Sunday, March 19, 2023

Firefighting in the Early 1900s

by Susan G Mathis

Firefighting in the early 1900s was not for the faint of heart. Firemen had few tools and lots of danger, but they faithfully did what they could to save their neighbors’ lives and property.

To protect their bodies, firemen wore bulky, black rubber-lined duck coats and rubber boots. Heavy helmets made of leather and metal protected their heads. Designed with a high dome to deflect falling objects, a wide brim to fend off debris, and a long duck tail to keep water and cinders from their backs made them invaluable.

Commonly used Bucket Brigades were almost universal until the mid-1900s. Two lines of volunteers stretched from the town well to the fire passing buckets of water to the firefighters. Once empty, the buckets were passed back to the well to be refilled. Once the hand pumper came into use, bucket brigades kept the pumper full of water. The fire foreman would use a “speaking trumpet” to give orders and keep his men and volunteers motivated.

Firemen also used hooks and chains to pull down walls of burning buildings to form a firebreak and keep the fire from spreading. Firemen and volunteers often used wet mops called Swabs to fight falling embers that would easily catch a roof on fire.

The early fire engines were horse-drawn. Firemen had to manually pump the water. In the late 1800s, fire engines with internal combustion engines slowly replaced horse-drawn steam engines, but only in the larger cities and wealthier districts. At first, the engines were self-propelled steam powered engines. Decades later did they became gasoline powered trucks.

Professional firefighters had to learn a lot about firefighting including a basic knowledge of fire dynamics, extinguishers, fire suppression, building construction, and how to use ropes and knots, ladders, hoses, and other equipment. They also needed to be fit and to know a little about safe search and rescue, smoke dangers, and so much more.

We cheer on today’s firefighters, and rightly so. But the men who fought fires back in the early 1900s were heroes indeed. In my latest novel, Mary’s Moment, we experience three major fires that nearly destroyed the Thousand Island Park community in 1912. It’s an exciting read.

About Mary’s Moment:

Mathis’s attention to detail and rich history is classic Mathis, and no one does it better.—Margaret Brownley, N.Y. Times bestselling author

Summer 1912

Thousand Island Park’s switchboard operator ​Mary Flynn is christened the community heroine for her quick action that saves dozens of homes from a terrible fire. Less than a month later, when another disastrous fire rages through the Park, Mary loses her memory as she risks her life in a neighbor's burning cottage. Will she remember the truth of who she is or be deceived by a treacherous scoundrel?

Widowed fireman George Flannigan is enamored by the brave raven-haired lass and takes every opportunity to connect with Mary. But he has hidden griefs of his own that cause him great heartache. When George can’t stop the destructive Columbian Hotel fire from eradicating more than a hundred businesses and homes, he is distraught. Yet George’s greater concern is Mary. Will she remember their budding relationship or be forever lost to him?

About Susan:
Susan G Mathis is an international award-winning, multi-published author of stories set in the beautiful Thousand Islands in upstate NY. Susan has been published more than twenty-five times in full-length novels, novellas, and non-fiction books. She has ten in her fiction line including Mary’s Moment. Susan is also a published author of two premarital books, stories in a dozen compilations, and hundreds of published articles. Susan lives in Colorado Springs and enjoys traveling the world. Visit for more.


  1. Thank you for posting today. It was interesting to read about the history of early firefighting. And your book sounds good!!

  2. Susan, I just read your blog and found it so interesting. Who knew bucket brigades continued into the mid-1900s? Thanks for the fun read!