 Hose Reels 4,150.00
48 Horses 7,200.00
13,100 feet gum hose 13,000.00
524 Pairs of Couplings 1,520.00
1000 feet of Leather Hose 80.00
6 Coal Carts 730.00
45 sets Harness 830.00
12 Stoves 418.00
Bedroom Furniture 2,500.00
Pipes and Nozzles 280.00
Oil Cans 35.00
Office Furniture 100.00
2 Hook and Ladder Trucks 2,500.00
$212,393.00 (Copied from Municipal Report 1872)
The first recorded multiple alarm fire occurred in 1871 on February 28th, at R. R. Jones Tobacco Factory, on Market between 12th and 13th Streets.
Fire losses during the earlier years of the Louisville Fire Department were usually less than $400,000.00 per year. In 1874 the fire loss was down to $130,707.00. The Department was growing and improving itself. In 1882, under the leadership of Chief Edward Hughes, the fire alarm system was replaced by a more efficient electric communications system, greatly increasing speed in reaching fires.
This new system was called a "Joker System". The fire alarm box on a corner was "pulled". A trip lever on the inside started a series of cogwheels to turn. Each wheel was so designed to send a signal to the "Fire Tower" (Fire Alarm office), which caused a series of holes to be punched into a tape, each time a hole was punched, a horn sounded. The number on the tape designated a street intersection or street address. The fire alarm office had the capabilities of transmitting this same number signal (box) to the fire stations. Each fire station had a set of card indexes, which indicated the location and the Companies that responded. This was known as the "Joker System". This same system was used until 1977. At this time, the Joker System was discontinued. The system was used from 1882 until 1977 (ninety-five years in service). As more fire alarm boxes were installed, the man on watch in the fire tower was phased out. A man stood watch at the desk, which would be nicknamed the "Joker Stand".
On November 13, 1886, tragedy again struck the Division of Fire. Joseph Connell was killed at the fire at Robinson Brothers Fire at Sixth and Main Streets. A cistern that he was pumping out of exploded. The fire alarm box was number 48. This fire alarm box was to achieve the title of "Fatal 48", because three years later on September 15, 1889, five firemen were killed by a falling wall. Two more firemen were injured, Dennis McGrath and Frank Bess. Records show that Frank Bess was sent to an "Insane Asylum" due to the injuries he sustained at the fire. Dennis McGrath died two years later of his injuries. The fire was at the Bauberger Bloom Company at Seventh and Main.
On December 8, 1891, at Box 48, a falling wall at the Boone Paper Store fire killed four more firemen at Seventh and Main Street. On December 9, 1981, seven girls and one man burned to death at a fire at Frank H. Minna on Main between Fifth and Sixth Streets, Box 48. On November 9, 1897, fireman Charles A. Boos was killed after being run over by the Water Tower at Sixth and Main Street responding to a fire call.
Between the years of 1887 and 1950, a period of sixty three years, there were thirty-one third alarm fires hit on Box 48, Sixth and Main Streets. This Alarm Box has been on the same corner since this type of alarm system was installed. It was the twenty-first fire alarm box installed in the City.
In 1890, Louisville was struck by one of its most destructive tornadoes. It destroyed an area bounded by Parkland (28th and Dumesnil) on the west and the Water Works (Frankfort and Stilz) on the east. The tornado killed seventy-eight, injured more than 250 citizens and destroyed 766 buildings. Property damage surpassed two million dollars. Yet the city refused outside aid, preferring instead to care for its own victims, cleaning up and restoring the extensive damage. The Louisville Fire Department was the front-runner in the recovery operation.
In 1891, the city constructed its first "Fire Tower". This is a large bell tower with a man on "watch" checking the immediate area for fires. Gradually, as the outlying fire stations had the "Fire Tower" added, a system of signals was devised, by ringing of the bell to inform the other stations of a fire in their neighborhood. This "watch" was an around the clock detail, with each man taking his turn "on watch". Until the late 1970's the practice of men being "on watch" twenty-four hours a day was part of the job.
In 1892, the department was progressing very rapidly. The 651 Hale Water Tower was purchased. The water tower was horse drawn and the tower was raised by a soda and acid agitated system. It had the capabilities of placing a large stream sixty-five feet above the ground and used Steam Fire Pumpers, which would supply the master stream, up to a thousand gallons of water per minute. It had destructive force, flowing 1000 G.P.M. at 80 pounds pressure.
It was around this time that the Chief began purchasing Chemical Units. They were a horse-drawn type water wagon. They carried up to eighty gallons of water and were used on small fires. The water storage area was set up with a chamber with soda, and one with acid. The soda and acid were dropped into the storage tank of water and agitated. This would give them a small stream with a minimum amount of pressure. This was a booster type line. They had reels attached and could deliver their own fire streams on small fires. They were some of the first pieces of equipment that could deliver streams of water on the fire, independent of another company.
In 1893, Louisville suffered one of its worst fires to date. It was the first "General Alarm" fire in the City. It virtually destroyed Third Street from Green (Liberty) to Walnut Streets. One civilian died in the fire along with 40 horses, and 53 buggies were destroyed. This was the Old Vaudeville Theater and the Southern Steam Motor Company.
In October of 1899, the City installed the telephone into the fire stations to complement the Joker System in dispatching fire alarms.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, in the forty-two years that the Division of Fire had been in operation, great strides had been made. From the manual pumping units to seventeen Steam Engine Companies, four Chemical Companies, five Hook and Ladder Companies and one Water Tower. There had been three hundred and thirty-seven multiple alarm fires and eighteen men had given their lives while performing their duties. The Department had initiated a program of changing from horse drawn apparatus to gasoline engines for pulling apparatus.
A City ordinance stated that each Steam Engine Company shall consist of not less than seven men and each hook and ladder company shall consist of not less than eight ladder men, one driver and one fuel-cart driver. The firemen were allowed one day off per month, and three hours each working day for meals. There shall be no more than two men off the Company any given day. Chemical Companies were manned the same as Steam Companies.
Throughout this process, however, one factor remained constant - the dedication of the men who served in the Louisville Fire Department, dedication that for many years was given on a purely volunteer basis. They were marked by a fierce pride, and this has perhaps given rise to some of the legends that have persisted, regarding various contributions of these early firemen. It is said that an early fireman invented a swinging harness by the name of Pendergast, and that the first chief himself supposedly built the Johnson pump. Less credible is the legend concerning B. F. Bache and members of his company (around 1858). As the story goes, they were on a second floor of an engine house when an alarm sounded. Since a pole had been left standing in the middle of the stairwell, they took the fastest route down, which eventually led to the national practice of firemen sliding down poles.
Legends aside, however, one fact remains clear; hundreds, maybe thousands of men dedicated their time, energy and very lives, if the need arose, to guarantee fire protection for the citizens of Louisville. While it is an impossible task to mention all these fine men by name, let this book be forever a special memorial to Louisville's "Fire Laddies."
The 20th century was ushered in with a roar - of a motorized fire engine, although horse-drawn engines remained a common sight as well. In 1907, the Department (under Louisville's 9th Fire Chief, Fillmore Tyson, 1903-09) obtained its first motor apparatus, a gasoline electric vehicle for Truck Company #1. While horse-drawn engines remained in the majority until 1925, it was nevertheless becoming obvious that very soon the days would disappear when citizens, having heard a fire alarm, could dash to the nearest engine house, catch hold of a rope attached to the engine and run in front of the engine to the scene of the fire. (The first-engine fully operated by gasoline was purchased and put into service in November of 1917.)
April 25, 1900, was the first time the Joker was used to strike a fire. The fire was the St. Matthews Tobacco Company on Rowan between 16th and 17th Street.
On March 1, 1902, Engine Company Number 18 was added to the Department. It was housed at Fourth and K Streets.
Also in 1902, the first buzzer system was installed on Hook & Ladder 2. Through a series of signals, the Tillerman could communicate with the Driver of the Hook & Ladder.
In 1904, the Department started using 3" hose to combat fires.
In April of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt arrived in the City, and was driven by a fireman in the parade.
During the first 10 years of the 20th century, the Department fought 212 multiple alarm fires, and eleven men died in the line of duty.
In the next ten years, the Department showed great progress. Under the leadership of Chief Timothy Lehan (1910-17), who replaced Ben Dillion killed in an accident while answering a call, Louisville's first training school was established for the City's firemen. Lehan had visited New York City, and attended seven weeks of training himself. Upon his return he stated: "A man, before being appointed to the New York Fire Department, is forced to attend the school for firemen. There they teach him the tricks of the trade, how to hoist ladders, stretch hose, manage life nets, and in short, everything a fireman needs to know. In Louisville, our firemen are forced to acquire this knowledge by experience. And, of course, being new, they are not as good at the work as those who have had the benefit of experience." The Chief wasted no time in taking action. The training school was begun in 1919, and the first twenty-three graduates were honored on May 3, 1920. A small frame tower was constructed adjacent to Engine Company Number 17 at 1824 West Garland Avenue, its purpose to allow training under simulated conditions. Other developments included the arrival of the first motorized hook and ladder truck in 1915, and the establishment of the Fire Prevention Bureau in 1920 (during the years of Chief A. Neunschwander, 1917-24).
The first major fire recorded in the early 20th century appears to have involved the Ox Breeches Manufacturing Company, January 6, 1916, causing damage of $250,000. While the cause of the fire is not known, firemen were convinced it started on the fourth floor of the company, located at 807 West Main Street. Sparks from the fire then ignited the roof of the Turna Tobacco warehouse. A night watchman who spotted the blaze had sounded the first alarm. A second alarm quickly followed, then a third, sounded by Chief Lehan himself. Nevertheless, the blaze continued to spread rapidly to surrounding companies; Altshele and Company (grocers), Central Furniture Company, Taylor and William Liquors, and several vacant buildings. Lehan consequently sounded a general alarm and every piece of fire apparatus in the City was on its way to Ninth and Main Streets. Twenty-two engine companies, seven hook and ladders and the water tower comprised the firefighting department at, that time. The failing snow made the fire even more spectacular. With the temperature constantly dropping and tons of water pouring on the flames, the building soon resembled an iceberg, festooned with giant icicles.
In 1917, when Chief A. Neunschwander took office, he faced a real shortage of manpower, due to the demands of the First World War. The depleted ranks were further weakened by a wave of disciplinary dismissals, many involving drinking. Many had obviously decided not to jump on the Prohibition bandwagon, but any fireman caught drinking on duty was dismissed immediately. (This problem continued until the 30's when Joseph Seligman, chairman of the Board, finally said, "We're going to have sober fireman, or none at all!") Other infractions included insubordination, careless driving, sending the wrong engine to a location, neglect of duty and making misruns. Not all infractions merited dismissal, however. Failure to report to duty after a layoff cost a fireman one day's pay, The personnel were also fined (even occasionally discharged) if their conduct was deemed unbecoming, such as cursing a fellow member or showing disrespect to a superior officer.
This was a trying time for the Department. The City had 263 multiple alarm fires in the ten-year period, but in line of duty deaths claimed only two firemen. This period of history, 19101920, holds the record for the most multiple alarm fires.
March 28, 1921 proved to be a very gloomy Easter Sunday when a blaze broke out at the Louisville Food Products Company Plant at Shelby Street and Ormsby Avenue. The first 'alarm was sounded at 1:45 P.M., while flames enveloped the interior of the plant. Fifteen minutes later, the front wall and floor crumbled. Loss was placed between $120,000 and $150,000. This blaze was the largest of more than fourteen fires that * day, eight of which were caused by sparks emitted from the plant. They ignited buildings and homes four and five blocks away. At one time, nearly every piece of the City's equipment was in service. Five people were injured, three firemen and two civilians. City loss was placed at $163,000; luckily rain prevented more serious damage. 1922 proved to be once again a difficult time for Falls City Hall, located at 1124 West Market Street. The building caught on fire for the eighth time in two years on June 12. The fire was in an open locker on the third floor, where old paraphernalia was found in flames. It is believed a man disguised as a fire inspector started the fire. The next two years (23 & 24) saw a million dollars worth of damage in fires. Louisville's first 4-alarm fire broke out at Hughes Lumber Company, located at 14th and Maple Streets.
In October of 1921, the first Louisville Fire Prevention Day was observed, which later would become Fire Prevention Week. It is now annually held on or near the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
On October 3, 1922, the first meeting of Fire Chief's was held in Kentucky. It became an annual event, which even had its own "program" printed. In August of the following year, two pumpers were purchased, and in the same month the Rescue Company was equipped with lifesaving apparatus, which was taken to every
On December 14, 1923, Louisville had its first black Fire Company. Eight black firemen comprised the staff of Engine Company No. 8, under the leadership of Captain Jim F. McArthy, known to his fellow firemen as "Big Jim". A second black Company soon followed. It was Engine Company No. 9 located in the 600 block of Lampton, called the Five Brother's Home.
The major goal of the Department at this time was to be completely motorized (five horse-drawn engines remained.) Finally, under the direction of Louisville's thirteenth Fire Chief, Alex Bache (1924-1927), the dream was realized. On March 17, 1925, horse-drawn equipment became obsolete when motorized vehicles replaced the last horse team. A team from "Big Jim's" No. 8 Engine Company was the last to see active duty, and when put to pasture, Louisville witnessed the passing of an admittedly outdated, but certainly glorious, era.
The first of two major fires in 1926 involved the Louisville Bedding Company. Damage incurred was $250,000, and twenty-five firemen were injured. The Drug Sundries Company was the scene of the second fire, on December 29, during which two firemen slid from an ice-coated roof to their deaths. Captain William A. "Bud" Fischer, Assistant Chief of the Fire Department, died on the scene from a crushed skull. Private Charles A. Webb, from the No. 6 Engine Company, died on the way, to the hospital, also from skull injury. The losses to the Drug Sundries Company were estimated at $85,000.
In 1927, Chief Edward McHugh ruled briefly, followed by J. H. Adams, 1927-1934. It was during Adam's reign that Rescue No. 1 was created, a Blood Transfusion Squad. Trained men from the Department manned the high-powered automobile truck. It had a Pulmotor and a means for giving first aid to accident victims with the help of a physician who was always on call. The Rescue Squad brought much needed aid to many of the fires.
The first few months of 1929 kept the Louisville Firemen busy. January twenty-third saw a fire quickly gut the VanCamp Packing Company at 1303 South Shelby. Although quickly brought under control, the fire, caused by bad wiring, managed to cause $50,000 worth of damage. On the twenty-eighth of the same month, a two-alarm fire was sounded at Churchill Downs. The fire started in a dining hall and advanced to two nearby stables, but firemen quickly contained the fire. On February second, the Buffin Decorating Company, located at 120 North 4th Street, was gutted by fire. Because of the highly flammable material that comprised the stock and the biting cold, the fire was one of the most difficult to fight. An estimated $75,000 worth of material was destroyed and fifteen firemen suffered frozen hands.
August 25, 1929 saw special recognition given to Captain "Windy" Newhall, the oldest member, both in age and service, of "the Fire Department at that time. Born in 1866, Newhall was only 10 when he began his "career" in the Department, as a mascot. In 1876, whenever Charles Newhall wished to accompany firemen who were on their way to a fire, he found it necessary to "sneak a ride" in a "dinky," a small, two-wheeled trailer attached to the rear of the fire engine that was loaded with firewood. His nickname "Windy" is not a reference to wordy inclination", it was a tribute to his speed. In 1890 Major Edward Hughes, Chief of the Fire Department, encountered Newhall running at top speed to the Robinson Brothers Hardware Company Fire. "Why are you running like the wind?" Major Hughes asked, as Newhall darted by. "Because I can't fly!" he shouted, and continued running. Hughes immediately nicknamed him "Windy" and the name stuck.
Captain Newhall fondly recalled the "good ole days" when he was the self-appointed mascot (they have usually been of the canine breed since then) of the A. Y. Johnson Company, the engine company in which his father served as Reel Driver. Young Newhall not only filled the "dinky" and fed the horses, but also accompanied firemen on their monthly trips to the planing mills to obtain sawdust and shavings for fuel, and to wholesale groceries to purchase empty hogsheads, in which brown sugar had been shipped up the river from New Orleans. Being made of yellow pine and caked with sugar, the hogshead staves burned easily and for a long time. This type of wood was the only fuel used in the fireboxes of Louisville fire engines. Coal oil poured hurriedly, from whiskey bottles, on wood shavings and hogshead staves would start a fire in an engine "before you could say Jack Robinson," Newhall explained.
"The engine that I'm resting my elbow on in that picture," he said, "was the first four-wheel engine in Louisville. It was operated by steam, and was the one of its kind in the United States - perhaps the only one in the world." After four horses had pulled it three squares, the engineer, by opening a valve, would cause the engine to run under its own steam, and the horses were used merely for guiding. When a fire was reached, the rear wheels would be jacked up and steam would cause them to revolve like the paddle wheels of a boat. That's the way water would be pumped.
Captain Newhall joined his father's engine company in 1888 and served in every capacity of the Fire Department except Chief and Assistant Chief. By 1929, riding in the "dinky" had given way to Battalion Chief of the Fourth District and C. M. Newhall was being escorted to fires in a high-powered roadster.
Fireman John Malick lost his life while combating a blaze at Jacobs Shoe Company on South 4th on the 23rd of April. The origin of the blaze was unknown, but damage topped $75,000 and twelve other firefighters were overcome by smoke. September brought another tragic accident involving a streetcar and fire engine on the seventeenth, the big pumper of the No. 6 Engine company, answering a false alarm, crashed into the end of a streetcar killing Lee M. McGee, a young fireman.
The year 1929, a time when a Chief's pay was a mere $4,000, perhaps an indication that dedication and pride were still the major motivators in Louisville firemen, was also a time of change. An elaborate electrical switchboard replaced the "fire tower". It greatly increased the speed of the Department, as explained by superintendent T. W. Rutherford.
A pull on a lever in an alarm box anywhere in town showed up on a board with a light, at the same time sending a signal and printing the number of the box on a slip of paper. The operator on duty could then set the number on an automatic transmitter and alert every engine house, hook and ladder company, Salvage Corps, all police stations, the Gas and Electric Co., and the Newspaper Office.
This decade (1920-1930) claimed the lives of eleven firefighters; also the Division recorded 245 multiple alarm fires.
Mengel Lumber Yard caught fire on January 6, 1930 and caused a loss of $250,000 in damage. The fierce blaze took the life of Lt. Patton. Patton was fatally injured when he fell fifty-five feet from the roof of a shack. On March 22, fire swept the Breslin Building. Offices on all six floors were damaged, causing heavy losses to the Third and Broadway building. The losses were estimated at $200,000. Two major blazes occurred in June of 1930, two weeks apart. On June 14, the Emmart Packing Co. (1212 Story Avenue) suffered an explosion and fire which caused a half million dollars in damages. The entire rear wall was ablaze when firemen reached the scene. Three alarms and two specials were eventually sounded. The firemen ran for their lives when the walls crumbled, but Capt. Barmore was trapped. The scorching heat, however, did not deter his brother firemen from saving him. In a few minutes flames, shooting high into the sky, severed some high-tension wires, causing them to dangle in the air; they carried 15,000 volts. The wires and intense heat of the building made the firemen's job especially difficult. On June 30, fire broke out in the lumberyard of the H. H. Brenchkman Lumber Co., 517 South Preston Street. It destroyed the lumber yard, part of the company office, burned five houses, and damaged eight houses and several barns and garages in the vicinity, routed twenty-five families from their homes and resulted in property loss estimated at more than $80,000. July witnessed another major fire, this one at Anderson Manufacturing. The Lumber Yard suffered an $80,000 loss. The following day, a $30,000 blaze struck the Stiglitz Furnace Co. Fifteen engines, three hook and ladders, the water tower and three battalion chiefs were called to the scene. On October 26, 1930, fire swept through the plant of the Rudolf and Bauer Co., 234 West Market. It then spread through adjoining buildings, near Third and Market Streets, and the sudden rush of flames imperiled families living in apartments above the stores. They were driven from the beds, forced to move to the street, many in night clothing, to escape with their lives. Three alarms were sounded, and damage was $150,000. The candy plant was destroyed; other firms involved were Lincoln Watch and Jewelry Co., Lehman Hat Shop and Vanhoff and Hillen Eat Company.
Firemen were put to the test in the summer of 1931, fighting two large blazes at two of Louisville's most important businesses. The first was reported on January 6 at the lumberyard of the Hillerich and Bradsby Co., located at Jackson and Burnett Streets. Five hundred thousand dollars worth of baseball bats, golf clubs, and a shed were destroyed along with four cars, the garages in which they were parked, and three boxcars. The hypothetical cause was vandalism. Strong winds swept the flames across the lumberyard, the largest of three in Louisville at the time. Although eight hours were needed to extinguish the blaze and losses were great, no one was killed or even critically injured. The summer was equally unfortunate for Lempher Brother's Rag Warehouse. Two fires plagued it in twenty days. Total cost for both was $50,000. On January 10, 1932, Edward Staltz, a thirty-eight year old night watchman turned himself in for causing a rash of false alarms. When asked for his motive, he cited anger at having been refused a job with the Fire Department.
The Kentucky Macaroni Plant (on South Floyd) was struck by fire on May 24, 1932. Laborers using an acetylene torch accidentally caused the blaze. Twenty firemen were injured in the two and half hour struggle. Early the next morning, however, sparks once again were ignited, and this time the building, only three and a half years old, was gutted. Damage was estimated at $250,000. Three firemen were injured in this second blaze.
In 1933, fire losses were substantially lower than during the years 1930-32. One reason is very apparent. In the earlier period the Great Depression sorely hit Louisville, like the rest of the United States, and businessmen found themselves unable to afford needed repairs and adequate janitorial service. Deficiency in these areas greatly added to the increased losses. Although there were more fires in 1933, losses were reduced, at least partly due to the improved business conditions that permitted more protection.
A major disaster was averted on June 16, when a fire of undetermined origin caused between $40,000 and $50,000 damage to the warehouse of Belknap Hardware and Manufacturing Company. Because five alarms were sounded, more than half of the City's firefighting apparatus was called in. Most of the blaze was fought from the Louisville Municipal Bridge; no one was killed and only five firemen were injured.
Firemen were also waging war at another "scene", this one involving unions. Since 1930, they had been fighting for unions to free firefighters from political domination, to win legislation beneficial to firefighters, and to obtain adequate pensions and duties. Working conditions were also an issue, since 115 hours were deemed much too unreasonable. (An 84-hour week was finally achieved). On September 9, 1933, 314 of the 341 members of the Louisville Fire Department joined the International Fire Fighter's Association, a local union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. It was a time of great confusion, however, because this vote was soon overturned when the men balloted to withdraw from the union. Obviously, there was still much unrest.
February 1934 proved disastrous for the L & N Machine shop. Fire of an undetermined origin gutted the machine shop building of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad's South Louisville Shop, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars damage and putting 1,200 employees of the shop out of work for four months. Eleven fire engines and five hook and ladder trucks were sent in answer to three regular alarms and four special requests for additional equipment. Many of the railroads' private hose lines were described by firemen as useless because water had frozen inside. Rapid spread of the flames was attributed to grease, oil wastes and similar substances reported in the building in large quantities.
In April, firemen battled flames in the 4-story warehouse of Karl M. Nussbaum, a mill and machinery supplies dealer. Although the fire damage did not exceed $3,000, three firemen were hurt, one badly. Captain Samuel Wright was caught under burning debris when a wall fell and his clothing caught fire.
Louisville has always been greatly influenced by its situation on the Ohio River. Indeed, this setting was partially responsible for its original settlement and has continued to enhance its commercial stability. However, being a "river city" has also provided another area of concern for the Louisville Fire Department - fire at the docks, or on the riverboats, themselves. Such was the case on June 8, 1934, when the towboat Duncan Bruce of the American Barge Lines caught fire. As the boat burned fiercely a 300-gallon drum of oil exploded; flames from the explosion leaped more than 100 feet in the air, causing considerable damage. Another steamer, the W. C. Berry, also became inflamed, and the fire eventually swept through five City blocks of waterfront, causing the death of one river man and $350,000 in damage to river craft. When surveying the scene of the tragedy, the Department made plans to put a fireboat into service. A pumper, already owned by the Fire Department, would be mounted on a hull, thereby becoming able to be towed to any place on the waterfront, as needed.
A month earlier, firemen had wrestled with a gas explosion at the garage and blacksmith shop of Victor Koestel, where four persons were killed. After the bodies of three persons had been taken from the ruins of the garage, firemen and policemen, under the flare of floodlights, continued to dig into the debris. Eighteen others were injured. On May 31, 1934, a three-alarm fire, which raged for three hours after its discovery, virtually destroyed the Bentwood Products Company, 1555 South Tenth Street, throwing thirty employees out of work. Loss was estimated at$50,000.
One of the most memorable fires of 1936 involved a Louisville burlesque house. On April 3, flames ignited by a discharge from a blank cartridge, sent 300 patrons and 16 scantily clad chorus girls scurrying into the streets from the Gaiety Theater. Seven people were injured and loss was estimated, at $40,000. The theater's billing for that night, "Hot - Cha Revue!"
In June of 1936, a three-alarm fire ravaged the Taylor Feed and Grain Company. The Fire spread rapidly, resulting in $125,000 of damage. The Axton Fisher Tobacco Company was the next "victim" in that same month, when an explosion triggered a fire, which injured 16 men and a boy. Luckily, firemen were able to quickly get the fire under control.
November of 1936 was a highlight for the Louisville Fire Department! The cornerstone of Louisville's new $151,000 Central Fire Headquarters was finally laid. Mayor Nelville Miller paid just compliments, by saying, "The people of Louisville are proud of their firemen and their Fire Department." He also called Chief McHugh, "the best the City ever had." The new building, at 12th and Jefferson, was dedicated to the firemen's dedication, hard work and especially the sacrifice of their own lives to save others.
January 1937, the mighty rains came, filling the Ohio Valley with gloom and foreboding. The river had lost its beauty and the romance of its undulating waters was no more. By January 1937 the river was quite simply, an ugly site. One no longer need go to the river; the river was instead doing the traveling. On January 6, nearly an inch of rain fell. Three days later, rains began in earnest; nearly half the rainfall for a full year fell during that one month. By January 13th the river had risen three feet, by January 20th, eighteen feet. By then, boats were rescuing families in the Point, and as the water continued to rise, it was obvious the City was facing a major disaster. On January 22nd some West End residents began leaving the area; on January 23rd, the rise reached 30 feet, equaling the 1884 flood, the highest ever recorded. By January 24th, the river had risen another three feet; electric power was now out. Mayor Miller ordered the evacuation of all residents west of Fifteenth Street. The flood finally crested on January 27th, at nearly 11 feet over the 1884 record, and then began a slow retreat. 75% of the city had been inundated and 250,000 residents affected. There were 90 flood related deaths and $50 million in property damages. Although the Fire Department had sustained much damage itself, it helped lead the way in Louisville's recovery.
Mary C. Van Duyne kept a diary of her experiences during the flood. She told about the frequent fires and the firemen's total commitment. "I still cannot sleep. The noise on the streets is maddening. Fire engines rush by every 15 minutes. I watch them, holding my breath to see if they will stop here. Fire could break out so easily. Everyone in the hotel is using candles and lamps. Night before last at 1:30 everyone was awakened and ordered to evacuate the City, to flee for their lives, for the town was on fire! A paint and varnish company a few blocks away burned to the ground but spread no further, so the town is safe for awhile."
Relief came on the 31st, however, when firemen from Chicago's Local No. 2 arrived in Louisville. They brought pumping engines, inhalators and other first aid equipment to our water soaked City. During their stay, these firemen were invaluable in their assistance. They fought fires, assisted in rescues, and aided constantly in the relief of flood refugees.
In February of 1937, a gas explosion in a three-story brick building killed 10 persons at Floyd and Market Street. Battalion Chief John Gambrall, one of the first firemen to reach the scene, found men, women and children leaping from second story windows; he immediately turned in second and third alarms. Property loss was estimated in excess of $40,000. The structure housed on its first floor the Eckerle Drug, a jewelry store operated by Monfried, and A & P grocery and the Breckinridge Tire Company. The two upper floors were used as living rooms and apartments, the normal capacity being swelled to almost 100 by transients seeking refuge from the flood.
Erie, Pennsylvania had also sent a fire company to Louisville to assist during the emergency. They were quartered at Truck Company 2 and responded to the gas explosion at Floyd and Market.
The Department fought 13 multiple alarm fires during the flood. As the water receded, more damage was uncovered. The largest single loss to the City due to the flood was that done to fire alarms. Because of specialized wiring, damage to fire apparatus was estimated at $49,000. Needless to say, damage to bridges, roads, sewers and the water company also hindered fire protection, but Louisville's firemen rose above yet another tragedy and moved onward. In an effort to obtain more firefighters, there was an 81% increase in payroll.
In December 1937, a fire destroyed two buildings in the Wholesaler's District of 8th & Main. Flames devastated the Premier Paper Company and the Todd-Donigan Iron Company. The heavy sheet of ice that glazed roofs and the ground only added to the danger of the conditions under which firemen were working. A strong wind from the east blew dense clouds of smoke into Main, reducing visibility to almost zero, and whipping the flames even higher. Ice formed on spray-drenched fire equipment, and firemen worked for hours in ankle-deep slush. Damage was estimated at $85,000. A month earlier, the Roth Lumber Yard had suffered a $25,000 loss.
The flood and its trauma had tended to dwarf other tragedies. Nevertheless, 1938 began with a major blaze. A fire of undetermined origin struck the Dehart Paint and Varnish Company, located at 901-03 E. Main, on January 20th and caused $25,000 worth of damage. Luckily, the company was closed, so no one was injured. The next month brought disaster to a residential home, when Charles F. Reynolds suffered an estimated $100,000 damage to his home on Woodbourne.
February also brought about the Mayor's approval of a bill to pension City firemen. Approval came on February 20, and on March 10, Governor Chandler signed the Firemen's Bill. It provided for a 2% tax on premiums of fire insurance sold in Louisville, and a 2% deduction from firemen's salaries. The principal benefit was the pension established, which now allows firemen with lengthy service to retire on half salary. Previously, pensions had been provided only for disability suffered while on duty. The bill finally became a law July 14, 1938.
New demands were placed on the firemen as well in 1938, as "night call" was strictly initiated. Firemen had to awaken, jump into a "night hawk" - boots and water proof suit - slide down the pole and hop on the engine, and all in twenty seconds! A fine was levied if a fireman failed to catch the engine before it sped away.
St. Anthony's Catholic Church unfortunately provided the backdrop for 1939's spectacular fire. In January, a four-alarm fire caused $325,000 in damages, ruining the wooden church and school, which had been in existence for forty-two years.
The same year saw more progress in the Department. A new aerial truck was purchased, along with an eighty-five foot extension ladder. In June, a fireman's committee requested a twenty percent salary increase for members.
In July of 1939, fifteen firemen were overcome by heat and smoke while fighting a fire which broke out in a concrete hay barn at the Bourbon Stockyards. The cause was spontaneous combustion, and damage was luckily kept to $2,500. An incendiary fire destroyed thirteen barns at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds. Four saddle horses were killed and four persons were injured.
The thirties had been a devastating time for Louisville the Depression, the flood, numerous major fires. There were 175 multiple alarms fires and eight firemen gave up their lives in their chosen careers.
The year 1940 started with a "bang" for the City's firefighters. On January 31, the Marks Paint Company, 613 West Market, was razed in one of Louisville's most spectacular fires. Four other establishments were damaged due to smoke and water. Before the first of three alarms could be sounded, paint in the four-story building had exploded and set the building aflame. Firemen were handicapped by unsure footing, as the street "ran red with paint. Anther problem facing the firemen was the ice that formed on their uniforms and equipment while fighting the flames. The cause remained unknown, and damage was estimated at $10,000. The same day, a three-alarm fire destroyed the Battery Manufacturing Company, 1228 West Breckinridge. The fire accounted for the 480th alarm answered by firemen in January, which created a new record for the number of alarms in Louisville during a single month.
As our future involvement in World War II was becoming more imminent, here in Louisville the Fire Department's involvement in the union was becoming more prominent. The union question had been bobbing up in the Fire Division since May 1933, when the men asked for and were granted a charter. This was quickly followed by an order to discharge any firemen who belonged. A 1917 rule adopted and reaffirmed in 1933 by the civil Service Board, prohibiting anyone to solicit or coerce any firemen or policemen to join any organization, was invoked to stop the move toward unionization. Although previously forbidden in March, Louisville Firemen were permitted in April 1941, to join the International Association of Firefighters, an AFL union, if investigators proved that the association was not trying to exercise 'control over firemen in other cities. Some of the union benefits included good insurance, a building of morale of the firemen, and assistance in increasing efficiency.
Also in 1941, it was ordered that the Fire Division answer no calls outside the corporate City limits after November first. This was done because the City could have been held liable for any damage its fire equipment might cause while outside the limits.
Of human interest in 1941, the weeks of May fifth through May twentieth were instituted for the Fire Prevention cleanup Campaign. Mayor Scholtz proclaimed this idea on April twentieth. It was a time to remove rubbish, clean attics, cellars and under stairways. It was reasoned that a cleaner home was a safer place and it only takes one spark to start a fire among rubbish.
One of the biggest fires in 1941 occurred on December eighteenth, when the Ferncliff Feed and Grain Company suffered a $25,000 loss in machinery and feed. Sixty firemen and fifteen pieces of equipment responded. The building was located at 827 Logan Street. The cause was unknown.
Also in 1941, the Department underwent two significant changes. After 53 years of service with the Louisville Fire Department, The Department's unofficial sidekick, the Salvage Corps, was disbanded. Its job had been to accompany the fire engines to the scene of the call and protect the fire-struck, victim's belongings with tarpaulins.
The firemen's dress code also changed. Safety Director H. Watson Lindsey instigated a new firemen's dress policy saying the old practice led to lack of uniformity and laxity in neatness.
The dress code consisted of a coat, vest, trousers, cap and a blue or white shirt.
The history of the Department's uniforms provides a story in itself. From leather caps and varying uniforms in the early history of the Fire Department, advancements have been made to highly protective and distinguishing apparel today. Through the years, uniforms and hats worn by firefighters have served a purpose and also served well as indicators of individual status in the Department.
Helmets, in particular, have had an interesting and significant history. From the first leather cap before 1740 to the stovepipe style after the Revolutionary War to the plastic models of today, each hat has had a purpose.
The chief purpose is protection. Helmets prevent water from running down the back of the neck and turned around, shields the face from heat. It also comes in handy when firemen need to break glass.
Besides all this, the hat serves to identify the unit, the function and the rank of the fireman wearing it by an interesting combination of colors, words and numbers.
Red hats signify the engine companies whose job it is to lay the hose and pump the water. Companies doing ladder work and ventilation were truck companies and they wore black hats. White hats were reserved for the chief, assistant chiefs, and battalion chiefs. Five crossed bugles on the shield show the rank of chief.
Numbers on the men's hats signify which company they belong to.
There is even a hat for a chaplain, if present. It is a gold hat with a cross and the word "chaplain" above it.
The new fire helmets are engineered to protect the firefighter's head from falling objects and to divert the hot water and hot tar from burning the area of the head and neck.
Uniforms were worn by the volunteer firefighters prior to the Louisville Division of Fire. This was the method used to distinguish the different volunteer companies fighting the same fire. There was much competition among the companies and sometimes there were fistfights among the various companies to see who would extinguish the fire. These brawls would go on as the building was burning.
The large coats were worn to protect the men from he elements more than the fire. The fire coats now worn by the Division of Fire are made of a fire retardant material (Nomex is the trade name) that protects the firefighters from flash fires and also protects them from the elements.
The uniforms that are worn today consist of a dark blue shirt and slacks. The rank insignia is worn on the collar of the shirt. Also, the breast badge has the rank on it. The number of trumpets on the centerpiece denotes rank. One trumpet is a Sergeant (Apparatus Operator), two trumpets is a Captain (Company Commander), three trumpets is a Major (District Chief), four trumpets is a Lieutenant Colonel (Assistant Chief) and five trumpets is the Colonel (Chief of the Division of Fire).
With the U.S. involvement in the war and more and more soldiers needed, President Roosevelt opened the door to drafting policemen and firemen into the armed services. This action, which took place on May 23, 1942, was a blow to the Police and Fire Departments, which had been urging their men to remain in city service on grounds that "you are as necessary here as in the Army."
The draft resulted in manpower shortages all over, but especially affected the fire service. In the City, multiple alarm fires were increasing in number. In the first three years of the 40's, there were 72 multiple alarm fires.
In August of 1943, Chief McHugh retired and John Krusenklaus was asked by Mayor Wilson Wyatt to serve as fire chief. John Krusenklaus' era as Chief of the Department was one of progress and change.
The City purchased its first fire pumper with "centrifugal pumps." Until this time, the pumpers had a positive displacement pump. This meant that when the pumps were engaged, water was moving with pressure. These pumpers used lower R.P.M.'s on the engine, but if a "churn valve" malfunctioned and the hand line was shut off, the fire hose would burst from the pressure.
The centrifugal pumps operated on higher R.P.M’s from the motor, but had 100% slippage in the pumps. This means that when the engine was pumping and all the lines were shut off at the pipes, the pumps would churn the water. The Arson Squad of the Division of Fire unofficially began on July 15, 1945. Until this time the Fire Prevention Bureau was assigned to investigate suspicious fires. These investigations were conducted on a part time basis until a full time investigator was assigned on December 15, 1946. Training for the investigator was conducted at Purdue University, the only school in the nation to offer educational courses in Arson Investigation. On August 15, 1953, the first Arson Investigator with officer's rank was assigned. In January 1959, another Investigator was assigned. As the workload increased, the Arson Squad’s number of investigators increased. Most of these men were from the firefighting force. In 1971, civilian investigators were added to solve the problem of turnover of personnel. The strength of the Arson Squad has increased to the present level of supervisors and 10 investigators. In 1946, the Division of Fire started a new trend in modern fire stations. It was a one-story building, with the sleeping area next to the apparatus bay. This eliminated the sliding of the pole at night from the dormitory. This reduced the number of injuries related to sprained or broken ankles, sprained backs, etc. This new station housed Engine Company Number 9 at 617 East Breckinridge Street.
Also in 1946, it was reported that, compared to other cities, the Fire Department employees were underpaid and overworked. The average hourly rate was 48 cents. The ratio of firefighters to people in Louisville was 1 to 1033 in comparison to other cities of the same size that had a ratio of 1 to 540. At present, in the city, there is a 1 firefighter to 524 people ratio.
This same year, Fire Prevention Week was officially designated as the second week in October. This week was the Department's effort to make the citizens aware of hazards contained in their homes. It was a week dedicated to the public's responsibility for their own safety and an awareness of their Fire Department. There were parades and demonstrations that allowed the Department to show off their apparatus and also the skills of the firefighters who safeguard the public's safety and property. Also, Sparky, the Fire Department's mascot, was born. This was a firefighter dressed in a costume that resembled a Dalmatian dog. He drew the attention of children and adults alike with his antics, while actually teaching fire safety.
The late forties was a time of evaluating the Department men, apparatus, training and what they were about. This was a time of setting goals that would drastically change the Department within the next ten years.
The forties came to a close with the Department responding to 226 multiple alarm fires and losing one firefighter in the line of duty.
The 50's were a realization of the goals that were set in the forties.
The Fire Prevention Council was formed. This organization was made up of public orientated people who were a great support to the Fire Prevention Bureau and the Fire Department as a whole. They promoted fire protection and safety rules. In 1954, the Fire Prevention Bureau was awarded the Grand Award by the National Fire Prevention Association for their outstanding fire prevention activities and programs.
In the early fifties the positive displacement pumping units were phased out and all the first line pumpers were equipped with centrifugal pumps.
During this era, Fire Apparatus Manufacturers were making marked improvements in fire apparatus. Most standard specifications for apparatus were written around standard pumpers that did not necessarily meet our needs in fire equipment. The Department was compelled to write its own specifications and then accept the lowest bidder.
The goal setters got busy gathering information from the larger cities around the country regarding the best features of their fire apparatus. After many months of gathering information, corresponding with Fire Apparatus Manufacturers, the Department wrote specifications for fire apparatus that was to revolutionize the Louisville Division of Fire. These specifications standardized the compartmentation for small tools.
Also contained in the "spec" was standardization of hose beds. The minimum size pumps were 1000 gallons per minute. Fire Department ladders were changed from wood to aluminum for easier handling, requiring fewer men to raise them.
Also during this time, the Department tested a smaller diameter hose for possible use. It was only 1-1/2" diameter and had a fog nozzle. The "old timers" commented that you could not use a "garden hose" to put out a fire. They were used to the 2-1/2" lines with straight tips. "The fog nozzle is okay for a shed fire, but not on that small hose.
The 1-1/2" line with a fog nozzle was to become the workhorse of the Department. One man could handle the pipe; he could easily move the line from one area to another. This was in contrast to the 2-1/2" line that was usually manned by three men or a minimum of two.
This also led to the standardization of the hose beds. All pumping units of the same make had the same amount of 2-1/2" hose in the center hose beds, with the 1-1/2" lines on either side. Some of the 1-1/2" was bundled with a quick release strap; one of the 1-1/2" was preconnected, to a pumper outlet and the other was connected to a "Y" on the 2-1/2" supply line.
The tools on same make pumpers were standardized. Also, the position where a firefighter stood while responding to a fire had been designated with responsibilities and duties. This was a big help for control of a Company by the man-in-charge.
It was during the fifties that the terms "Big Pipe" and "Little Giant" were to become synonymous. It was, in fact, a 2-1/2" line with a pipe attached that could be changed from a straight steam to a fog nozzle by the pipe man. He had a shut-off at the nozzle and a small canvas bag with various size tips attached. Also, a 1-1/2" line could be laid from the nozzle by removing the tip. After a large fire was "knocked down," a 1-1/2" tip could be attached to move in close for the overhaul.
Another change that occurred in the late fifties was the mobile radios that were installed on the fire apparatus. Prior to this, once a Company was dispatched on a fire run, their only contact with the Communications Bureau was by a telegraph key inside the fire alarm box or by telephone. The radios gave the Department the flexibility for the Companies to move about their fire run districts for familiarization, driving practice and inspections. Also, it allowed for multiple company training. But the greatest advantage was constant contact with the Communications Bureau and the availability of the Companies to respond to fire.
New fire stations were constructed for Quad Co. No. 9 (presently Quint 9), Engine Co. No. 23, Quad Co. No. 10 (presently Quint 10), and Engine Co. No. 1. All four of the stations were basically the same one-story floor plan. The era of the slide pole is slowly disappearing from the Department.
A big boost in the morale of the Department occurred in 1957. One hundred business and professional people, interested in the community, established an organization known as "Bluecoats Incorporated of Louisville." This organization is devoted to the welfare of widows and dependents of Louisville Fire and Police persons and to the Jefferson County Police who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
A new Training Center was constructed in 1957. It consisted of a five story brick building, with a classroom on the first floor, a model of a wet and dry sprinkler system and a concrete pad around the outside of the building. The location was Algonquin Parkway & Gibson Lane in the extreme west end of the City.
It was a far cry from the old training tower next to Engine 17 at 1824 Garland Avenue. Although the new training school did not have a track for running, it was better situated than the old school. For its time, the new training school had most of the facilities that would be encountered by the firemen on the street. There was room to raise ladders and practice scaling to the fifth floor with pompier ladders. There was space for the recruits to practice the many evolutions that they would be graded on during the last weeks of school. But it was a long time from the first day of school until the day of graduation.
One of the culprits was a straight beam ladder on the north side that started at ground level and extended to the roof. When a new class of men started their training, a familiar cry would ring out, "up and over," with a training officer standing at the base of the ladder shouting encouragement to the new men. The trainee, at times, did not hear the words as encouragement and, just possibly, the language would cause a Chaplain's ears to burn. The key for getting through training school was to listen, then keep busy; if not, the trainee would hear, "Why are you just standing there, New Boy, up and over." The term, New Boy was Louisville's substitute for the common term, Probie, or probationary employee. Drill School usually lasted from eight- to twelve weeks, depending on the vacancies on the Companies and how much could be crammed into the "New Boys."
Drill School is the time when the instructors determine whether a trainee can become a firefighter. There are usually a lot of firsts, especially When the instructor shows how to lean over sideways, three to five floors above the pavement, while holding onto the rung of a fifty foot ladder, with one leg locked on the rung with a "safety" and touch the other toe with both hands. Or maybe climbing from one window to the next one above with a hook ladder or pompier ladder. This is a small part of the initiation into the private world of a firefighter.
As he gets older, the firefighter will stop to think of where he's been, what he's seen and the friends he's made, and hopes that he has been able to help someone with the basic training he received at Drill School.
It was in the late fifties that all the Departments in Jefferson County got together. The Chiefs for the city, county and volunteer fire departments wrote an agreement, wherein they promised to help one another if and when the need arose. It was simply named Mutual Aid. It was a pact that said, "Help your neighbors."
March 31, 1956 the first fourth-alarm fire that the Department had encountered in almost 30 years occurred at 11th & Main Street, Dixie Cartage and Warehouse. This was only one of the one-hundred and fifty-six multiple alarm fires in this period; the firefighters dreaded enemy did not claim a life, so these were ten successful years for the Division.
In 1958 the Department had its first near catastrophe in the age of foam and plastics. On a Sunday morning, November 2nd, the Department responded to a box alarm fire on the northeast corner of 4th & Jefferson Streets. The first Company in reported a working fire. There was quite a bit of smoke but the fire could not be located. When the 2nd alarm Companies arrived, they were astounded; firefighters lay all over the sidewalks being given first aid. In all, a total of 29 firefighters went to the hospital. The culprit was an open display counter containing foam rubber pillows. The only fire was in an area about 5 feet square! Synthetic materials would prove to be a new and dangerous enemy for firefighters.
In 1960 a tradition changed. The apparatus driver and operator had the working title of Engineer, which was a carry-over from the days of the steam Engine. This was changed to Sergeant, in keeping with the military ranks used by the first-line supervisors up through the rank of Colonel, who was the Chief.
In spite of any new equipment or techniques in the art of firefighting, 1960 proved one of the most devastating years in the history of the Fire Department and firefighting in the City. At 7:25 P.M. on December 17, a small fire on a gas grill at the Parkmoor Recreation Center, on Third near Eastern Parkway began. It was not that serious a fire initially, but before it was extinguished, it proved to be the worst fire since the Dixie Warehouse and Cartage Company fire in 1956.
Three alarms sounded in the first thirteen minutes and three special alarms for additional equipment sounded in the next twenty-five minutes. As 110 firemen fought the blaze in the 150-year-old building (housing a bowling alley, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a bar and a night club), two million dollars were lost and three firemen killed.
Captain Joseph Kenneth Buren, Sergeant Jesse P. Wilson and Riley Pryor lost their lives while fighting the spectacular fire. This was the first instance in seventeen years when Louisville firemen were killed in the line of duty. In addition to this fire, three other fires broke out in the same twenty-four period. There was a house fire in which a seventy-year-old woman was killed. There was a three-alarm fire at the Green Company storage building. Another fire destroyed three suites in the 310 building. It was surely a demanding and depressing day for the firefighters.
The City was shaken by this catastrophe. Businessmen and others from Parkmoor Recreation, Broad-Brook Recreation, and the Bowling Proprietors Association of Louisville donated fifteen hundred dollars to each widow. Another two thousand dollars was on hand in the office of the Safety Director, which was distributed by the Bluecoats. Many annual tournaments for the benefit of the firemen's relief fund were organized in memorial to the victims of Parkmoor.
1961 began testing the efficiency of the Louisville Fire Department. On January 9th, a three-alarm fire swept through three Haymarket buildings on a cold and windy Sunday afternoon. The blaze apparently started in the S & S Produce Company, 232 E. Liberty. It soon spread to buildings on both sides, to Silver Fleet Motor Express Company, 216 E. Liberty, and to Truckers Restaurant, 238 E. Liberty. Both suffered extensive damage and caused an estimated $170,000 loss to the three buildings combined. The exact cause of the fire is still unknown. Seventy firemen fought the blaze for six and a half hours with 14 pieces of equipment. Three firemen suffered smoke inhalation and a fourth man a leg injury.
On March 22, 1961, ten fire companies responded to a three-alarm fire at the Williams Tractor Company, 3800 Crittenden Drive. An estimated $500,000 in major pieces of equipment, service trucks, plant and large tools was lost. It took the firemen only 30 minutes to contain the blaze in the one-story structure. The cause of the fire was undetermined.
Two major fires caused extensive damage to several businesses on May 3, 1961. The first fire started at daybreak in the first floor office of Koster-Swope, Inc., an automobile agency, at 117 Breckinridge Lane. Several other St. Matthews businesses were damaged as a result. Seven pieces of equipment from the Louisville Fire Department worked together to quickly bring the fire under control. No estimate of the loss or exact cause is available.
The second fire broke out at noon at the City Hide and Tallow Company, 927 Geiger Street, destroying the two-story brick and frame building. It took twenty minutes for seven fire companies to bring the fire under control. The Company's owner, N. J. Marx, could not estimate the loss or the cause of the fire.
The summer months brought still more fires and other related tragedies. They also brought some changes in the Louisville Fire Department. The first of these occurred on June 7 when a new alarm system was put into service. This system was operated by eight 6-volt batteries as opposed to the eight hundred 2-volt batteries, which had controlled the fire alarm boxes around the City previously. The alarm room that used to be cluttered with small batteries now is completely re-equipped and remodeled and contains only the emergency generator.
The emergency generator runs on either natural gas or gasoline. The fire alarm boxes are operated on four batteries while the others are recharged. The $100,000 system uses 50 circuits with 30 or 40 boxes to each circuit. This enables firemen to hear about a fire, and thus answer a call much quicker.
The ultra-modern, high-speed replacement to the half-century old central office equipment is called a Fry-Fyter and its acquisition was due to its speed, compactness and simplicity of operation.
In the hot summer weather, firemen faced more torment than just raging flames. On July 6, for instance, a fire broke out in the Precision Tool Dye & Machine Company when a machine used to remove grease from metal exploded. In 80-degree weather, things were very uncomfortable for firemen as they tried to extinguish the blaze. The roof, even without the flames below it, would have been immensely hot for the firemen.
Along with the other changes in the Department, the newly created Job of Assistant Fire Marshall took affect in 1961. The new position corresponded to Battalion Chief in rank and carried the same pay, $6,472 a year. It was occupied on October 1, by Captain Franklin R. Morgan, who took a Civil Service examination for the job.
On June 30, 1962, the Division of Fire demonstrated their new Chemical Unit. It had the capability of being able to throw foam through a turret nozzle mounted on the top and through ground sweeps attached to the under carriage. It could also mix foam in a tank on the apparatus instead of in the old hopper type dry powder foam, or using the in-line eductors for hand lines and the cost was $32,000. This particular engine was especially equipped to fight oil refining, paint manufacturing, electrical and air plane fires and took a year to build.
John H. Krusenklaus spent 18 years as Chief of the Louisville Fire Department. Under Chief Krusenklaus, who retired on September 27, 1963, the Fire Department was rated one of the best in the nation, which is quite an accomplishment. Krusenklaus joined the Department because of the Depression in 1934. Besides making the Department tops in the nation, he saved residents countless dollars in insurance premiums. Chief Eugene Dodson, who served from 1963 to 1970, succeeded him.
In March of 1964, the Department came to the aid of the City, but not for fire protection. This time the Ohio River was on the rampage, and the firefighters became a large force of men who helped close the floodwall openings with sand bags. Somehow or another, the flood gates had been misplaced. All personnel, on and off duty, were called in to perform this operation. The off duty personnel pulled duty at the floodwall and on duty personnel performed fire duty. In these times when a firefighter was recalled to work, he did not receive any additional pay. Needless to say, the Department received very little recognition for their efforts in sealing off the City from the water.
A fire hit the Miles Horse Park, located in Louisville's West End, destroying 12 of the 26 horse barns and killing 29 horses. The damage was estimated at $178,000, with the horses valued at thousands of dollars apiece. The cause was linked to liquefied petroleum gas leaking from a loose connection of tubing between a gas tank and a water heater in Barn 24.
The summer was anything but cool when an August 1st fire broke out on East Market Street, damaging five buildings. The three-alarm fire caused all occupants to evacuate but was confined to the second and third floors.
As if this wasn't enough, September 6th brought the third four-alarm fire recorded in Louisville's history. The Louisville Woolen Mills Warehouse, located at Clay and Caldwell, burned to the ground leaving only a "cradle-like" structure. The fire destroyed the whole corner building, 23 houses, two sheds and six cars. About 100 persons were driven from their homes after one of the City's worst fires.
In November of 1964, the Department established the Fourth District. The 65 square miles of the City were divided into four sections rather than the previous three sections. With less area to cover and shorter distances to travel, the District Chief would be able to reach a fire scene more quickly.
October saw yet another three alarm fire in the West End. A six-hour blaze destroyed the old Chickasaw Wood Products Company, located on North Western Parkway. Firemen estimated the building as a total loss. A 12-year-old boy was later charged with arson in connection with setting the fire.
Two separate fires broke out within 43 minutes and four blocks of each other on the dawn of December 3rd. The first was a three-alarm fire in the vacant three-story Bremner Biscuit Company building at seventh and Broadway. Sixteen pieces of firefighting equipment were sent to the Scene. It was extinguished in fifteen minutes.
The second fire was at Schuhmann's Click Clinic on West Chestnut. Although the blaze was extinguished in five minutes, smoke and water damage at the camera shop was extensive. An overheated projector in a front display window caused the fire.
In 1964 the General Assembly passed a law that cut about one-third of the manpower of the Louisville Fire Department by reducing the workweek from 72 to 56 hours. The law provided that firemen must be on duty 24 hours and off 48 hours, whereas they had previously worked 24 on and 24 off.
Applicants were told that they must be between 18 and 27 years old and needed a high school diploma or the equivalent. Also, they were to meet specific height, weight and health requirements. Salaries started at $157.44 biweekly and reached $205.44 after five years. The firemen expected to build strength from 480 to 586 men.
1965 was a year of change. Fire Headquarters at 12th & Jefferson had a new look. A two-story section was added to the old building. The Chief's office and the Fire Prevention Bureau had previously been crammed into a small area over the apparatus floor. Now the Bureau had a separate area where they could spread out. Also the Chief's Office and Staff had a section of their own in which to conduct business and the chief moved to his new Office above the Fire Prevention Bureau.
In 1965, a new fire station was constructed. It was the largest in the City. It combined three Companies in the downtown area; Engine Co. No. 5, a two piece Engine Company on Liberty, just west of First Street and Truck Co. No. 2 and Engine Co. No. 3, housed in a renovated church at 221 South Hancock, were moved to the new house in June. The same year, the "peg" date was removed from the pension and the Department was building up its manpower.
During this year the City also purchased a Snorkel Apparatus, something quite different from the other equipment. It had an elevated platform that-had a reach of 75 feet. It replaced a senior Aerial Ladder Truck Company that had been in service since the late 1800's. This also stopped a practice of transferring Aerial Ladder trucks. Until this time new Aerial Ladder trucks went to Truck 1. The old Truck 3 was placed in reserve as an auxiliary.
Local 345 gained recognition from both State and Local Government during this period. On June 18, 1966, two top union officials staged a sit-in at City Hall. They were trying to bring public attention to the disparity in salaries of police and firefighters. The Law Department searched the books but could not find an Ordinance against sleeping in City Hall. The sit-in did not succeed in getting a raise, but the lawmakers did pass an Ordinance forbidding staying overnight at City Hall.
Engine 17 was the first Company in the Division history to make 1000 fire runs in one year.
In July of 1967, William T. Adams was appointed to the rank of Assistant Chief. He was the first black promoted to a staff position. He had already earned the title of a true gentleman from Members of the rank and file of the Department.
On May 27, 1968, the City faced a civil disturbance in the West end of the City. The already dangerous job of the firefighter became more hazardous than ever. This disturbance lasted to the fourteenth of June. A new concept in firefighting in the Louisville area began. It was called Task Force. It consisted of a District, a pumper, a truck and another pumper in line. They made runs in single file, staying close together
Usually there was a jeep or a truck loaded with National Guardsmen in the rear. There were also National Guardsmen riding on the hose beds. The firefighters were pelted with brick and rocks, they were shot at and the only sleep came when they could grab catnaps on the hose beds of the pumper; yet they still maintained the protection of the citizens. In fact, they seemed to be drawn into a camaraderie that continued for years to come.
1968 was a time of rejoicing for the Firefighters. They received a new pension plan from the City. The plan allowed a firefighter to work for 20 years and retire with 50% of his base pay. This pay was figured on the average of the three highest pay years in the Division. Prior to this, pensions were figured on the 1951 pay scale (peg).
There is always the fear and risk of a fire at a large chemical company, especially one as large as the Ashland Chemical Company. Fear became reality on May 5, 1969. The origin of the fire is still unknown but the results were devastating. Bronoco, a subsidiary of Ashland, was located at 1315 W. Kentucky Street. The warehouse facility contained several storage tanks usually filled with several hundred thousand gallons of volatile and flammable chemicals. Consequently, the fire spread quickly and led to a chain of chemical explosions. Balls of fire spewed high into the air and an orange glow hovered over downtown Louisville.
Over one hundred firemen and numerous policemen arrived on the scene, not only to fight the fire, but also to evacuate the nearby residents. However, the firemen were at a disadvantage because they were not sure about the type of chemicals contained in the tanks.
The firemen proceeded to hook up the water hoses and spray the tanks in order to keep the blaze from spreading to the neighboring Porter Paint Plant, Superior Paper, Inc., and Distillers Grain, Inc. Since all of these companies contain highly flammable materials, the firemen had to be more cautious to prevent the fire from spreading. They would make progress only to be turned back as another tank exploded.
Over two hundred and fifty firemen and twenty-five trucks arrived before the battle was over. They persisted to conquer the fire and didn't stop until early morning. Although Bronoco was destroyed, the firemen were able to prevent the fire from spreading. It was amazing that there were no civilian casualties and only four firemen were injured, one with a sprained back and others from smoke inhalation.
The sixties were trying times for the Division of Fire. There were floods, riots, changes in firefighting strategy, insurance services office evaluation of fire forces, new equipment, loss of manpower due to shorter work hours, more fires in vacant buildings due to Urban Renewal programs and the revision of our Rule Book.
One rule established was that 4 sergeant had to serve two years in that rank in order to be eligible for the Lieutenant's promotional test.
The Department fought 109 multiple alarm fires during this era and three dedicated firefighters gave their lives in the line of duty.
The new decade of the Seventies brought about many changes in the Fire Service. It was during this era that the Federal Government gave recognition to the fire problems that local governments had been dealing with since their inception.
It was a time when firefighters, through local unions, were demanding recognition of their plight from the municipal governments. In 1970 a Sergeant with two children was within 2,000.00 of being below the poverty level established by the Federal government.
There was a great deal of unrest within the Department. But fire protection as a whole did not suffer.
On the night of January 22, 1970, Engine Co. No. 17 at 1824 Garland was called to respond to a box alarm at 838 South 17th Street, Conner Manufacturing Co. The temperature that night was 5 degrees and a steady wind of 35 miles per hour lowered the temperature down to a freezing cold of -40 degrees below zero. The fire was reported at 7:16 P.M. and by 7:23 P.M. a third had been hit. Due to the bitter cold, the men were rotated on 2-hour shifts to contain and extinguish the fire. The fire loss was approximately one million dollars.
The Ballard Mills, a historical landmark, was destroyed by fire in early March 1970. The Mills, established on East Broadway in 1880, had been the South's major supplier of flour. The plant had not been in use since 1968 and was scheduled for demolition. The three-alarm blaze, however, got a big jump on wrecking crews as a thousand spectators watched the flames for more than two hours.
In May of 1970, the leadership of the Department changed. Colonel Eugene Dodson retired and Colonel William J. Cummins was named as Chief. Colonel Cummins was known as "a knowledgeable administrator who knows every inch of the job - a hard nosed professional who runs a tight ship."
On February 22, 1971, a fire virtually destroyed the former Speed Estate, owned by Scott Hamilton, Jr. The twenty-five room, three-story brick mansion was first owned by William Shallcross Speed, a famous philanthropist and native Louisvillian. The spacious home was sold to developers in October 1968 for the worthy sum of $415,000. The fire was discovered when Hamilton, the present owner, opened a door to the living room of the huge palace and was overcome by billows of smoke. He rushed upstairs and guided his seven children to safety.
On June 30, 1971, Local 345, the firefighters union, could not reach an agreement with the City Administration on a contractual agreement and at 11:00 P.M., the firefighters walked off the job. It was the first time in the history of the Department that the citizens were virtually without fire protection. The strike lasted only 3-1/2 hours. A court order forced the men to return to their duties.
On Friday, the 13th of August, the firefighters again walked off their jobs, to protect the demotion of three Company Commanders. Contrary to the newspaper stories' ' it was a sad time. Amnesty was granted to all the participants of the strike.
On July 1st of 1971, the rank of Lieutenant was abolished in the fire suppression forces. All those holding that rank were blanketed in as Company Commanders.
The Insurance Services Office visited the City in 1973 for evaluation of the fire protection. After a long three months, the final evaluation was that the Fire Department should receive a Class 1 Rating. This rating was held by only 5 other Fire Departments in the Country. The City itself was given a Class 2 Rating. It is the best rating ever given a City and their Fire Department and meant a big dollar savings on Insurance premiums, especially for businesses and industry.
At 4:37 P.M., April 3, 1974, the worst tornado since March 27, 1890 ripped a 10 mile-long-path through the City of Louisville, cutting it in half. The worst hit areas were the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, Audubon Park, the Highlands, Cherokee Park, Indian Hills, Crescent Hill and Northfield. The worst property damage was in the crescent Hill and the Brownsboro Road area. Cherokee Park was literally flattened. Five deaths were attributed to the tornado.
The Louisville Fire Department played a big part in helping with the cleanup. In some places, the firemen responded so quickly that some disaster-area residents hardly realized they were there.
The firemen carried on normal duties despite the tremendous load of extra tornado duties. The firemen's extra duties included shutting off gas mains, helping police and rescue workers search for the injured, helping generate electricity to help light darkened subdivision streets, helping secure the tornado hit areas at night when families started leaving their homes, and imposing the 7:30 P.M. to 6 A.M. curfew in the neighborhoods that had been hit.
Also in 1974, the Department started purchasing diesel-powered apparatus with automatic transmissions. The Old Timers complained that the "automatics would not hold up under the strain. It takes a helluva man to drive and operate this equipment." There were no complaints regarding the power steering.
Another new piece of firefighting equipment arrived in the Division of Fire, the "Squrt" It eventually replaced the wagon of the two-piece Engine Companies. The Squrt was an articulating Water Tower with a reach of 551, operated from the rear running board and capable of throwing 1000 G.P.M.
On August 14, 1974, the Squrt of Engine Company 5 was put to the test. At 4:10 P.M. the Company responded to a box alarm fire at Proform, Inc. at 1201 River Road, at 4:17 P.M. the second was hit and the third followed at 4:25 P.M. There was a serious exposure problem on the west side of the building, namely, Chevron Oil Company. Squrt 5 was set up between the fire building and the storage tanks of Chevron and pumping 1000 G.P.M. set up a water curtain. The fire was contained in the building of origin.
In 1975, the Department was busy in the construction of a new fire station at 34th & Bohne that would combine a Police Substation and a Fire Station. There was a lot of controversy regarding the structures twin towers. Engine Co. No. 19 was placed in service at the location together with Truck Co. No. 5 (formerly Quad 5 of 20th & Virginia) and the First District Chief; the station was designated First District Headquarters.
On the east side of town, at 3401 Dutchman's Lane (Bowman Field), Quad Co. No. 10's fire station was being expanded to house the 5th District Headquarters. Engine Co. No. 3, housed at Floyd and Jefferson was moved to 3401 Dutchman's Lane and an Aerial Ladder Truck replaced the Quad'. Due to Budget restraints, the Fifth District was not funded.
In May of 1976, the headlines of the Louisville Times read, "Sloane Proposes Budget $3 Million Under this Years, 412 Job Cuts." Of the proposed 412 job cuts, 120 would be from the Fire Department. As of July 1, 1976, fire suppression forces were reduced by 95 men and the remaining 25 would be civilian support personnel. Gone were the days of 6 man Truck and Engine Companies. This reduction in personnel was cause for change in the whole operation of the Fire Department.
Thomas L. Dale, president of Louisville Professional Firefighters Local 345, resigned as president of the Union and retired from the Fire Department in July 1976. Sergeant Dale was active in the Union during his 20 years in the Department. As head of Local 345, he was credited with obtaining many pay increases, better working conditions and shorter hours for the Louisville Firefighters.
August 1, 1976, a new Chief was appointed to lead the Division of Fire. With the retirement of Colonel Cummins, Colonel Thomas T. Kuster was appointed Chief.
On January 17, 1977, the temperature was 8 degrees below zero. At approximately 6:40 P.M., a young man ran into Second District Headquarters at Floyd & Jefferson Street and told firemen about a warehouse on fire at Preston & Market Streets. Soon after the Second District Chief arrived on the scene, he hit the second, the third followed shortly thereafter and then more extra equipment was requested. Water from the hose lines froze on contact and made the footing treacherous. There were approximately 100 firefighters on the scene on a rotation basis. The area was secured after 12 hours. This was the beginning of a hard week for the Louisville firefighters.
The next day, a routine check of the fire hydrants around the City, found most were frozen. A further check caused great concern for the Chief and fire suppression personnel. Off duty personnel were recalled to work and a 24-hour around-the-clock check showed over 1000 of the City's 7000 hydrants were frozen. They had to be thawed out and anti-freeze added to keep them from refreezing. This was a long hard winter that would linger in the minds of firefighters but, as usual, they performed another outstanding job, and for the most part, the citizens of the city were unaware of the potential danger that existed. On March 23, 1977, at 0420 hours, fire struck the J. Guthrie Coke Apartments at 411 West Chestnut Street. A third-alarm was struck and 22 pieces of fire fighting equipment were working at the scene. Before the fire was out, two people had died, with thirty-two residents and fourteen firefighters were injured.
In May of 1977, a fire occurred at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky. This fire, and the problems associated with it, had an everlasting effect on fire protection in the years to come. The fire claimed the lives of 164 people. It caused all city governments to take a hard look at the building codes and the measurements taken to enforce these codes. It was at this time that the groundwork was laid for the proposed Fire Detector Ordinance for the City of Louisville.
In September of 1977, the City started the renovation of two of the older fire stations, Engine Co. No. 7 'on Sixth Street, south of York, and Engine Company No. 17 at 1824 Garland Avenue.
Engine Co. No. 7, at 821 South 6th Street, is 105 years old. Pictures of the front of the original fire station taken at the turn of the Century allowed the Architects to restore the facade to its original design with a few exceptions, such as modern overhead doors that are wide enough for today's modern apparatus and the gasoline pump that is in front at this time. Also the bell tower is missing. This house has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was constructed in 1871. The most striking feature is the second floor windows with over-sized voussoirs and rusticated quoins. An extended cornice with modillions and brackets cap the building.
Engine Co. No. 17 has also been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was the largest firehouse built in the City in 1910. The Architect was John Bacon Hutchings. The 3 bay, red brick building has a central pediment, supported by pilasters and a heavy soffit, with an extended cornice and parapet further embellishing the roofline. The entire second floor over the apparatus floor is supported from the roof.
Tragedy again struck the Fire Department on February 1, 1978, when firefighter Larry Straughn died as the result of injuries incurred in an accident on January 8, 1978. Engine Company No. 19 hit a tree while responding on a fire run to a Nursing Home. The last previous death of a firefighter in-line-of-duty was Captain Donald LeCompte in 1972.
At 7:45 A.M. July 14, 1978, negotiations between the firefighters and the City came to an impasse and the firefighters walked off their jobs. At 6:00 P.M. that evening, the negotiators were back at the bargaining tables trying to resolve their differences. At 6:00 A.M. the next morning the firefighters again had "hit the bricks." This time they would not return until a contract had been agreed upon. The contract was finally agreed upon early on the morning of July 18, 1978. During the time that the firefighters were off the job, the Staff Officers manned the fire companies. The cordiality between the men on the picket line and the staff personnel manning the few fire stations was unbelievable. They were trading information, food and a mutual respect for one another that made everyone realize that they were a part of a great Fire Department.
A major fire struck Butler Store Equipment Company 1901 South 7th Street on August 22, 1978. The in time on the fire was 10:31 P.M. The 2nd and 3rd alarms quickly followed and the fire was brought under control at 12:01 A.M. Approximately 100 men and twenty-two pieces of equipment were used to extinguish the fire. Four firefighters were injured, none seriously.
On October 11, 1978, a fourth-alarm was sounded for the Cook Lumber Company at 1514 West Main Street. The fire consumed or damaged the block between 15th & 16th Streets, between Main and Pirtle. Cook Lumber Company was the oldest lumber company in the City. There were no serious injuries.
In October 1978, the Police Department defeated the Fire Department in the 2nd Annual Football game by a score of 3-0.
In November of the same year, "Jake" Sullivan was elected president of Firefighters Local 345.
Two multiple alarm fires struck Colonial Oaks Apartments at 5011 Southside Drive. The first fire was a second-alarm on October 29th followed by a third-alarm on Christmas Eve, 1977. No one was seriously injured and, in the early part-of 1979, a young man was arrested and charged with setting the fires.
In April of 1979, Colonel Thomas T. Kuster retired as Fire Chief. Colonel Larry M. Bonnafon was promoted and became the first black Fire Chief of the Division of Fire. His concept for leading the Department was that everyone from his position to the newest recruit, had a responsibility and if one person fails to do their part, the whole Department suffers.
In the spring of the year, a new recruit class started its training at Drill School. The only difference this time from the past, was that the Department had its first woman in the class. After the first day of training, she decided to resign, stating, "she did not have the upper body strength" to complete the training.
In July of 1979, the Portland Neighborhood of the City was the target of many fires in vacant buildings in that area. Several arrests were made and the problem was resolved before the fall of that year.
Chemical Unit #15 was formulated September 16, 1979 and consisted of 18 men. These original personnel were all volunteers who were experienced in residential firefighting and had some training with chemicals or showed some interest in chemical firefighting.
It was decided that the Chemical Unit would respond with an Engine Company on all runs and, therefore, was centrally located with Engine #15 at 1328 So. Preston Street. The Engine Company still maintains its normal duties in its district, but conducts inspections on any plant, city wide, that may have hazardous, flammable or toxic materials that may be a hazard to life or property. These inspections are normally coordinated with other fire companies in whose district these properties lie.
The personnel who make up this unit are aware of the many varied lays or tools that may be utilized at chemical incidents. They have been trained through numerous seminars, training schools and "incidents" to react to various situations. Each member has been certified as an operator of the Chemical Unit through a testing procedure used by the Louisville Fire Training Bureau. In this test, all tools are discussed in relation to how, when and where they are used and maintained.
In the past year, the Chemical Unit has responded to approximately six incidents per month, consisting of train derailments, tank trucks, leaks, spills and chemical fires. There has only been one injury, minor in nature, in all of these incidents. Two train derailments in Butchertown called for evacuation of the residents in the local area. Other train derailments have not been as dramatic, but have called for specific procedures to be used, such as laying precautionary lines, being suited in special gear and having a special tool available for use. Each derailment dictates different procedures and members of the Chemical Unit act as the eyes, ears and hands of the Fire Ground Commander, performing the specific functions that he may desire.
A metal fire at a downtown plant called for several 150 lb. dry powders to be used to contain a fire until transported to an open area and allowed to burn out. Engine Co. No. 15 responded on several spills and leaks to assist plant personnel in with clean up, neutralizing and diluting, some of which were in areas where radioactive materials were present.
Since the Chemical Unit may be on standby at a scene from several minutes to several days, a van was assigned to carry an assortment of seldom-used tools. This van can is also used as a portable room in which to plan strategies, as a place to sit down and rest or to get warm, whatever the case may be. The van's interior was designed with these functions in mind by the members of Engine Co. No. 15 and has been named "Response Support Unit."
During the fiscal year 1979-80, there was not a multiple alarm fire in the City, even though the Truck Companies were reduced in manning to four men.
The eighties have seen many changes within the Department. A Standard Operating Procedures Manual for the Department was created covering all operational phases of the Division.
A Minimum Standard was established on basic company operations in which a fire ground commander would know the amount of time for specific operations to be put into effect. It gave him more flexibility on covering exposures or getting another line to the seat of the fire, etc.
The program of supplying all Engine Companies with 1-3/4" change, will eliminate the 1-1/2" and 2-1/2" hose from the apparatus.
On April 1, 1980, the Division was reorganized. The Fire Suppression Assistant Chiefs went off the track. No longer was there an Assistant Chief working 24 hours on and 48 hours off. The administration of the Department after office hours was delegated to the District Chiefs.
A new position of Safety Officer was established in the Division of Fire. The reason for this was due to OSHA taking a long hard look at the Fire Service. Their reasoning was that if an injury could be prevented, that's an additional man on the fire grounds. They were telling departments across the country that some of the risks that are taken should be avoided. One of the main jobs of the Safety Officer on the fire ground is to keep the unnecessary risk from being taken. Also, OSHA dictates to the Department the type of turnout gear that will be worn for structural firefighting. As a result of this ruling, the City has furnished fire suppression personnel with a fire resistant fire coat, nighthawks and a new fire helmet.
The Department also started a mandatory mask rule in which any firefighter entering an area that has contaminated air must wear at Self Contained Breathing Apparatus. OSHA has also ruled that in the near future the mask must be a pressure demand type mask.
Civil Service has also had a tremendous influence on the Department. To replace the oral part of an examination, they changed to the Assessment Center. Then the ruling was set forth that for a firefighter to be eligible to take a Sergeant's Promotional Test, they would have to be certified to drive a pumper and a ladder truck.
The men of the Louisville Division of Fire have a heritage to be proud of. This concludes the period of history of the Louisville Division of Fire from the beginning of the City to 1980. Only the highlights of the progress of the Department have been reviewed. There are stories that are told to each New Boy as he is assigned. There are many stories that relate to the "good ole days."
Today's firefighter is above average in common sense and intelligence, in addition to specialized training skills of fire protection. The tools and equipment are more advanced from just ten years ago. Today's firefighter has the same common enemy that has kept firefighters in existence, and that is fire. They will always remain the unsung hero, which is part of the job. The memories of the fatalities, injuries, and property damage, the despondent people encountered after the fire is "knocked down", are the dreams that cause a restless night, but go unspoken to their fellow firefighter. They are the huge lumps that lodge in their throat when seeing a child cry over a lost pet or a favorite toy. It's the compliment or the word of thanks that is missing from a job well done. Only a firefighter knows the life that is saved or the property loss averted due to their performance. Or the good-natured ribbing from their cohorts when they are injured on the fire grounds. Those words are translated into the sympathy and concern they feel for their comrade. This is their history.