Fire Department History
Few people in recent times can imagine not having a fire department to call during an emergency. The universal emergency number, "911", is one of the first phone numbers learned by small children today. Firemen are looked upon as some of the real heroes we encounter during our lives, but for the early settlers, fire departments were nonexistent. Because few records are kept in the absence of government, there is little knowledge of the methods of fire fighting during the early days in La Salle. One of the first references to a fire department in La Salle can be found in the Mayor's address on October 15, 1861, which indicated the need to establish a "Hook and Ladder Company" to extinguish fires in the City. Even though a fire department was not officially established at that time, the City had already named fire wardens on January 14, 1861, as follows: Ward 1 – James O'Reilly, Ward 2 – W.B. Chapin, Ward 3 – James O'Neill, Ward 4 – James Delgan.
City records reveal that almost six and one-half years later, Chapter 88 of the municipal code established the fire department for the City of La Salle. This chapter, which passed on April 7, 1868, created a position for the chief engineer, two assistant engineers and a fire warden for each ward. The fire department was divided into two companies, No. 1 and No. 2. The No. 2 fire company was often referred to as the "Zinc City Fire Company" due to its location just south of Eighth and Crosat Streets. Chapter 88 also authorized the City Council to choose 16 men as hose men, who would carry the hose to the fires. City officials and members of the fire departments were to be identified at the scene of a fire as follows:
- Chief Engineer – Hat band and a white speaking trumpet with the words "Chief Engineer."
- Assistant Engineer – Red hat band and a red speaking trumpet with the words "First or Second Assistant Engineer."
- City Marshal – Hat band with the words "City Marshal" Police Officers – Hat band with the words "Police" Foremen – Bands with "Foreman or Assistant Foreman."
- Remaining Firemen - Badge
Chapter 86 of the same code, approved on March 9, 1868, established fire limits in the commercial district. In this area, wooden buildings were prohibited. Further efforts to reduce fire damage in this district resulted in the construction of cisterns on many corners, for the purpose of storing water for fire fighting. These cisterns are mentioned several times in the City records and are shown on some older maps.
Thomas Keys served as Fire Marshal during the 1880's. Garritt King was listed as engineer of the fire department until his resignation on May 4, 1880. Paul Saning was appointed as his successor. During this same period, the City awarded a bid to rebuild a Hose and Bell Tower to John Chisholm.
Following is an excerpt from the La Salle Republican dated February 16, 1889, allowing a glimpse into the daily matters of the fire department:
"Whose Business? Wednesday the fire marshal opened a few of the hydrants, designated in the ordinance as the special adjuncts of the fire department, and found them frozen solid. The connections of these with the mains are so arranged that when the water is shut off that remaining in the hydrants runs out and soaks into the ground. It appears that in setting the hydrants the earth was stamped solid about the bases and the water could not escape in consequence. Hence the freezing-up process. Frozen hydrants would be very inconvenient in case of fire. The marshal now wants to know whether he or the `acting' superintendent of water works would be responsible for the failure of the water supply in case of fire when the hydrants are frozen. While anticipating the verdict of the jury in the case it can be stated for the satisfaction of the marshal that his company's jurisdiction ends somewhere close to the receiving end of the hose which is its service pipe. The business of the waterworks management is to furnish water to consumers, and the fire department is a consumer. When it wants water, it wants it bad."
No fire department records exist before the 1900's. Annual reports were found for the years 1905 to 1911 and 1927 to 1938. The information contained in these reports is summarized in the following table:
On July 2, 1917, the Illinois Inspector City's Bureau prepared a detailed report on the fire protection existing in the City of La Salle. This report presented facts that provide an informative look at the condition of many aspects related to the City's infrastructure and fire response system. Following is a listing of these items:
Report of the Fire Fighting Facilities of La Salle — Illinois,
Inspected April 13th and 14th, 1917 by Frank R. Daniel City in General
- Population: from U.S. Census 1910, 11,537
- Area: Two square miles, upon approximately two-thirds of which is built.
- Principal Industries: Large zinc plant, and cement mill; clock works; mining surrounding
- Streets: Approximately 13 + miles are paved, the remainder is graded, and some few are unimproved. All are lighted by arc and incandescent lights.
- Topography: Rolling Fire Department
W.G. Brown has been Chief for the past year and has served in the Department for about 20years. The Chief and the three paid members are appointed by the Mayor and approved by the Common Council for a term of two years. The Chief is paid $40.00 per month, the Assistant Chief $25.00 per month, the two drivers at Station No. 1, $72.50 and $75.00 per month, respectively, and the driver at Station No. 2 $70.00 per month. Twenty-five volunteers are divided into two companies, twelve at No. 1 and thirteen at No. 2 Station. Volunteers have regular monthly meetings and elect their members who are approved by the Council. All volunteer members must live within 1,200' of the station to which they are assigned. Practice drills are said to be had twice per week during the summer weather for which no compensation is paid. Volunteers receive $2.00 each for responding to an alarm of fire. During the daytime, the normal response of volunteers is about six at No.1 Station and three to four at No. 2 Station. The night responses are about double this number.
Fire Stations and Equipment:
Station No. 1, ... One plain hose wagon carrying 1,200' of 2 1/2" cotton rubber lined hose, two shut-off and one straight pipe nozzles, a 32' extension and 16' roof ladder; two 3-gallon chemical extinguishers, search-light, axes, bars, etc.; drawn by two horses and manned by two men and twelve volunteers. In reserve: One two-stream Silsby steam fire engine purchased in 1873; 750' of 21/2" hose and an Anderson nozzle.
Station No. 2, One plain hose wagon carrying 1,300' of 2 1/2" hose, two shut-off and one straight pipe nozzles, a 32' extension and 16' roof ladder, one 3-gallon and two 6-gallon chemical extinguishers, axes, bars, etc.; drawn by two horses and manned by a driver and thirteen volunteer members. In reserve: 250' of
2 1/2" hose.
On November 6, 1917, the City's fire department became officially motorized when the City took a monumental step and passed an ordinance to sell all horses and/related equipment belonging to the fire department. An aerial truck was purchased on June 2, 1928, from American-LaFrance and Foamite Industries, Inc. for $15,250. This ladder truck was replaced in 1976, under Chief James Flower. The truck, purchased in 1976, was in service until 2005.
In 1946, Bill Bacidore, an employee of Comparon Motors, noticed a fire burning across from his place of employment on Second Street. He ran over and helped rescue a man from his burning home. Soon after, he became a volunteer fireman for the City and eventually, became fire chief in 1977. He remembers when he first started that equipment was crude, with a standard issue of a raincoat, hat, and boots for each fireman. The crews, who received $3 per fire, received no training and their firefighting methods consisted of trying to put out fires by attacking with water from the outside.
Many firemen had no phones or cars. They would hear the fire alarm sounding from headquarters and try to get to the station, where the fire's location would be posted on the blackboard. Some men would even run to the fires.
When Bill became fire chief in 1977, the City fire insurance rating was six. He worked hard through the years and managed to get it lowered to a five. Bill also saw the closing of Fire Company No. 2. This company had moved to Matthiessen Park when the old station was torn down during Mayor Gunia's term. For a time, the company also ran out of the old garage on St. Mary's Hospital property after the hospital closed. There had always been a rivalry and friction between the two companies. Mayor Brady finally decided to merge the two, shortly after he entered office in the 1980's. At the same time, a building was constructed to house the newly consolidated fire department at 1227 Fifth Street, located at the northwest corner of Fifth and Sterling Streets. This structure, which was built by Phalen Steel of Mendota, was finished, in 1988, at the cost of approximately $252,000. An open house was held on June 24th and June 26th of 1988 and is the present day home of the fire department.