St. Albert’s Hotel. Mrs. Beach’s Millinery and Dwelling. Wolf’s Tin and Stove Store.
These quaint-sounding businesses once flourished in downtown Charleston, but you won’t find a vestige of them today. They, along with 27 other establishments — including the mayor’s office and an engine house and stable — burned to the ground in what would be the worst fire in the city’s history up to that time.
The fire happened on Dec. 11, 1874, and it was the wake-up call that would lead to the establishment of the first paid fire department for the City of Charleston.
It would take nearly 20 years, however, before the Charleston city leaders came up with the funds to establish a paid fire department. On Dec. 14, 1893, Chief E. “Bud” Callahan, R.J. Stalnaker and L.C. Roy began their duties with one Silsby engine, a team of horses and 15 alarm boxes.
Today, 125 years later, that department has a $24 million budget, employs 169, and operates eight fire stations within a 33-square-mile area and beyond.
Bob Sharp, a retired firefighter of 28 years and current chief deputy state fire marshal, is the unofficial archivist of the capital city’s fire department. He compiled a timeline of the more important events in the department’s history. Here is a sampling:
1893: Paid fire department established.
1902: Motorized equipment began to replace horse-drawn apparatus.
1906: The first line-of-duty death reported, when William M. Cabell was hit by a street car while responding to a fire.
1921: State Capitol Fire. On Jan. 3, the West Virginia State Capitol caught fire and burned for several hours. One civilian died and several were injured. Fireman Oscar Thaxton received serious injuries and later succumbed. He has only recently been added to the memorial for fallen firefighters.
Blogger Jerry Waters reports on his blog, MyWVHome.com that ammunition bought by the West Virginia State Police two years earlier was stored on the top floor of the building. “The ammunition had been purchased for use in the coal field disputes, which had threatened to erupt into civil war. Supposedly several machine guns and rifles were also stored in the Capitol.” Apparently the fire ignited all the ammunition and a spectacular explosion filled the skies of the city.
The fire destroyed the stately Capitol building, which resembled the architecture of West Virginia University’s Woodburn Hall in Morgantown.
A temporary wood-frame building located on the future site of the Daniel Boone Hotel (405 Capitol St.) was erected in just 42 days to house many of the state’s offices. It became known as the Pasteboard Capitol and suffered the same fate in 1927.
1931: Firefighters unionize. On Sept. 7, the Charleston Fire Department Professional Firefighters Local 317 is chartered by the National Association of Firefighters. The union would be responsible for the first health insurance for its members, which would lead to health coverage for all Charleston public safety employees. According to Sharp, the union never went on strike, but there were several cases of “blue flu” in the 1980s.
1936: The Fleetwood Hotel Fire on July 19 was one of the largest early fires in the city. Eleven hose lines were deployed and damage was estimated at over $300,000.
1947: The “Kelly shift” was established, allowing firefighters to work 24 hours and then be off 48 hours. Firefighters still operate under this system, putting in 52-hour weeks.
1949: The Woolworth fire. The worst fire in Charleston’s history broke out on March 4 in the vibrant retail section of Capitol Street. It began in the Woolworth Five and Dime. Seven firefighters died and losses exceeded $1 million.
The Associated Press reported the fire started in the basement and was well developed by the time a policeman spotted it at 4 a.m.
“One squad of firemen worked down a circular stairs into the basement. Others took hoses into the first story. The floor suddenly gave way. Blazing piles of merchandise, cartons of stock and counters crashed into the basement. They carried some of the firefighters along and some of those below were buried up to their armpits.”
Archivist Bob Sharp’s great uncle was among the seven men who died. “He was very close to retirement,” he said. “Water had filled the basement. It’s not clear if they drowned or died from the flames and smoke.”
Sharp said at the time it was the deadliest fire in the nation’s history in terms of firefighter loss of life.
The city would honor the fallen men in several ways. A fund was quickly established that led to the planting of seven trees along Kanawha Boulevard with plaques naming the heroes: Frank Miller, Freddie Summers, JP Little, Frank Sharp, Richard McCormick, George Coates and Emory Pauley.
A marker would also be erected at the site of the fire on Capitol Street, and their names would be listed on the memorial to fallen firefighters at the State Capitol. And at Station No. 7 on Cora Street, firefighters came across a yellowed poem in a simple black frame titled “Fate of the Faithful Firemen,” composed by W.M. Billy Thomas. Here are a few lines:
“Mid the dark and dreary twilight just before the break of dawn
When all in peace were sleeping pealed the death knell of the gong.
‘Twas then the wheel of destiny and fate began to roll
Toward seven of our loved ones to claim them as its toll.”
1969: Methodist Church Fire. The worst church fire in city history broke out at Christ Church United Methodist on Quarrier Street. The fire started in an interior hall, where oil-based paint supplies were stored. It traveled up the interior wall and into the ceiling structure. No injuries were reported.
According to Sharp, firefighting didn’t really change that much until the 1980s, when the scope of emergencies began to include hazard materials mitigation; emergency medical service calls; terrorist threats; chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear weapons and explosives; technical rescue; scuba diving and swift-water rescue and recovery; urban search and rescue; high angle rope rescue; and mass casualty incidents. “When I started in 1986, we didn’t even have the 911 system,” Sharp said.
Sharp also explained that many early firefighters — including men of color in an age of segregation — were hired because “politicians would go around neighborhoods and promise fireman jobs in exchange for their votes, a practice that predated current civil service laws.” Two of the Woolworth victims were African-American: 34-year-old McCormick and 28-year-old Coates.
One thing, though, has not changed. Archives in Sharp’s collection include photos of a fire department band, a fire department baseball team and turn-of-the-century firefighters giving children in the communities horseback rides when they were transitioning to motorized vehicles.
“We are still doing projects like that,” Sharp said. “This year, the CFD is doing Operation Warm, where they purchase new coats for kids and distribute them. The unions also sponsor a boot drive for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.”
Sharp hopes someday to compile all his relics, clippings and photos into a book. “On this 125th anniversary, I hope people will reflect on the sacrifices that firefighters make of their time away from family, mental stress, physical injuries and sometimes their life,” he said. “I’m proud to have been a Charleston firefighter, and I extend my personal thank you to the men and women of the Charleston Fire Department, for all you do to make Charleston a safer place to live, work and visit.”
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