Firefighting in Concord
Firefighting, a time-honored tradition, founded on the bravery of members from the past and continuing through today. Firefighters in America have historically been the members of society who were willing to give their all for the lives of others, always forming the first line of defense in times of fires or other disasters. This series of articles are written to provide the reader a better understanding of the rich history of the Concord Fire Department.
Concord like other cities in the late 1880’s was a city in transition. Concord was bustling with business activity, benefited by the proximity of the railroad to the city. Modern manufacturing plants were being built and operated as Concord began to experience benefits of the industrial revolution. Multi-storied brick factories were beginning to be commonplace, as the textile industry became a mainstay of the regional economy.
Prior to 1887 citizens of the city assembled during fires and formed bucket brigades, working together in efforts to prevent the calamities caused by the ravages of fire. By 1887 the population had reached 2,500 and thought was given to more reliable fire protection. The Concord Hose and Reel Company was organized and manned a hand drawn hose reel cart to transport fire hose to the scene of fires. Firefighting paraphernalia of the period still included 12 rubber buckets for applying water to a fire. The Concord Hose and Reel Company chose Mr. E. H. Hall as their Fire Chief.
The Concord Hook and Ladder Company manned a hand drawn wagon, which carried wooden ladders, pike poles and axes. The Concord Hook and Ladder Company chose Martin Boger as its Foreman (equivalent to a fire chief during this period). Membership of this company was entirely African- American.
It is interesting to note that at the turn of the century, water for the city was provided through a contract with a private citizen who owned the waterworks.
On December 21, 1900, the City of Concord established fire protection as a function of city government. The first Fire Chief for the “City Fire Department” was Mr. John L. Miller, elected by the membership of the Fire Department (in later years, the Fire Chief would be “elected” by the city’s Board of Aldermen. Chief Miller’s service with the Concord Fire Department spanned 52 years, (a feat not likely to be repeated). Mr.L. T. Biles was appointed the first full-time fireman and had responsibilities as the wagon driver. At the same time, Concord was building a new city hall, which became the new home to the Concord Fire Department. The modern facility was a three-story masonry structure located at the corner of Union Street South & Barbrick Avenue (current site of the City Hall Annex building).
It is interesting to note that while Mr. John L. Miller was appointed and recognized as Chief of the City Fire Department, the other fire companies in the city which were not quartered in the Central Fire Station were identified by names such as: The Cannonville Fire Department, The Concord Colored Fire Department, and the Cabarrus Fire Department. In certain cases, such as the Colored Fire Department, they were quartered on property which was not city owned; rather rent was paid for the use of the structure. Regardless of the situation, all matters brought to the city Board of Aldermen were coordinated and disseminated by and through Chief Miller.
Within a short two to three year period (1902-03), Concord replaced the private waterworks arrangement with one operated and owned by the City. Improvements also began to be made to the Fire Department. Equipment and manpower now consisted of one hose reel company with 24 men and one hook and ladder company with 30 men Fire alarms were communicated by ringing the bell in the Cabarrus Courthouse (now the Historic Cabarrus Courthouse) calling the firemen to action.
Hose reels were still favored and maintained in Concord at this time because it was felt that the water system was sufficient to produce an adequate fire stream without being boosted by a fire department pump as many other cities of the day routinely used.
By 1903 the Fire Department operated out of the “New City Hall”, a multi-functional facility that housed the police department, tax collector, mayor’s office, an opera house complete with balcony, the fire station, and a city jail (located in the basement.) The Fire Station was located on the ground floor behind large white arched type barn doors. As was the custom of the time, two sets of harnesses, one for each horse were suspended by ropes from the ceiling with the collars open, ready to be dropped to the necks of horses and secured by snaps. This arrangement reduced the time required for equipment to reach the scene of a fire and go to work. (Response time was critical then as it is today.) Upon the opening of the station, the City’s first fire horses, (named Roe Brown, for a local liveryman Monroe Brown, and James McNeil for the state fire president) were draft horses and not particularly adept at meeting the special challenges required of fire horses. Fire horses needed the ability to carry heavy loads with speed to quickly arrive at fires. By 1906, larger and more powerful fire horses were purchased for $475. The department’s fire wagon was now drawn by two dapple-grey horses (John, named after Mayor John Caldwell, who spearheaded the Fire Department project, and Bill). The fire wagon was loaded with firefighting equipment of the day, including chemicals carried in tanks under the wagon.
As the community grew, so did the responsibility of the Fire Department. In 1906, the population of Concord passed 11,000 residents and the area within the city had increased significantly. This growth required more fire companies to be added, as well as the addition of one paid fireman stationed at the Central Fire Station on Union Street South. Resources expanded to include the Cannonville Reel Team (15 volunteer members), and the addition of a combination hose & chemical wagon. A second fire station (or Hose House) was built at Kerr Street & Isabell Streets). By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, another fire company (Cabarrus Reel Team) was incorporated into the Concord Fire Department. Total manpower available included: 1-Fire Chief (Volunteer), 1-Paid Fireman/Driver, and 70 volunteer firemen.
Firefighting during this period was accomplished by applying water to the exterior of structures through hose lines connected directly to fire hydrants. Fire departments of the day practiced regularly to hone their skills, moving the carts and wagons to the scene of fires in the shortest possible time, then deploying hose lines and accurately flowing water to achieve suppression of flames. Firemen’s conventions and tournaments were the springboard that allowed information exchange between those early firefighters and introduced them to new tactics and equipment. The Concord Fire Department was one of a number of organizations in the state, which attended and competed in these conventions and, annual tournaments. These events were generally attended by the members of the various fire companies in the city. The white fire companies attended conventions sponsored by the North Carolina State Fireman’s Association. In the meantime, as was the culture of the day, the Hook & Ladder Company, made up of African-American volunteers was allowed to attend onlyconventions sponsored by the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen's Association. On August 10, 1911, the Hook and Ladder Company hosted the convention and tournament of the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Fireman's Association in Concord.
Three disastrous fires occurred during 1908. The first occurred in August when a fire broke out at the Odell Mill (one of the largest textile plants in North Carolina at the time). Mill No. 4 was burning, a large building measuring 125 feet deep, by almost 400 feet long, two stories tall, with a basement containing various machinery. Firemen tried in vain to stop the progression of the fire; however, their efforts were not enough to prevent disaster. Resulting damage completely destroyed this mill, with a total loss of around one-half a million dollars, and roughly 1,000 workers displaced as a result of this fire.
The second large fire of 1908 also occurred during the summer. It was ignited by a lightning strike during heavy thunderstorms at the Kerr Bleaching & Dyeing Company. As the horse drawn fire wagon and firemen were responding down West Depot Street (now Cabarrus Avenue) lightning illuminated a house that was being moved and still sitting in the middle of the road that had been left at the end of the workday. The firemen and wagon narrowly averted disaster, barely missing the house. Arriving at the blaze, firemen found that rains had flooded the area around the building, keeping them from reaching the fire. This structure burned to the ground that night.
The third large fire of 1908 occurred in the downtown area reportedly on December 19, 1908. Earlier in the day, a parade to celebrate an event known as The Fireman’s Smoker made its way down Union Street, proclaiming the event being held at 8:00 pm at the Courthouse. Prior to the scheduled start of the “Fireman’s Smoker”, a smoker of a different kind began. Around 7:30 pm, H. G. Ritz’s Fireworks Store, in the Litaker Building (the site of the current Cabarrus County Courthouse), became involved in fire, setting of explosions and consuming fireworks products that had been stored for sale over the Christmas season for celebrations. As fireworks were ignited by the fire, they flew across Union Street. City firemen fought valiantly to control the flames and prevent a conflagration. By 10:00 pm the fire was under control and the firemen were able to begin to clean up after a hard fought evening of firefighting.
By 1914, discussions began for the city to consider purchasing a motorized fire truck. As this was being considered, the space available to the fire department in the City Hall building was becoming inadequate for the firefighting equipment needed in the growing city. The Concord Board of Aldermen appointed a committee to secure plans and estimate costs to make necessary additions to the City Hall for quartering the Fire Department.
A giant step in fire protection was taken in 1916 when the City of Concord purchased its first motorized fire apparatus, a 1916 American LaFrance Type No. 10 Triple combination pumper for $8,000. The term “triple combination pumper” referred to the three functions the truck was capable of: carrying hose, carrying water in a tank for firefighting, and the ability to pump water with the truck. In an effort to reduce the cost of the pumper, the chemical tank formerly used by the Fire Department was traded into the American LaFrance Fire Engine Co. for a reduction in the purchase price of $350.00.
Also in 1916, the Cannonville Fire Department requested that the city assist in paying for an auto truck to carry hose. The Cannonville Fire Department had raised $300.00, and the city paid and additional $450.00 to purchase the unit.
In 1919, the City initiated a Municipal Improvement Bond Election to fund a $19,000.00 addition to City Hall for the Fire Department. The Bond was approved by a vote of 464 to 160. Subsequently, an addition was built at the rear of the City Hall building, facing Barbrick Ave.
Also in 1919, a new Fire Station was authorized for the Cannonville Fire Department utilizing city owned property on Kerr Street. at its intersection with Isabell Street. (This intersection is now known as Kerr & Crowell Streets.)
In a scant twenty years, the Concord Fire Department evolved from uncoordinated fire companies to a City fire department under the direction of one Fire Chief. Additionally, the movement to motorized fire apparatus had begun.
The year 1919 found the City of Concord continuing to grow and provide more services to its citizens. This growth also impacted the fire department in addition to expansion of other city functions. After less than 16 years in the “new” Concord City Hall on South Union Street, relocation of the fire department operations was recommended. Included in this recommendation was additional housing for the Board of Light and Water Commissioners, an area for the housing of mules and equipment of the street cleaning and street working departments. City leaders decided that it was now time to construct a badly needed Municipal Annex building. In order to pay for the addition to the City Hall building, a bond referendum was held to provide financing for the project. The referendum was a resounding success with 464 votes cast in favor with only 160 votes in decent, authorizing $19,000 for the purpose of erecting and equipping a building in the rear of the City Hall facingBarbrick Street.The Board of Aldermen was yet not finished with fire department projects for the year 1919. After directing the Finance Committee to review a proposal for construction of quarters for the Cannonville Fire Department, the full Board ordered a house built for the Cannonville Fire Department to be located on Kerr Street, with instructions that the contract to be let to lowest bidder.
By 1921, Concord had reached a population of 12,000 and the city boasted a fire department which included two fire stations (Central Fire Station-Barbrick Street & Hose House # 2- Kerr & Isabell Streets), one American LaFrance Triple Combination Pumper, and two auto hose carriers; each carrying 600 feet of hose. Two paid firemen and 43 volunteer firemen were assigned to Central Fire Station, while 12 volunteer firemen were assigned to Hose House #2.
Times continued to change in Concord, and by 1925, the Board of Aldermen voted to instruct the City Attorney to prepare an ordinance which would affect the fire department for years to come, this change impacted the way that the City Fire Chief was selected. Since 1900, the Fire Chief had been elected by the membership of the department and approved by the Board of Aldermen. However, the change in ordinance resulted in the election of the City Fire Chief by the Board of Aldermen instead of by the Fire Department, with the election to be held first meeting night in October biannually. This first election by the Board of Aldermen resulted in John L. Miller continuing to serve as Fire Chief, J. D. Lineberger elected as Assistant Chief, C.L. Miller, R. C. Stinson, and D. B. Talbert were elected paid Firemen; all for a term of two years. This new ordinance provided that each regular organized company (including all regular volunteers) “have the right to elect a Secretary and Treasurer and such other officers as they may deem necessary to manage and control their internal affairs, at such and for a period to be determined by them.” A new benefit was also implemented and provided for regular paid firemen, and special policemen, who had been employed by the city for one year was allowed $25.00 for a uniform, however, if the fireman or policemen left employ of the City in less that a year from his election or appointment, said officer to refund the $25.00 to the City.
By 1927, yet another fire station was serving Concord.Station No. 3 was located on Powder Street between present day Cabarrus Avenue and Corbin Avenue. Eight volunteer firemen provided staffing for fires in the area.
Concord like other cities across the country felt the effects of the Great Depression. Annual pay for fire employees on the eve of the great depression included the fire chief’s $300.00, the assistant chief’ $100.00 per year, and full-time pay for regular firemen $1,440.00 per year. And times were about to get tougher…… During this time, Chief John L. Miller presented a report to the city recommending that Truck Company No. 5 be discontinued, and that Truck Company No. 4 be reduced from 6 men to 5 based on need and cost involved in the operation. Truck Company No. 5 was discontinued as a result of the recommendation. (It is interesting to note that the Concord Fire Department numbered its apparatus in numeric order was they were acquired and not by the fire stations the unit was assigned to. Even more interesting is the manner in which Concord referred to fire apparatus as “Truck Companies” rather than engine companies during this time. It is customary for fire departments to use the terms “engine companies” to refer to pumping apparatus and “truck companies” to refer to ladder truck apparatus.)
During the tenure of John L. Miller, the chief actively attended annual conferences of the International Association of Fire Chief’s. These conferences provided a glimpse at new technology and training opportunities. Locations for the conferences rotated throughout the United States and in 1931was highlighted by a trip to Havana, Cuba.
As Concord exited the depression era another election was held by the Board of Aldermen. John L. Miller was again elected fire chief, Sam Foil as assistant fire chief, and C.L. Miller, H.C. Stinson, and D.B. Talbert as full-time firemen. Volunteer firemen, now twenty-two strong were now partly paid with all assigned to Station No.1. Other stations were now considered unmanned.
As the 1930’s came to a close, Concord’s Fire Department had once again outgrown its headquarters fire station. Land was considered for purchase at the corner of Holly Lane (present day Killarney) and Church Streets. This location was not favorable however to the members of the Consistory of Trinity Evangelical & Reformed Church, and they expressed their opposition in the following letter.
Another letter to city officials from the period outlined recommendations to the fire defenses of the city. The South-Eastern Underwriters Association (a rating bureau which evaluated fire protection for insurance companies to set rates) presented the following letter to the Board of Aldermen:
CONCORD NORTH CAROLINA
We have received the report of our engineer Mr. A. B. Turnbull, Jr. who recently made an inspection of the fire defenses and physical conditions of Concord. Agreeable with your request we take pleasure in enclosing herewith recommendations for improvements to justify a better fire insurance classification for the city which would be Second Class on both mercantile and dwellings.
The fire defenses have not been maintained in accordance with the growth of the city and although Concord is at present classified on the basis of Second Class plus .05 and .06 mercantile buildings and contents respectively, classification which would now be justified by the fire defenses is Second Class plus .10 and .12 on mercantiles and contents respectively. Therefore, we respectfully call your attention to a self-explanatory note in the heading of the recommendations to the effect that numbers 1,2,5,6 and 7 should be complied with in order to justify retention of the classification now in effect. It is our hope that recommendations 1,2,4,6 and 7 will receive the early and favorable consideration of the municipal officials and we will appreciate your advices as to what disposition will be made of them.
We extend our best wishes and assure you of our cooperation.
Yours very truly,
South-Eastern Underwriters Association
December 4, 1940
CONCORD NORTH CAROLINA
Recommendations which, if complied with in full, will justify Second Class on mercantile and Second Class on dwellings.
These recommendations are based on the population, fire defenses and physical conditions of Concord as of October 8, 1940, and are subject to revisitation in the event of changes in these features except in compliance herewith.
Note: Compliance with recommendations Nos. 1,2,4,6 and 7 is imperative in order to justify retention of the present classification of Second Class plus five cents on buildings and plus six cents on contents of mercantiles and Second Class on dwellings.
1. That a minimum of 5 full time paid firemen be on duty at the fire department at all times both day and night, including meal hours, days off, etc., in addition to the present volunteer department and arrangement of 4 volunteers sleeping in the fire station at night, or if the volunteer personnel is not retained a minimum of 10 full time paid firemen shall be on duty at the fire department at all times.
2. That an approved triple combination pumper with a pump capacity of at least 750 gallons per minute be installed.
3. That an approved quadruple combination ladder truck of the city service or aerial type be installed, to be equipped with a 750 gallon pump, hose body, booster tank and at least 240 feet of ladders, including a 50 foot extension or aerial ladder. (Note: Upon installation of the quadruple the present 1916 Model pumper should be placed in reserve).
4. That the fire station now under construction be completed in accordance with present plans.
5. That the following powerful stream, salvage and minor equipment be installed: one turret nozzle; one deluge set; one cellar pipe; one distributing nozzle; four salvage covers; buckets; sponges and squeegees; one set fire cutters and rubber gloves; two burst hose jackets; two “all service” gas masks.
6. That a drill school be established and the members of the department instructed in: The use and care of equipment, location of fire hydrants, fire methods, salvage and clean-up work, fire hazards, municipal building and fire prevention ordinances, the occupancy and construction of buildings in the mercantile district and warehouses and manufacturing plants in other sections of the city, the use and effectiveness of various fire streams and chemical extinguishers, instruction at the fire station to be conducted at least one hour daily for the paid personnel, and at least twice per month for both paid and volunteer personnel and to be supplemented by practical and appropriate drill evolutions.
7. That two trucks respond to all alarms of fire.
8. That the fifth edition of the Building Code and the suggested Fire Prevention Ordinances recommended by the National Board of Fire Underwriters be adopted and strictly enforced. (Copies of each may be obtained from the National Board of Underwriters, 85 John Street, New York, New York.)
A new fire station, Fire Station No. 1 opened on October 6, 1941 at 31 Church Street and today stands as the city’s oldest operating fire station. The two-story masonry building included one-foot thick exterior walls, and tile floors and walls in the interior first floor apparatus bays. The second floor included offices and living quarters for the department. Two brass fire poles were used by firemen to rapidly move from the second floor to the apparatus bay to improve the speed at which firemen were able to respond to the fires of the day (a feature still used in this station each day to this very day. The cost of this station was a staggering $41,000.00. After the Church Street Fire Station opened, the matter of building a new city hall was discussed and a proposal was presented to use the property adjoining the new fire station for this use. The matter was discussed but no further action was taken. In addition to the new fire station, a new 750 gallon pumper was purchased by the city at a price of $7,950.00. The city was fortunate to have placed the order for this fire apparatus early in 1941, because after December of 1941 production of fire apparatus was cut back on everything except war products as the United States entered World War II. The 1942 Seagrave which was delivered to the city arrived with no chrome or shinny metal surfaces just like other austere vehicles produced during the war to reduce reflections during air raids.)
With the Second World War raging in European and the Pacific Theaters fears of sabotage and air raids here in America were taken seriously. In 1943, with these threats present Chief J. L. Miller reported to the Board that the Office of Civilian Defense had shipped to the Fire Department, various apparatus for use of the Fire Department, and that the Office of Civilian Defense had recommended the purchase of a one and a half (1-1/2) ton truck for carrying the apparatus. However, Chief Miller reported to the Board of Aldermen that the fire department did not have sufficient men to man the equipment now in service.
After the war came to a close, it was once again time to examine the need for fire protection in the city. The 1940recommendations South-Eastern Underwriters Association were again used as a reference to determine needed improvements. In 1948 a Bond Referendum ordered for the purchase of a Fire Truck (not to exceed $30,000.00). This truck would be Concord’s first motorized ladder truck. As with previous bond referendums featuring fire protection issues the referendum as overwhelmingly passed in favor of department projects. Of the votes cast, 1192 were in favor with only 81 cast in opposition. As bids were considered, Chief Miller read a letter from the N.C. Rating Bureau which recommended that the City purchase either a quadruple (four function truck equipped with pump, water tank, supply hose, and numerous ground ladders) or aerial ladder truck (’75-‘100 hydraulic ladder). Chief Miller stated that an aerial ladder truck would be an adjunct to the Fire Department. In the final analysis, the City of Concord did not opt to choose to purchase a truck equipped with an aerial ladder at this time. Rather, a Mack Truck Fire Apparatus quadruple combination was purchased. The truck was equipped with a pump capable of producing 750 gallons of water per minute and 216 feet of ladders for the sum of $16,426.00. It is interesting to note that the Mack Truck was actually sold by the Stallings Pontiac Company. During discussion with the board, Mr. Brockwell, representing Stallings Pontiac Company, spoke on behalf of Mack Truck. He stated “that the army had recently bought one hundred and twenty-nine Mack Fire Trucks, and the Mack had only six cylinders which was better because there were no other to bother with”. He also said “more Mack Fire Equipment Trucks had been sold in this section recently that all other fire trucks combined.”
June of 1949 brought to an end a chapter in the history of the Concord Fire Department; John L. Miller, Chief of Department since December 21, 1900 submitted his retirement notice, which appears below.
June 9, 1949
For more that Fifty Years I have been actively engaged in the fire service of the City of Concord, serving under every administration, being honored thus, I am very grateful and thankful.
I now desire to retire as chief of the Fire Department as of May 31, 1949. Trust that you will grant this request.
As a private citizen I stand ready, willing and anxious at any time to assist in any way, I may, in its several features, the fire service of the City, and especially in securing a substantial reduction on fire insurance rates, so greatly needed by the property owners. For this service I bespeak for your hearty support.
With sentiments of high regard, and personal best wishes, I am;
Yours very truly,
John L. Miller, Chief
Effective June 9, 1949, the following officers were recommended by the Fire
Chief of Fire Department: C. L. Miller
1st Assistant Chief: Carroll Stinson
2nd Assistant Chief: D. B. Talbert
Today the department is led by Fire Chief Jacob Williams and has expanded to 230 employees, 11 fire stations, 10 engine companies, 3 ladder companies, 1 rescue company, and 1 aircraft firefighting unit. The department also provides technical rescue, structural collapse/trench rescue, and hazardous material response.