150 Years of Fire Protection
"Doing the best they could."
In the early 1840s, Independence was a pioneer village on the verge of becoming a booming, wealthy outfitting and trading community. It had become the county seat in 1827. The 1830s courthouse square was surrounded by one- and two-story wooden and brick buildings housing general stores, traders, blacksmiths and wagon makers. There were a couple of hotels and several saloons. Pioneers were rubbing shoulders with visionaries. The need for more churches and schools was becoming apparent. It was becoming a town of families and merchants. As these people dug in and planted their roots, they realized they had a real stake in the town. They realized they needed to protect themselves from the ravages of fire and conflagration.
In 1843 Richard Ridgeway Rees, James McGill, Anthony Cosgrave, Benjamin Franklin Wallace and 36 others petitioned the state legislature for incorporation as the "Independence Fire Company." The 12th General Assembly approved and the volunteer fire company became incorporated by state law on February 6, 1843.
This group of civic-minded volunteers may have been highly motivated, but they were ill equipped for their mission. They set out to do battle with fire armed only with buckets, axes and hooks.
Soon after Independence was incorporated in 1849, several large fires occurred around the public square. In 1850 a fire ignited gunpowder stored in a warehouse on the west side of the square. The resulting explosion and fire killed one man and threatened to consume the town. In 1852, a livery stable fire killed one man and 26 horses.
Soon afterwards the following item appeared in the Independence Occidental Messenger: "When shall we have our fire engine for which the legislature was so kind as to give us $1,400 to buy it with? More than three years have elapsed since the appropriation was made, and yet no engine has been seen. There has been shameful neglect somewhere."
By December 9, 1853, Independence had a fire engine. When the City ordinance was passed incorporating the "Independence Fire Company" into the body politic, it also gave them possession and control of the City fire engine, "The Independence 76," and the building which later became known as "The Engine House."
In a few short years, the City set out to improve its fire protection by obtaining another fire engine. This engine is discussed in an article from the Independence Examiner of July 26, 1901: "Independence has not always had a paid fire department or even a hose cart. Many now living here remember very well when there was no water works and the fire protection consisted of a hand force pump, commonly called a 'man killer.' There were two long arms at which a number of men could stand at either end of the big engine and when this engine was working with a dozen strong men it would throw a large stream of water about as far as the water works will throw it now. There were four fire cisterns; one at each side of the public square and at the engine house was a well of living water. The latest engine which was used until the water works was installed, cost the city $3,000 and was brought here on a boat (1860), being hauled up from the Wayne City landing. The arrival of the new engine was a day of celebration. The volunteer department was brass and polished wood. The old engine and the new were tried and the new engine threw a stream of water over the top of the court house tower and the town was considered to have a wonderful fire protection. When the hose cart and water works took the place of the old force pump engine it was stored in a building on the market square which was burned and the old engine destroyed."
From the time of the Civil War until the arrival of the water works in the 1880s, very little is known of organized fire protection in Independence. It was a time of terrible destruction followed by a determined rebuilding effort. One of the original founders, Benjamin Franklin Wallace, became mayor in 1869. It seems likely that the volunteer fire company was reorganized along with the other civic enterprises.
The "water works" and its accompanying hydrants signaled the end of man powered pumping engines and the beginning of the hose wagon era. The firemen no longer controlled the water pressure by using their own pumping engine. They arrived at the scene of a fire with hoses and nozzles which they would attach directly to the fire hydrants. Their ability to throw a stream was dependent upon the amount of water pressure and flow available from the hydrants. This dependency upon hydrant pressure contributed greatly to the loss of the First Christian Church on South Pleasant in October of 1918. The hose wagon era began during the 1880s and lasted until 1928. It included man pulled, horse drawn and motorized hose wagons. It witnessed the end of the volunteer era and the beginning of the paid department in 1894.
The first modern fire engines were a pair of 1928 American LaFrance pumpers. The steering wheel was on the right side and chains, not driveshaft, transferred power to the rear wheels. The acquisition of these pumpers; the reopening of Firehouse No. 2; the restoration of the second fire company which had been out of service for eight years; and a building/fire code was in direct response to a fire department rehabilitation program "introduced" by the Missouri Inspection Bureau.
A pair of 1949 Seagrave pumpers finally replaced the venerable 1928 American LaFrances. The City's decision to purchase these Seagrave pumpers was precipitated by the public's call for an investigation of the fire department following two disastrous fires on the Independence Square. The first occurred January 20 as Harry S Truman was being sworn in as President of the United States. It caused $500,000 damage and burned out nearly an entire block of South Main Street. The second Square fire April 15 resulted in $200,000 damage. Both fires required the assistance of neighboring departments to control.
The City Council passed a resolution which stated in part..."That the fire and water committee of the Council make a thorough investigation of the fire department as to the personnel and their qualifications as firemen, and the equipment and its adequacy under present conditions; that the committee report its findings and recommendations to the Council."
This investigation and another rehabilitation program initiated by the Missouri Inspection Bureau, guided the department into the growth period of the 1950s. It began that decade with 12 firemen and two stations protecting a population of 16,000. It found itself in the early 1960s with more than 100 firemen and eight stations protecting nearly 100,000 citizens. During the 1950s and 1960s the department boasted that it was as well equipped and well trained as any comparable sized department in the country. The newspaper articles of those days seem to verify this and also show that the department had a successful public relations program.
While the 1950s and 1960s were a period of rapid expansion for the entire community, it was also a unique time of pride and progress for the fi
re department. Under the caring tutelage of Mayor Robert P. Weatherford, Jr. and veteran Fire Chief Thomas J. Pollard, it became a truly professional, dedicated and innovative organization. The firemen rode out on a matched fleet of the latest Seagrave engines and a Seagrave ladder truck. These rigs carried equipment that reflected the latest advances in modern fire apparatus. The fireman were trained in the latest firefighting techniques. Class-A dress uniforms were introduced into the department. Chiefs and firemen from other departments would often visit Independence to inspect, to admire and to learn. The few remaining veterans of that era and their family members recall those days with a great sense of pride.
July of 1968 brought with it a benchmark in Independence Fire Department history. Thomas J. Pollard's career on the department reached its conclusion. He was a veteran who first began as a horseman in 1923 and became fire chief in 1950. His career spanned 45 years. It began with him riding on the tailboard of the first motorized fire engine and ended with him overseeing one of the largest, most up to date fire departments in Missouri. He was representative of an era when a fire chief was more likely to be found behind a nozzle than behind a desk. In some local circles, he had achieved almost legendary status.
He was followed in office by Willard Swoffer whose term as fire chief lasted until 1981. During Chief Swoffer's term major funding was acquired for the fire department. A new engine company, two truck companies, two rescue units, and two district chiefs were created. In 1970, four new Seagrave engines and two Snorkel trucks were integrated into the fleet. Six other engines, including a mini-pumper, were added during his tenure. Fire Houses No. 1, No. 2, and No. 5 were replaced with new buildings. Fire Houses No. 3 and No. 4 were enlarged and remodeled. Also, while Willard Swoffer was chief the first women and minority members were hired by the Independence Fire Department.
Norman Birch was fire chief from 1981 until his retirement December 31, 1991. While he was chief two new engine companies were added. Fire House No. 6 was replaced and No. 9 and No. 10 were built. Three engines were purchased. Both rescue vehicles were replaced.
During an interim period between Chief Norman Birch and his successor, Assistant Chief Lester Merrell was acting chief. It was during this time that it became necessary to replace both of the 1970 Snorkel trucks.
About the Author
Retired Fire Captain Jerry L. Hall was a 23-year veteran of the Independence Fire Department. Hall, who became a fire fighter in 1981, helped organize the Harry S Truman Independence 76 Fire Company historical society in 1991 because he believed that learning the events of the past may help him to understand the present and to have a positive influence on the future.