The Longmont Fire Department Story
The city of Longmont has an interesting history of courageous adventurers who braved the hardships of pioneer life in search of riches. Woven into the history of the city is an equally interesting story of the development and growth of the early fire companies into the modern fire department of present day. The fearless men of the early 1880s gave the modern firefighter a heritage of which they may be proud.
The first settlers arrived in the fall of 1871; their first concern was to erect dwellings and businesses that would meet their needs. As a consequence, the small town was filled with wooden structures, erected without restrictions or building supervision. The latter would have a very vital effect upon the town. During the boom, which followed in 1872, the little town grew rapidly and since it was almost entirely a "wooden town" the damage a fire could invoke was great.
In the pioneer days, there was an unwritten law that the cry of "fire" either by day or night was a signal for every able-bodied man to seize a bucket and proceed with all haste to the scene of the fire. There was no system nor leadership to their firefighting, and water was thrown onto the flames from buckets.
On Sept. 12, 1879, at about one o'clock in the morning a fire was discovered in the bakery building on the east side of Main Street. At the time of the discovery, the fire was already showing from under the side of the building next to the two story St. Vrain Hotel. The alarm was given, but before anything could be done the whole rear of the bakery was in flames. These flames spread immediately to the hotel on the north and a drug store on the south. The heat was so intense, that the buildings on the opposite side of Main Street were charred and singed. None of the efforts of people hanging out wet blankets and throwing pails of water prevented the fire from spreading to the Carr office building and the J.B. Thompson's store on the west side of Main Street. From the drug store the flames spread to the livery stable and to the Phillip's Building. In but a few minutes the structures were consumed.
There was a vacant lot between the Phillip's Building and the Hubbard store, where another effort was made to stop the flames; there wet blankets were spread over the roof and pails of water were dashed against the side of the wooden structure, but the intense heat soon drove the men away and the fire caught the dry siding on fire and the building was doomed. The Press Building owned by Elmer F. Beckwith, was the next in line, and when the fire burst through the north side of the building it was thought the whole town was lost. The Beckwith's family in their efforts to save Hubbard's store, paid no attention to their own goods and lost everything, including the entire press office and all their household goods.
As nothing could be done in the immediate vicinity of the fire, a group was organized to pull down the Woodworth building, (believed to be the building on the north side of the Dickens Building at Third and Main). This tactic was successful. The building was razed before the fire could reach it.
Volunteers then organized a bucket brigade to carry water from Mill Ditch (about Second and Main Street) to keep the brick north side of the Dickens' building cool. There was a water problem, as at this time of the year the irrigation ditches in the town site were shut down and no water source was available for firefighting near the fire. It is also believed that water was obtained from the St. Vrain River a half mile away. After only three short hours only two buildings were left standing on the east side of Main in the 300 block. Mckerman's building north of the hotel, was saved by John Buckley using a fire extinguisher. The building was on fire several times, however. were extinguished each time. The trees on the west side of Main Street protected the buildings from the heat, so very little was damaged by fire except Thompson's store and Carr's office.
While the Press Building was burning, a keg of powder in the Dobbins' store exploded causing an explosion which broke nearly all of the glass on the west side of Main Street. John Buckley who had saved the building at Fourth and Main was leaving the building at the time of the blast and was thrown down and the newspaper reported he was considerably injured. Two others that were fighting the fire in the Press Building were also severely injured by falling bricks.
In the wake of this calamity, Walter A. Buckingham, a young banker, was the first of Longmont's residents to recognize and tackle the problem of getting better fire protection. He came forth with an offer that merited the attention of civic-minded Longmonters. He offered to bear the cost of a new, fully equipped hook and ladder hand-pulled fire cart, along with new uniforms and other equipment to outfit a fire-fighting team of sixteen volunteers. The only stipulation was that the Town Board of Trustees would do its part by providing a suitable building to house the fire fighting equipment, and the building must have a room in which the men could hold their business meetings.
On Dec. 15, 1879, the first public meeting was held to organize the fire company. A temporary organization was formed, and a petition was circulated to request the Town Trustees to accept Mr. Buckingham's offer. It was decided to call the new volunteer fire company the "W. A. Buckingham Hook & Ladder Company." This was later changed to the W. A. B. Hook and Ladder Company.
In 1880, the Town Board of Trustees purchased for the Town of Longmont a building owned by the School District No. 17, Longmont's first frame schoolhouse. This building was standing on the west side of Main Street in the 500 block. The Town Board also purchased lots on the southeast corner of Fourth and Coffman and moved the building and occupied the building as the town hall. Two years later, the town fathers had not as yet acted to provide proper housing for the new fire company's equipment. On July 29, 1881, Walter A. Buckingham passed away and Longmont lost one of its most public-spirited citizens.
At the end of two full years the company was at full strength, with a sizable waiting list. These men were, in most cases, prominent local businessmen and were very proud of their company and were punctual at the regular drills. The social angle was of course not neglected, and the annual "Masquerade Ball" was ardently supported not only by members of the W. A. B. Hook and Ladder Company, but by members of the two hose companies that were to follow later. The Ball was easily the year's stellar social event while the volunteer fire companies were active.
At some point, the W. A. B. Hook and Ladder Company did earn permission to house their equipment and share the town hall building.
After the W. A. B. Hook and Ladder Company was organized and some of the wrinkles incidental to securing a building were ironed out, another firefighting group made its appearance. This was the Longmont Hose Company No. 1 organized on March 12, 1883. Its career was successful as a companion fire fighting group. It had twenty members and they secured as their headquarters and meeting place, two office rooms on the second floor of the Masonic Temple building 312 Main St.
The last of the three volunteer fire fighting companies to be organized in Longmont was the W. H. Tiffany Hose Company. This meeting was organized on the evening of May 27, 1897. The first order of business was to select a name for the new hose company. George Stiffler moved that the name of the company should be the "W.H. Tiffany Hose Company." Will Tiffany was a popular local druggist, who was one of the prime movers in this hose company. Although not a charter member of the W.A.B. Hook and Ladder Company, he soon joined this group, and was its assistant foreman. When Longmont Hose Company No.1 was formed he was a charter member, and was elected to be 2nd assistant foreman. He was the guiding spirit in forming the last of the fire groups. His career ended with his death in August 1898.
Longmont had a pretty good water system by the mid 1880's and when the volunteers responded to an alarm and hooked up the hose to one of the fire hydrants, the water pressure could be depended upon. From 1880 to 1908 manpower was the name of the game. The hook and ladder cart and the hose cart, which are large hose reels mounted on wheels, were pulled from the hose-house to the scene of the fire by manpower. This may seem to be a poor way to handle such a problem, but it was the best that could be done under the cost of maintaining more modern equipment.
LONGMONT ALARM SYSTEM
When the town purchased the school house at Fifth and Main, they moved it to Fourth and Coffman and the schoolhouse bell was left in place and served as the town alarm system until May, 1884, when a new and larger bell, of a different tone was purchased by the town of Longmont and was installed in the top of the hose tower. The new bell weighing 845 pounds and costing $211 was delivered to Longmont, and was said to be loud enough to be heard for miles around. When the new station was built at Fourth and Coffman, in early 1908, the bell was mounted in the tower on top of the building in the northwest corner with the rope running to the first floor by the entrance door. In 1967 the bell was placed at the base of the flag pole in front of the Fourth and Coffman station. In 1972 the bell was moved to 501 South Pratt Parkway and served as the base of the flag pole for Longmont Fire Station #1. The flag pole at Station #1 is the pole that the fire fighters used at the Fourth and Coffman station to get from the living quarters on the second floor to the first floor where vehicles were located. In 1930 the phone system was added. At that time the firefighters that were on duty would answer the phone write down the address and respond. The police would also listen to the call so they would know where the fire department was going, If the firefighters were gone the police would answer the phone and get the information and send a police officer over to the fire station to ring the bell and write the address on a blackboard. This was done until a radio system was purchased, then the police could reach the firefighters on scene and tell them of another call. Both the bell and the pole were moved in 2009 to the new fire station 1, located at 11th and Terry Street.
The business section of Longmont did suffer some serious fires during the thirty year period that the three volunteer fire companies were active, but none as bad as the 1870 fire that cost its victims well over $50,000.
In September 1884, a minor fire occurred in the J.M. Mumford building at Sixth & Main resulting in a loss of about $200. Feb. 21, 1887 there was a minor blaze in the William & Rothrock building at Fourth and Main. On June 16, 1888, a serious fire was fought in the American House (later to become the Silver State Hotel). A more serious fire destroyed the roller-skating rink on East Fourth Avenue, where the loss was placed at $1,200. A dry goods store at Fourth and Main had another fire, this one more serious on Feb. 25, 1889. The loss to the stock alone was estimated at $9,000. The same building had another fire on December 8, 1890, but the loss was smaller. On Jan. 23, 1891, the Boyles & Comstock store located in the 300 block of Main Street (on the west side) suffered heavy fire losses at the grocery and general merchandise establishment. The loss in stock was set at about $15,000 and $4,500 worth of damage to the building.
The Masonic Temple had a fire on February 17, 1905. The alarm went off on Monday morning at 1:50am. The Masonic Temple building was destroyed by fire and Thos. Butler's building, hardware stock, and the dining room part of the Oxford restaurant were crushed by falling walls. Estimated loss for the Masonic building was estimated at $6,000. Butler's estimated loss was $12,000-$15,000.
The Colorado Milling Company's Flour Milling had a fire on May 18, 1934. This fire completely destroyed the Longmont Flour Mill and a grain elevator at 2nd Avenue and Bross Street. The loss was estimated at $100,000.
Longmont Fire Department Chiefs: Chief Vern Campbell 1918-1942, Chief Joe Greeno 1942-1962, Chief Charles Shoe 1962-1966, Chief Robert Neiman 1966-1987, Chief Steve Trunck 1988-2008, Chief Mike Butler (2008-current).
For additional information, please email or call (303)651-8424.