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Sunday, February 17, 2002

Vacavillle went to blazes in 1800s

Sabine Goerke-Shrode


Town shy of water and crews

Fire presented one of the major worries of early life in Vacaville and in other settlements.

Houses were constructed of wood. Candles and lanterns provided light. Fireplaces were used to warm houses.

These were ingredients in a recipe for disaster that literally could take place at the drop of a match.

Large fires such as the two in Vacaville in 1877 destroyed whole sections of the town. People often rebuilt in the exact same location, with the exact same materials - until the next fire. While many residents carried at least partial insurance during the first fire, few did the second time around.

The lack of water and pressurized fire hydrants, along with a lack of volunteers to fight the fires were factors in a constant struggle. In a first attempt to solve this dilemma, the women of Vacaville came together during the summer of 1880 and raised enough money to purchase six Babcock extinguishers, while the men formed a hook-and-ladder company.

An all-volunteer affair, not much is known about the hook-and-ladder company during the ensuing years, nor does the organization seem to have been very effective.

As early as 1883, The Reporter began to call for a fire department. In 1886, Reporter editor J. D. McLain deplored the fact that only eight of the hook-and-ladder company’s 24 buckets and only some hooks and ladders could be found.

A fire on Nov. 8, 1888, led McLain to admonish: “The scene was appalling in the extreme; although everybody did everything they could to save property, they were entirely helpless. As there was no fire department or apparatus to check the flames on the onset, and owing to the fact there was a strong north wind blowing at the time, which drove everyone from the path, the flames pursued.”

This fire had started in Daniel Corny’s livery stable just after midnight on election day. While the votes for Cleveland and Harrison for President were counted, an arsonist supposedly set the fire. It raced through Vacaville’s business district, the flames leaping so high that they could be seen in Sacramento. The Davis Hotel, Masonic Hall, the Odd Fellows and numerous other buildings were destroyed, with damage totaling more than $200,000. The mysterious arsonist was never caught.

Merchants rebuilt quickly. As one of the improvements, Main and Merchant streets finally were connected. Main Street was extended through the Buck Orchards a year later, creating Buck Avenue and making the downtown business district much more accessible from all sides.

By 1890, rumors indicated that fire insurance rates would increase 50 to 200 percent for country towns without sufficient water to fight fires. Business owner S. C. Walker and others organized the Vacaville Water Company, trying to raise enough capital to install a six-inch waterline through the town. But once again fire broke out before the task was completed.

This time, the citizens held a meeting and organized the first volunteer hose organization. They raised enough money to purchase a used horse cart from San Francisco, proudly displaying it at Myer Blum’s Store. The cart was modeled after a spraying pump apparatus. It was pulled by a dozen men. The barrel tank was filled with salt water, thought to be a fire retardant.

But it was still a volunteer organization. And so on March 22, 1890, when fire broke out at the Old Corner Saloon, Myer Blum and his helpers grabbed the cart and pulled it to the fire, only to discover that the barrel was empty. The water had been dumped the day before to paint the barrel.

Lack of coordinated maintenance led to other embarrassing situations. Only a few months later, fire broke out at Chapman’s Harness Shop. This time the water supply was limited on account of several openings left in the water line, as no one had expected a fire to occur.

An exasperated Reporter editor wrote about this fire that “the celebrated forced pump with barrel for chemically prepared water constructed some time ago by those great Fire Chiefs Nathan Holt and J. M. Miller was not brought into requisition. We presume the barrel was in the same condition for holding water that a barley sack would have been.”

Finally, on Sept. 15, 1890, a large number of citizens met and decided to form the Vacaville Hose Company No. 1. Within a few weeks, they elected their first fire chief, contracted for a new hose cart, purchased hose and equipment, built a preliminary fire station, held several volunteer drills and celebrated the first Firemen’s Ball.

Hose companies at the time were independent organizations that provided their own funding as well as set their own rules and regulations. Unfortunately, it soon became evident that this still was a volunteer organization and that not all of its members took their duties seriously.

And so The Reporter once again chided its readers for a lack of a fire department: “As regards fire in this town, once in awhile in times past, some patriotic citizens would secure a few buckets painted red, but as is generally the case, a few were burned up or used by less patriotic citizens for the purpose of watering horses and if they were called for at a fire, no one knew either their coming or going. Once, it is said, the town went so far as to have an organization called a fire department and old citizens have seen them in the glory of red shirts at balls and street parades but never at a fire. While the town was under the regime of the red-shirted organization it is said that a disastrous fire broke out. The chief, instead of going to the fire, hurried home for his uniform, and the rest of the company did likewise probably, as none of the company showed up at the scene of the conflagration until the fire had burned itself out.”

With Vacaville’s incorporation in 1892, came a city government and finally the means to develop a consistent fire department. In July of 1895, after the old Hose Company was disbanded, City Ordinance 41 created the town’s first fire department. A chief engineer was appointed at an annual salary of $50, and 25 men, mostly from the old Hose Company, became the first fire crew. Every man received 25 cents for each meeting or drill they attended and 50 cents per hour while fighting a fire. At last Vacaville had a fire department.