When Denver was founded in 1858, the city’s wood-frame buildings and the windy, arid nature of the surrounding plains made fire a constant concern. Despite the threat that fire posed to the budding city, early efforts to form an official fire department were fruitless, with Denver instead relying on impromptu citizen responses to squelch flames.
This elementary method of firefighting proved inadequate as Denver grew. Protests after the destructive Great Fire of 1863 finally spurred the city council to form a proper fire department. Efforts to create a fire department included purchasing newer equipment to make firefighting more efficient, installing alarm and water-pumping systems, and recruiting volunteer firefighters. In 1881 firefighting in Denver turned professional when the city established the first paid company of the Denver Fire Department.
Response to the Great Fire of 1863
Volunteer citizens using buckets of water to extinguish flames was not the quickest nor most effective method to fight fires, but until 1863 the city council made little to no effort to establish a formal fire department. It was only when the so-called Great Fire of April 19, 1863, destroyed the heart of Denver’s business district that the city became aware of the pressing need for a formal department.
The Great Fire broke out behind the Cherokee House saloon around two or three in the morning, which meant that most citizen volunteers were asleep and did not wake to help combat the blaze. The fire raged for about two hours, resulting in $200,000 in damages and reducing 40 percent of the business district between Market and Larimer Streets to ash. The city recovered quickly from the fire, rebuilding new brick structures and implementing fire regulations in construction codes, yet hundreds had been left homeless and impoverished by the destructive blaze. Even with new construction codes, it was clear that a formal fire department and better firefighting equipment would be crucial to preventing another disaster like the Great Fire.
First Volunteer Company
In 1866 efforts to establish an official fire department grew increasingly urgent when arsonists set several fires across the city. In early March 1866, after these fires destroyed multiple buildings, Denver citizens called a mass meeting at the People’s Theatre to discuss establishing a fire department. The meeting resulted in a vigilance committee to be on the lookout for fires, arsonists, and other criminal activity as well as a resolution asking the city council to organize a fire department and purchase a steam fire engine with at least one-half mile of hose. The next morning, a petition was circulated to gather signatures from any man who wanted to join a firefighting organization. About fifty men signed, but little was done to make the fire department a reality.
At another firefighting meeting at a grocery store on the evening of March 25, 1866, organizers formed the Pioneer Denver Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, also called Volunteer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. This was the first volunteer fire company in Colorado Territory. The city built a fire station for the company at 1534 Lawrence Street and equipped it with a hand-pumping draft engine as well as pike poles, axes, hose lines, and nozzles. An alarm bell placed in a tower near the station rang whenever a fire was reported to alert the volunteer crew.
In 1867 the members of the new Volunteer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 were primarily white, working-class men. In later years, when other volunteer companies assembled in different neighborhoods across the city, some ethnic and economic diversity emerged. However, immigrant firefighters tended to be clustered in volunteer companies based on neighborhoods, and black volunteer firefighters were segregated into one company.
For the next several years, Volunteer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was the city’s only protection against fire. However, the volunteer company struggled from a lack of manpower and water supplies, which continued to hinder its ability to fight fires. To remedy that problem, the city soon began to establish more volunteer companies and buy new equipment.
New Companies and Technologies
On January 31, 1872, Estabrook’s Livery Stable burned to the ground. Several property owners recognized the continuing threat of fire and pushed the city to establish additional volunteer firefighting companies. The first of these was James Archer Hose Company No. 2, established that same year, followed by J. E. Bates Hose Company No. 3 and Woodie Fisher Hose No. 1. This brought the city’s volunteer fire department up to one hook-and-ladder company and three hose companies. As the names suggest, hose companies were often smaller and equipped with a fire engine and hose, while hook-and-ladder companies had larger numbers and more equipment to fight fires in taller buildings near the heart of the city.
In addition to the formation of additional companies, 1872 saw the installation of the Holly Pressurized Hydrant System, which pumped water under pressure directly from the city’s main water supply lines to the first fire hydrants in the city. This alleviated the water-supply problems that Volunteer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 had encountered and improved the new companies’ ability to fight fires.
In early 1873, Hook and Ladder Company No. 2 and Hose Company No. 4 were added to the department. The expansion of the department led to the construction in 1876 of a new Central Fire Station, a two-story building that replaced the old station on Lawrence Street. On June 6, 1876, the Gamewell Company completed installation of a fifteen-box fire alarm system in Central Station. The new alarm system allowed for quicker response times to fires, which helped minimize damage across Denver.
The department continued to expand as more people moved to Denver. Tabor Hose Company No. 5, organized in 1879, later became the last volunteer company to disband after a paid department was established. Broadway Hose No. 6 formed to protect the palatial mansions that wealthy Denverites were building in Capitol Hill. In the fall of 1881, the J. W. Richards Hose Company started up to protect the section of the city closest to the South Platte River. In May 1881, a group of stonecutters reorganized James Archer Hose Company No. 4, which occupied Archer House on Curtis Street.
Formation of a Paid Department
In 1881 a disastrous fire at the Windsor Hotel made it clear that fighting fires at the city’s increasingly tall buildings would require more modern equipment and techniques. Chief George Duggan and Assistant Chief William Roberts appeared that year before Mayor Richard Sopris and the fire committee to make that point. The city council soon bought a steam fire engine, which was sent to the Central Fire Station on August 12, 1881.
The city also established the first paid fire companies of the official Denver Fire Department. Hose Company No. 1 started work at the Central Fire Station on September 1, 1881, where it was joined by Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. Firefighters in the new paid department were largely taken from the ranks of the volunteer companies, which gradually dissolved over the next few years (Tabor Hose No. 5 was the last volunteer company to disband in 1885). With paid firefighters and new equipment, Denver finally had a force capable of fighting fires in the growing city. The Denver Fire Department continues to operate today, with many companies still housed in the original stations built in the 1800s.