Brief History of the Burlington Fire Department
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 armed with modern equipment and
knowledge gained from experience and training. The role of a firefighter in Burlington
has evolved from an “1850’s fireman” to that of a 21st century Fire/Rescue/ EMS
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. But, 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.
According to Ripley’s” Believe It or Not’, Burlington’s Snake Alley is the ”crookedest
street in the world”. Now a prominent city landmark, Snake Alley was designed as a
shortcut to downtown from North Hill, the neighborhood just north of the downtown
area. This is where equestrian time trails were held, beginning in the 1890’s, to
determine the strongest and fastest horses that were to be fire department steeds. The
horses would race uphill from the bottom to the top of Snake Alley, harnessed to the
pump. The fire department time trails always attracted a crowd and were festive events.
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. Not much evidence of old time operations remains evident. In
what is now an exercise room, the trap doors, through which hay for the horses once fell,
are hidden beneath modern floor covering. The municipal parking lot east of the station
was a pasture for the horses in those days. The horses crossed beneath and through the
hose tower in order to get out back to graze. If you stand in the 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
The Central Station received a 2.3 million dollar renovation and was rededicated in
2003. A large, architecturally congruent apparatus bay was added to house the
equipment needed for expanded, modern fire department operations. This is the only fire
station 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 original bell which was
removed from the tower many years ago, sits in front of the station and plays a regular
part in seasonal bell ringing serenades, which include many downtown church bells as
well. It also tolls annually on September 11th, at 7:43 AM for 2 minutes in a ceremony,
which memorializes and remembers a tragic day in our country’s history.
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 fire departments in Iowa to offer Paramedic services in association with EMS.
A proud tradition of serving the public continues today that started many years ago.
Currently the department consists of 42 sworn members and an administrative assistant.
We have in recent years added female firefighters to our ranks. Our calls for service
volume is considerable. In 2012, we responded to more than 3500 EMS and 1300 fire
alarms. Our 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. We respond ALS ambulances to nearby Illinois communities as
requested. The department provides both emergency and non-emergency EMS
ambulance transfers to regional hospitals. The fire department has a technician level
Hazardous Materials Team (Haz Mat) that provides coverage for Des Moines County.
The 15 Haz Mat technicians are drawn from the ranks of firefighters and officers. We
also provide Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) coverage at the Southeast Iowa
Regional Airport. This specialized fire fighting requires specific annual and ongoing
training that is monitored and approved by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). The
department also provides Confined Space rescue coverage for the city, county and
contracts to industries locally and in neighboring counties. Living on the Mississippi
river, we are often called upon for river rescue or EMS service upon the water and
islands. On any given day, a Burlington firefighter may be performing duties for any of
the jobs mentioned. The department also 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 public is always
welcome to tour your fire stations. Central Station accommodates a small historical fire
museum and on display in “The Hall of Flame”, many pictures of past fires.
In 2010, the department expanded its coverage area and became responsible for fire
suppression and emergency duties for the surrounding Quad Townships. This area
consists of Concordia, Flint River, Tama and Union townships, as well nearby Gulfport,
IL. 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 & city fire/EMS) that was completed
and opened in August 1997. For response purposes, the city is divided into north and
south districts, with each station providing fire and EMS coverage in their respective
The Burlington Fire Department keeps a vigilant watch and strives to keep our
community safe. We take special pride in providing modern, progressive emergency
services to our region. We operate 24 hours a day and never close. The Burlington Fire
Department has come a long way since the days of the leather bucket line. We live by our
mission: “Serving to Protect Lives, Property and the Environment with Courtesy and
*Historical information credited to Des Moines County Historical Society archives and
past issues of the Burlington Hawkeye newspaper located at Burlington Public Library.