STATESVILLE FIRE DEPARTMENTS' EARLY HISTORY
written by Lt. Lewis Alexander
The City of Statesville, established in 1789, grew steadily from a backcountry village into a busy town during the second quarter of the 19th century. A downtown business district was well established by 1850, surrounded by residential lots. Most all the early structures were wood frame, however some were log. They all had oak or pine split shingle roofs. Wood was the primary source of heat and they used either candles or oil for light. Other than occasional residential fires, the city had seen no major loses by fire. The citizen bucket brigade was all the fire protection available at the time.
The Fire of 1854:
However, in 1854 everyone's opinion of fire protection would change. On a windy night on December 18th, a fire started in a vacant house near the downtown. The fire spread from roof to roof toward the square and courthouse. It then moved south consuming everything in its path. When dawn came on the 19th of December half of Statesville had been destroyed, or badly damaged by the great conflagration. Rebuilding came slow as there was little fire insurance.
Organized Fire Protection:
With time the city was rebuilt, this time with brick and mortar, and fire insurance was a must. However, organized fire protection still came very slowly. In 1876 the first attempts were made by forming a hook and ladder company with regular training. A second company was formed in 1878 and more community wells were dug and the first cisterns were built near the square.
On April 15, 1881, the town commissioners voted to purchase from La France Fire Engine Company its first steam fire engine. To this time in the city history this was the largest single expenditure bond issued, $3,800.00 purchased the engine with equipment and 1,000 feet of rubber hose. When the engine arrived by rail on January 20, 1882, the city turned out at the depot to see their new engine. The newly formed fire department waited until 1885 for a new building to be completed on North Center Street across from the Henkle Livery Stables where the engine and horses had been kept. This two-bay, two-story building served as the fire department with a hayloft for the horses, always kept at the ready. The building also served as Police Department and temporary Jewish Synagogue. In 1890 the department consisted of 25 volunteers.
No major fires occurred again until July 1891 and for a six-month period there was a major fire almost every month. The southeast corner of the square set empty for years as a result of one fire and came to be known as the burnt corner. These fires brought pressure on commissioners for better fire protection once again. There were demands for a better water supply, more cisterns, and ladders. This need prompted the new water works bonds voted in 1897 at a cost of $36,000.00. It took 2 years, 9 ½ miles of pipes, with 69 fire hydrants but on January 20, 1899, the first hydrant was opened at the square by police officer Steele and the water was pronounced "fairly good for branch water."
Horse drawn engine and equipment wagons were in full use as the new century rolled around. Fire department training competitions or musters was all the rage of the time. Sorrels Jeff and Raleigh, Bays Chief and Major pulled the engine and equipment while Pat, a speedy gray, was kept for competition racing. Statesville always had a team at the state tournament. In 1913 the first motor truck was purchased but the horses were maintained until 1917 when Rex the last fire horse of Statesville was sold to Morehead City. The training competitions continued however with Statesville not only winning but often setting new records in the 1920's. In 1922 the chemical team in our new La France motor truck set a world record. Again in 1924 in Raleigh another world record was set. All early firemen were volunteers until 1902 when the first two paid firemen were hired at $25.00 per month.
The old station on North Center Street was remodeled in 1912 to make room for the new motor truck being purchased. The building served as headquarters until 1952 when a new building was constructed on Meeting Street which still serves as Station 1 today along with Station 2 on Security Drive, built in 1962 and Station 3 built in 1975 on East Side Drive.
The only death in the line of duty in Statesville was that of Chief W. L. Neely, on November 17, 1936. Overcome by smoke and exertion he fell to the floor while working an attic fire. He was 53 years old. It has been 65 years since a line of duty death.