The 1882 Firehouse

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, November 1996,
November 1996

Author: Grace Shackman

Ann Arbor's 19th-century showpiece recalls the time when fire was an ever-present peril

When Ann Arbor's 1882 firehouse opened, it was the most elegant and expensive building the city owned. That was fitting, because the greatest danger facing Ann Arbor in the nineteenth century was fire.

As late as the Civil War, Ann Arbor was still built almost entirely of wood--even the storefronts and sidewalks downtown. A spark was never far away because the city was lit by candles and oil lamps and heated by fireplaces and parlor stoves. Homes and businesses went up in flames so often that in 1865, a U-M student matter-of-factly referred to helping volunteers fight "the first fire of the winter."

Fires were also much more devastating then. In the early 1840's alone, fire destroyed Klinelob's distillery, S. Denton's ashery and soap factory, and the Michigan Central Railroad depot. The Michigan Central fire took out three neighboring properties as well, one of them a mill warehouse containing nearly 20,000 barrels of flour. Firemen couldn't even save their own buildings. In 1875, fire completely destroyed the Lower Town engine house, which had been erected just two years previously.

In Ann Arbor's first decade, the village's main fire-fighting strategy was simply to keep the town pump in good repair. That was vital because citizens responding to the call of "Fire!" needed plenty of water for bucket brigades. In 1836, responding to public pressure, the village council appointed fire wardens and other officers in each of the town's two wards, and men in both wards soon organized themselves into volunteer fire-fighting companies. The following year, the village bought its first fire engine, a hand pump on wheels that the firefighters dragged to the scene of a fire and filled by bucket brigades from the Huron River or nearby wells.

After the big fire at the Michigan Central station in 1845, the village bought its first hook and ladder wagon. It also started building cisterns at strategic locations around town to store rainwater for fire-fighters' pumps. In 1849, two new volunteer companies were organized: Eagle Fire Company No. One was a hose company with a hand-operated pump engine; Eagle Fire Company No. Two was composed of hook and ladder men. A year later, Ann Arbor levied a special tax to purchase ladders and new equipment for three more new companies: Deluge, Relief, and Huron.

Another new company was organized and named after their new pump engine, the Mayflower, just in time to fight a disastrous fire at the Clark School on Division Street in 1865. This fire led to a second cistern-building spree (a shortage of water was blamed for the severity of the damage to the school). Eventually there were cisterns at most major intersections, each about ten feet wide and fifteen to eighteen feet deep, protected with a manhole cover.

The volunteer companies were reorganized and renamed over the years, but there were usually four active at any one time, most divided internally into hose crews and hook and ladder teams. The different companies took turns being on call; for a big fire every firefighter in the city would respond.

After 1868 the firefighters were paid $5 a year (a ballot initiative to pay them $10 a year was defeated), but their real pay was the camaraderie they shared. Families felt connected to certain companies, and their sons would join when they came of age. (The tradition of fire-fighting families continues today: the son and grandson of Ben Zahn, fire chief from 1939 to 1955, joined the department, as did the son of Fred Schmid, fire chief from 1974 to 1985.) The companies met regularly for training and practice and to clean and repair their equipment. They sponsored balls and picnics, marched in parades, and toured fire departments in other cities to check out their methods--a practice so widespread that to this day, professionals on junkets are still sometimes referred to as "visiting firemen."

Having the proper fire-fighting equipment was a matter of civic pride. In 1870, when the city acquired a new hose, the whole town assembled to see which company could throw a stream of water the farthest. Using the cistern at the intersection of Main and Washington, the Protection company was able to shoot water 165 feet and 4 inches, beating the Relief company, who managed only 161 feet and 7 inches. In 1883, when the Vigilant hose boys got a new hose cart from Chicago, they showed it off by parading through town accompanied by a brass band.

Ann Arbor's volunteer firemen formed an enthusiastic lobbying group, most often convincing city council to make desired expenditures after major fires. The construction of the 1882 firehouse was their greatest success--and, it turned out, their last hurrah.

The new firehouse replaced an old one on the same site, a wooden structure not much bigger than a two-car garage, with a tower behind it to dry hoses. City council asked voters to approve an expenditure of $10,000 to build the new structure. It was an extraordinary amount at the time, and twice what was needed, according to an editorial in the Ann Arbor Courier. Nevertheless, voters approved it on the first ballot attempt. Choosing among four architects' submissions, council accepted a plan by William Scott of Detroit and hired local contractors Tessmer and Ross to build it.

The first floor of the new building was designed to store the hook and ladder and pumper wagons, while the second floor had a sizable hall for meetings and social events. The building was capped off with the bell tower, used to summon the volunteers (the number of rings indicated the ward the fire was in). Outside, a big cistern collected up to 300 barrels of rainwater. Architectural historian Kingsley Marzoff, in a 1970's article, described the building as a "modified Italian villa" and called it "a rare example ... of the nondo-mestic use of this type of design." He also compared the bell tower to those in Siena and Florence.

At the time the firehouse was built, there were 105 volunteer firemen (women wouldn't become firefighters until 1980) in four companies, which the 1881 county history lists as Vigilant, Protection, Defiance, and Huron. Each group had its own room in the firehouse, which it fitted up at its own expense. However, only Protection and Vigilant (which operated the town's only steam-powered pumper) kept their equipment there. Huron, which protected Lower Town (the part of Ann Arbor north of the Huron River), had a small station house north of the railroad tracks just off Broadway. Defiance's station was on East University, where the U-M's East Engineering building stands today.

The main fire hall's big upstairs room often served as a meeting place for other town functions. For instance, the Washtenaw Historical Society held their meetings there, and a very successful set of temperance meetings was held the year it was completed. The firemen celebrated the completion of the new hall with two major dances: a Thanksgiving dance, sponsored by the Vigilant Engine and Hose Company, and another on December 21--billed as "the dance of the season"--with the Chequamagon Orchestra, sponsored by Protection's hose company.

The volunteers didn't enjoy the use of the hall for long, however. The 1880's proved to be a pivotal decade for the city's fire-fighting efforts, and by its end, the citizen volunteers had been replaced by professional firefighters.

In 1885, the city's first piped water system was installed. It included 100 fire hydrants and largely solved the water shortage that had hindered fire-fighting efforts since the city's founding. Just three years later, Ann Arbor hired its first full-time firefighters. Responding to lobbying by volunteer fire chief Albert Sorg, city council hired Chris Matthews to live in the fire-house and William Carroll to be on duty nights. A year later, city council authorized a sixty-day trial period for a completely professional department, and Fred Sipley was hired as the first paid fire chief. The big upstairs room in the firehouse was divided into two dormitories and a recreation area. By 1893 the city had eight full-time firemen and five more on call.

Horses probably moved into the fire-house shortly after the firemen. Originally, the volunteers had pulled the equipment themselves, but as distances grew longer and the equipment heavier, horses became more desirable. They became an absolute necessity after the purchase in 1879 of the steam-powered pumper, which weighed so much it took more than a dozen men to pull it.

At first, horses were furnished by draymen, who would rush over when they heard the fire bell (the first to arrive got the job). For a short time the fire department paid the firehouse janitor, Jake Hauser, a biannual sum of $90 to use his horses whenever there was a fire. But when firemen threatened to quit if they didn't get their own horses, city council relented and purchased two in 1882, the same year work commenced on the new hall.

By 1888 the department owned five horses: three to pull the steam engine and two to pull the hook and ladder wagon. When the fire alarm rang, the horses knew exactly what to do. Released from their stable on the north side of the firehouse, they would stand in front of the wagon they were to pull and wait until their harnesses, which were held up by a system of pulleys and ropes, were lowered. On days when there were no fires, the horses had to be exercised, and there was a special cart for this, which was also used in parades.

The need to motorize the department was discussed in the early years of the twentieth century, especially after the devastating fires at the Argo Mill in 1903 and the high school in 1904. But the citizens were fond of the horses and resisted: as late as 1914, they voted against ballot issues to buy self-propelled fire engines. The voters finally relented in 1915, after a big fire at the Koch and Henne furniture store, but even then, the horses weren't replaced immediately. For a while the department used a combination of motorized and horse-drawn engines.

Barney, Duke, and Jim were the last three fire horses. Luckily for them, the chief at the time, Charlie Andrews, was an animal lover. According to his grandson, Bill Mundus, when the horses were no longer needed, Andrews sent them to the Heinzman farm west of town where they could enjoy their retirement years.

The stable behind the firehouse was converted to a workshop where firemen painted signs for the city between fires. Later it was converted to a garage, first used by the public works department to store their grader and dump truck and later by the fire department for the chief's car. Fred Schmid remembers moving the chief's car out onto the street so the firemen could play badminton there. The space is now part of the present fire station.

The fire department stayed in the 1882 building for ninety-six years. In 1978 they moved into the present main fire station, which had been built just north of the old building on Fifth Avenue.

"I didn't like the [old] building until I left," admits Schmid, the fire chief at the time of the move. "It was not easy to keep clean; there was a stoker boiler in the basement, high ceilings, the windows were rattlely, and the stairs were worn down." The old firehouse was also too small for modern equipment--one of the department's trucks didn't even fit and had to be housed at the substation at Stadium and Packard.

"Today, serious fires are few and far between," says fire battalion chief John Schnur. "We usually get them when they're small." In the past thirty years only a few fires have totally destroyed a building--Gallup Silkworth (a heating oil company) and the Old German restaurant in the 1970's, and the U-M economics building and the Whiffletree restaurant in the 1980's. So far in the 1990's, the most serious fires have been two abandoned fraternity houses.

"Houses just don't burn down anymore," says Schmid. He and Schnur list a number of reasons: earlier detection by smoke detectors and automatic alarms, faster response due to telephones and motorized vehicles (the average response time is now four minutes--less time than it previously took volunteers to reach the firehouse itself), sprinkler systems and unlimited water supply, and more fire-retardant building materials and techniques.

But with all these improvements, there are trade-offs. For instance, firefighters now wear more fireproof uniforms and use air tanks, but this means they can go deeper into a burning building and are closer to possible explosions. Also, according to Schnur, "Fires are smaller but more deadly." While in the nineteenth century most home furnishings were made of natural materials like wood or cotton, today there is a preponderance of synthetic materials, such as polyester and polyurethane, which give off gases when they melt. While the natural materials filled the firefighters' lungs with smoke, Schnur is worried that the chemicals they now breathe may be even more harmful to their future health.

With fires no longer the daily worry they were in the nineteenth century, fire marshall Scott Rayburn is concerned that the public has become too complacent. "It's a full-time job to keep the message out," he says. Today, with fewer fires to rush to, the 121-member fire department keeps busy being proactive: educating the public, performing fire inspections, and engaging in a constant schedule of training.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Nineteenth century fires were frequent and devastating. This 1899 blaze on Main St. destroyed a branch of the Mack & Co. department store.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: A horse-drawn hook and ladder rig. The city bought its first horses around the time the 1882 firehouse was built.