The vision of the Manchester Fire Department is to become the finest fire and EMS service organization possible by utilizing and developing our members to their fullest potential, maximizing our use of the resources available to us, and being responsive to the growth and changing needs of our community.
Being a firefighter is one of noblest things that a person can undertake. It has incredible rewards and responsibilities that come with the position. Our members are devoted and compassionate individuals..
Founding of the Department
December 29, 1888
Volunteer fire departments bring to mind some of the great traditions of American folklore. The ideals of community, of neighbors helping neighbors for the common good, and of the selfless public servants are all epitomized in the image of the volunteer firefighter. However, all such organizations are also the very practical responses of the community trying to protect themselves from the ravages of fire and the destruction caused by natural disasters. This backdrop of a community threatened by danger, directly led to the formation of the Manchester Fire Department, Eighth Utilities District, in 1888.
In the late 1880’s there was some discussion about fire protection, but no group or formal organization had emerged in the area. On December 29, 1888, a barn fire led to the use of an informally organized bucket brigade to save an adjoining property. Neighbors and residents, drawn by the plume of smoke, worked to save the Tuhoey property. This loosely organized group was called North Manchester’s first fire fighters by the local residents. These humble beginnings mark the birth-date of today’s District firefighting group.
One week later, during the morning of January 4, 1889, the need for an organized system of fire prevention was once again demonstrated spectacularly. The entire Depot Square was threatened by a near conflagration. Beginning in what was known as the Scott Building, a fire erupted on the North side of North Main Street. A law office, a post office, the telephone exchange, and the production offices of the Manchester Weekly Herald, were gutted by flames. The neighboring landmark Cowles Hotel was also directly endangered.
On this morning, the ingenuity of Manchester’s volunteers was first demonstrated as they hung carpets, blankets, and sheets along the entire east face of the Cowles Hotel. These items were then kept wet by a bucket brigade that stretched to the building’s roof. This action bought the threatened North End time until a steam fire engine from Hartford could be brought by railroad flat car to Manchester. The outside help came in the form of an old fashioned “Steamer”. Where ordinarily it would have been horse-drawn in this instance, it was loaded on a railroad flat bed and moved to Manchester with the help of a steam engine train. Once the pumper arrived at the North End, it was unloaded and moved adjacent to the brook which flowed alongside Nelson Place. This provided a supply of water where the need was greatest and was the paramount factor in bringing the fire under control. This is probably the first recorded case of mutual aid in fighting fires in Manchester. Had the fire not been contained by the pluck and wit of the volunteers, only blackened ruins would have awaited the Hartford firefighters. The Scott Building fire probably provided one of the very first examples of fire protection as we know it today. It was a result of this preventative work, coupled with the imagination and ingenuity of the volunteers that the Cowles Hotel escaped with very little, if any, damage.
If there was one grateful citizen in the North End after the Scott Building Fire it was Clarence Allen, the proprietor of the Cowles Hotel. After witnessing what can be accomplished when a group bands together, Allen interested a group of residents and property owners of the Old Eighth School District in the formation of an organization that would be ready to help in case of a fire and he is credited with being the very first Chief.
The founding members named the organization the “Manchester Fire Department”. At the time, Manchester happened to be divided into 9 school districts, and most of the members happened to live in or near Union Village, which was the “North School District - No. 8”. So for many years, the fire department meetings were held at the Eighth District school house. The school district also helped raise some limited funds to get things started. At first the ties between the school district and the fire department were informal.
Since there were no water mains in 1889 to supply water to fire hoses, Chief Allen’s first priority was to get some genuine leather water buckets. These were purchased and left at convenient places around the neighborhood. He also set up a fire alarm procedure. To sound an alarm, there were three options: the bell in the Old Union School (now demolished) could be rung, the policeman on the beat was given a key to the Second Congregational Church so that the church bell could be rung, or a whistle in the Case Paper Mill on Mill Street (now Rogers Corp.) could be sounded. This traces the early evolution of the Fire Alarm Systems and illustrates the ingenuity of the men of that day in using and utilizing the only tools available or accessible to them.
After the organization of the volunteer firemen, the next most important advancement took place when the Manchester Water Co. obtained a charter in 1889 to provide a water supply to the Northern part of Manchester and started to lay water mains. This system was originally fed by three small reservoirs and would soon encompass more than 11 miles of pipe. Right from the beginning, the Eighth School District entered into a contract with the Manchester Water Co. to pay a yearly rental fee for hydrants for a period of 20 years. This made the year of 1889 a year of advancement and decision.
With the coming of the water mains and the fire hydrants, additional funds were raised by subscriptions, sponsoring dances and entertainment (no Peach Shortcake Festivals in those days). These funds were used to purchase some hose, a hose cart (called a jumper), and a few more pieces of equipment.
While instrumental in organizing the original group of volunteers, Chief Clarence Allen had a business to run, and so he soon turned the chief’s position over to his brother, George Allen in 1890. Chief Clarence Allen did continue to support the department, and was kind enough to allow the first “fire station” to be set up out of a shed behind his hotel.
By the mid 1890’s, the Manchester Fire Department had purchased three hose reels. Each of these reels was a simple hand drawn cart that was equipped with 2.5 inch cotton hose, a nozzle, and a few hand tools. The original hose cart was stored in a shed on Cowles Lane – directly behind the Cowles Hotel, and that became Hose Company #1. (Cowles Lane had been off North School Street, and the original shed was located where the Robertson Elementary school stands today.) This cart was outfitted with 450 to 500 feet of hose.
The second hose reel that the district acquired (Hose Company #2), was originally stored in a shed owned by Arthur Straw on Oakland Street. This reel was equipped with 300 to 350 feet of hose and some basic tools. In 1905, that property was sold to the Slater family, and the district was asked to relocate their equipment. After some research, the district realized that the town already owned a lot that was being considered on Apel place. After getting approval from the town, a small single bay cement block garage was erected, and the cart was relocated in early 1906.
The third hose reel (Hose Company #3) was located in Frank Spencer’s barn on Main Street, near the intersection of Henry Street. This was equipped with about 350 feet of hose and additional hand tools.
The mid 1890’s were quiet years, and the department only responded to a few incidents most years. Unfortunately this lack of calls led to some difficulty in recruiting and retaining good members.
In 1899, the department had its first major internal reorganization. Thomas Smith was elected Chief, and the first set of by-laws was written to formalize the conduct and activity of the Manchester Fire Department. By this time the district had 56 fire hydrants, and it was decided to add a fourth piece of equipment and to construct a real fire station. An order was placed for a new ladder wagon from a company in Schenectady, NY. The wagon was designed to be hand drawn, and was equipped with 500 feet of hose, 6 ladders in various lengths up to 40 feet, lanterns, axes, and other hand tools used at the time. This arrived in late December, 1900. At the annual meeting in January 1901, Manchester Hose and Ladder (H&L) Company #1 was formed. When the ladder wagon first arrived it was stored in the basement of the Eighth School District, but within a year it was moved to a new headquarters building located at 37 North School Street. In addition to housing the ladder wagon, this new headquarters building had a second floor space for meetings, a kitchen for small events, and a tower that could be used to dry hose. The new headquarters location was close to the old Hose Company #1, so that hose reel was later moved to a barn further west on North Main street.
When the new Hose and Ladder Company #1 was formed, members were outfitted with special clothing designed for firefighting use. Up until this point, firefighters would just respond with whatever clothing they had on. This new protective coats had a canvass shell for durability and an oiled silk liner to make them waterproof. Firefighters were also issued hip boots and a sou’wester style hat with ear flaps. These new clothes were the frontrunners to the personal protective equipment that is standard issue to all of our members today.
By the early 1900’s the department started to face an issue that exists to this day, and was that a lot of volunteers signed up to join the department, but not all of them were as active as the officers would have liked. Over the years various incentives were attempted. At first, active volunteers in the department were granted some relief from the Connecticut poll and military commutation tax. According to newspaper accounts at the time, this was a recurring issue that kept coming up at meetings.
In1909, the original 20 year contract with the Manchester Water Co. had come to an end. During renegotiations the District got into a dispute about the hydrant rental fees, and so all but a handful were turned off. The Eighth School District applied to the state for a charter to expand and become a formal utility provider. Specifically they wanted to run their own water company. The district was denied the right to provide water service, but they were allowed to expand their sewer service. The District renamed itself the Eighth School and Utilities District. It took a few years, but a resolution on the hydrants was finally reached with Manchester Water Co.
In the early 1910’s there was a whirlwind of change going on in town and in the fire service. The various fire departments in the southern part of town (South Manchester, Manchester Green, and Cheeny Mills Fire Department) had consolidated, and the other departments in the northern part of town (Buckland and Oakland departments) had disbanded. The South Manchester Fire Department also had become an early adopter of many new technologies and trends. By 1915, South Manchester Fire had some paid staff, motorized fire apparatus, and telegraph alarm boxes. In contrast, the Eighth District was still using hand drawn wagons, and an ineffective way of alerting members about an incident. Confusion about call locations led to some embarrassing delays in responding to two incidents in late 1916. By this time, there was a lot of talk in the town about possibly consolidating the two remaining fire departments. In fact the South Manchester department was so confident of this, that when they ordered their new alarm panel, they purposely sized it large enough to support the entire town, not just their jurisdiction. However, many of the residents and firefighters of the Eighth School and Utilities District were opposed to giving up control of the department they had built.
In 1917, the Manchester Fire Department was reorganized under a new Chief, John Limerick. The consolidation proposal was rejected, and in an effort to prevent being forced to merge, the district used this opportunity to successfully petition the state legislature for a formal charter. As part of the charter process, the Manchester Fire Department was formally aligned under the oversight and control of the Eighth School and Utilities District.
Chief Limerick then tacked the next big issue facing the department, and that was its dependence on now antiquated hand drawn wagons. To complicate matters, the district’s only real fire station on North School Street was still fairly new, but it was ill equipped to handle the size and weight of the new motorized vehicles. Despite these challenges, he successfully lobbied for the construction of a new 2 bay brick and cinderblock fire station at 32 Main St.
Right around the time the new fire station was being completed, the department purchased its first piece of motorized apparatus. This new truck was a 1921 Mack Hose and Chemical car. By 1923 a second motorized piece, a Mack pumper was purchased. With these two modern pieces of equipment in service, Chief Limerick consolidated the department so that everyone would now operate out of this one central station. The outlying hose reels and ladder wagon were shut down, and the original 4 companies were reassigned to Company 1 or Company 2 in headquarters.
By the 1930’s the Town of Manchester consolidated the nine independent school boards into one town wide entity. The Eighth School and Utilities district participated, and gave up its independent funding and oversight of the local school. Despite this change, it wasn’t until the 1960’s did the district officially change its name to just the Eighth Utilities District.
The 1930’also saw the sudden loss of two chiefs in short succession. Chief Coleman was appointed chief in 1934. He only served until early 1936, and shortly after stepping down, he passed away at the age of 43. Chief Coleman was succeeded by Chief Willis. Less than two years later, Chief Willis had a massive heart attack and died on Thanksgiving Day 1937. He was only 40 years old. The loss of both chiefs at such a young age shocked the community.
Chief Griswold took over and led the department in its celebration for their 50th Anniversary with a large parade and carnival. After that, attention shifted to acquiring a new GMC Pickup truck that the department was able to convert into a support vehicle. The members fabricated a rack on the roof to hold a 50’ ladder, and they mounted hose and a deluge fire nozzle in the back. During the war effort, the first Civil Defense groups were organized, and those members would eventually become the foundation of Company 3.
After World War II, the fire service was quick to adopt a lot of new technologies that had been developed for use in the armed services. This included self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), portable radios, adjustable nozzles, and large flow fire attacks. It was with these advances that firefighting really went from defensive operations to allowing firefighters the ability to aggressively go into the building to fight the fire. To support these changes, the department acquired two new American LaFrance Engines with large capacity pumps. In 1948, the department also changed its rank structure, and the roles of Foremen and Chief Engineer transitioned to the Chiefs, Captains, and Lieutenants that we have today.
By the 1960’s, fire apparatus was again transforming from small opened cab vehicles to full sized trucks. With these advancements included the conversion to diesel engines, larger pumps (over 1000 GPM), and sizable onboard water tanks. This allowed the firefighters to get to the scene faster, and could quickly have one crew attack the fire using tank water, while the line to the hydrant was still being connected.