Thursday, October 17, 2019

Old West Firefighting

By Davalynn Spencer

When I was a child, my mother drove down Main Street one afternoon past a burning building, and I asked her if Daddy was helping fight the fire.

She was aghast and insisted that no such thing would ever happen, for Daddy was a farmer.

That evening, my father walked in the front door, covered in soot and smelling of smoke and wet ash.

He’d been fighting the fire.

I have no clue to why’s or how’s, nor any recollection of hearing what started the fire, but I will never forget how Daddy looked and smelled.

As an adult, my now-unanswerable questions focus on how my father ended up in town, miles away from our farm, trying to extinguish a fire that gutted a corner building on Main Street. And I wonder if it had something to do with stories he’d heard from his carpenter father who fought in the great San Francisco Fire of 1906.

My grandfather and everyone he knew fought in that earthquake-induced fire. Everyone who could walk or run or carry a bucket. Historians say the San Francisco fires burned four days and four nights. Many were set by people whose property was not insured against earthquakes but was insured against fire. Nearly 3,000 people died in the disaster that destroyed 80 percent of the sparkling city.

Fire is a force long welcomed by man for its light, warmth, and protection. Yet it also destroys and kills. Controlling it has been an age-old challenge. Extinguishing it has grown into a science.

Several fires occur in my novel, An unexpected Redemption, set along Colorado’s Front Range in 1881. My fictional town of Olin Springs was patterned after many Old West towns that fought flames with bucket brigades manned by able-bodied volunteers.

Men working a bucket brigade along the Niukluk River to put out a fire,
Council, Alaska, circa 1907 - Wikimedia Commons.
Neighbors either joined the hand-to-hand process of passing water-filled buckets one at a time down a line of volunteers, or they donated buckets to be used. Sometimes they did both. In larger cities, people typically painted their name and address on the bucket so they could be picked up after the fire.

However, any kind of hand-to-hand combat is tedious and slow. The futility of bucket-brigade intervention gave rise to hose teams such as the Relief Hook & Ladder Fire Company No. I, established January 27, 1879 in the actual town of Cañon City, Colorado, manned by twenty-three volunteers. The early hose teams pulled giant reels upon which spooled a hundred feet or more of water hose that would be connected to handpumpers also operated by volunteers who pulled handles on either side of the tank.

The "Franklin" end-stroke torrent pumper, manufactured by William C. Hunneman Company. Hunneman was an apprentice of Paul Revere who revolutionized fire-fighting by developing hand pumped fire equipment. The output was similar to a modern water cannon. Ferndale Enterprise photograph from the collection of the Ferndale Museum. Circa 1890 - Wikimedia Commons.
Eastern and Midwestern cities had fire departments and hose teams long before the West, and these often developed into fraternal organizations. In addition to hose teams and handpumpers, firefighters also had “bed keys” with which to disassemble beds so they could be quickly removed from burning structures. Before gas lines and similar accelerants, residents had time to remove valuables from their property. Beds were often the most valuable piece of furniture they owned.

Horses joined the teams in the early 1800s, pulling manually operated pumps and early fire “engines.” Of course, in the West, this advancement came even later for smaller communities. Just before the turn of the century, Cañon City put a two-horse team into service, Chief and Taylor, who pulled the heavy wagon laden with hose and ladders.

In 1910 Chief and Taylor were retired and replaced by Tom and Dexter who, five years later, stepped aside for a 1915 Buick touring car modified with hose and ladder attachments, according to Larry Thomas Ward, author of Cañon City Colorado.

Canon City Fire Department, 1912. Left to Right: George Padgett, Assistant Captain;
Charles McKissick, Sr., Captain; George Cassidy, Chief; and Fred Priest, Plugman.
Horses, Tom and Dexter. Photo courtesy of the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center
as pictured in Canon City Colorado by Larry Thomas Ward.
Steam-powered pumps eventually replaced hand pumps and horses, and technology evolved and improved along with building structure and height.

Roughly twenty-six miles from Cañon City as the proverbial crow flies, the gold-mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado, suffered two back-to-back fires in April 1896 that nearly destroyed the town.

An overturned gasoline stove was blamed for starting the fire of April 25, driven by high winds to take the lives of two people and eight blocks of the business district. On April 29, the second fire reportedly broke out in the Portland Hotel kitchen on Second Street and jumped to consume neighboring buildings. Other structures were blown up by firefighters using readily available dynamite in a fruitless effort to stop the fire. Altogether, 6,000 people were left homeless.

During reconstruction, wooden structures were banned by the town council, and Cripple Creek was soon up and running again.

From neighbor- and family manned bucket brigades to highly trained specialists of today, those who have braved the flames on the behalf of others remain some of our most revered heroes.

An Unexpected Redemption
Wife and mother of professional rodeo bullfighters, Davalynn Spencer can’t stop #lovingthecowboy. She writes award-winning Western romance with rugged heroes, teaches writing workshops, and plays the keyboard on her church worship team – when she’s not wrangling Blue the Cowdog and mouse detectors Annie and Oakley. Connect with her at


  1. Very interesting post, thank you so much for bringing up this topic. I found it interesting that the beds were among the most valued possessions. It takes a special person to be a firefighter, or any rescue personnel for that matter.

    1. You are so right, Connie. Those who rush into danger on our behalf are true heroes.