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Columbus Fire Department (Part Three of Four)

In 1878, the fire department was structured as a volunteer force. The department comprised of two steamers, three hand engines, a hook and ladder truck, and one Champion fire extinguisher (the first chemical apparatus later being located at 1810 10th Avenue, No. 7 Station). The department also had ample supply of hose consisting of 3,500 feet. The city’s annual budget for the fire department this year was approximately $850.00. (as noted in the 1878 Columbus City Directory)

Also, in 1878, the Rankin Hotel burned creating a spectacular fire. During the fire, the only two steamers the city owned became disabled, crippling the community of firefighting equipment. The steamers were the backbone of firefighting and without the pumpers the volunteers soon became faced with a difficult and ill-fated decision. Having to rely upon the only available pumping equipment left, the firefighters were at the mercy of muscle-powered engines. On the same night, a large store in the downtown district also caught fire. The volunteers worked feverishly to control the fires in order to prevent another conflagration, but despite their zealous effort the fires continued to spread. Flames leaped into the air, rampaging from one building to the next. In an attempt to plea for help, Chief Engineer Clifford Grimes telegraphed the fire departments in Montgomery and Macon for aid. The Montgomery Department arrived that evening and immediately went into action. A special train from Macon arrived the next morning with their Chief, 45 fire fighters, and two steamers. They extinguished the remaining hot spots along the dirt streets. Glowing embers continued to smolder during the evening. The next morning, skeletal remains of several buildings again scarred the city’s skyline. Fortunately, the damage to the hotel was not irreparable. The Rankin Hotel has continued to serve this community and stands as a wonderful example of historic preservation and successful adaptive re-use.

Station No. 6 was established in the early 1870s. Its first location was in the open square of the Rankin building. Several fire companies were known to use this facility while organizing. When No. 6 was organized it consisted of black workers from the Central Railroad. Recognized first as Mechanics No. 6, they changed their title afterwards to Mechanics 6. Later the company shared quarters with Washington Fire No. 2 at their 11th Street and Front Avenue location. When the volunteers dissolved, No. 6 Company was not activated again until 1924. In 1925, No. 6 would be located on Britt Avenue in the newly annexed Wynnton (pictured below). Station 6 has remained at this location since. A new building, now facing Brown Avenue, was constructed in 1970 and replaced the earlier station.

On Sunday, November 29, 1891 at 1:00 PM, just an hour after worship had concluded, smoke began creeping from beneath the roofline of First Presbyterian Church. The fire spread quickly, and the entire fire department was able to reach the scene soon after the alarm was called. Four companies surrounded the outside walls. Two steamers pumped nearly one-half million gallons of water onto the fire by sunset. Precautions were taken to protect the surrounding residences. At approximately 2:15 PM, the wooden section of the 160-foot spire came crashing down. It fell into the middle of 11th Street. By 2:30 PM, with help from the wind, a rain of fire began to fall upon the building across 11th Street. The Odd Fellows Hall, the City Market, and the Springer were in danger. At 4:00 PM, the heavy supports of the church roof, the galleries, the organ floor, and all the pews had fallen into the basement. The firemen never stopped working. They remained on the scene until after 11:00PM that night extinguishing embers still fanned by wind. The men ended up sleeping on the floor of the Springer stage that night because they were too exhausted to return home. Below is a photo of First Presbyterian Church after rebuilding, c. 1900.

A new fire company was formed in 1893. It was recognized as No. 7 Chemical Company. The engine house was located in East Highland at 1810 10th Avenue. The horse drawn fire wagon was equipped with a 30-gallon chemical tank. The tank was located under the driver’s seat and the hose was located in the bed of the wagon. Only two personnel comprised the company as regulars, although the station listed 23 volunteers on roll. This was the Champion Chemical Extinguishing Unit. In 1948, Station 7 was moved to 2418 North Lumpkin Road (pictured below). Station No. 7 is now located on Buena Vista Road.

The 1930s and 1940s were considered a transitional era, bringing forth yet another breed of fire fighter with different ideas and concepts. During the early 1930s, the established generation was trying to survive the Great Depression and were fortunate even to have jobs. Those entering the fire department in the 1940s entered during global warfare. Veteran officers quickly realized these greenhorns were the leaders of the future.

These young warriors would learn new training techniques and attend fire college in Atlanta. Education began to be emphasized on a higher level. This was only the beginning. Future generations would keep the education wheel rolling. The most influential person who would change the training program for generations to come was that of a young man entering the department in 1934. He entered with new ideas, new concepts, and seeking his own dreams. Clarence W. Ford would first serve as a tailgate fireman, eventually advancing to driver on a downtown pumper. He was considered the first drill master instructor in Columbus. Clarence Ford was promoted up the ranks through his career and was appointed as Chief of the Columbus Fire Department.

Below are images from several significant fires in the 1940s and 1950s.

Station 8 is presently located at 5844 Whitesville Road (pictured below). This triple-bay station is one of several fire stations providing vital protection to the many residents and businesses in the north section of the city. During 1970, temporary quarters were in an old county fire station on the corner of 54th Street and Orchard Drive. No. 8 was among three identical stations built in 1970 to accommodate city annexation. The others were Stations 4 and 11.

The next History Spotlight will be in two weeks! In the last part of this series, we will cover the history of Stations 9 - 12, along with spotlights on several more recent fires that have devastated three historic mill buildings and the last antebellum home on the Chattahoochee River.

You can access ALL of Historic Columbus' History and Preservation Spotlights here:

If you think Historic Columbus is just putting a pretty face on an old building, think again. Thanks to the support of our members in 2020, over $450,000 was invested in preservation projects, preservation grants, façade loans, education programming, and museum projects. If you are able, we hope you will consider supporting HCF with an end of the year contribution to the Annual Fund Drive. Your support makes preservation possible!

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