- Fire Department
- History of the Fire Department
History of the Fire Department
Books & Buckets - 1757 through 1787
Organized fire protection began in Princeton, not with the formation of its first fire company in 1788, but with the opening of the College of New Jersey here in 1757.
Without forming any group or association specifically for that purpose, the College was able to provide fire protection by supplying its students and faculty with all the necessary tools. In fact, they performed this task so well at times that many observers assumed that a trained "Fire Brigade" did indeed exist in Princeton.
Nassau Hall's original compliment of fire fighting apparatus consisted of one hundred leather fire buckets and two well painted ladders. After a minor fire though in 1764, additional buckets were requested and a well was dug specifically to be used in' case of fire. A fire engine was also purchased at this time which, upon its arrival was placed in a small house that had been constructed for it and the buckets against the east wall of the College. Two years later, upon the completion of new kitchen facilities, this engine house was torn down and the equipment moved to new quarters between Nassau Hall and the new kitchen. Although the fire apparatus had been obtained for its own security, the College discovered that protecting itself occasionally required extending its fire protection beyond its boundaries.
One such instance was reported in the Pennsylvania Packet and relates the events at a fire in the Hudibrass Tavern. Philadelphia, February 1. Extract of a letter from Princeton, N J., dated January 23, 1773.
"Yesterday morning between three and four o'clock, I was awakened by the cry of fire: I immediately arose, and having dressed myself, hastened out and enquired where the fire was; I was informed it was at the house of Mr. Jacob Hyer, at the sign of Hudibrass: I ran immediately to the place, and found the north-east corner in flames without, also the garret within. The College fire engine and buckets being brought, all possible means were used to extinguish the flames, but to no purpose; the fire burned till seven o'clock when the whole house was laid in ashes. By the carefulness of the students Mr. Patterson's house was saved, although ad joining; the roof catched several times, and was put out as often by the help of the fire engine: The students upon this occasion behaved with a becoming boldness which does them honor. Mr. Hyer's kitchen, shop, etc. were also saved by pulling down the entry that leads from the kitchen to the house." - The Pennsylvania Packet, Number 67, February 1, 1773.
The students' efforts were still considered to have been successful even though they had been unable to save the Hudibras. By all fire fighting standards of the period, they had succeeded in preventing any further property loss. As devoted as these early firefighters may have been, they, unfortunately, were part of a system that was seriously limited in the amount of protection it could provide. Its greatest limitation was clearly evident when the students left Princeton to return home for the holidays. Without their presence, there just wasn't enough available manpower among the remaining faculty and staff of the College to effectively operate the fire apparatus.
The system also promoted some resentment among the inhabitants of Princeton because of its unreliability in responding to every alarm of fire in the community. While most properties directly adjacent to the College could expect some protection, those only a short distance away could not. Despite the inadequacies, the College of New Jersey had made the first attempt at providing organized fire protection in Princeton and would continue to do so for more than three decades before a more efficient system was introduced.
The Volunteers 1788 through 1830
Even though the College had extended its firefighting capabilities to the town of Princeton on many occasions, it became increasingly apparent in the years following the end of the Revolution that this arrangement was not providing adequate protection to the town. Concerned that this would eventually prove disastrous for the town and perhaps motivated by a recent fire, a number of its citizens gathered at the Sign of the College 1 to discuss the situation: Held on the evening of February 11th, 1778 the meeting concluded with the following declaration: "In all well-regulated cities, towns and villages the establishment of Fire Companies, for the purpose of extinguishing houses on fire and for the removal and security of the property of the inhabitants seems to have claimed early and general attention - a number of citizens of Princeton and its vicinity, sensible of the utility of such an institution, and desirous of forming themselves into a company for these benevolent purposes, held a meeting at the home of Jacob C.T. Bergen, and after a free conference on the subject, appointed John Little, Enos Kelsey and John Beatty to draft the form of an association and such articles as should be found necessary to the government of the company."
While the decision to form a volunteer fire company had been made at this meeting, two more meetings would be held that month to actually organize it. Thirty-one individuals would return to the tavern on the 18th to sign their names to its Constitution. The following Monday, its officers were elected for the coming year and the entire membership was divided into four classes of firemen. 2 Its initial organization completed, the Princeton Fire Company turned its efforts towards acquiring the equipment it needed to effectively fight a fire. As each member provided himself with two leather buckets and a bag or basket for salvaging small household items, a committee met with officials from the College to determine what assistance it might provide.
After several weeks of negotiations and assurances that it would receive the same protection as did the town, the College agreed to turn over its fire engine, engine house and a portion of its fire buckets to the volunteers. A number of items were also purchased by the fire company and although it took many years to raise the necessary funds, several axes, fire hooks and two ladders were eventually obtained. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Princeton Fire Company seemed capable of providing fire protection to the town and College. However, several serious fires would occur during the first quarter of the century, which it clearly was not prepared to handle. The destruction of Nassau Hall on March 6, 1802, the loss of three properties in town in 1808 and the Presbyterian Church fire on March 1, 1813, demonstrated that there were inadequacies in both its apparatus and its organization.
Having found the "old College fire engine" too small and worn to be effective at the Nassau Hall fire, the firemen began subscriptions to purchase a new and larger engine. In the meantime, measures were undertaken to repair the old engine and to improve its efficiency by lengthening the pump handles and by securing drag ropes to it. Speaking trumpets and badges to identify the firemen were purchased to eliminate some of the problems that had occurred at the fire in 1808 and their efforts to obtain a new engine were intensified after the Presbyterian Church fire. To eliminate some of the confusion which had occurred during these fires, the fire company made a number of changes within its organization which it hoped would also improve its overall efficiency.
It began by selecting four members who were to assist the Director by forming the bucket lanes which supplied the engine. To ensure that all the apparatus was conveyed promptly to the scene, the 2nd or "engine class" was enlarged and the other three classes of firemen reorganized. The entire company was also divided into three equal parts to work the engine in rotation. In response to the absence of the Director during the 1808 fire, the position of Assistant Director was created. However, the office was later eliminated and the duties reassigned to the senior Lane Director. Difficulties in notifying the inhabitants and the firemen about the fire also led to an individual being assigned to sound future alarms by ringing the College bells. The Princeton Fire Company, with the Town Council's assistance, finally purchased a new first-class village engine in early 1820. Unfortunately, the new apparatus was found to be too large for the old engine house and had to be kept at the Market while new quarters were being constructed for it.
Shortly after its completion though, the Presbyterian Church requested that it be moved to another location since it intended to move its fence out closer to Nassau Street. It is not clear where the firemen relocated this house but, their original engine and engine house were still located along the lane leading to the Morgan farm.
With the improved apparatus and the restructuring of its organization, the Princeton Fire Company would be far more successful at firefighting during the second quarter of the century than at any time previous. Their equipment, which had consisted of a few buckets and bags in 1788, by 1828 included two engines, fifty or so buckets with poles to carry them on, three different sizes of ladders, five fire hooks, three axes, numerous hand tools and at least one speaking trumpet for the Chief Director. All this equipment would have done little though, without the changes that had occurred within the organization. The most important one be ing the development of line officers to manage its fire ground operations. From a single individual "the Director," who presided over company and firefighting matters, the system evolved to include a "Chief Director of the Engine" and four "Lane or Assistant Directors.'" The senior Lane Director was also assigned the title of "Assistant Chief Director" and was to assume the duties of the Director in his absence. This distribution of authority not only improved the overall performance of the Princeton Fire Company but established a pattern upon which all subsequent company and departmental structures would be based.
"Princeton Fire Company" to "Princeton Fire Department" - 1831 through 1864
When the old College engine was finally replaced in 1820, the Princeton Fire Company decided it would not be disposed of; but, would instead be totally rebuilt and then put back into service. After having done this, the Company assigned several of its newest members to this engine; requiring them to respond directly to its quarters when an alarm was sounded. Although this was done to ensure that both engines would be conveyed promptly when needed, the practice of assigning members to a specific engine also created problems within the organization.
To resolve these difficulties, a proposal was presented which ultimately led to the resignation of a number of members and the formation of a second, independent engine company. In August of 1832, a "new Fire Company" petitioned the Common Council of Princeton, "for a space of ground immediately below the Town House, to locate their Engine House upon." However, while the Council spent the next several months considering the request, this new company found another suitable location and by November had already moved its engine house onto that site.
On February 1, 1833, the town's second fire company was officially incorporated with the New Jersey State Legislature as the Resolution Engine Company of Princeton. This Act, like the one which had been granted to the Princeton Fire Company in 1825, limited the corporation's membership to one hundred individuals. However, it is very unlikely that Resolution ever had more than 25 active members, since most contemporary reports indicate that the Princeton Fire Company was still the largest of the two companies and that there were only 30 to 40 firemen in the entire department during this period. This lack of numbers did not prevent them from providing Princeton with good service though, and on at least one occasion, the actions of the Resolution Fire Company were specifically credited for preventing any further property loss. After purchasing a much larger fire engine for itself in 1835, Resolution then traded the old College apparatus to Benjamin Reed of Hightstown for a mule.
Although the deal was rather unusual, it actually worked well for both parties. The mule was subsequently sold at a premium price to the Delaware and Raritan Canal and the engine, which was already 71 years old, provided yet another 30 years of fire protection for Hightstown. It is doubtful that many other engines ever remained in service for so long.
During the early 1840s, several notices in the local paper and an occasional comment on the "Fire Department" in the Borough Council's minutes indicate that the two fire engine companies still existed. However, by the middle of the decade, all references to a fire department disappeared from these records and, while an occasional comment can be found concerning the Princeton Fire Company, no further mention is made of the Resolution Engine Company. While there is no clear indication as to what actually happened to the organization, its engine was most likely still in use in 1849, when the Mercer Fire Company's new apparatus was designated as Engine Number 3.
Princeton's third fire company, like its first, had its beginnings at a public meeting that was called to discuss ways for improving the town's fire protection. Both meetings were even held at the same tavern. But, unlike its predecessors, this organization would be managed very differently because of its willingness to cooperate closely with the Borough Council. Although the first step had been taken to organize the company at the town meeting in August of 1847, the Mercer Fire Company did not actually adopt a constitution nor elect any officers until May 3, 1848. Then, in order to obtain funding for its apparatus, the Company not only agreed to give Borough Council the final say in the selection of all its firefighting equipment, but also the ability to disband its organization if it felt that the apparatus was not being maintained properly.
Accordingly, a committee was appointed, consisting of the Mayor and two Councilmen, to cooperate with the new fire company in this endeavor. With an initial appropriation of $250 from the Council and an additional $400 to be raised by taxation, enough capital had been obtained by the spring of 1849 to cover the cost of a new fire engine. Therefore, on the 19th of May, the Common Council approved its acquisition and also agreed to assist the fire company with the cost of constructing its firehouse. Finally, on June 5th the engine, hose, and a two-wheeled hose cart arrived by train from Waterford, New York and was promptly delivered to the Mercer Fire Engine Company Number 3. Their engine house was completed shortly thereafter.
The older fire companies had previously found the Council very reluctant to provide any financial support and what little assistance it had offered, usually came in the form of a loan. Because of this, the Princeton Fire Company had relied upon private contributions and the collection of fines and dues from its membership to support its projects. Most of the town's public pumps, wells, and cisterns had in fact been installed and maintained by the old company at its own expense. It was not surprising then, that although they had remained silent throughout the three years it had taken the Borough to completely organize and equip the new company, they too would feel that they deserved a share of their tax dollars. Their anger finally surfaced in 1850, when the Council attempted to appropriate an additional $50 for more hose for Engine Three. In desperate need of new hose themselves, the Princeton Fire Company objected strongly to this action and the Council, under pressure from both engine companies to find a compromise, ultimately decided to split the money and gave $30 to Number 3 and $20 to Number 1.
The new hose, however, would do very little to improve the overall efficiency of the P.F.C.'s engine which, by this time had become so worn that it would have taken as much to repair it as it would to purchase a new engine. It was less powerful than the new Engine Three and also lacked the ability to draw its own water from a well or a cistern without the aid of a pump. Faced with this, the Company appeared before the Borough Council in 1851, requesting a grant of money towards the purchase of a new engine. Seizing the opportunity, the Council agreed to do so, providing that the old fire company come under their control. They had even drawn up an ordinance for organizing and regulating the entire Fire Department in anticipation of the P.F. C. agreeing to their terms. However, when the fire company would only agree to participate in the election of a Chief Engineer and two assistants as Departmental officers, they were able to circumvent the intent of the ordinance without totally rejecting it. In response, the Council agreed to provide only half of the necessary funds, leaving the P.F.C. to raise the remainder on its own.
A year later, enough capital had been collected to place the order and on May 5, 1853, a new Engine One arrived from Philadelphia. Unfortunately, like its predecessor in 1820, this new engine was also found to be too large for the old firehouse. It was therefore stored at the Market until July of 1854, when its new quarters were completed at 36 Canal (Alexander) Street. Now with two new and more powerful engines, good hose and close to 70 active firemen in the two remaining companies, many felt that the Princeton Fire Department was at last capable of providing effective protection in any instance of fire. However, on the evening of March 10, 1855, Nassau Hall once again caught fire, vividly demonstrating that good equipment alone could not guarantee success. This time the firemen were able to stretch hose up to the second floor, but just as they were about to extinguish the fire, the College well ran dry. By the time another supply of water was located and all the necessary hookups made, the flames had made such progress that the firemen were forced to abandon their efforts to save Nassau Hall. Three months later, on June 21st the firemen encountered the same situation at the comer of Nassau and Chambers Streets. Again, because of inadequate supplies at the fire scene, water had to be relayed from sources some distance away. Because of this, the printing offices of the Princeton Standard and the foundry and machine shop of its editor were completely destroyed in this fire.
For the P.F.C. however, the availability of water was the least of its concerns. The political atmosphere of the 1850's had become so heated that the old company, like the Nation, was on the verge of being torn apart. It had begun in 1854, when many of the older, more established members rushed to join the newly formed Union and Republican Parties. Most of the younger firemen however, did not support their platforms and chose instead to support the older Democratic Party. As the elections of 1860 approached, the division among the membership became so intense that the Company could not even hold its meetings without them turning into political debates. Because of this preoccupation with politics, the efforts to extinguish a minor fire on April 15, 1860 proved so embarrassing to the P.F.C. that its officers decided to disband the Company. That evening the Borough Council was notified of this action and the Chief Engineer of the Department was instructed to take over control of Engine One. By the spring of 1861, several former members of the P.F.C. had reformed as an Engine Company only. None of the older organization's officers however, or any of its older members could be convinced to join the new company and for the most part, these individuals would stay away from the fire department throughout the Civil War.
Reconstruction - 1865 through 1868
When Princeton's firemen returned home at the end of the Civil War, they discovered that the fire department had been so neglected in their absence, that the organization and much of its apparatus was now virtually destroyed. While under the direct control of the Borough Council and its Fire and Water Committee, expenditures from March 1861 to March 1865 amounted to only $110.78. Compared to an 1860 figure of almost $200 for minor repairs, the four-year total certainly indicated how little was done to maintain the fire equipment. Editorials soon began appearing regularly in the local paper, reminding the Council of its responsibilities and urging it to do more to assist in the reorganization of the Fire Department. During a public meeting which had been called to discuss the situation, the members of Council not only heard suggestions for improving the two existing companies but, also a recommendation that a third organization be formed to act as a ladder and bucket company.
Surprisingly, some of the strongest support for reorganization of the Fire Department had come from the individuals who had formerly belonged to the old Princeton Fire Company. On September 4, 1865, approximately two-thirds of that old organization's members met at the Mansion House and decided to reform as the Princeton Hook, Ladder and Bucket Company. Within two short weeks, its reorganization was completed and its officers elected. The Company had also obtained fifty fire buckets, six axes, hooks and a truck. Four ladders, two thirty-five and two sixteen feet in length were also ordered and already in the process of being made. The speed at which this Company organized and equipped itself was not unexpected considering that it essentially was the P.F.C. without an engine. Except for the new ladder truck, most of the equipment had belonged to the old organization and had simply gone unused when that Company disbanded.
The shock came however when the Council discovered that the "new" Company's line officers were not organized in the same manner as the rest of the Department's officers. Instead of having one Departmental officer, a Foreman and two assistants, they had returned to an older system with a Chief Director, Assistant Director, and four Lane Directors. Although this arrangement did not conform to that established by the Borough ordinance of 1854, the system did work well for managing a Bucket Company and so, was allowed to remain in place for the moment.
Unfortunately, because of the deplorable condition of their apparatus, reorganization did not go as well for either of the two engine companies. Even though many of their former members rejoined prior to the public meeting in July, enabling both organizations to revise their constitutions and elect new officers by mid-August, neither company could function effectively due to problems with the equipment. While operating at a fire on August 2nd, Engine Number 1 broke down and had to be sent to Philadelphia for repairs. It wasn't until three months later, when Engine Number 3 broke down at another fire that everyone finally realized just how serious the problem was. This engine, which had protected the town for several weeks during Number l's absence, was found to be so weakened by its years of neglect that it was now unrepairable and should have been replaced long ago. Having ignored the maintenance of the fire equipment for over five years, the Borough Council now faced the new year knowing that it would have to make a greater contribution towards the Fire Department or run the risk of losing its control over it.
Taking full advantage of this situation, the Mercer Fire Co. notified the Council on February 6th that their engine was unfit for service and would have to be replaced. The Council's Fire and Water Committee quickly took up this matter and together with representatives from the fire company, soon located a suitable replacement engine. Originally built in 1860 for Engine Eleven of Newark, this engine was subsequently purchased and on May 4, 1866 was turned over to the Mercer Fire Company. But, as previous generations of firemen had already discovered, new engines frequently do not fit old firehouses. Since the College also had plans to build on the site of their present "houses," the Borough agreed to construct a new firehouse on Chambers Street for them. By the end of the year, both engine companies had also been resupplied with all new fire hose, bringing the Borough's total expenditure for the Fire Department to $2,419.66. Engine Company Number 3 did however; contribute $600 towards its engine and new firehouse.
Relocation - 1869 through 1882
With their reorganization essentially completed and their equipment now in good working order, Princeton's three fire companies began a series of moves which not only reflected the changing character of the town, but also the increasing dependency upon municipal support. By early 1869, expansion of the College had not only caused Engine Number 3 to be removed to temporary quarters but, also forced the ladder truck to be moved to the Nassau Hotel Stables when the Market was torn down. The new Chambers Street firehouse was close to completion though, and in July, Number 3 moved its engine and two carriages there. Although Engine Number 1 was not being forced to move for the same reason, they too were in the process of building a new firehouse. With most of its members now living and working in the east end of town, they had decided to move to Queenston and in December relocated Engine One there. Their old engine house at 36 Canal Street was reoccupied shortly thereafter by the Hook and Ladder Co., many of whose members still lived in that section of town. Obviously, this rearranging of the firehouses helped to improve the distribution of fire protection throughout the town.
However, its primary objective was to place the firehouses into more residential areas, from which new members could be drawn. Surprisingly, the Borough Council continued to provide its assistance to improve the efficiency of the Fire Department. Aside from assuming the responsibility of constructing and maintaining an increasing number of cisterns, its Fire and Water Committee purchased leather helmets and belts and then supplied every fireman with a set. The Chief and his two assistants also received the same, but in white to distinguish them from the other firemen. In 1871 Engine Number 1 was replaced, and as it had done earlier for Number 3, the Council initially paid for the apparatus and then waited for the fire company to repay the loan.
The Mercer Fire Company did, however, purchase several pieces on its own including a 2nd hand hose carriage it obtained from Trenton's Hose Co. Number 1 in May of 1872.4 Since they did not contribute extensively to the cost of the building of their firehouse, the Borough retained ownership of it. Both Hook and Ladder and Engine Company Number 1 still owned their houses at this time.
The Borough's continued willingness to cooperate with the fire companies slowly began to change some of the old attitudes which had prevented them from working together in the past. One of the most notable changes was the Hook, Ladder and Bucket Company's acceptance of a standardized ranking of fire line officers. Their old system of Directors, dating back to the earliest years of the Princeton Fire Company, was replaced with a Foreman and two Assistants by 1870. Encouraged by this, Council and the Fire Chief began to develop new, more detailed plans for regulating the Fire Department. An ordinance was eventually proposed and on June 2, 1874 it was unanimously passed by the Borough Council.
While retaining much of what had already been established in the ordinance of 1854, it went on to describe in detail the yearly election of officers, their duties and the duties of the firemen. It established a "Board of Engineers" that would, subject to Council's approval, make rules for governing the Department.' From the fire companies, it required a better accounting of their fire calls, a status of their membership and set limits on the number of firemen in each engine (50), hook and ladder (25), and hose company (20). It gave the Chief Engineer sole authority at the fire scene and all fire apparatus, the right-of-way on any highway, street or avenue. It also excused the firemen from jury duty, serving in the militia and paying the poll tax. For its part, the Borough was to purchase leather helmets and belts for the firemen and pay them $3 per year as compensation for their services. Each Assistant Chief was to receive $5 and the Chief Engineer approximately $65. However, his actual salary would vary from year to year since it was based upon the time he spent conducting Fire Department business.
By 1878, Engine Company Number 1 was again seeking to relocate its firehouse. Neither they nor the Hook and Ladder Company had ever really been satisfied with the locations they had occupied back in 1869 and within two years the ladder truck had been removed to new quarters on Mercer Street. Aside from it being a good distance from the center of town, the Queenston firehouse was also standing on rented ground and its owner now wanted to sell the property. Not long after representatives from Number 1 had approached the Council on this matter, a lot was purchased on Chestnut Street for the purpose of constructing a firehouse similar to Number 3's.
Once again the Borough assumed the cost of construction and by its completion in December of 1879, had expended a total of $2,184. In comparison, the Chambers Street Firehouse, which was basically the same in size and appearance, had cost $3,175. Hook and Ladder's 28'xI2' structure, however, had a price tag of under $450 and had cost the taxpayers nothing since the company repaid the Borough for its expense shortly after its completion. Because the word "Union" and a date of 1854 were painted over the doorway of this firehouse, its occupants were frequently referred to as the "Union Hook and Ladder Company." It was, however, only a reference to the political affiliation of a majority of Hook and Ladder's members and was never adopted as a company name.
Innovations - 1883 through 1911
The most important event in the history of the Princeton's fire service, aside from the establishment of the first fire company, was the introduction of fire hydrants in 1883-84. Initially, there were thirty-one hydrants located throughout the central part of town, each having one 2 Y2" and one 4" steamer connection. Since the fire department did not yet possess a "Steamer," adaptors were purchased by the Borough to allow two hose lines to be attached to this large connection. Supplied by pumps from the Water Company's main plant on lower Alexander Street, the hydrants provided water at pressures equal to or exceeding those produced by either of the two-hand engines.
Because of this, the engines were being employed less frequently at fires, the firemen choosing instead to run hose from the nearest hydrant directly to the fire. The members of Engine Number 3 responded so often with just their hose carriages, that they actually became better known as the "Mercer Hose Company." There were however, several minor problems initially encountered, one of which concerned access to the hydrants. As a privately controlled corporation, the Princeton Water Company charged the Borough for its service and further stipulated that the hydrants were to be used only for the purpose of fighting fires. However, when the firemen used water from a hydrant to refill a cistern that had been emptied during a fire, the Water Co. demanded an additional payment for its use and threatened to discontinue service if this practice was repeated. After several meetings with the Council and the Board of Engineers on this matter, the Water Co. agreed to alter its position and a new contract was eventually signed. Even with greater access to the system, the Fire Department continued maintaining the cisterns for several more decades.
At the request of the Chief Engineer, the first annual inspection of the Fire Department took place in front of Mercer Hall on July 10, 1884. Although the engines had traditionally been "exercised" at least once a year in the past, this was the first time that the Borough Council and general public had been invited to watch. This inspection also gave Hook and Ladder the opportunity to demonstrate the new ladder truck they had purchased in 1883.
As the two engine companies became less dependent upon their engines, they began to concentrate on improving their effectiveness in other areas. Shortly after the inspection in July, Number l's members purchased a good second-hand hose carriage and had it repainted. On August 15, 1885 the Mercer Fire Co. received delivery of its new carriage. This rig was so elaborate that the manufacturer is said to have delayed its delivery so it could be shown at the New York State Firemen's Convention. The leather hose on these carriages was, however, in very poor condition and frequently came apart at the seams when subjected to the water pressure of the new hydrants. This problem disappeared, though, when the Borough began replacing the leather hose with new fabric jacketed fire hose in 1886.
By the mid-1880s, Princeton's fire companies were well-established social institutions. Their picnics and dances had grown into elaborate banquets and balls, and their annual shows were, for many, the social event of the season. It was during this period that each company began to develop its own distinct character. Reinforced through sporting and fire tactic competitions, the companies began to develop rivalries that occasionally carried over into their firefighting.
To improve departmental cooperation and to eliminate any chance of one company having more say than the others, it was agreed upon to have a new Chief Engineer chosen yearly from the three companies in rotation. With the two Assistants elected in the same manner, this system guaranteed that each company would now have equal representation on the Board of Engineers. Participation in out-of-town parades was also an important social activity during this period. Since the Borough owned equipment was prohibited by ordinance from leaving town for such things, the firemen continued to purchase much of their own apparatus, thus enabling them to participate with equipment in out-of-town parades. During the late 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s, a series of destructive fires again demonstrated weaknesses in Princeton's fire protection and, particularly, its efforts to prevent these situations from reoccurring. On February 21, 1898, the firemen were forced to use their old hand engines for the first time in almost 15 years because of low water pressure in the hydrants. The fire, which had started in the drug store on the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon Streets, destroyed that building and severely damaged the upper floors of the 1st National Bank before it was brought under control. As a result, a new aerial ladder was purchased and efforts were undertaken to replace the two old engines with more powerful steam-driven engines.
After experiencing just how destructive a fire could be in its central business district, the Borough Council reacted by passing its first fire code in 1899. The ordinance essentially created a fire district within which only non-flammable building material could be used in new construction or the altering of an existing structure. The Gas and Electric Company also contributed to this effort by installing a whistle on top of its plant, which when sounded would signal an alarm of fire. On November 23, 1903, just three weeks after Number 1 had received a new Steamer, fire struck again in the same business district. Although the fire at the Odd Fellows Hall was discovered too late to save the building, the new engine prevented the flames from spreading to the adjoining properties despite encountering low water pressure again. As before, additional steps were taken to improve the Fire Department's efficiency after the fact. On St. Valentine's Day 1905, Engine Company Number 3 received a new La France hose carriage complete with extinguishers and a scaling ladder. On May 15th, a La France, two-tank chemical engine was turned over to the members of Hook and Ladder and Chemical Engine Company Number 1.
During the spring and summer of 1905, the Borough Council was kept busy working out the details of the new Gamewell fire alarm with the phone company. By the Fall of that year, an automatic bell striker had been installed in Number 3's house and 14 transmitting boxes had been placed at key intersections throughout the town. On October 27th, the system was used for the first time when it tapped out Box 31 for a fire at the College Field House. Excluding past events at the College, the most serious conflagration to strike the town of Princeton occurred on January 20, 1909. Like the fire on the same site in 1903, Alhambra Hall was totally involved by the time the firemen arrived and they, therefore, concentrated their efforts on saving the adjoining structures. This time, however, they were not as successful and before it was all over, three buildings on the South and two structures on the Northern side of Spring Street had been consumed by the flames. The close proximity of the Public Service Gas Works prompted a call to Trenton for assistance. However, by the time Engine Number 5 and its hose cart arrived at the train station on the morning of the 21st, the fire's northward progress had been halted.
Two Forward, One Back - 1912 through 1988
The basic structure of today's Fire Department has essentially remained unchanged from that of the late 19th century. There are still three fire companies limited to 65 members each; one Departmental Chief and two Deputy Chiefs and, each company still has three line officers who, together with the departmental officers, constitute the Board of Engineers. The Princeton Borough Council, however, no longer has sole control of the system, but now shares the responsibility with the Princeton Township Committee. What has drastically changed over the years is the technology that the firemen have employed in combating a fire.
Of all the innovations introduced, the gasoline-powered engine would have the greatest impact. Although Princeton's first "motorized" piece of fire apparatus was actually steam-driven, Number 3's 1912 Webb signaled the entrance into the 20th century. In 1914, the Borough purchased a Martin Chemical Engine for the Hook and Ladder Company. Delivered on July 11, the total cost of this vehicle was listed at $4,600, but because its two 60-gallon chemical tanks had been salvaged along with other equipment from the old horse-drawn chemical engine, its actual cost was much less. There had also been some discussion at Council meetings that year about motorizing Number 1's steamer. This no longer became necessary, however, when the Company purchased a Martin combination chemical engine and hose wagon with its funds and adapted it for towing the steamer.
In December of 1917, the horse-drawn aerial was run out for the last time and replaced by a new motorized city service ladder from Mack Trucks. Back in 1891, the Hook and Ladder Company had purchased property on Witherspoon Street for a new three-storied firehouse and in 1894 moved their ladder truck to that location. Before acquiring the March tin though, a one-story addition was added to the rear of this building so that it could accommodate the new piece of apparatus. While property losses due to fire did decline in Princeton following the acquisition of the motorized chemical engines, this could not be attributed to their presence alone. The increasing number of fire hydrants, fire alarm boxes, and private telephones contributed to an increasing number of fires being extinguished before they had done much damage. However, the potential for disaster still existed because the majority of the buildings in town were constructed prior to the existence of any fire or building codes.
During the 1920s a number of spectacular fires occurred which the Fire Department was ill-equipped to handle. On the evening of May 14, 1920, a fire broke out in Dickinson Hall on the University campus. Fueled by the building's construction, the fire soon exhausted the chemical supplies for the engines and the steam engine alone could not supply enough water to stop its progress. By the next morning, Dickinson and the nearby Marquand Chapel, which had been ignited by radiant heat, were both totally destroyed. The John C. Green School of Science was destroyed in that same part of campus on November 26, 1928.
Once again, the construction techniques the Borough purchased a 750 GPM American La France with a 500-gallon water tank for them. Their steamer was kept and remained in service as a reserve for some time. In 1929 a Buffalo Chemical Engine was purchased by the Borough for Hook and Ladder, and although it was intended as a replacement for the Martin, the Company instead kept both chemical engines and had the old one modernized. Although nothing was done concerning the Department's apparatus until 1924, the fire alarm system was improved upon in 1922 and 1923. The switchboard and control panel, which had previously been located at the Telephone Company, were moved to Number 3's firehouse and a siren was placed atop Hook and Ladder's. A number of problems with the system caused the Council to advertise for an entirely new one in the Fall of 1930.
This new and architectural style of the 1870s enabled a fire to spread so rapidly that the firemen were unable to prevent its loss. Two fires during January 1924 resulted in the destruction of the old Casino on University Place and heavy damage to the Hun School building on Stockton Street. In both instances, valuable time was lost in relocating Number 1 's steamer to hydrants that had sufficient water pressure.
The firemen had realized very early on that one aging steamer and three chemical engines, could not possibly handle fires of this magnitude. Immediately following the fire of 1920, the Borough did begin to discuss the problem; however, nothing was done to correct the situation until after the two 1924 fires. In August of that year, Number 3's auto steamer was replaced with a 1000 GPM American La France combination pumper and hose wagon. Two years later, Engine Number 1 sold their Martin Chemical Engine and fire alarm-call system with its klaxon horns and sirens, was basically in place by September of 1936. During that year, the transmitter was removed from Number 3 and installed at police headquarters in Borough Hall., a "honker" had been installed at Number 1 and a new siren was put in at the Hook and Ladder firehouse on Witherspoon.
The construction of Palmer Square during the Depression not only removed the potential for a major conflagration by demolishing many old and decaying buildings, it also provided opportunity for improving the Fire Department. Since the Mercer Fire Company's house lay within the redevelopment zone, arrangements were made to construct a new firehouse directly across the street for them. On June 28, 1933, the new building was officially dedicated and the apparatus moved to it shortly thereafter. Realizing that the new Nassau Inn, as well as several buildings recently constructed on the University Campus, were beyond the reach of their ladders, the Fire Department began efforts to replace the old city service truck. After looking at several manufacturers, a 65ft. Seagrave's aerial was finally purchased and delivered to Hook and Ladder on April 29, 1941.
While economic conditions during the Second World War prevented the Borough from making any further changes in the Fire Department's apparatus, the members of Hook and Ladder were able to build one of their own. Built on a 1942 Ford Chassis that had been obtained from a local dealership, the rig was completed with parts salvaged from their Martin Chemical Engine. This was also the last piece of in-service apparatus to be purchased by any of the three fire companies in town.
By the end of World War II, both of the Department's engines had become outdated and were beginning to break down frequently. To correct this, the Borough purchased two identical 1250 GPM pumpers. Built by American La France on 1945 chassis, the twin 700 series pumpers arrived in Princeton September 16, 1947. On December 1st, 1950 a Mack combination foam and high-pressure Engine with a 750 gallon tank arrived to replace Hook and Ladder's Buffalo Chemical Engine.
When the new engines arrived, Number 3 had no difficulty in putting their engine inside their new, two-bay firehouse. Number 1, however, had much more difficulty. The Borough had actually planned to build new quarters for Number 1 prior to the war and had even purchased a lot on the eastern corner of Hamilton Avenue and Chestnut Street to build it on. The Company was able to obtain the lot adjoining it and after demolition of the old firehouse was completed, construction of the new one began. Completed by December of 1949, Number l's new firehouse not only had plenty of room for two engines but, included an additional bay for its First Aid Unit's ambulance.
Originally organized by members from all three of Princeton's fire companies in the 1930s, the First Aid Corps eventually became attached to Engine Company Number 1. Its first ambulance was purchased in June of 1941 and remained in service until 1951 when it was replaced by a new Packard. In 1957, a group of citizens donated a Ford Stand-Up van to be used as a rescue truck and on May 20th of that year the unit's name was officially changed to the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad. The last physical ties with the Fire Department were cut in May 1963 when the Squad moved into its own building on North Harrison Street. Having always prided themselves as being the last company to relinquish control of their organization to the Borough, the Princeton Hook and Ladder Company gave up the last vestige of their independence in 1957 when they moved to their present location on North Harrison Street. Although they continued to run the apparatus out of both firehouses for a short time, their Witherspoon Street building was eventually sold.
As controller and purchasing agent for the Fire Department, the Borough had made a mistake, however, in replacing all of its main pieces of equipment in a short period of time. Between 1950 and 1970, only two new trucks were obtained and only one of these was a fully-rated pumper. In 1955, a 750 GPM Seagrave pumper was purchased for Hook and Ladder, and in '59, a John Bean International High-Pressure Engine was given to Number 3. Both pieces were intended only to supplement the existing equipment and not to replace it. By the mid-sixties, however, the ladder truck and both of the La France engines began to experience frequent mechanical difficulties and their continued operation at any given fire was often questionable.
The Borough finally realized the seriousness of the situation and in 1970 passed emergency appropriations to correct the problem. In July 1971, Engine Number 1 received a 1000 GPM Mack. On January 19, 1972, a 75 ft Mack Aerial was delivered to Hook and Ladder and in April of 1973, a 1250 GPM Mack to Number 3. The Board of Engineers now requested that the replacement of apparatus continue, but at a slower, more deliberate pace. In 1980, Hook and Ladder's 1950 Mack was replaced with a 1250 GPM Hahn. In December 1982 another 1250 GPM Mack was purchased to replace the John Bean which had proven to be one of the biggest consumers of oil in the history of motorized apparatus. The advent of the parking garage in Princeton resulted in the purchase of a GMC-Mack mini-pumper, which was assigned to Engine Company Number 1 on March 16th 1984. In 1988, Number l's 1971 Mack is tentatively scheduled to be replaced. Notable among the fires that occurred after 1940 were, the University Gym Fire in 1944; the Trinity Church Fire on February 13, 1961; Whig Hall on November 9, 1969 and the Benson Building on January 21, 1977.
The changing attitudes of the 1970s and the decreasing number of individuals who were joining the Department caused its membership requirements to be re-evaluated and amended. In March of 1973, Hook and Ladder accepted the first 18 year old and in January of 1975, the first female. In June of 1985, only ten years after first admitting women, Hook and Ladder elected its first female officer.
In 1788 a small group of Princetonians, with only their time and energy to offer, organized themselves to provide the town with fire protection. For the next 200 years, their descendants and newcomers alike struggled to overcome the lack of equipment, organization; financial resources, and inadequate supplies of water.