Holyoke's Fire Department
Judge W.B.C. Pearsons,
Holyoke's First Mayor
Chief John T. Lynch
Holyoke was probably the first city of its size to establish an all-permanent fire department. Originally the fire department in cities and towns were volunteer organizations that generally combined social and fraternal features as well as fire fighting. Then came the growth that increased the number of fires, and it was soon learned, often at expense of life and property, that the first few minutes of an incipient conflagration were the crucial time for fire fighting. So men were permanently established at the fire stations; and to aid them a large number of men employed regularly at some occupation called callmen, responded to the alarms. These men were paid a salary each year; and there being a considerable number of them, and the extra money thus earned coming in very handy, especially in a city like Holyoke, where large wages are exceptional, it was a long and uphill fight to abolish the call department. Many citizens distrusted the policy of an all-permanent department under circumstance that prevailed here. But in 1901 the step was taken that placed the department under an all-permanent basis; and it cannot be aid that the citizens would now desire to go back to the old system that hitherto prevailed. For bringing this about, credit must be given to Charles L. Newcomb, for many years chairman of the fire commission, and under whose regime the department was steadily brought up to increasing efficiency. As the wife of President U.S. Grant said of her husband, Mr. Newcomb is a very obstinate man; and in the face of bitter opposition Chairman Newcomb held firmly to his policies of improvement and advancement until when he left office Holyoke had the finest body and equipment for fire fighting of a city its size in the country.
Early records show that on December 17, 1850, a warrant was issued signed by Fayette Smith, Alexander Day, and Hervey Chapin, then selectmen of the town of Holyoke, to see if the inhabitants of said district would vote to establish a fire department. At this meeting, Chauncy B. Rising, William H. Carter, and Dr. A.S. Peck were appointed a committee to arrange a constitution and by-laws. At an adjourned meeting at the office of Miller & Newell, January 3, 1851, Fayette Smith presided and J.M. Davis acted as clerk. The by-laws as drawn up were adopted, and thee officers were chosen: Chief engineer, Jonas Kendall; first assistant engineer, R.G. Marsh; second assistant K. Hutchinson; third assistant A.S. Peck; fourth assistant, Ephraim Allen. There is some indication that the early days of the budding fire department were not without the customary "scrapping" that illuminates the history of many other early departments of a city's history. for we note that at a subsequent meeting Jonas Kendall resigned and Ephraim Allen was "fired" —removed, the record gently puts it, and R.G. Marsh was elected chief engineer, Jonas Kendall first assistant, and P.W. Gallaudet, fourth assistant. This apparently put the fat in the fire once more, as at a later meeting more resignations were handed in, and J.M. Morrison was elected first assistant, Gilbert Hogan, third assistant, and John Ross, fourth assistant.
The first company organized was the Mt. Tom hose Company, with these horsemen: H.J. Hodges, C.W. Ranlet, William Melcher, Jonas Kendall, T.H. Kelt, P.C. Alexander, Albert Graves, Thompson Newbury, Stuart Chase, E.B. Wheeler, Ewin Chase, Daniel Bowdoin, E.B. Rose, Samuel Flinn, W. Collins, and J.M. Cavanaugh. The sum of $1,3000 was appropriated for engine, hose, hooks, ladders, etc., and the engine of the Hadley Falls Company bought. This was the first engine ever owned by the town and was christened Holyoke No. 1. It was an old-fashioned hand engine of button make. The salary of the chief engineer for the first year, it might be noted, was $20.
Of the sixty-two members in the year 1852 of this company, Robert Russell ad Robert Houston are the two only surviving, so far as known. The Union Hook and Ladder Company was organized in June, 1852, with these members: W.B.C. Pearsons, Samuel Roberts, E.O. Thorndike, G.N. Case, J.R. Hubbard, P.S. Buckminster, F.K. Graves, John Carleton, Lyman Beach, Horace Baker, Frank Andrews, George McCoon Israel Thorndike, Levi Wilson, Abram Day, F.P. Lund, E.M. Boston, D. Dill, G.D. Lincoln, E.B. Rose, C.L. leach, M.E. Flanders, Charles Twiss, Ellsworth Chapin, and S.O. Page. One of the first engine houses was built on High street, near what was then Exchange Hall, a picture of which hall is shown elsewhere in this issue. In 1860 there were the following companies in the department: Holyoke No. 1, Mechanic No. 1, Mt. Tom Hose No. 1, and Union Hook and Ladder No. 1. The Reliance No. 1 house on High Street , was built during 1864, and in 1866 it was voted to locate the No. 1 machine in the Holyoke Machine shop. This was afterwards reconsidered, and the No. 2 machine was sent to "Tigertown" (South Holyoke). In January, 1868, the salary of the chief engineer was increased to $100 a year and the Mt. Holyoke Hose No. 2 was located at South Holyoke. The first steam fire engine was bought in 1866 an located on High street, a second-class Amoskeag machine, later located in the Highlands. In 1874 it was voted to sell all the apparatus to the new city of Holyoke, and the first chapter of the department's history was closed.
Since the fire department was organized the following men have served as chief engineers of the department: 1851, R.G. Marsh; 1852-3, Daniel Bowdoin; 1854-5, T.H. Kelt; 1856-7-8, W.B.C. Pearsons; 1863-4, W. H. Dickenson; 1865-6-7, L.P. Bosworth; 1868-9, R.P. Crafts; 1870, O.S. Tuttle; 1871, R.P. Crafts; 1872-3-4, Richard Pattee; 1875, B.F. Mullin; 1876-7-8, J.D. Hardy; 1879, B.F. Mullin; 1880, E.P. For; 1881-2-3-4, B.F. Bigelow, 1885 to the present time John T. Lynch.
The most serious fire in Holyoke's experience occurred May 25, 1875, when the French Catholic Church, a wooden building caught on fire when packed with worshipers. Some drapery caught from a candle, and the interior being dry, the flames spread with great rapidity, over seventy persons perishing. Outsiders attempting to get in to rescue those penned inside and those coming out the main body of the church were met by a stream of humanity rushing down the galleries, and the bodies were piled one on another, in some paced seven or eight feet deep. The hero of the hour was John T. Lynch, the present chief of the department. Without hesitating a moment he rushed into the building an began to pull out the bodies, being aided by a stream of water from his company's hose, which alone saved his life. He rescued a score or more of persons; and Holyoke has never forgotten his deeds, even to the present day.
The fireman is the popular hero of the community and his calling is so full of peril as to entitle him to all possible consideration. It is a little ironic of Fate that this month has seen the tragic death of Assistant Chief Patrick J. Reilly, not from falling wall or flaming fire but in a clash between an automobile and a hose wagon. A brave, conscientious worker, of unerring good judgment, and universally liked and held in high esteem, he was a member of the fire department that the city could ill afford to lose.
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