The 150th Anniversary of the Aurora Fire Department, Aurora Illinois

History of the Aurora Fire Department

It took several major fires to finally bring about the purchase of equipment and the formation of a fire company in Aurora. The Board of Trustees passed an ordinance on June 26, 1856 which enabled them to "purchase a fire engine when a sufficient sum was subscribed by the public." A petition was circulated to ascertain the number of citizens willing to act as members of a volunteer fire company. A meeting was held on July 1, 1856, at which time the name "Young America Fire Engine Company No. 1" was chosen and committees were named to nominate a slate of officers, to write a constitution and to select a uniform. Samuel McCarty donated a lot on North Broadway between New York and Spring Streets to be used for the engine house, with the stipulation that liquor was never to be sold in the Village. On August 22, 1856, Young America Company held their first meeting in their new quarters

A hand-pulled, hand-pumped fire engine, hose cart and 500 feet of hose was purchased from Wright & Brothers of Rochester, New York. When the new engine arrived in Aurora on October 4, 1856, it had a mahogany wood body, gilded moldings, and was described as "A beautiful sight to behold!". A building to house the apparatus was built on North Broadway on a lot donated by Samuel McCarty, and a cistern was built near New York and LaSalle Streets to supply water. On February 4, 1857 the Village of Aurora and West Aurora incorporated to form the City of Aurora.

A city ordinance was passed creating a Fire Department (firemen were exempt from jury duty and road taxes), but it provided no funds to run the Department. By 1869 it was obvious that the "Young America" engine could not give adequate fire protection to the enlarged City, so the City Council asked the citizens to vote on a fire department supported by taxation. The vote was 98 for, 667 against. Immediately after the election, however, the City Council appropriated $12,000 they "found" in the treasury to establish a Fire Department, with Benjamin Bisbey as Chief Engineer.

City of Aurora Steam Fire Engine Co. and the Holly Hose Company

Two-thirds of the money went to the East Side - they bought an Amoskeag steam fire engine. The West Side installed the Holly system, which pumped water directly from the River into water mains with hydrants. The pump was installed in Carter & Hoyt's Foundry, and a 2-story building was erected on their property in which to store the equipment. Holly Hose Company, with John Eddy as Foreman, was formed. The steamer, named "City of Aurora", weighed 6,850 lbs. with water. Sam Edgerly was her first Engineer. This steamer went to Chicago with 85 of our firefighters to help fight the Chicago Fire of 1871. In 1880 her fire company won permanent possession of the state championship "Buckhorn" trophy. The "Young America" engine went to a new fire company formed as "Excelsior No. 2 Company" by Wm. E. Reed. They moved into a building constructed for them on Anderson Street on June 11, 1870. In 1872, when the Holly mains were extended to the East Side, the "Young America" engine was sold to Benton Harbor, Michigan. No. 2 Company used a hand-pulled hose cart until 1875 when a steamer, named "Excelsior No. 2" was purchased for them.

In 1870 a bell was installed over the Court House for fire alarm purposes. The City was divided into fire districts. Nine strokes of the bell meant a fire, followed by a number of strokes indicating the district. An electric telegraph alarm system was installed in 1879 by a group of firemen and later extended by the City. It was replaced by a more modern police and fire alarm system in 1886 and by the Gamewell system in 1902. "Eureka Hook and Ladder Company No. I' was formed in 1871. A building was constructed for their apparatus by the No. 1 Station on North Broadway in 1874. Holly Hose house was moved to a new location on the east side of South Lake Street between Downer and Holbrook Streets in 1872. On January 28, 1882 the Fire Department became a partly-paid organization and the volunteer companies, as such, were disbanded. Horses were provided for the steamers and heavier hose carts of Holly Hose Company and Excelsior No. 2 The drivers were fully paid and on duty 24 hours a day - they worked the teams on the streets when there were no fires. After a fire, they cleaned up, dried the hose and kept the hose houses clean. During 1886 the City completed installation of a water works system, with 20 miles of water mains and 245 hydrants. Also, in 1886, the City sold the Holly Hose house and lot and erected a new brick building on a lot across the street for Holly Hose Company, which became No. 3 Hose Company at this time. No. 4 Hose Company was established at Union and Columbia Streets in a new brick building with a captain, four firemen, and a driver for a 2-wheeled hose cart in 1891.

Hook and ladder truck and the old fire stations on North Broadway.

There has been a fire station at the corner of New York and North Broadway for nearly 150 years. The original station housed the Young America Fire Company and later the City of Aurora Steamer. A second building was built next door in 1874 for the hook and ladder company. Thirteen years later, the police department used the wooden station to house patrol wagon and the area between the two buildings was enclosed to store the ladder truck. In the summer of 1894, these three buildings were torn down to make way for a new Central Station.

The newspaper called the new Central Station, "A building to be proud of - leaving nothing to be desired in cost, appearance, finish or good taste." It was a two-story brick structure surmounted in front with a mosque-like onion dome. a chemical engine and hose cart occupied the south side of the building, and the police patrol wagon and ladder truck were located on the north. Behind the apparatus were eight horse stalls with a hay loft above.

Interior of the new Central Fire Station,
note the horse stall doors visible in the rear

The City began the process of making the Fire Department fully paid in 1906. By 1906, Aurora had a thriving metropolitan fire department, consisting of almost 40 men, (five hose companies, a hook and ladder truck, and the chief), who worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They got a one-week vacation each summer.

The mechanization of the Fire Department started with a Rambler fire engine bought for Company 3 in 1911. In 1916 the last of the horses was retired, except for Chief George Rang's rig. Chief Rang's auto was delivered in 1917 - a 2 passenger Reo roadster painted red. Herman Lohmann became Fire Chief November 16, 1918. In an economy move, the No. 2 fire station on Anderson Street was closed on April 1, 1919, and the men and equipment moved to Central Station. The station was never reopened.

The Fire Department began the two-platoon system on January 1, 1920. The men worked 2 shifts. The day shift ran from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The men worked days half a month and nights half a month. January 1, 1927 the men started working 24 hours on duty and 24 hours off duty.

Firefighters cool down the rumble and search
for bodies at the Woolworth fire in 1934.

Thursday January 11, 1934 - This was the blackest day for the Aurora Fire Department. Three Aurora firefighters (Captain John Petersohn, Captain Herbert Reiss and Charles M. Hoffman) were killed, and six others were injured when a wall collapsed, during a fire at the Woolworth five and ten cent store on South Broadway. . To this day, only one other Aurora firefighter, Capt. Barney Weiler, in 1929 has died in the line of duty. Following the tragic Woolworth fire, many improvements were made to the Aurora Fire Department. Older fire apparatus was refurbished, a much needed ladder truck purchased, and more firefighters were hired.

Engine 1, Truck 2, and the Chief; in front
of the Central Fire Station in the late 1930s

In October, 1951, while Edward J. Ryan was Fire Chief, Company 3 moved to Highland Avenue and Walnut Street into a new ranch-style building. The Fire Department began a 72-hour work-week on October 1, 1952. The next change, a few years later, meant a 64-hour work-week.

A new fire station was put in service in 1957 under Chief Walter Hannon. Company 7 is located at Harrison and Kenilworth Avenue. While Carl Nunuich was Fire Chief, on January 1, 1958, the Fire Department began a 56-hour work-week. The fire alarm system at Central Station was relocated and modernized.

During the 12 year administration of Chief Erwin J. Bauman, the Fire Department assumed the City ambulance service, established an effective Fire Prevention Bureau, an Arson Investigation Bureau, a Photography Division, a scuba team, and made much progress toward modernizing the Department with training and equipment. No. 4 Company was moved to Michels Avenue in 1965 and No. 3 Company was moved to Highland Avenue and Indian Trail in 1972.

In order to present the history of the Aurora Fire Department, Chief E. J. Bauman authorized the establishment of a Fire Museum in September, 1966, with Lieutenant Charles 0. Goodwin as Curator. It is housed in the large basement area of No. 4 Fire Station on Michels Avenue. It will serve as a reminder of the colorful days of the horses and record the growth and development of the Aurora Fire Department.

Charlie Goodwin examines the exhibits at the
Aurora Fire Museum in the basement of Station 4

Ralph T. Kramp was appointed Chief on May 9, 1973. New emphasis is being placed on training, and the certification of each member of the Department with the classification of Firefighter, as recognized by the Illinois Protective Personnel Standard and Education Commission, is going forward. In the latter part of 1973, over 4,100 acres of land on the eastern edge of Aurora was annexed to the City. A multimillion dollar shopping center complex and hundreds of homes were constructed on this land. On July 15, 1975, Engine company No. 8, Ladder Company 6 and an ambulance moved into a spacious new fire station built adjacent to the newly completed Fox Valley Shopping Mall.

Central Fire Station shortly before it was closed in 1980

Several members of the Department, including all men assigned to the ambulance, began Emergency Medical Training during 1974 at Mercy Center Hospital in Aurora. Full-fledged Paramedics have been graduated from this group and assigned to the "first response" ambulance, equipped with telemetry equipment, operating out of Central Station. The alarm office was renovated during 1974 and a new console was purchased and installed. The Gamewell alarm system was eliminated and replaced by a 911 Emergency Voice Communications system in the early 1980s.

By 1980, the apparatus and men had outgrown the old Central Fire Station. A new fire headquarters was built on Broadway adjacent to the old station. The old Central Station had faithfully served the fire department for 86 years. and there was much publicity in the newspapers about its fate. After sitting vacant for seven years, a group was organized to save the old station and transform it into a museum. The Aurora Regional Fire Museum was born.

As Aurora continues to grow, so to does the Aurora Fire Department. Today the nearly 200 firefighters operate nine engines, three ladder truck.

No history of the Aurora Fire Department would be complete without mention of the three organizations which are or have been important in the lives of our firefighters: The Aurora Firemen's Relief Association was organized in 1880, to "afford relief to such of its active members as may become sick, injured or disabled." In the beginning, the Association held dances on an annual basis to raise funds for its purpose, and it became an active social group. Presently, the Association is fully supported by membership dues. Every man on the Department belongs to the Association.

Most of the members of the Aurora Fire Department belong to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. labor union, chartered on August 8, 1918 as Local No. 99 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The Union strives for better wages, better working conditions, better equipment and better firefighting techniques.

The Aurora Fireman's Credit Union was chartered on February 4, 1939 and offers its members financial assistance and a savings program.

This history compiled by Lt. and Mrs. Charles Goodwin.

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Aurora Regional Fire Museum • PO Box 1782 • Aurora, IL 60507
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