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Key West: Fire Department

Key West: The Old and the New


The first fire department was organized in Key West, and called the LaFayette Fire Department.

Mr. Thomas A. Townsend was president; Mr. Asa F. Tift, vice-president; Mr. Joseph A. Thouron, secretary, and Mr. Wm. H. Shaw, treasurer. Messrs. Stephen R. Mallory and Asa F. Tift were members of the election committee.

In January, 1835, a small fire occurred in an out-building in Judge Webb's yard but the fire department failed to put in an appearance. Mr. Mallory then called a meeting to reorganize the company. The meeting was held, at which about twenty-five joined, and Mr. Thouron was made foreman.

A hand engine was purchased by public subscription, but except for parades was seldom used, and was uncared for. In 1843, when the large wooden warehouse of Fielding A. Browne, on the southwest side of Simonton street, below Front street, was destroyed by fire, the engine was brought upon the scene but proved unfit for use, and after the fire the citizens carried it to the end of the wharf and hurled it into the sea.

Key West has been particularly free from great fires, having had only two disastrous ones. In each instance there was no fire engine in the city, otherwise the fires would not have spread beyond the blocks in which they originated.

On the 16th of May, 1859, the first large fire occurred. It began in a warehouse owned by Mr. L. M. Shaefer, whom it was generally believed purposely set fire to the building.

It began on Front street, near the corner of Duval, and in the two blocks bounded by Front, Greene, Simonton and Whitehead Streets, every house except two was destroyed. No organized body of firemen existed in the city at the time and no fire apparatus adequate for the occasion was on hand. The extensive warehouse and stores of O'Hara & Wells, on Front street, between Simonton and Duval streets; the stores of Fontane & Weaver, P. A. Gandolfo and C. & E. Howe, were among the buildings destroyed.

To Mr. Henry Mulrennon belongs great credit for the preservation of the remaining portion of the city. He procured a keg of gunpowder from Fort Taylor, and entering his own house at the corner of Fitzpatrick and Greene streets, with the fire raging around him, put the keg of powder in place, laid a train, and blew up the house, thus preventing the fire from going any farther.

The Key of the Gulf, in an editorial headed "One Year Since," thus describes conditions before and after the fire: "Wednesday, the 16th instant, was the anniversary day of the great fire in our city. Before that time we were a thriving people; Front street, running parallel to our beautiful harbor, was the scene of busy life; on both sides, built up with large and imposing stores and warehouses, which were filled with expensive stocks of merchandise, arrayed in the most alluring styles of display, while the street itself was peopled with the passing throng, pressing each other, and moved by the impulse of progressive enterprise.

"Then came the fire. The lurid flames spread in serried lines along housetops, streamed their lambent blazes wide from street to street, and rolled their smoky banners all along the sky, for a twelve hours' time, and our city fell. Its fairest proportions were laid level with the earth, and existed only in the smoking banks of ashes which covered all the streets. And, sad to tell, this fearful destruction is supposed to have been the work of an incendiary, who, perhaps, may be even now in our city, with the terrors of an outraged law, like the sword of Damocles, to disturb his midnight dreams while lying upon his downy pillow.

"But with the pliant energies of an elastic genius our people are recovering rapidly. They were 'not broken as the staff, but bent only as the bow.' Soon the recuperative genius of a mercantile community began to repeople the burnt district, and now it is only necessary to visit the splendid edifices which occupy Front and Duval streets, to induce one to come at once to the opinion that the fire was an actual benefit, rather than a permanent injury to our city. Messrs. C. & E. Howe, Wall & Pinckney, James C. Clapp, Carey, Ware & Mulrennon, J. F. Packer, and William A. Russell have each erected elegant structures (the latter a large hotel), which are not only an ornamental embellishment to our city, but give to it that air of permanency and durability, which is the strongest assurance, and the most confident promise of an advancing and growing future which we could possibly have.

"Hon. James Filor has erected a two-story fireproof brick warehouse, and Carey, Ware & Mulrennon have laid the foundation for a three-story building to be finished in the best style of architecture, while in other portions of the town many handsome dwelling houses are being built."

About two o'clock in the morning of April 1, 1886, San Carlos Hall, on Duval street, near the corner of Fleming, was discovered to be on fire. The fire company turned out promptly but the steam fire engine, which had been in use in Key West for about ten Years, had been sent to New York for repairs, and there was only a small hand engine with which to fight the fire.

It spread to the buildings of Mrs. Claude Babcock and Mr. John W. Sawyer on the corner of Fleming and Duval streets, and they were soon destroyed. It burned to Whitehead street, where it was stopped by Jackson Square. Meantime it had crossed Duval street, and a small building belonging to the Crusoe estate took fire. It was soon beyond all possibility of control and for twelve hours the fire raged.

The northwest half of the block on Fleming street, between Duval and Bahama streets, was completely destroyed. The fire burned in a northeasterly direction and extended to the corner of Caroline and Elizabeth streets. It then swept along the water front to the naval station, destroying every house northeast of Greene, between Simonton and Whitehead streets, save two.

The loss of property, including Havana tobacco in the United States bonded warehouse, was estimated at over two million dollars, with only about fifty thousand dollars insurance.

A call for aid was sent out, and thirty or forty thousand dollars received, together with a quantity of provisions and clothing. Mayor James G. Jones called a meeting of the citizens, and requested them to appoint a committee to take charge of and expend the funds. An organization was perfected with finance and a relief committee, who went about the work in systematic manner, investigating and passing upon all claims for relief. Hon. George W. Allen was chairman of one committee, and Mr. Martin L. Hellings of the other. The relief committee was quite a large one, and for some time they held daily meetings. They received reports of those appointed to investigate claims for relief, and passed upon the claims, which were then referred to the finance committee for further investigation, and upon their being satisfied of the justness thereof, financial relief was granted.

The distribution of food and clothing was done speedily and thoroughly. The work of these committees met with the highest approval of the citizens, and they received general praise from the entire community.

Profiting by this severe lesson, the city bought two powerful steam fire engines, and the county one. Later the city bought another, and these with a new chemical engine, hook and ladder, and hose outfit, comprise a most efficient fire equipment. Since 1886 we have had no serious fires, and it is rare that one spreads beyond the place where it originates.

In 1888 a system of water works for fire purposes was installed, using salt water which is heavier and better adapted than fresh water for extinguishing fires. This accounts largely for the ease with which fires are kept from spreading. In 1910 two new boilers of one hundred horse power each, were installed for pumping water into the stand pipe. Six thousand dollars has just been appropriated to extend the mains to the county road.

Few small places have a more efficient fire department than Key West. It is largely a volunteer one; only the drivers and engineers being salaried men. The companies are well drilled, and on an alarm of fire a full complement is always on hand, nearly all of whom make large personal sacrifices in their efforts to prevent the destruction of property.

For a great many years Key West was without an active fire department, and it remained for Mr. A. H. Dorsett, in 1875, to organize the first efficient one. As chief of the fire department he brought the companies up to a high state of perfection. In 1878 Mr. B. H. F. Bowers was made chief, and held the position until 1890, when he was succeeded by Mr. Hiram G. Fulford, the present chief.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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