In celebration of the new city fire station that opened in September 2019, Galveston Monthly
presents a multi-part series on the history of the Galveston Fire Department.
When one ponders the earthly elements that have most impacted Galveston’s brief but multifaceted history, the first thing that comes to mind is water. The island is surrounded by it, harnesses it for economic use, and succumbs to its ire at least once every couple of decades. But long before Galveston grappled with a historic hurricane, fire had as much if not more
bearing on the city’s early history and the evolution of the cityscape.
As with most early American cities, Galveston’s first structures were built entirely of wood, including the rooftops. The city even experimented with wooden pavers down Strand Street, when present-day Harborside Drive was called “Water Street” and was not really a street at
all but rather a strip of shale at the harbor’s edge that was often underwater. The pavers were a novel idea until high tide, when the water toppled past Water Street and onto the Strand, washing them away with the current.
The ubiquitous use of highly flammable materials made it easier for fires to ignite and easier for them to spread, and further complicating the situation was the fact that Galveston had no running water. The island’s only water supplies were privately owned cisterns that collected
Transporting water to a conflagrated area was slow and arduous, and the damage to some properties was irreparable by the time the fire was extinguished. Sometimes, the nearest water source was so far away that the effort was deemed futile from the beginning and thus not even tried. The fire was simply allowed to burn out while attempts were made merely to contain it.
A third island element also came into play - wind. The sumptuous Gulf breezes acted as an accelerant, propelling flames across rooftops and into trees.
And on those not infrequent days when the wind whips into the city at an excess of 25 miles-per-hour, any fire that broke out was guaranteed to gain substantially more power and be more difficult to quell. The wind was the single largest factor in the Great Fire of 1885 that destroyed 42 city blocks, although the wooden shingles that blanketed the city’s rooftops were certainly no deterrent.
It was during the aftermath of this fire that the city mandated the use of slate shingles on all rooftops, with no way to foresee the deadly consequences of that decision. On September 8, 1900, the slate was picked up by estimated 140-mile-per-hour winds and hurled through the
air like shrapnel, severely injuring and even killing people who found themselves stranded in the streets when the Great Storm rolled onto the island.
Of course, all of this seems manageable in hindsight, but the first residents of Galveston were only apprised of these intertwining, amplifying circumstances as they happened. In the beginning, islanders could only learn as they went along, a literal baptism by fire.
Upon the city’s founding in 1839, it contained a mere spattering of buildings, the entirety of its shipping business was conducted on one wharf, and the only hotel was located aboard an old steamboat that was beached on the harbor shore near the eastern edge of town.
Galveston’s first recorded fire started in that vessel’s kitchen. Although the flames were quickly extinguished and only minor damage resulted, it was enough to make the threat of that “ever-present demon” tangible, prompting residents to realize the need for protection.
No formal declarations were made, no crews were organized, the initial spark among residents was simply the acknowledgment that if the need arose, everyone would assemble to assist. The History of the Galveston Fire Department states that the plan was “a personification of that quality in the human makeup that prompts people to aid those in distress,” and it worked well for the city in its infancy. As Galveston grew, loosely organized bucket brigades were formed in various sections of the town.
Volunteers would form a straight line between the blaze and the closest water supply and pass buckets from one end to the other. The buckets were dumped and then returned to be refilled. Bucket brigades were a disastrously inefficient system, but fortunately, the buildings were
small, held little monetary value, and ultimately the losses were minimal.
Even still, the valiant and tenacious work of the bucket brigades inspired an ordinance passed in July of 1841 that officially appointed five fire wardens, one for each city ward, and tasked them with assembling the volunteers and their buckets in the event of a structure fire.
In 1843, a cadre of local businessmen - Albert Ball, John P. Davie, William Dunbar, and Colonel N.B. Yard - met to discuss the growing need for full-time fire protection by way of an organized, established company of men. The group then summoned interested citizens to a meeting on September 30 where a “committee on permanent organization” was formed and instructed to meet with the mayor to construct a constitution and by-laws for the proposed entity. On December 3, 1843, forty-one founding members signed the Galveston (Volunteer) Fire
Department into existence.
The first uniforms were red shirts and white belts, and the first fire-fighting apparatus was built by S. Kirkland in his blacksmith shop at Mechanic and 22nd Street for a cost of $226. It was stored in a shed until 1848 when the GFD finally received its first fire house behind the Central Market, situated in the middle of 20th Street between Strand and Mechanic.
This lot would eventually become a permanent fire house location, first as a stand-alone structure in 1874 and then as part of architect Alfred Mueller’s stunning, gothic 1888 City Hall (demolished).
In 1852, the Board of Aldermen created the office of Chief of the Galveston Fire Department and appointed Albert Ball to the inaugural position, but less than a decade later, the company of volunteers was forced to disband when the Civil War transformed Galveston into a military outpost and nearly every civilian evacuated. The only ones who stayed behind were nuns who served as nurses and prostitutes who opted not to shift occupations, rendering the presence of a
fire department unnecessary.
At the war’s conclusion and Galveston’s quick resumption of its commerce and daily activity upon the removal of the federal blockade in the Gulf of Mexico, the volunteer company was reestablished on December 12, 1866, and the fire-fighting wagon was moved to a building at 17th and Mechanic.
The following year, a gleaming new fire wagon was loaded on a steamship in New York and sailed down the east coast then over to Galveston. Another new fire wagon was purchased by the city a few years later, and thus it was finally decided to incorporate a paid department.
On May 23, 1871, the Galveston Fire Department became an official salaried entity of the City of Galveston. The volunteer company subsequently dispersed, but “throughout its long life of usefulness, the organization was noted for the harmony existing within its ranks and the unusual interest displayed by officers and members in its affairs.”