With all the new development going on in Salem there is, happily, also news of an upcoming preservation project: the city just received a matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission to restore the masonry and windows of its oldest firehouse, an 1881 structure very much in service. All the newspaper stories reporting the grant referred to Station #2 as the third oldest continually operating firehouse in the United States, but I found a few more that were older: it is the fifth or sixth by my count. Everyone seems to agree that the oldest operating station is a charming Greek Revival structure in Madison, Indiana, built in 1850.
Salem’s Station no. 2 (1881) and Washington Fire Company no. 2 (1850), Madison, Indiana.
There are many people who know much, much, much more about the history of firefighting in Salem than I do, so I’m not going to provide too much historical context here, but a few interesting facts did surface in my very brief foray into this field. From almost the date of its founding, Salem’s government seems to have been focused on fire prevention, indicated by some rather notable initiatives: in the 1640s Salem’s residents were compelled to have ladders in their homes (presumably to stop chimney and roof fires before they got out of control), and a century later, Salem was one of the first American colonial towns to import a Newsham hand-pump fire engine, the cutting-edge firefighting technology of the eighteenth century, from Britain. At the same time, and into the next century, Salem’s firefighting clubs or companies were established, leaving their material legacy of decorated–and much sought-after– leather fire buckets. There were certainly firehouses in Salem before Station no. 2, built both before and after the acquisition of steam engines by the city, as there are several references in the municipal records to the “accommodations” made to transform them into “steam houses”.
Player’s Cigarettes Fire Engine Series cards, New York Public Library Digital Gallery, and a pair of McIntire family fire buckets from 1833, which sold at a Northeast auction for $52,000 in 2007!
I do wonder if any accommodations were made to Station #2, particularly its entrance bay, for modern fire trucks. It was built to house steam engines–both horse-drawn and self-propelled–that were much smaller than the big red engine that is in there now. Again, Salem seems to have been an early adopter of fire engine technology in the second half of the nineteenth century, and owned several Amoskeag engines, which were manufactured in Manchester, New Hampshire from 1859 to 1913 and shipped worldwide. These replaced the earlier “handtubs” in service, but the latter did not go away: they became the vehicles of intensely competitive fireman’s musters, at which crews would compete to see who could pump out the longest stream of water. In Salem and other New England towns (and elsewhere???), this tradition continues, creating events which mix athleticism and engineering, civic pride and historic preservation.
The interior of a New York City engine house, c. 1887, New York Public Library Digital Gallery, and Salem’s victorious White Angel handtub, c. 1894.