The Bradford Fire Department
103 Years Old and Going Strong!
The Bradford Fire Department marked its 100th anniversary in the year 2003. Nearly every child in Bradford has visited the fire station on Chestnut Street at least once, and everyone looks out the window when they hear the fire trucks go wailing by. The city boasts a modern fire department with a paid force and an admirable record of fire fighting.
But it was not always so. In fact, the early days of Bradford saw only volunteer fire fighters, and their equipment usually consisted of buckets filled with water from the nearby Tunaguwant Creek. But by the end of the 19th century, it was quite an honor to be a fireman, and these men were treated with great respect. In a town built of wooden buildings, it is easy to see why.
The first recorded "big" fire occurred on May 30, 1868. The Bradford House, which was located on the corner of Mechanic Street and Main Street (on the square) was burned to the ground with a loss of $10,000. There were no fire departments in existence in Bradford at this time, and although many bystanders tried their best, the building was a total loss.
The next big fire happened just eight years later in June of 1876, when lightning set fire to gas from the Olmstead oil well. The fire jumped from that well to the McKean County pipe line, to the PCLP Company tank, through P.T. Kennedy's mill, then to the Prentiss & Company's tanks, and up to the Jackson & Walker well and tank (you may remember that this well was the first to produce substantial amounts of oil, and was located above Jackson Avenue). The fire then moved on the J.T. Farrel's well, burned through 40 empty tank cars, and a dwelling, for a total loss of $90,000. That's a lot of money, especially in 1876.
Not surprisingly, the first volunteer fire department was formed the next year, in August 1877. It was called the F.S. Johnson Hose Company No. 1, and was named after the Hon. Frank Spencer Johnson, who had served as postmaster in Bradford, was a prominent oil producer, and was said to be "conspicuous in political circles as a leading Republican". Whether politics played a part in choosing this name is unknown.
The borough of Bradford (not yet incorporated as a city) gave the new fire company a two wheeled jumper, a sort of wagon, and 1,000 feet of rubber hose. They stored all this equipment in a barn on Barbour Street.
In May 1878, the second Bradford House fire occurred. All the buildings on the block bounded by Main Street, Pine Street, and Tuna Creek, and Mechanic Street were destroyed. The total loss was $75,000. In gratitude to the Johnson Hose Company's efforts, Bradford bought the fire company a hose carriage, which was purchased from the Fertig Hose Company of Titusville for $600.
The second fire company, the Era Hook and Ladder, was formed in June of 1878. Collecting $1000 of their own money, the volunteers purchased the first hook and ladder wagon in the city.
On November 16 & 17, 1878, a fire that is known historically as the "Great Fire", started in the Comique Theater on Boylston Street. It soon spread to Corydon Street on the south, went east to the Erie Railroad tracks, and west to Main Street, reaching Osgood's grocery store. In all, 40 buildings were destroyed, including the first Riddell House, the machine shops and foundry of Bovaird and Seyfang, the United States Express Company building, and all the saloons, stores, boarding houses, etc. within the limits of the fire. The total loss of this fire was placed at $150,000.
The third fire company, the Whitney Hose, was organized in November of 1878. An independent, it was formed by the employees of the Whitney & Wheeler, at that time, one of the largest oil producers in the country, and owners of the Tuna Valley Bank, the first bank in Bradford. Their initial equipment consisted of an old pumper from the Johnson Hose Company, and 500 feet of rubber hose.
The fourth fire company, the Citizen Hose, was formed in November of 1878, as well, by a young group of men originally from Buffalo, NY, who had migrated to Bradford for jobs in the oil field. Their first fire "truck" was a sleigh, the runners of which were made of bent pipe, two inches in thickness.
The fifth fire company, the United Hose Company, was formed the next March, in 1879, by the employees of the United Pipe Line division of Standard Oil Company. An independent, they used a small cannon to shoot holes in the big 35,000 barrel tanks, thus drawing off the oil and stopping the spread of the fire. This company was in operation for only a few years.
In 1880, another fire, starting in the Sawyer House, swept over four acres of ground, destroying hotels, saloons, stores, restaurants, on both sides of Main Street, and caused a loss of $100,000.
In June of 1880, a terrible fire in Tarport (now East Main Street area) started in the Wescott House. The fire ultimately spread to other buildings, and destroyed 32 buildings in two hours. Estimated loss was $50,000.
Not coincidentally, the sixth fire department, the Cornen Hose Company, was organized in Tarport on March 2, 1881. Named after the Cornen brothers, prominent oil producers, it owned its own horse and parade carriage.
On December 16, 1881, a Custer City fire destroyed seven buildings, and in July 1884, Reibley's bakery and hotel burned, killing Mrs. Reibley, her two daughters, and a Swedish hired girl.
The seventh fire company, the Central Hose, was formed in September 1885. An independent, it was organized for the protection of Bovaird and Seyfang by its employees.
Over the next five years, more fires follow. Five buildings on Kennedy Street are destroyed in December 1886, seven buildings on Main Street are burned in January 1889, and in 1890, Christmas wreaths placed too near the candles on the altar cause the Episcopal Church on Chautauqua Place to burn.
The eighth fire company, the Potter Hose, is organized in August 1891, after a disastrous fire on Pleasant Street, and provided fire protection for the third and fourth wards.
The ninth fire company, the Liberty Hose Company was formed in October 1892 for the protection of the fifth ward residents. The fire house was located on High Street.
At some point, a tenth fire company, the Falcon Hose Company was formed, but they seem to have been in existence for only a short time, and may have been comprised of retired volunteer firemen.
As the century drew to a close, fires remained a constant threat to the growing city. But as time passed, the original wooden buildings, thrown up in haste after the discovery of oil, disappeared, either burned out of existence, or razed to make way for more modern brick buildings. By 1903, the Central Fire Department was formed, and the volunteer fire companies disappeared as well. Today, their only record is found in the newspapers, or on some stray memorabilia in the Bradford Landmark Society, but their bravery, willingness to put their lives in danger, and their achievements can never be forgotten.