By Mick Woodcock
Prescott’s first ever major structural fire on May 2, 1867 caused a stir in the business community, as it was only by great effort that a larger loss of buildings and inventory was averted. Men turned out to battle the blaze with no equipment except what buckets and ladders could be found.
The town had a water source by August of 1864, a well on the Plaza which provided an…”abundant supply for the town.” The problem was getting the water from the Plaza to a building on fire. The answer seemed to be formation of a volunteer fire department.
The concept of a volunteer fire department would have been familiar to any who had been in California during the Gold Rush era. San Francisco had suffered a devastating fire in 1849 that started on Christmas Eve. With the ashes still warm, the town council had formed a volunteer fire department that lasted until replaced in1866 by a paid department.
The August 17, 1867 edition of the Arizona Miner reported the following:
“Fireman’s Ball. – The Hook and Ladder Company’s Ball at Campbell & Buffum’s new store, on Thursday Evening, was a complete success. The large room presented a handsome appearance – the ladies were out in their strength and unusually attractive – the music, by Christie, Elliott and Shanks, was melodious – the lunch was palateable [sic], and the merry party “danced all night till broad day light,” and, those who could get the chances, “went home with the girls in the morning.” The firemen deserve credit for the prompt manner in which they have perfected their organization; and it is pleasant to know that the pecuniary results of this agreeable social entertainment, were such as to entirely relieve them from debt, and to place a good balance in their treasury”.
The cause of their indebtedness isn’t clear, but presumably it was for equipment like buckets, fire hooks to tear down walls and ladders to reach roofs and chimneys, as this was mentioned as lacking in the original article on the fire. Also, the fact that the volunteer company was listed as “The Hook and Ladder Company.” A later newspaper article referred to their “machine” which must have been some sort of wagon to haul equipment.
For a town with no history of fires, the next few months provided excitement and opportunity for The Hook and Ladder Company. The December 7, 1867 edition of the Arizona Miner reported a fire on the roof of the new schoolhouse. The schoolmaster, with the help of The Hook and Ladder Company, extinguished it.
Two weeks later The Hook and Ladder Company responded to a chimney fire at the Arizona Brewery. It resulted in no damage to the building. In the middle of February 1868, two residential chimney fires were reported. The first was a daytime fire at the home of Mr. Wunderlich, and the second occurred at night at the home of John D. Bourke.
The Wunderlich fire burned itself out without incident. Bourke’s fire had smoke and flames coming from the chimney which … “was seen by some of The Hook and Ladder company, who rushed to their engine house, trotted out their machine,” and put out the fire.
It appears that the specter of fire devouring the town faded with time, for an article in the Weekly Arizona Miner on May 30, 1879 stated, “The authorities should take steps to provide against fire. There is not even a bucket belonging to the Village which can be found when wanted.”
We don’t know what happened to the first Hook and Ladder Company and their “machine,” but it was apparently not around in 1879 when it was needed.
Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 2, or via email at email@example.com for information or assistance with photo requests.