Firefighting Exhibit

Firefighting Exhibit April 20th 2:00 to 5:30 pm
& by appointment.

At 6282 Route 9, Rhinebeck, NY 12572.

By Melodye Moore

A version of this article appeared in the Northern/Southern Dutchess News of April 17.

The Dutchess County Historical Society is launching a firefighting exhibition on Saturday, April 20th as an open house between 2:00 and 5:30 pm.  Between 4:00 and 4:15 DCHS will simultaneously hold its annual membership meeting. This will take place at DCHS headquarters, 6282 Route 9, Rhinebeck. DCHS wishes to thank the essential support and collaboration of the Rhinebeck Fire Department and the Firefighting Museum of Dutchess County.

These are some of the themes that will be explored.

The history of firefighting in America begins on January 7, 1608, when a fire leveled most of the Jamestown colony which was just barely a year old.  Over the next three centuries fire has been a constant danger in the lives of the American citizenry. 

As early as 1648 citizens of New Amsterdam were acting as fire wardens and in 1678 the first engine company went into service in Boston.  The earliest efforts to combat fire in an organized fashion occurred in major population centers such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston.

In 1714 four hundred and forty-five people lived in Dutchess County and were equally spread among the first three settlements at Rhinebeck, Poughkeepsie, and Fishkill.  Response to fire in these communities would have been limited to volunteer fire brigades relying on access to water from wells, cisterns filled with rainwater, streams, and nearby water bodies.

By 1788 the population of the county had grown and was expanding to recently established towns further east and inland.  The greatest risk of uncontrolled fire however still existed in the ever growing, densely populated, hamlets along the river, and so it is not surprising that the first engine companies in the county are founded in Poughkeepsie in 1804, Rhinebeck in 1821 and Fishkill in 1829.

Over the next two centuries fire companies have been created in all the towns and cities of the county.  The desire to form a local fire company often followed a catastrophic fire that inspired residents to take action to protect their communities. 

Among the areas of focus in the exhibition is apparatus. Firefighting has always been a community effort.  What’s changed over the centuries has been the apparatus used to combat fires.

The “bucket brigade” was formed when a group of neighbors created a chain and passed water-filled leather buckets hand to hand to extinguish a fire.  This type of fire response lingered well into the late 19th century in Dutchess County.  In January 1891 a hotel fire in Millerton was fought by a “bucket brigade” that stretched from the Webatuck Brook across the railroad tracks to the scene of the fire.  Three years later in 1894 the Dinsmore Fire Company was organized as a fire brigade.

Hand-pulled hose carts were mainly used to transport water hoses to and from fire scenes.  Manually operated, they required young, strong, able-bodied men to haul them to the scene of the fire.  In 1892 Millerton paid $48.50 to purchase a hose cart, complete with 500’ of hose, 6 hose wrenches, 28 pails and 2 hose nozzles.  They paid an additional $3.95 for a bell. 

Early fire “enjines” were hand pumps equipped with a water box that was pulled to the scene of the fire by the firefighters.  The capacity of the water box was limited and “bucket brigades” were often necessary to keep the keep the water box full if there was not an available water source nearby.  Once at the scene of the fire teams of firefighters pumped the brakes on either side of the hand pumper up and down to produce the stream of water.  “Pocahontas” was purchased in 1859 by the old Rhinebeck Fire Dept. Engine Co. #2 from the Button Company of Waterford, N.Y. and continued in service until 1890 when it was replaced by a new steam pumper. 

Hand pumpers were replaced by steam powered pumpers that could pump water at higher pressures and volume.  A complicated mechanical device, it was comprised of a vertical water tube boiler that provided steam for a pumping engine to force water through hoses and onto the fire.  It required a well-trained operator.  For about 50 years, from the 1870s until around 1920, it was a common occurrence to see horses pulling heavy steam-powered pumpers to a fire.  The horses were so well trained that when the alarm was sounded, they knew to walk out and position themselves before the apparatus where they could be quickly harnessed.  Fire horses needed to be strong, swift, agile, obedient, fearless, and calm. 

Horsepower was replaced by the internal-combustion engine early in the 20th century and the modern form of the firetruck was born.  Equipped with a powerful pump, a large amount of hose and a water tank for use where there is no readily available source of water, these new fire trucks greatly increased the speed and efficiency of fire companies. 

The post World War Two era saw the rapid growth of the suburbs and that led to new concepts in firefighting equipment and methods.  Advancements in equipment included practical diesel powerplants, improved radio communications, metal aerials and elevated platforms. 

During the last decades of the 20th century fire apparatus was bigger, more powerful, and more efficient than ever before and design changes focused on safety and comfort.  Today’s fire engines come with elevating platforms, mobile data terminals, hydraulic rescue tools, floodlights, self-contained breathing apparatus and thermal imaging cameras. 

When Millerton invested $48.50 in 1892 to purchase their hose cart, they could never have imagined that the cost of a new engine today would be $1 million, and the cost of a ladder truck would be $1.8 million.

While fire remains a constant danger in the everyday lives of Dutchess County residents, the dedication, self-sacrifice and commitment of the men and women who serve in the 62 fire stations in the county deserve our recognition, gratitude, and support. 

Above: a white fire fighter’s hat indicates a Fire Chief, in this case tied to Rhinebeck’s Pocahontas Relief fire department, and an ornate horn or voice amplifying trumpet for ceremonial purposes that had origins in tools used for directing orders during a fire. Both from the Rhinebeck Fire Department.

Above: The firefighting exhibition at DCHS will feature explanations about apparatus, fire houses, and essentials like alarms and water supplies. These images clockwise from top left show: 1) image of a typical town pump that would have been used as a water source; 2) a depiction of the 1836 reservoir at Poughkeepsie’s Reservoir Square, the first in the county it was designed to supported fire hydrants; 3) the pumping station that was built at the Hudson River to pump water to be stored at the top of College Hill, a practice that remains in place today; 4) the 1872 Victorian outdoor reservoir at College Hill; 5) the 1920s underground reservoir; and 6) the recently constructed water storage tanks, all on College Hill. DCHS images.