Fire Department mutual aid in the time of trains

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Firefighters are a very special breed of public servant. That’s apparent from the daily news.

My research through newspapers going back more than 100 years shows that deeds of firefighters have been hailed from front page headline stories of courage and heroism in times of tragedy to many small accounts of compassion in community service.

It’s amazing to learn how technology has changed how fires are fought. The Internet has revolutionized the ways a home or business can be protected or a fire can be reported. The computerized equipment and gear of today’s firefighters lets them work up close in extreme conditions of smoke and flames.

It’s serious business, but firefighting’s history holds its fair share of humor. One of the Lewiston Historical Commission’s valuable publications from the late 1980s mixed details about century-old equipment and some of the region’s major fires with bits of trivia from times past.

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Of course, you know about horse-drawn fire wagons and steam-powered pumpers. Do you know when the last pair of fire department horses in Lewiston were retired? I was surprised to learn that it was as late as 1932.

Firefighers’ musters and parades were common community events for friendly competition between towns. On July 4, 1866, at a muster on Canal Street, Lewiston, the Excelsior No. 2 pumper had just won the “First Trumpet” prize for throwing a stream of water some 200 feet when a runner arrived from the railroad telegraph office. He exclaimed that Portland needed help. A major fire was raging. Forty L-A firefighters rushed to load Excelsior No. 2 aboard a train, and they left to assist Portland’s crews.

That blaze, five years before the Great Chicago Fire, was the greatest fire yet seen in an American city. It destroyed 1,800 buildings.

Fire departments large and small traditionally have participated in mutual aid. The Lewiston Historical Commission’s book explained that, in the early days, the mutual aid system provided for the mayor of a stricken city to send a telegram to the mayor of the city being asked for help.

That mayor would order the fire chief to sound the alarm, and “a fire train was then made up consisting of a locomotive, flat cars on which to load fire apparatus, a box car for horses, a passenger car for firefighters plus passenger cars for curious spectators who rushed to the train station and bought tickets when an out of town alarm sounded.”

In November 1882 when Widgery Wharf in Portland was destroyed, “There was a near riot at the Lewiston railroad station because spectators had bought tickets to ride the train, but then Portland sent word to hold because the fire was thought to be under control.”

Passengers were on their way home when the order was reversed “and the already steaming locomotive pulled the fire train out, leaving the ticket agent to face irate passengers who were left behind.”

A somewhat similar episode took place in April of 1911 when Bangor sent for help as its downtown burned.

The Lewiston book of fire department history said, “Spectators filled all available train space and those hanging from the cowcatchers had to be forcibly removed before the train could leave the station.”

Of all the mutual aid stories, probably the most unusual episode took place on April 27, 1892. A carload of grain on a siding next to Tibbett’s Grain Shed on Turner Street in Auburn was burning and it couldn’t be pulled back to extinguish it without endangering some shoe shops.

“Auburn called Lewiston to say that they were shunting the car across the railroad bridge so the Lewiston department could meet it at Middle Street and fight the fire there. The chief remarked that Lewiston had sent aid to other towns many times but this was the first time another town had sent a fire to them.”

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to dasargent@maine.com.

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