From bucket brigades to fire service rivalries

Horse-drawn fire equipment is used in the 1800s by the Williamsport Mutual Fire Insurance Co.

The first “fire department” in Williamsport, according to a publication celebrating the 100th anniversary of the city’s fire service, was every man, woman and child who could carry a bucket.

The bucket brigade consisted of two lines, one with buckets filled with water headed toward the fire and one with empty buckets headed back to the water source.

These were supplemented by the city’s first piece of fire equipment, a primitive hand-pumped device, affectionately known as “Sassy Sal,” in 1835. Another piece of equipment was added in 1840, the same year the first volunteer fire company was formed.

Eventually there were two stations, one at West Third and Pine streets and another at West Third and William streets, which was later moved to East Third and Mulberry streets. The stations were known as the Washington and Neptune and the two original companies eventually merged into one in 1869.

Other companies developed around the city and rivalry was common. According to County Public Safety Director John Yingling, some of the fiercest gangs in America’s early history were volunteer fire companies.

The groups in Williamsport were no different.

According to historical documents, the rivalry peaked when there was a fire alarm. Fire companies were known to race to the scene of a fire and then squabble over the use of hydrants, even resorting to cutting hoses of their rivals. Unfortunately, buildings would sometimes burn as the firemen sorted out their turf wars.

Change came after a devastating fire hit the city in August of 1871. Referred to as the “Great Fire of 1871” in the book “Lost Williamsport” by Samuel Dornsife and Eleanor Wolfson, the blaze destroyed 45 homes in the East Third and Mulberry streets area. Ironically, the original Fire Station No. 1 located in that area was a victim of the fire.

Also ironic, the blaze in Williamsport occurred just two months before Mrs. O’Leary’s cow allegedly started a fire that destroyed a great portion of Chicago.

Sadly, the only known and irreplaceable early newspaper files from the Lycoming Gazette, dating from 1823 until it became the Gazette and Bulletin, also were destroyed in the fire.

After the big fire, the city decided a full-time paid fire service would better serve the area and, in 1874, a fire board was elected.

Four engine companies and one hose company were established throughout the city. Independent No. 1, Washington No. 2, Hibernia No. 3, Liberty No. 4 and Keystone Hook and Ladder No. 1 later were joined by three more stations.

Today, many of the stations in the city are gone. Some of the station houses have been transformed into businesses, while others have been razed.