The village of Dunellen in 1875 was just seven years old, the population was increasing and with it demands for goods and services. A business section was developing around the railroad depot at an encouraging rate, when a calamitous event occurred: the first serious fire in this locality.
The Central New Jersey Times of Plainfield carried this report.
FIRST GREAT FIRE
Most of our readers know of the disastrous fire at the beautiful village of Dunellen, Wednesday night, July 14, 1875, about 10 o'clock. The bright light caused the alarm to be sounded here and Steamer No. 2 with Zephyr Hook and Ladder Company, started for the scene. The engine arrived but was ordered home. There being no water supply, the steamer could render no service.
The fire started in a small shed just in the rear of C. S. Pope's building, opposite the depot and quickly extended to this and adjoining property of J. Y. Wilson. The fire had its own way undisturbed till these buildings were entirely consumed. The heat became so intense in a short time as to ignite another frame Wilson building, 25 feet away, notwithstanding the exertions of the citizens to save and protect the property, but to no avail.
Pope's building was a double two-story and three-story frame structure. The first floor was occupied by the post office and a dry goods and grocery store, kept by Pope. The upper rooms were his dwelling. Wilson's building was a large three-story frame building. The ground floor held two stores, one occupied by James Phillips' shoe store. The other was vacant. The upper floors were living quarters of the owner and J. Miles.
The second Wilson building was two stories high, the first floor had three stores; the second story was unoccupied. P. W. Brakeley used one store as a druggist and the other was I. H. Dunn's flour and feed store.
Pope's losses on the building and furniture will be $18,000. Wilson will suffer the entire loss of his household goods and clothing and about $10,000 on his two buildings. Phillips' loss by damage will not be over $250. J. Q: Miles sustains the whole loss of his furniture and clothing. Dunn and Brakeley each will bear loss by damage to stock in removing; neither had insurance.
A Letter to the Editor; Dunellen is not all burned up nor are its citizens very far down in the valley of despondency. We had a very warm fire last Wednesday night and it stirred us all up to most unwonted energy. Hams, boots and shoes, dry goods, flour and drugs were carried out with little ceremony. Destruction was complete and how it began no one knows.
As usual, now that the horse is stolen, we think to lock the barn. On Monday evening we held a large meeting, at which we voted our thanks to the firemen of Plainfield, who dragged their engine three miles to help us. The formal thanks don't half tell how much we appreciate their efforts. Then, too, we raised a committee to seek a supply of water and a fire apparatus. When we have another fire we want at least to be able to do something to put it out. This time, all we could do was to take out goods and look on.
We hope the next fire is a great way in the future, and we hope, too, when it comes we shall be better able to subdue it.--Dunellen Resident
The Fire Committee appointed July 19, 1875 was composed of Charles Boice, Christian Schepflin, John M. Handren, Andrew Child and James A. Falkner. On August 6, 1875 they recommended:
First. The obtaining of a hook and ladder truck with extinguishers and all the necessary appliances for extinguishing a fire, such as made by the Babcock Fire Extinguisher Company, at an expense of $650 for a No. 1 machine.
Second. The building of a reservoir on the brook near the Washington Avenue crossing, provided consent can be obtained from the owners of the land, the expense not to exceed $50.
Third. Every owner of property supply himself with a lift and force pump, a rubber fire bucket and at least one hundred feet of hose, or such appliance as they deem best to protect their own property in case of fire.
The committee's report was well received. While the recommended apparatus was well equipped with leather buckets, axes, pike poles, hooks and ladders and Babcock Extinguishers, it cost $800. The expense of such an apparatus would fall heavily upon a few and enthusiasm for fire protection dwindled when it came to supplying funds.
"The Rock," published in Dunellen, heralded Dunellen Fire Co. No. 1, a bucket brigade, organized in December, 1877, two years after the catastrophic fire. Its chief, Sam VanArtsdale constructed Dunellen's very first fire apparatus, a bucket truck, which was used in a parade that served to introduce the firemen to the community.
The cost of the parade and the celebration was defrayed by local donations. This company never responded to a fire call and seems to have quietly disappeared. $4.86 in the treasury was left with Joseph Maier, Sr., proprietor of the Park Hotel, with instructions it be given to the treasurer of the next fire department. In 1896, nineteen years later, Sam VanArtsdale mentioned this fact at the July meeting of Defender Fire Co., No. 1, and Joseph Maier, Jr., turned over the yellowed envelope and Sam added enough to make it $5. Sam VanArtsdale died in 1920, the last member of the original fire company.
To promote fire safety, in May, 1894 George Dav made arrangements with the Electric Fire Extinguisher Manufacturing Company for an exhibition of their product in action. At the corner of Dunellen and Lincoln Avenues, fire was applied to a 20-foot wooden chimney. When it was completely aflame, Prof. Banning by means of a small pump sprayed some of the fluid into the chimney and in 30 seconds the fire was completely out.
The next test was on a 16x8 foot structure which was ignited and fully in flame. Prof. Banning had it completely extinguished in a few seconds. The conclusion was that no house in the Borough should be without so useful a machine. However, no steps were taken to acquire this fire protection.
A serious fire at Cranford in 1892 brought action for fire protection for this Borough. If Dunellen had had even the poorest kind of fire apparatus the fire of 1875 might have been confined to the shed where it started and ten or twenty thousand dollars worth of property saved. The lack of water was the problem. One suggestion was that if the Plainfield Water Company could run their pipes to Dunellen then by means of hydrants and plenty of hose there would be no need for even an engine.
By January of 1896 action was being taken and Pres. Brakeley received plans and specifications from the Gleason Bailey Manufacturing Company, Ltd. of Burlington, N.J., for a combined hook and ladder truck, hose carriage and chemical engine, at a cost of $800.
In February the commissioners signed a contract for the purchase of the apparatus. April 28, 1896 it was delivered and taken to Alvah Gray's barn. A stream of chemicals was thrown 25 feet and the test was deemed satisfactory assuring formal acceptance by the Commissioners. Some people jokingly referred to the chemical engine as "a soda water fountain."
A two-and-a-half-inch well in front of Paul Reusch's store on North Avenue was the first of a series to be drilled in the center of town if it proved successful when tested by the fire apparatus. After some difficulty, a stream of water equal to sixty gallons a minute was thrown over the Reusch residence. A. S. Giles drilled a well at North and Lincoln Avenues but ran into too much quicksand so he tried the Washington Avenue corner.
A meeting to organize a fire department was called on May 13, 1896 in the Call office by Paul Reusch. Twenty men attended and officers were elected: President, George W. Day; secretary, Waiter Apgar; treasurer, William Wvckoff; chief, Paul Reusch; asst. chief, Waiter Vliet; foreman of chemicals, Peter V. Huff; foreman of the pump, Arthur Giles.
On May 28, 1896 the first regular monthly meeting was held. It was decided to call the company "Defender No. 1 of Dunellen." On May 29, 1896 they turned out for their first wash and the members made a run with the machine to Musk Rat Brook where a barrel had been sunk and the pump was quickly set to work. The 250 feet of hose was laid, six men manned the pump and a good stream of water was thrown on the old Todd house.
The firemen had their first run with the engine on August 16, 1896, down North Washington Avenue to Fifth Street where the barn on the Ephraim Vail farm in Green Brook was engulfed in flames and beyond control.
The first fire within the Borough of Dunellen was September 4, 1896 when a boy on a bicycle declared there was a roof fire at J. M. Martin's house on North Avenue. Before the apparatus arrived, the fire was extinguished by a bucket brigade of local men. It was apparent an alarm system was necessary and arrangements were made to put a steam whistle on the roundhouse.
When the freight house of the Central Railroad took fire the fire company came but they were not summoned by the roundhouse whistle because there was insufficient steam there to blow it. The building was totally destroyed. Two years later the whistle was inoperative due to broken pipes. A new plan was to have it operated from the tower house by the flagman.
The steam whistle was unsatisfactory so in June of 1903 a locomotive wheel tire donated by the railroad was installed at the firehouse. It was sounded by a heavy hammer but was found to be useless. In October a 60-foot tower, topped by a 30-foot flagpole was erected, paid for by the Borough, with the fire department providing an 800-pound bell.
The first use of the new bell was for a fire at Charles Dickason's place on South Avenue, October 27, 1903. The firemen arrived in four minutes but Waiter Runyon arrived sooner, coming to the scene on horseback.
In October of 1896 the Council considered limiting the membership of the department because every active member was entitled to a $500 yearly tax exemption. They wondered if the town could afford it. The firemen at their own meeting set a limit of 50 members.
When a state decision deprived the firemen of this $500 exemption in 1904 a number of members resigned. They felt it was folly to pay dues and fines and get no benefit and they thought that a paid department should be the next thing to be considered.
The State Firemen's Relief Association asked all towns having volunteer firemen's associations to pay an annual salary equal to the loss of the exemption. If the town did not grant this salary the volunteer department was to be disbanded. Some authorities felt that municipalities receiving services should recompense their firemen, but the state law whereby volunteer fire companies were created and chartered, opposed this view.
At a special meeting January 21, 1897 it was established that the fire department had been functioning for the past nine months without legal standing and it was decided that articles of incorporation should be filed. The articles were signed on February 18, 1897.
Water pipes were brought to Dunellen by the Watchung Water Co. and on Labor Day 1899 a highly successful test was made from a hydrant in front of Paul Kratzel's property. By February, 1901, 43 hydrants were installed in the Borough. A second piece of equipment was added when the Council approved the purchase of a small handdrawn hose carriage in October, 1899.
An alarm of fire was sounded on February 21, 1900 for a barn in the rear of Mrs. Helen Kuldoshes tenement dwelling on North Avenue. Building materials stored here were completely destroyed along with the building. This was the first opportunity for the fire department to test the water from the newly installed hydrants and Chief Maier declared the pressure satisfactory. The department conducted itself admirably considering this was the first time they had been called out in thirteen months.
After eight years of pulling the fire apparatus by manpower, arrangements were made to pay $5 to the first team of horses arriving to pull the engine when an alarm was sounded. In March, 1906 horses from George Huff's teams were engaged to run with the fire truck.
At a special meeting of the fire company on March 2, 1911, Mayor Sanford presented a proposition for the company's approval. He had drawn a $500 note on which he had secured the endorsement of a number of businessmen. It was his idea that this money be used to buy a team of horses which would be turned over to the fire company, which would assume ownership of the team and become responsible for the note.
It was suggested that the firemen could go into the business of teaming and possibly make the team pay for themselves and for their maintenance and perhaps even make money. The bulk of the o pinion was adverse to the proposition and Mayor Sanford withdrew his offer.
Lightning started a fire at the residence of Freeman D. Baerman, Mountainview Terrace, July, 1913 and it was a unique sight to see the fire apparatus being drawn to the fire by an automobile. Charles A. Coriell,Jr., happened to be near when the alarm was rung and he quickly hitched on and drew the engine to the fire. To raise funds for motorizing their equipment the fire department promoted a fair in November of 1915.
Manager Hall of the Hall Printing Press Company, June 2, 1916, agreed to install a Borough-owned whistle at that location on a fire tower. It was to be sounded each night at 7 o'clock by the night marshal.
The Borough advertised in the May 1917 issue of the "Firemen's Herald" of New York for a combination chemical and hose wagon. In June the Reo Motor Car Company bid of $3,300 was accepted for a motorized hose wagon. It was delivered in November, 1917.
An electric fire siren installed on the fire tower was deemed inadequate and was replaced by a double-ended one in 1918. This also proved a disappointment and so it was back to the old bell again.
In September of 1920 it was voted not to keep the old hand fire engine as a relic and the chief was authorized to sell it. The expense of housing that and other relics was considered too great to warrant the expenditure.
It was becoming evident the fire department needed more room for its equipment, a place to dry hose and a meeting room for members.
In December, 1921, plans were drawn for a new firehouse on the triangular plot of ground by the side of the Borough Hall where the fire bell stood, but no action was taken. On April 19, 1923 an ordinance provided for a new firehouse on the lot in the rear and adjacent to the Borough Hall, at a cost of $15,000, $10,000 provided by the Borough and $5,000 by the fire department.
The Apgar Construction Company's bid was accepted October 1, 1923, the cornerstone was laid December 6, 1923 and the new building was occupied in June, 1924 when the Council formally accepted the structure.
The twenty-one-year-old fire tower was taken down in 1924, the old bell, worn out with long service and partially eaten up with rust, was removed several months previously. It now stands as the centerpiece of the Firemen's Memorial Monument in Washington Park.
In 1922 the Dunellen Association of Exempt Firemen was organized: president, Charles F. Starker; vice president, Fowler W. Vail; secretary, Wilson S. Frederick; treasurer, Charles G. Wrage and sixteen charter members. The organization was ratified, necessary papers filed with the County Clerk and it became part of the state organization.
At the Council Meeting of December 4 1922 it was voted to accept the $5,500 bid of the American LaFrance Fire Company to provide a Brockway Torpedo fire truck. A new Ward-LaFrance fire pumping engine arrived in town December, 1934. It was officially accepted by the Council in January, 1935.
Complaints from residents south of the railroad tracks about the lack of proper protection were justified when the fire trucks were held up for seven minutes at the Prospect Avenue crossing by a slow passing freight train. When the Council negotiated a lease with the railroad in May, 1936 for a tract of land just south of the tracks on Prospect Avenue a small building to house one fire engine was erected there.
At ceremonies on July 9, 1962, Mayor Bernard Rodgers broke ground current home of the Dunellen Fire Department on South Madison Ave. This is the current building which is 81 feet wide and 75 feet deep, houses about seven vehicles, offices, workrooms, alarm room, showers and a lavatory. A 35-foot tall tower provides drying room for hose.
All information was taken from "The History Of Dunellen New Jersey 1887 - 1987 Centennial Edition." By Wesley H.Ott