History of the Burlington Fire Department

A History of the Burlington Fire Department
Burlington, Iowa

By Battalion Chief Bruce Workman

   As in most American communities today, a telephone call placed to 911 in Burlington will bring the manpower and resources needed to respond to an emergency.  In the 1800’s, the formative years of the Burlington Fire Department, the call to action was often less reliable or adequate.  Pumps pulled by hand, hilly terrain, and lack of water supply often hindered firefighting efforts.  Today, members of the fire department proudly and capably serve their community outfitted with modern equipment and benefiting from years of training and experience.  The role of a firefighter in Burlington has evolved from an “1800’s fireman” to that of a 21st century Fire/Rescue/ EMS technician.

  The formal inauguration of the Burlington Fire Department took place on January 5th, 1841.  The City Council passed an ordinance creating a Fire Department consisting of a chief engineer and two assistant engineers.  The chief engineer was to don a white frock or hunting coat, wear a leather cap with “Chief Engineer” painted on the front, and carry a white speaking trumpet.  Still today, their white helmets and white uniform shirts distinguish chief officers.  With the passing of this ordinance, the Des Moines Company No. 1 was created.

  However, the Department existed more on paper than in reality.  Until this point, efforts at fighting fires were pretty futile.  Lack of a pumper and equipment, sporadic drilling and fire wardens taking their duties less than seriously, contributed to a generally weak effort.  Volunteers and citizens with 12-quart leather buckets found it very difficult to do much extinguishing, unless the buildings’ owners had knocked the fire down quickly before their arrival.

  It took the effects of several disastrous and costly fires before serious efforts were made to protect the city situated on the Mississippi River.  Only after the burning of a candle factory in 1851 did the City Council authorize the purchase of a fire pump.  In April of 1853, the steamer ‘Wisconsin’ unloaded the town’s new equipment at the river’s edge.  Difficult to move about on Burlington’s hills and ravines, the hand pulled contraption was still better than bucket lines when it was close to a cistern or creek.

  Then, in 1855, the Hesse carriage factory on Columbia St. was destroyed by a blaze.  Things were not well at the young Fire Department.  The No.1 Fire Company did not arrive at the fire with their engine.  The reason given was, “it was out of fix.”  The entire organization fell apart. A new company was formed.  They named themselves “Eagle Fire Company No. 2”.  The new fire company fixed the engine, purchased uniforms and engaged in drill.  Problems persisted until the purchase of a Silsby fire engine in 1866.  However, the new Silsby (nicknamed “The John Dickey”) was still hand drawn.  In 1871, a Chief and six full time firemen became the first paid department in Burlington.  However, the City Council had not appropriated funds for horses.  It was not until 1872, that horses were to pull a fire pump up and down the streets of this thriving frontier town.  The town’s population at this time had just passed 15,000 residents.

  Until the 1940’s, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Burlington’s Snake Alley was the”crookedest street in the world”.  (It has now been surpassed by San Francisco’s famous Lombard St, laying claim to that title.) Always a prominent city landmark, Snake Alley was designed as a shortcut to downtown from North Hill, the neighborhood just uphill of the fast growing business district.  This limestone brick street consists of seven switchback curves covering a block in length and rises 60 feet from bottom to top. This is where equestrian time trials were held, beginning in the 1890’s, to determine the strongest and fastest horses that were to be Fire Department steeds. The paving bricks were laid on edge, rather than flat, in order to help the horses hooves gain purchase on this steep incline.  The horses would race uphill from the bottom to the top of Snake Alley, harnessed to the fire pump.  The Fire Department time trials always attracted a crowd and were festive events.  The alley remains a popular tourist attraction.

  By 1900, the Department consisted of 28 men and 20 horses.  The existing Central Station was built in 1907 at the corner of 5th and Valley streets.  Much of the second story was used as a hayloft.  Evidence of old time operations is scant. The hayloft is now an exercise room. Hidden beneath modern floor covering, are the trap doors, through which hay once fell to the stable below. Part of the municipal parking lot east of the station was a corral for the horses in those days.  The horses crossed beneath and through hose tower arches in order to access that outside area. If you stand in that parking lot and look to the west, you can still see the beam and eye hook that was used to raise the hay to the second story hayloft.

  In 1913, the first motorized fire engine was purchased.  By 1926, the Department was fully motorized. Over the next few decades, the Fire Department experienced little change.  During the 1950’s, emergency services expanded and the fire prevention bureau was established.  In the 1960’s, the Burlington Fire Department entered the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) arena.  During the 1980’s, our Fire Department was one of the first two in Iowa to offer Paramedic services in association with EMS.

  In 2003, the Central Station 2.3 million dollar renovation project was completed. A rededication ceremony celebrated the rejuvenation and expansion of this venerable building.  Included in that project, was a large, architecturally congruent apparatus bay. This bay was added on the north side of the original station in order to accommodate the vehicles and equipment needed to operate an expanded and modern Fire Department. The Central Fire Station is the only firehouse in Iowa that is still operating from a building designed for horse drawn fire wagons.  The station was built in French-Romanesque style, using heavy stone detailing around arched doorways.  The bell tower and hose tower were designed to complement the numerous steeples and towers of the Burlington skyline.  The 1500 lb. cast iron bell was removed from the tower decades ago. On display in front of the station and still in use, it plays a regular part in seasonal bell ringing serenades, which includes many downtown church bells as well. Our bell also tolls annually on September 11th, at 7:43 AM in a ceremony which memorializes and remembers a tragic day in our country’s history. Modeled on the New York Fire Department protocol, the bell is rung a total of sixteen times.

  A proud tradition of serving the public continues today that began many years ago.  Currently the Department consists of 44 sworn members and an administrative assistant.  In recent years, female firefighters have joined the ranks. The call for service volume is considerable.  In 2014, the department responded to more than 4100 calls for service. Of those, over 3400 were EMS related and the remainder falling into fire related alarms.

  The Burlington Fire Department is unique in the fact that we wear so many hats in the emergency response world. We are the only Fire Department in Iowa that renders such a wide and complete range of varied emergency services and provides coverage for such a large territory.  Along with fire suppression responsibilities, we provide Advanced Life Support (ALS) Paramedic ambulance service to the city and the southern half of Des Moines County.  The department also responds ALS ambulances to nearby Illinois communities as requested, with the town of Gulfport IL being within our primary EMS response area. All Paramedics and EMT’s are both Iowa and Illinois certified. The department provides both emergency and non-emergency EMS ambulance transfers to regional hospitals. 

  The Fire Department operates a Technician level Hazardous Materials Team (Haz Mat) that provides coverage for all Des Moines County.  The 19 Haz Mat Technicians are drawn from the ranks of firefighters and officers.  Also provided is Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) coverage at the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport.  This specialized firefighting requires specific annual training that is sanctioned and approved by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).  The Department also provides Confined Space Rescue coverage for the city, county and contracts services to industries locally, including neighboring counties. Living on the Mississippi River, the department is often called upon for River Rescue or EMS duties on the water and islands.  On any given day, a Burlington firefighter may be performing duties for any of the jobs mentioned. 

  The Fire Department actively participates in public education.  We regularly host public CPR classes and provide fire extinguishing training classes for business and industry.  Fire Prevention education is provided to area schools and at numerous community events throughout the year. The firefighters on the Department feel a special duty to educate and keep safe our younger citizens. The Fire Marshal is responsible for code enforcement and building inspections. We have a very active Smoke Detector program that offers free detectors and installation provided by firefighters. The Department also hosts an Explorer Post for young citizens to experience what to expect if they chose to enter a firefighting career.

  Central Station accommodates a small and relevant historical fire museum which is maintained by an active group of retired firefighters. On display in the upper floor is the “The Hall of Flame”, with numerous, dramatic photographs of past fires. The only recorded line of duty death occurred in 1947, when Firefighter Harold Herman died in a warehouse fire. 10

  The city and Quad Townships are served by two fire stations.  Central Station, located downtown, and the Airport Station (Station 2) is on the south side of the city.  Central Station is listed as part of the West Jefferson St. National Historic District.  Central Station has aged gracefully through the years and owes part of its resilience to remodeling and the persistent efforts of firefighters to keep her in good maintenance.  The Airport fire station is a dual use facility (ARFF & Fire/EMS) that was completed and opened in August 1997. In 2010, the Department expanded fire suppression coverage area beyond city limits and became responsible for the rural areas in the surrounding Quad Townships.  This area consists of Concordia, Flint River, Tama and Union townships.   For response purposes, the city and townships are divided into north and south districts, with each station providing fire and EMS coverage in their respective territories.

  It recent years, notable extra alarm fires attended to by the Department include: the Central Standard Lumberyard fire in March of 2003. Half a city block was destroyed and so thoroughly burned that no cause was ever determined, despite the efforts of local and state fire investigators.

  In April of 2007, the First Methodist Church, built in 1889, was set on fire and heavily damaged by an arsonist. The culprit was charged and arrested for the fire within a few days. He was convicted and sentenced the following year. He is currently serving his 35 year term in a federal penitentiary. The church is a downtown landmark of considerable historic value. It was rebuilt over the course of six years and it’s congregation has returned there for regular worship and church activities. The walls of the church are made from the purple hued Jarvis granite imported from South Dakota. A freestanding metal framed building was built within the granite walls of the church. The walls now only support themselves with the aesthetic façade of the church remaining.

  In November of 2010, the formidable five-story Tama Building, built in 1870 and located in the heart of downtown, caught fire in a space below the first floor restaurant.  The fire grew exponentially when the blaze found over 600 gallons of used restaurant oil that had never been disposed of properly. The blaze burned through the first floor and also worked its way into the walls, burning and traveling eventually to the fourth floor. It took fire crews from Burlington and four mutual aid fire departments several hours to bring the fire under control. Hot spots continued to be put out over the next two days. The building has only re-opened the banquet/dance hall portion on the first floor to date. Developers have rebuilt much of the damaged interior, with plans for a new restaurant and apartments on the upper stories in the future.

  The Burlington Fire Department maintains a vigilant watch, working to keep our community safe every day.  Special pride is taken in providing modern and progressive emergency services to the region. Your fire department is open 24 hours a day and never closes. The Burlington Fire Department has come a long way since the days of the leather bucket line. We deliver our services to you, the citizenry, while remaining faithful to our mission to be professional, courteous and efficient. We live by the firefighter’s code, “To Protect Life and Property.”

1 "Fire Department Started in 1800's." The Hawk Eye [Burlington Iowa] 4 Aug. 1942: 8. Print

2 "History of the Fire Department." The Hawk Eye [Burlington Iowa] 10 May 1933: 11. Print.

3 "History of the Fire Department." The Hawk Eye [Burlington Iowa] 10 May 1933: 11. Print.

4 Kaushik. “Snake Alley – The Crooked Street | Amusing Planet, 3 Mar. 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.   www.amusingplanet.com/2013/03/snake-alley-crooked-street.htm

5 "Snake Alley History." The Hawk Eye [Burlington Iowa] 14 Nov. 1939: 7. Print.

6 "History of the Fire Department." The Hawk Eye [Burlington Iowa] 10 May 1933: 11. Print.

7 Trexel Matt  Fire Chief. "Fire Department History." Personal interview. 21 Oct. 2014

8 "Fire Department Started in 1800's." The Hawk Eye [Burlington Iowa] 4 Aug. 1942: 8. Print

9  Trexel, Matt Burlington Fire Department Annual Report 2014." Burlington Fire Department Annual Report 2014(n.d.): 1. Print

10 Fire Fighter Line of Duty Death Listing." Fire Fighter Line of Duty Death Listing. Iowa Department of Public Safety, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <http://www.dps.state.ia.us/fm/main/ffm/line-of-duty-deaths.shtml

11 Abell, Steve. "Historic Church Burns." The Hawk Eye Newspaper. The Hawk Eye, n.d. Web. 5 May 2007

12"Firefighters Battle to save Historic Building in Downtown Burlington." Connect Tri-States. KHQA Media, 29 Nov. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <http://www.connecttristates.com/news/story.aspx