5 Utter Failures from History’s First Fire Departments

Wait, we thought firefighters were supposed to be heroes?
5 Utter Failures from History’s First Fire Departments

Good news: Your town just got a fire department! Never mind why they didn’t have one till now — the fact that they have one now can only mean good things to come. Plus, even better news: Not a single member of the fire department is one of the not-insignificant number of arsonists who join fire departments specifically so they can start fires. We guarantee this new fire department is not going to set fires and masturbate to the result.  

So, what could go wrong then? Quite a bit, it turns out. 

Memphis’ First Fire Engine Immediately Hit the Alderman Who’d Bought It

Memphis, Tennessee, received its first fire engine in 1830. Years remained till vehicles would receive their own internal combustion engines, but this 3-foot-tall handcart was still referred to as an engine, when it wasn’t referred to by its name, “Little Vigor.” It took eight men to operate, and it sprayed water high enough to target he city’s tallest building. It was purchased by a Memphis alderman, George Aldred.

On the day that Little Vigor debuted, all the men who operated it were drunk. They filled the cart with muddy water and sprayed it at onlookers and at clean painted houses, angering many. They continued parading the engine through the town, going up a hill, and putting fat old George Aldred at the front of the procession, in a place of honor. Then when they went down the hill, Little Vigor rolled faster than Aldred could walk. It knocked him to the ground.

replica of Little Vigor

Fire Museum

This was not the first recorded automobile accident, as Little Vigor was not an automobile. 

It narrowly missed rolling over the man fatally, but a dozen or so men running alongside the cart did manage to trample him. Aldred was already facing potential lawsuits from the various people whom Little Vigor had muddied, so maybe it was safest for him to become another of the engine’s victims.

During the next nine years of its reign, Little Vigor didn’t always succeed at putting out fires, since a huge cart was not very practical in an 1830s town whose streets were mostly unpaved. One time, however, a crowd filled it with lampblack (a pigment made from oil) and soapy water and aimed it at a brothel, where there was no fire, to “wash” the place out. 

Boulder’s First Fire Truck Crashed into Its First Police Car

For years, Boulder, Colorado, had fire teams consisting of horses and wagons, horses like Doc and Pat, Jack and Ned and Nip and Tuck. The city’s first fire truck patrolled the city starting around 1920. Around the same time, the city got its first police car. Motor vehicles were pretty new at the time, so emergency services naturally got them first. 

Boulder Fire Department: 1931 American LaFrance fire truck

Boulder Historical Society

By 1931, trucks would look like this, with ladders and everything.

On March 18, 1920, a fire sprang up in the city, and the first firetruck and first police car both sped toward it. One drove down 19th Street and the other took Pearl Street, and the two slammed into each other at the intersection. The truck was quite new at the time, and the squad car was even newer, just two days old

The chief of police, Lawrence P. Bass, died in the crash. He had been on the force for 21 years. The undersheriff was William Stretcher, a man whose name destined him to be attended on by paramedics at some point, and he too died. The car held one civilian occupant, Joe Salter, who died as well. People in the firetruck, including the police chief, also experienced injuries but didn’t die. Firetrucks are huge and able to take a beating. 

Two Weeks After Vancouver Got Its First Fire Department, the Whole City Burned Down

Motorized firetrucks did exist a bit before Boulder got theirs. An automaker called Seagrave, which still makes firetrucks today, was building them as early as 1907, and Vancouver bought three of them that year. By this point, Vancouver had had a fire department for several decades. The department first formed in on May 29, 1886. That must have seemed like a landmark day, the end of fire’s reign of terror, except that the entire town burned down two weeks later. 

Map of Great Vancouver Fire, 1886

J.S. Matthews 

The fire ironically even burned down Water Street. 

The whole town burned in just 45 minutes. Granted, Vancouver wasn’t quite as large in those days as it is now, but it still had around 1,000 buildings, and the fire ate them right up. It started because workers set fires to clear land west of town, for a new train station and just for general expansion. The wind blew two fires together, and the men abandoned trying to contain them and ran through town warning everyone to flee. Most people heeded the warning. Others took the opportunity to go into the big hotel and raid the liquor supply; this hotel would turn out to be one of the few buildings to survive the blaze. 

The fire department didn’t do much of anything to extinguish the fire because they couldn’t do much of anything to extinguish the fire. They had no fire engine. The reason we’ve been tracking the introduction of fire engines so far is that a fire department without a fire engine is just a bunch of people with buckets and good intentions, and we all know where that leads.

No One Trusted the First Escape Fire

In 1949, a wildfire burned 2,000 acres around Mann Gulch in Montana. A team of firefighters and smokejumpers headed in while it still looked small and manageable but soon became nearly surrounded, with flames on almost all sides. They would be able to get out of there, if they could outrun the fire and make it to safety. Instead, the foreman, Wagner Dodge, took out some matches and lit the grass right beneath them.

Now, we told you earlier that we weren’t going to be bothering today with stories of firemen who were secret arsonists. As promised, Dodge was not setting any kind of malicious fire. He was setting what’s known as an escape fire. He was creating a clearing, so when the wildfire reached the area, it would have nothing to burn. The wildfire would surround them, but the men would have a little safe spot in the middle where they could chill till it died down.

People had theorized about escape fires before, but this appears to be the first time anyone put it into practice. Unfortunately, this means that none of the other men had any idea what the foreman was doing, and if they could hear any of his instructions over the larger fire’s roar, they chose not to follow them. The men tried to get the hell out of Dodge, and while their foreman survived the blaze in the little sanctuary he’d carved out, nearly all the other men died.

 Mann Gulch fire memorial

US Forest Service

The moral here is “fight fire with fire.”

The First Roman Fire Brigade Would Only Save a Building for a Very Specific Reason

Let’s go way back now, to not just one area’s first fire department but to what seems to be the first fire department in history. In the first century B.C., Rome had no fire department, and it appears that nowhere else in the world did either. Then Marcus Licinius Crassus created one, staffing it with 500 slaves. It functioned a little differently from what you may be used to.

When a house caught fire, Crassus’ brigade would show up, but they wouldn’t extinguish the flames — at least not at first. Instead, they would offer to buy the burning property from the owner, for rather less than it normally went for. If the owner refused, the men would offer again, now for an even lower price, as the burning building was quickly losing value. If the owner agreed, the team would put the fire out, but if not, they’d let it burn to the ground. They’d then move on to offering to buy the neighbor’s property, as it was newly threatened by the growing blaze. 

Crassus now had himself some new real estate, which he’d obtained cheaply. He could do plenty with the land, and sometimes, he’d simply sell it back to the previous owner, for much more than he’d paid. He became the richest man in Rome this way and possibly one of the richest people in history. It’s cliché to call firefighters heroes, but it’s clear that no other firefighter was as great as Marcus Licinius Crassus.

The torture of Crassus. Faience

Tangopaso/Wiki Commons

Here is artwork showing him being tortured to death. 

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