A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BOSTON FIRE DEPARTMENT

The Boston Fire Department (BFD) was organized with the establishment of the countries’ first engine company and the receipt of the first Hand Fire Engine in North America in 1678. Unique to Boston at that time was that the members were paid for responding to fires and other official calls.

Additional engines were procured over the years and the structure of the department was changed as the community and the danger of fire grew.  A major effort to improve the system occurred when a group of well respected men in the town were appointed as Fire Wards by the town fathers on February 1, 1711.  Each of these gentlemen was responsible for operation and maintenance of the equipment assigned to their particular section of the city.

The 1st reorganization of the BFD occurred in 1837 when the hand engine department reorganized reducing the number of engines in active service from 20 and several unmanned reserve engines to 14 active engines.

On December 3l, 1858, 14 hand engines, 3 hook and ladder carriages and 6 hydrant (hose) carriages were in service.

The first Steam Engine was placed in service on North Bennett St., North End, on November 1, 1859.as Engine Co. 8.  The conversion to steam fired apparatus was rapid and greatly improved the ability of the department to fight fire. Ultimately a total of 11 steam engines replaced the 14 hand engines.

The Boston Fire Department (BFD), in its present structure, is the result of a reorganization which was instituted in 1859-60 as the conversion to Steam Engines from hand pumps took place.

The first Fire Alarm Telegraph system in the world was established in Boston. The first alarm of fire was transmitted on the system on April 29,1852.

The BFD handled many great fires, including the "Great Boston Fire of 1872," with fire companies from as far away as New Haven, CT. working. BFD companies traveled to other cities over the years, including the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 and the Great Salem Fire: of 1914.

Boston's first piece of motorized apparatus was placed in service on July 29, 1910 at Chemical 13 (now Engine 53). Horses, which had pulled fire apparatus since the mid-1850's, began to be replaced with motor apparatus about 1914.  Ladder 24, in 1923, was the last horse-drawn apparatus to be replaced. The last steam engine was replaced in 1926.

The greatest fire disaster in Boston's history, in terms of loss of life, occurred on November 28, 1942 at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub on Piedmont St., downtown, where 492 persons died. This fire ranks as the second deadliest fire in the nation's history, after Chicago's Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903 which cost 602 lives. Many improvements to building codes and burn treatment resulted from the Cocoanut Grove fire.

By 1960, the BFD consisted of 48 engines, 29 ladders, 1 rescue and 2 fire boats. Of the 48 engines, 20 were 2-piece (hose wagon and pumper) companies. Later in the decade, 100 foot aerial ladders with tillers were purchased, replacing the previous standard 85 foot ladders.

In 1972, a 4-alarm fire at the Hotel Vendome on Commonwealth Ave. caused the death of nine firefighters when, without warning, a large portion of the building collapsed.  Later in the 1970s an experiment with lime-green colored apparatus was conducted, but the BFD reverted back to red in 1984.

In the early 1980's, Boston experienced a rash of 600 arson fires, many of these fires reached multiple-alarm status.  An arson ring was ultimately caught, tried and convicted for this wave of destruction.

Beginning in 1984, all first-line apparatus was renewed with single unit Engine companies replacing the 2 piece companies and Ladder Companies receiving 110' rear-mounts, making the famous tiller-trucks obsolete. The systematic replacement of front line apparatus has continued and new innovations instituted such as all wheel steering, modern Ladder Towers, Mobile Communication Centers and specialized equipment to facilitate collapse rescue and fire fighting in the I90, I93 and airport tunnels.

Boston currently (2006) operates 34 engines, 18 ladders, 2 (heavy) rescues, 4 tower ladders, 2 fireboats and numerous special units.

 

                                            344 CONGRESS ST.
                      (ENGINE 38/39; ENGINE 39 & LADDER 18)

Engine Companies 38 and 39 were organized on May 18,1891, as the only double engine company (1 captain) ever organized in the BFD. They occupied the newly built firehouse located in a busy wool warehouse district, but close to the downtown area. The principal landowner in the area, Boston Wharf Co., provided the land for the station. E38 and E39 did not respond together to any box on the first alarm, an arrangement requested by Boston Wharf to provide adequate fire coverage at all times.

The horse-drawn steamer of E38 was replaced in 1897 by a self-propelled steamer which saw heavy fire duty, serving until 1925. In 1898, 6 BFD members, including 5 from this station, died in a bedding factory fire on Merrimac St., West End. Another member from this house died at a fire on Chauncey St. in 1946.

Engine 38 was disbanded in 1947. In 1953, Ladder Co. 18 (organized in 1902) moved from quarters on Pittsburg St. (1 block away) to 344 Congress. The house was occupied by these companies until closed on April 22, 1977 when a new station was opened at 272 D St., South Boston.  The new location houses Engine 39 and Ladder 18 along with Engine 1.

During the 86 years that this firehouse was active, the companies responded to many important fires. Among them were the "Great Salem Fire" of 1914, the "Great Chelsea Fire(s)" of 1908 and 1973, the Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942, the Biddeford (ME) fires of 1947, the Sleeper St. Fire (1 block away) of 1948 and the Bellflower St. Fire of 1964.

The "Congress Street Fire Station" was granted Landmark status in 1987 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Boston Fire Museum and Boston Sparks Association have occupied the firehouse since 1983