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Galveston Monthly

The History of the Galveston Fire Department

Mar 04, 2020 07:14AM

The Galveston Fire Department suffered the hurricane that struck on September 8, 1900, in much the same manner as the rest of the island city’s populace. During the storm, there was little the fire department could do, its members having neither better foresight of the coming disaster nor greater ability to withstand the storm’s onslaught. After the waters receded and the winds calmed, the department did what it had to do: it mourned its losses and looked to the future.

  The last of the department’s five calls that day demonstrated how futile their efforts became during the storm. At 1:10pm, two companies responded to a house fire in the 1100 block of Sealy Avenue. Arriving on the scene, the firemen could do nothing but watch as the flaming structure collapsed into five feet of water. Their horses had to swim several blocks just to get back to the firehouses.

  Individual acts of bravery were no doubt performed by members of the department. At the home of Fire Chief Ernest P. Wegner (1850-1913), “Hundreds of people took refuge in our [Wegner’s] house; the family leaned out of the windows and used cotton hooks to reach out to people passing by in the swirling waters.” The Wegner house at 1328 Avenue K remains standing today.

  The professional department Wegner commanded employed 66 men. Integration of the department still being more than a half a century away – African-Americans Lucius W. Polk, Leroy Small, and Genuice Walker would break that barrier in 1957 - the men of the department in 1900 were exclusively of European descent, with roots predominantly in German- or English-speaking countries. 

   Most were sons of immigrants: more than 50 had at least one foreign-born parent. As many as ten were immigrants themselves. The average fireman was just over 40 years old and more than eight out of ten were married.

  Nine companies operated from eight firehouses, manning vehicles drawn by one or more of the department’s 27 horses. Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, with the city’s lone aerial ladder wagon, was housed at 2308 Postoffice Street. Collocated at the Postoffice firehouse was Chemical Engine Co. No. 1 with its apparatus that could deliver a small volume of a chemical mixture that was useful in suppressing small fires.

  Steam-powered pumpers and hose wagons were dispatched from firehouses at 1718 Mechanic (Engine Co. No. 2), 1614 Avenue K (No. 5), 3716 Broadway (No. 6), and 2810 Avenue P½ (No. 9). Hose carts or wagons worked out of fire houses at 2510 Church Street (Hose Co. No. 3), 1102 Mechanic Street (No. 4), and 3712 Avenue P (No. 7).

  Based on census records, casualty lists, and both fire department rosters and individual entries published in annual or biannual city directories, it appears that either one or two firemen died during the storm. In either case, this was a much lower fatality rate than that of the general population and may have been the fortuitous byproduct of city policy and the island’s geography.

  A modern platoon system with multiple shifts having not yet been implemented, policy required that firefighters live in the firehouses 24 hours a day for six days a week. Since most of the firehouses were located outside the low-lying parts of the city, the duty stations of most firemen were in areas where survival was more likely. Unaware of the storm’s magnitude until it hit with full force, it can be speculated that firemen stayed at their posts until it was too late for them to join their families.

  Amid the destruction, the body of one fireman was located amongst more than one hundred other victims, all lodged in a grove of salt cedars along Heard’s Lane west of the city. It was notable because the fireman’s body was the only one that had not been stripped of all its clothing by the turbulent, debris-laden waters.

  If the identity of this fireman was determined, it was not recorded. More likely, due to the need to dispose of bodies as quickly as possible, no positive identification was made.

  The fireman whose death is known with certainty was August Kolb, a pipemen with Hose Co. No. 3. Kolb perished along with his wife Frances and a nephew who lived with them. A second fireman, John Lane, foreman of Engine Co. No. 2, may have been lost as well, though records confirm neither his death nor his survival.

  This is not surprising, as casualty records for the storm are notoriously incomplete, and interpretation is often confounded by false listings, missing data, misspellings, and other errors reflective of the chaos of the storm’s aftermath.

  The fates of the firemen’s households were much more typical of other islanders. Frederick Dunton, hydrant-man with Engine Co. No. 5, lost his wife Adelina. Fred Weinberg, pipeman with Engine Co. No. 2, was left to raise four children without their mother, Rose. Peter Homburg, driver for Engine Co. No. 9, mourned his wife Lena and four of their eight children.

  John Lynch, pipeman with Hose Co. No. 7, lost his parents and a niece who lived with them, as well as the niece’s brother and sister at the Catholic orphanage west of the city. William Thompson, pipeman with Engine Co. No. 9, comforted his wife Mamie on the deaths of her mother Annie Mueri and sister Laurene.

  The family of Deputy Chief John Gernand (1858-1929, fire chief from 1901 to 1917) was particularly hard hit. Gernand’s wife Eva was killed along with three of their five children. His brother Fred, driver for Engine Co. No. 9, lost his daughter Viola, her husband William Foulkes, and the couple’s newborn daughter.

  In terms of sheer numbers, the family of Anton Aull, assistant driver for Hose Co. No. 3, may have suffered the greatest tragedy. In a cruel twist of fate, three separate families of Aull descendants - over twenty people - left the city limits of Galveston in 1899 or 1900 for a more rural life eight miles farther west on the island.

  As a result, instead of being in the relatively safe surroundings of the 2400 block of Sealy Avenue where Anton’s parents Joseph and Catherine had put down roots in the mid-1870s, those who moved west were on lower ground nearly dead center in the storm’s path. All perished.

  The fire department’s livestock and buildings were affected as well. Chief Wegner reported that a third of the department’s horses were casualties; five drowned at the firehouse for Engine Co. No. 9 (the firehouse closest to the Gulf) and four were injured too badly to remain in service.

  By December 4, 1900, the chief reported that the firemen had repaired all the firehouses damaged by the storm. It is assumed his statement did not encompass the house at 2810 Avenue P½, which disappeared from listings of firehouse locations after the storm.

  In the days that followed, the men of the department were pressed into duties which they could have never imagined, under conditions which they could not have foreseen. They loaded bodies onto their brightly painted hose carts and wagons and transported them to the harbor to be loaded on barges for burial at sea. When many of the corpses washed back up on shore, they helped maintain and control the funeral pyres that lit the beaches for weeks.

  And of course, they fought fires, at least as best they could. Rainless days following the storm quickly turned waterlogged wreckage into dry, combustible tinder. Open fires and makeshift shelters made ideal conditions for fires to start and spread.

  To reach the blazes, they navigated debris-clogged roads. Once at the scene, they doused the fires with the limited capacity of their chemical engines and whatever water could be wrested from the hydrants of the city’s crippled water system.

  City finances were in as bad of shape as the city itself. “The mayor then informed the chief of the fire department and his men that they could expect no pay from the city for their services.” They went unpaid for six months. Fortunately for the citizenry, “not one of them withdrew on that account.”

  The department disbanded Engine Co. No. 9 (though it sometimes operated from “a house on the beach, at the foot of Tremont”) and reorganized to operate out of its seven remaining locations, cutting about ten positions in the process. Some sought other occupations, like F. B. Bavoux and Fred A. Gernand who became painters, though Gernand found his way back to the department after a few years. James Reese, perhaps seeking a drier climate far from the Gulf, joined El Paso’s fire department. 

  Within the next decade, new firehouses were built at 2828 Market Street and 2602 Avenue Q. At the former, the hose company previously housed at 2610 Church Street was assigned a steam pumper and redesignated as Engine Co. No. 3. The new Hose Co. No. 8 occupied the latter. More modern vehicles soon replaced most of the pre-storm models.

  In 1905 or 1906, the city acquired an 85-foot aerial truck from the American LaFrance Company in Elmira, New York. The city put three new steam pumpers into service as well: a 1906 LaFrance, a 1907 model from the W. S. Nott Company in Minneapolis, and a 1908 LaFrance.

  Then in 1909, the city ordered its first gasoline powered machine from the Howe Engine Company in Indianapolis. Although the department’s experience with it was not entirely successful - it was so unreliable that it was cursed in the vernacular of the day as a “Hoodoo” and a “Jonah,” its acquisition signaled the beginning of the end for the department’s horses.

  The Great Storm brought 19th Century Galveston to a tragic and traumatic close, ravaging its people and those who served them. With the same undefeatable spirit as the city itself, the Galveston Fire Department recovered and rebuilt in the next decade, but it would long be marked by the storm’s legacy. It would be over forty years before anyone but a veteran of the 1900 hurricane would command the department.