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History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Firefighters Were Heroes In Early Days
Will Bagley
Published: 12/16/2001 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

The men and women who risk their lives in public service are often unappreciated, but it's good to see us finally recognize America's true heroes, the folks who fight fires and crooks. Fire was the bane of settlements in the American West--San Francisco had five disastrous fires by 1851.   

Being largely made of mud, Great Salt Lake City long escaped such conflagrations and only got around to organizing its wards into bucket brigades in 1851.    

Two years later, Mayor Jedediah M. Grant--fondly known as "Brigham's Hammer"--signed the ordinance creating Great Salt Lake City's volunteer fire brigades. The city bought 36 leather buckets and 21 ladders, and late that year James and Thomas Higgs started building a manually operated piston pumper. Named "The Volunteer," it still survives in Ottinger Hall in Memorial Grove.      

The city reorganized the department in October 1856 under Chief Engineer Jesse C. Little. He put the Volunteer into service, and firefighters manning its pumps could shoot a stream of ditch water four stories high.      

Salt Lake was spared major fires until 1871, when several barns went up in flames with an estimated loss of $1,000. Local businessmen chipped in to buy a fancy steam pumper from the Silsby Manufacturing Co. Department lore tells that the Silsby was so heavy that by the time firemen pulled it to the fire, they were too exhausted to fight it, and the engine proved too expensive to maintain and operate. The Higgs brothers rebuilt the Volunteer and the city went back to tried-and-true technology.      

As wood replaced adobe during the 1870s, Salt Lake became more vulnerable to fire. Some $312,863 worth of property went up in smoke in 1875, including a $200,000 loss when Hussey's Bank burned after the Silsby steamer failed to work. Shortly after midnight on June 21, 1883, a catastrophic fire started in H.B. Clawson's Wagon Depot and quickly consumed the block where Crossroads Mall now stands.      

Clawson, who was Brigham Young's son-in-law, had illegally stored about 25 barrels of gunpowder at his store, and an enormous explosion ripped through the block. The conflagration destroyed Charles Savage's Art Gallery, Elias Morris' headstone emporium, Joseph Hyrum Parry's print office, the old Council House and the offices of the Woman's Exponent, the first woman's magazine west of the Missouri River... It didn't help that most of the volunteers had been out of town picnicking at Black Rock. They organized and petitioned for a raise from 25 to 50 cents an hour, and the city council decided it would be cheaper to have a professional department.

That October the city bought the city's first fire horse and hired 40 "Call Men." Since the glory days of the Volunteers, 13 Salt Lake firefighters have lost their lives in the line of duty.

SLCFD Public Information Officer Scott Freitag and historian Jeffrey Nichols provided information for this article.

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