“Ever Watchful”: The Story of the Georgetown Fire Department

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Fire was a constant danger throughout the Western frontier. A small blaze could easily swell and destroy an entire community within a few hours. Even today’ we hear of massive forest fires that take weeks to fully contain, and there is hardly anything we can do but watch as they consume the land around them. These devastating but powerful forces of nature could spell doom. Georgetown was extremely fortunate that there were no major fires that destroyed the town. There were several factors that led to Georgetown being spared from an incredible disaster.

To provide some context on the common nature of devastating fires I am going to describe two events from Colorado history that show how truly lucky Georgetown was.

In 1863, Denver was a booming mining town, within the Kansas Territory. Colorado would not even achieve statehood until thirteen years later in 1876. As Denver grew, so did the danger from fire. According, to the Denver Firefighter’s Museum most of the buildings were constructed from pine. The resin within the wood is highly flammable. In addition to the pine buildings, Denver’s fire codes were rarely followed. Business owners did not follow these fire codes because they altered the layout of shops and offices and it was felt that they negatively affected commerce. They went unenforced after 1862 due to these complaints.

Denver 15 and Blake

Denver circa 1860. Location of 15th and Blake. This is approximately where the Denver Fire of 1863 started. (Denver Public Library, call # X-22487)

The spring of 1863 had been especially dry in Denver. On the morning of April 19, 1863 a fire started on Blake street in the heart of downtown Denver. It was believed to have begun in the back of one of Denver’s saloons. One of the prevailing theories is that it was started on purpose. There were several small fires around this time in several saloons and brothels. It is believed to be an organized protest against the evils of drinking and prostitution. Unlike the others, this fire got out of hand very quickly. Mixed with the windy early morning hours and the dry conditions it rapidly grew into a catastrophe. The Denver Firefighting Museum states, “the fire destroyed between 70 buildings and 115 businesses. There was an estimated $200,000 and $350,000 (Roughly 5.5 Million Dollars in 2016 figures) in lost property”. In the aftermath, the city counsel took a long hard look at the events that led to the disaster. One of the main issues they faced was the lack of experience in firefighting and they were ill prepared for another major fire. By 1866, Denver had established a volunteer fire department. Within fifteen years, the department had paid full time firefighters on staff.

Cripple Creek Fire

Cripple Creek, Colorado during the 1896 fire that destroyed most of the town. (photo from Visit Cripple Creek, Fire Station #3)

Cripple Creek, another mining boom town in Colorado, suffered a catastrophic fire in 1896. The disaster lasted over a span of ninety six hours. The first event occurred on the afternoon of April 25th. when in a local dance hall, an oil lamp was accidentally knocked over. What started out as a fairly small fire quickly got out of control. According to Katie Rudolph with the Denver Public Library, “two lives had been lost and eight blocks of the cities central business district had been destroyed”(1). This was sadly just the beginning. Around One PM on April 30th, another fire broke out in a hotel kitchen in downtown. This fire was far more devastating. According to the Denver Post, “The Fire jumped at a roar like a hungry giant at his food”(2). Locals attempted to blow up buildings with dynamite to stop the fire from spreading but to no avail. When the fire was finally contained, thousands of residents were forced from their homes. Sadly much of the town that was not destroyed in the first fire, was destroyed in the second. As the snow began to fall on the night of April 30th, many of the people that lived in Cripple Creek were destitute, and camp fires could be seen in the hills surrounding the town, of people trying to keep warm in the spring snowstorm (3). In response, Cripple Creek built the Cripple Creek Fire Station #3 in 1900 to better protect the area from another disaster (4).

 

Georgetown was very unique among western frontier towns. The discovery of silver in the late 1860’s pushed the town into heights felt by towns like Golden, and Denver. Georgetown during this time rivaled these towns in wealth, power, and political sway. After the discovery of silver, Georgetown’s growth was remarkable. It was sophisticated and well planned, and not a fly by night mining camp that seemed to be popping up anywhere someone found some color. It was truly becoming a growing city with prospects for future success. Town residents began building houses to last, hotels and boarding houses with all of the finest Victorian features, schools and churches even were built in the mid-1870’s. All of these aspects lent itself to this idea of longevity. It was a communal effort spawned by the people.

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The “Old Missouri”, which still stands in Georgetown.

In the mid-1870’s it was believed that with the amount of people in town and the number of wooden structures, Georgetown required a fire department. In an effort spawned directly from the community, a pumper engine was purchased to help protect the town. The device would pull water from a water source directly, it had to be operated by about ten people. There would be five fire fighters to a side, one side would pull in water on the upstroke and push water out on the down stroke. An effective engine could spray a stream of water over one hundred and fifty feet. The device would also be pulled by the firefighter’s themselves. It would have taken too long to hook up horses to the engine in the event of a fire. After the water system was fully installed the only fire house to utilize the pumper engine was the “Old Missouri” firehouse. This house served many of the buildings that were not on the new water system.

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View of the tower from outside the Alpine Hose #2.

After the new water system was in place the fire department began utilizing a fleet of hose carts. These hose carts could be directly attached to the fire hydrants. The hose cart companies within the Georgetown Fire Department that operated hose carts, were the Hope Hose #1, Georgetown #1 aka the “Old Missouri”, and the Alpine Hose #2. Each of the hose cart buildings had towers to dry out hoses. In the Alpine Hose #2, they had a special counter weight system to pull the wet hoses to the top and drop the dry ones. The building of the tower on the Alpine Hose, was completed around 1882. Silver baron and town booster, William Arthur Hamill told the town he would fund the purchase of a bell for the tower, if the town funded the construction of the tower. The tower provided a three hundred and sixty degree view of the town. It rose sixty five feet into the sky. With its commanding view of the town, firefighters could spot any fire.

 

 

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Meeting room of the Alpine Hose #2 where debates and town functions were held.  The room also served as the Chiefs office.

One of the most impressive features of the Alpine Hose is its large meeting space. On the second floor of the building was the commander’s office and meeting room. This was a luxurious room to say the least. Gas light chandeliers hung from the ceiling, ornate Victorian wallpaper and red hand stitched carpet made the Alpine Hose an ideal location for community meetings and functions. When the building was electrified in the 1920’s, the wires had to remain exposed. They were simply too hot to be installed in the walls. The wires were wrapped with a canvas like material to provide some protection in case they were touched. The hallway wall is adorned with signatures of firefighter’s past. The oldest signature on the wall dates to 1885 with the most recent being 1980. For almost a century Georgetown volunteer firefighter’s signed the wall as a way to leave a lasting legacy for future generations.

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Star Hook and Ladder Company Uniform and Cart.

In addition to the three hose cart companies, Georgetown also featured a Hook and Ladder house. The Star Hook and Ladder Company was centrally located in the main business district of the growing town. Being in the middle of town allowed the Star’s to reach the two and three story buildings on the main thoroughfare. The men that volunteered for this house were bigger and burlier than the hose cart men. While the hose cart men were more athletic and held a runners physique. The Star men, needed to be rather strong to hold the ladders up. As most of the buildings in Georgetown around the 1870’s and 1880’s were wood. These firefighters had to be able to hold a tall three story wooden ladder up without it resting against the burning structure. Currently, the Star Hook and Ladder Company building is still standing. It stands across from the Hotel de Paris on Sixth Street in Historic Georgetown. It is currently the Town Hall and Police Station for Georgetown.

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Hose Cart Demonstration in Georgetown (Denver Public Library X-1384)

One of the biggest spectator sports in Georgetown and the surrounding area were hose cart races. In fact, hose cart teams had special carts created specifically for racing, aside from the ones that were used for fighting fires. Firefighters took great pride in their hose cart speed. Georgetown hosted hose cart races every 4th of July. Not only were these races just exhibitions between towns, but they were performed at State Firefighter conventions by teams from all over the state. During one convention, William Arthur Hamill attended to help promote Georgetown. A delegate from a rival firefighting team offered him a one thousand dollar bet that Georgetown would be beat in one of the competitions. Hamill, knowing how good the Georgetown squad was took the bet and by the end of the day walked away with an extra thousand dollars in his pocket. One of the Georgetown hose cart teams from 1876 dashed seven hundred feet in an amazing twenty six and three quarter’s seconds. During the 1902 Colorado State Fire Convention, Georgetown #1, the “Old Missouri Company”, was named the State Champions. Races also provided ample training for that moment when a fire did erupt.

Much of the reason that Georgetown has roughly 200 buildings dating to at the latest 1900, is a testament to the efforts of the early firefighting pioneers of Georgetown. It was a tough job, but the rewards were great. These brave men were highly respected and kept a keen watch to ensure the town’s survival.

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The Majestic Alpine Hose #2

-Tom Mensik

Footnotes:

  1. Rudolph, A Fire Nearly Levels Cripple Creek, 2016
  2. Denver Post, Cripple Creek Wiped out by Fire, 1896
  3. Denver Post, Cripple Creek Wiped out by Fire, 1896
  4. Visit Cripple Creek, Fire Station #3, retrieved from http://www.visitcripplecreek.com/time-travel/historic-attractions/fire-station-3/

 

 

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