WATERTOWN — When the Watertown Fire Department was organized in 1817, local regulations required that every home in the village be equipped with two buckets measuring 10 quarts each.
But if the building was two stories high, four buckets were required.
At the shout of “Fire!,” all males in the village over the age of 14 were to proceed to the fire scene and follow the orders of the fire warden. If not, the punishment was 10 days in jail.
Progress may have changed such requirements, but the dedication shown by the community’s firefighters over the years has been a constant.
“There’s a saying in the fire service — 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress,” said Watertown Fire Chief Dale C. Herman. “In Watertown, we can say we have 200 years. That’s a milestone.”
Those years will be on display beginning Monday when the Jefferson County Historical Society hosts an exhibit celebrating the 200th anniversary of fire service in Watertown. The opening reception for “200 Years Later: The Watertown City Fire Department” is 6 p.m. at the society’s headquarters, the Paddock Mansion, 228 Washington St.
The reception will include a panel discussion with representatives from the fire department. Those representatives, many who belong to families with several generations in the local fire department, will take questions from the public.
“When people come in, they will be able to speak to a firefighter and talk about fires of the past,” said historical society executive director Jordan B. Walker. “Oral history is important, because often there are details there that are missed or not necessarily written down.”
Also at the opening reception, the fire department will unveil an architectural relic it has received from ground zero of the destroyed buildings of the World Trade Center.
“Nine-11 was a major event for anyone who was alive during that time,” said City of Watertown firefighter Andrew J. Naklick, who is working with Ms. Walker in setting up the exhibit. “To be able to see that relic and to remember what happened is most important.”
The exhibit will also include time lines that will highlight events such as major fires in the city and notable horses. There also will be displays of firefighting equipment used over the years. That equipment has been stored at the historical society and the Emma Flower Taylor (Massey Street) Fire Station.
At the fire station, Mr. Naklick last week flipped open the buckles on what resembled a battered, old steamer trunk. Inside, there was a rubber mask attached to 50 feet of rubber hose.
“Pretty much, this is the original respirator,” he said.
These days, those respirators involve an air tank worn by firefighters. But Mr. Naklick explained how the precursor of those self-contained breathing apparatuses worked.
Inside the trunk there was a pump, he explained.
“You would put the mask on, go into the fire, and your partner would crank the crank, which feeds (oxygen to) the mask,” he said.
Firefighters were often criticized for using the early respirators, he said.
“But back then, most of the materials that were in your home were natural fibers like paper, wood and wool. Now, a lot of it is synthetic,” Mr. Naklick said. “Not that smoke wasn’t toxic back then, but you could tolerate it a little bit better than you can now.”
The exhibit organizers have also found some interesting correspondence that will be on display at the exhibit, such as a 1920 letter from The Capewell Horse Nail Co. of Hartford, Conn. The letter, apparently to a “Dear Sir” at the Watertown Fire Department, espoused the value of horses, which were quickly being replaced by motorized vehicles at the time. The department received its first motorized pumper in 1912.
“Trucks, tractors and the like are said to have an average working life of less than five years,” the Capewell Horse Nail Co. letter reads, in part. “The working life of a horse is from 10 to 12 years. For short hauls in crowded city streets, no motor power can compare with the horse for cheapness and service.”
Revelations at society
At the historical society, Ms. Walker searched various rooms for exhibit-related items. Among fire department-related items workers have found have been ribbons, medals and photographs.
“You open up a box and you never know what you are going to find,” she said.
One notable item to be on display and found at the society will be a fire helmet from 1832. It’s topped with a metal eagle.
Also found were several silver “speaking trumpets” that have ornate designs on them.
“Before the days of radios and modern technology, the chief would stand in front of the fire and he would bark his orders through the speaking trumpet,” Mr. Naklick said. “It served two purposes. It amplified his voice, and if you saw that guy with the trumpet, you knew who was in charge.”
But it’s the stories of people that especially interest Mr. Naklick. He recounted a couple of fire calls that Henry C. Bundy, the city’s second professional city fire chief, who served from 1912 to 1920, was involved in.
On one January morning, when the wood Court Street bridge was on fire, Mr. Bundy and another firefighter jumped into a row boat and attacked the fire from underneath. But the boat capsized, spilling the two men into the freezing Black River. The current carried them down river, but they were able to make it out of the water at Taggart Mill Dam.
“The fact that they didn’t get killed in that operation blows my mind,” Mr. Naklick said.
Chief Bundy also tumbled from trucks, fell from buildings and was nearly electrocuted. He was also an inventor.
Among the devices he created was one that allowed the garage doors in the firehouse to automatically open at the sound of an alarm. He also developed improvements to the city’s Gamewell fire alarm system. The system involved a series of red, metal fire boxes on poles dotted across the city. The fire department has a rare mold for the Gamewell fire boxes, which will be displayed at the exhibit, along with one of the boxes.
Mr. Naklick was also surprised to learn that Theresa native Roswell P. Flower (1835-99) served as a volunteer firefighter in Watertown. He was a Congressman and served as New York State governor from 1892 to 1894.
“There’s a lot of history as far as the people who made this department what it is today,” Mr. Naklick said.
He said the exhibit is a chance for the community to observe that dedication.
“I would hope that people would learn a little bit about the history of the department and Watertown itself,” Mr. Naklick said. “It’s important for us to remember the people who came before us.”