Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Naperville, Illinois, Fire Department; History of the Early Years.

Joseph Naper is credited with founding the Naperville settlement along the DuPage River in 1831. The Settlement became a stagecoach stop on the road from Chicago to Galena around 1835. Naper drew the first plat in 1842. The promise of good land drew people from the east to the new frontier. Named for Joseph Naper, Naperville is the oldest municipality in DuPage County, Illinois, incorporated as a village in 1857 and in 1890 as a city. Today, Naperville sits in DuPage and Will Counties.

Records between 1831 and 1857 are few. It cannot be determined how many fires occurred. At the first village council meeting on May 4, 1857, ordinances were enacted, empowering the village to purchase fire equipment, establish water supplies from fire companies and appoint a fire marshal. Unfortunately, these ordinances, it seems, were not acted upon, except it appears tough not stated explicitly a fire marshal was appointed. If indeed the position was filled, the job would have been to supervise the bucket brigade.

On July 6, 1874, a fire broke out at the New York Hotel. Despite the bucket brigades, the fire continued to gain headway. Village officials telegraphed the City of Aurora, who sent a fire engine by way of a railroad flatcar. After extinguishing the fire, Aurora returns to their city. Shortly thereafter, a separate fire broke out at “Egerman’s Barn.” The village council debated if they should request Aurora to return. It seems the bucket brigade handled the fire, and Aurora remained in quarters. The fact that there were two serious fires in one day raised the question of arson, but no charges were pursued.

In August of 1874, the village board met on the subject. After two major fires occurred in the downtown area, some members questioned if a fire department was needed. The faction for a Fire Department won. The Naperville Fire Department was founded and chartered by the City of Naperville and the State of Illinois that year. A committee was appointed to purchase fire equipment. 

Fire companies began to form, although the dates are uncertain. The Joe Naper Fire Company № 1 existed by mid-September 1874. Hose Company № 1 was probably in service at the same time.

On November 28, 1874, the purchasing committee reported that they acquired an engine, hose cart, brooms, speaking trumpets, and 700 feet of 2½ inch hose. The cost was $1752.50 ($42,000 today) for everything. The committee was thanked and dissolved. The date that the equipment arrived is not recorded, but it appears it was on hand by November 28th.

The engine was a Lysander Button & Sons Lysander Button & Sons hand side stroke water pump fire engine № 3 with the serial number 628. 
PHOTO: A Lysander Button & Sons hand side stroke water pump fire engine, 1872.
Early fire pumpers were a great improvement over the bucket brigade system of fighting fires. Now instead of throwing water onto a fire from small buckets, hand pumper engines were utilized, pulled to the scene by teams of firefighters. The men would line up along the sides of the pumper and raise and lower the long “brakes” you see running parallel along this engine. The motion would operate the pump, which in turn fed water through a hose. The stream of water thrown by this engine can reach up to 200 feet.

It is preserved at the Naper Settlement firehouse in downtown Naperville. This apparatus was the sole fire protection for the village until 1907. The first working fire for the engine may have been December 8, 1874, for a fire Stenger’s Barn. Unfortunately, there is no specific mention of it in the records.

Another fire occurred on December 13, 1874, behind Steven's Drug Store. There was no time for the reported fire, but it took most of the night to extinguish.

On December 18, 1874, a fire broke out near the corner of Main and Jefferson. When it was extinguished, the Post Express offices and several other buildings were damaged or destroyed. One report stated that the Joe Naper Fire Company could not immediately operate due to mechanical problems.

When the village council met on December 19th, an ordinance was proposed that all saloons close upon a fire alarm and remain closed until the emergency has passed. The ordinance was amended and passed at the next meeting.

On January 2, 1875, the council passed another ordinance that finally established and defined the fire department. It is not clear what changes were made or what warranted the action.

On September 29, 1875, the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company was established. This brought the department to three companies alongside the Joe Naper Fire Company and Hose Company № 1.
Naperville Hose Company Fireman Badge, Year Unknown.

The position of Fire Marshall was created by the 1857 ordinance and it added the position of Assistant Fire Marshal. They were, respectively, Willard Scott Jr. and B.B. Boecker. (NOTE: A descendant of Mr. Boecher served as Chief of the Lisle-Woodridge Fire Department for many years.)

Each company was self-governing. Seemingly the fire marshal's authority was confined to the fire ground. Rules and bylaws were established. Fines would be levied on members who failed to attend drills. Uniforms were only to be worn for company functions. Members could be fined or expelled for attending the parades while intoxicated. Typical companies planned and held social events such as dances to raise funds in addition to the income from membership dues. Revenues were used to purchase uniforms and equipment. 

At first, there were no firehouses. Equipment was stored in barns around the village. In 1875 the fire companies made a proposal. Naperville was the DuPage County seat up to 1865. At that time, all records and county offices moved to Wheaton. The old courthouse was virtually abandoned. The fire companies suggested that the building be renovated and turned into a firehouse. Permission was granted and, with a combination of money raised by the fire companies and village funds, the restoration took place. The firehouse was located near Benton Avenue and Court Place on the village square.

Over the next few years, some changes took place. The Joe Naper Fire Company disbanded and reformed at least twice for unknown reasons.

No major fires were recorded from 1875 to 1887. The journals tell of drills, inspections, etc.

The 1875 ordinance gave the authority to the Fire Marshal to run monthly drills. The natures of the drills are not recorded, but I assume they involved water supply pumping and stretching hose. In addition to the drills, there was the annual inspection conducted by the village council.

Up until 1883, the only sources of water were wells and the Du Page River. During the summer, the river was too shallow to allow for drafting. In that year, an ordinance was passed to create a system of cisterns (a tank for storing water) for firefighting. The system was not installed until 1887.

Also, in 1887, the fire department purchased a Silsby steam fire engine for $2,800.00 ($80,500 today). The Enterprise Engine Company was formed to operate the new engine. Delivery of the new engine took place in September of 1887, with Mr. Silsby performing the test himself. It was a festive event. People picnicked and watched the spectacle.

In 1888 the council determined that the old courthouse was no longer suitable as a firehouse. A parcel was purchased known as Sieber property was purchased. It was located on the Southside of Jefferson Avenue between Main and Webster Streets. The house opened in November of 1888 and later took an address of 126 West Jefferson.

In 1890 Napervilleincorporated as a City. The City Council first met on August 15, 1890, and codified the village ordinances into city ordinances. Most were merely reiterations. An entire chapter was devoted to the fire department. A significant change was made to the office of the Fire Marshall. There were now two assistants. All three offices were mayoral appointments for the term of one year.  They were given complete control over the fire companies and all persons at the scene of fires.

The new ordinances also created the positions of chief engineer and two assistants. They were assigned to the Enterprise Engine Company. The other members of the company had no say in the appointment. Up to this time, existing members voted to admit all new recruits. The engineers and the fire marshals were part-time employees of the city and were salaried.  

The ordinance also fixed the number of members that each company could have on the roster:
  • Enterprise 35 (including the engineers)
  • Joe Naper 80
  • Hose Company 135
  • Rescue Hook and Ladder 20.
It appears, though, that these numbers were not often reached.

By 1896 Naperville listed four hose carts on its inventory. It is unclear when they were purchased, although one was purchased with the Silsby steam fire engine.

From 1894 to 1897, only twelve fire responses are listed in the records of the Hose Company. All seem to be minor incidents. The annual inspection and monthly drills continued as they had before.

The Silsby steam fire engine proved to be a problem. Too heavy to be pulled by hand, it, of course, required horses. The city did not consider it cost-effective to purchase their own horses. Upon receiving an alarm, animals had to be pressed into service from residences or local livery stables. Consequently, the hand-drawn Joe Naper Engine Company often extinguished the fire before the steamer arrived and got up a head of steam.

In 1903 a referendum passed for the construction of a water and sewer system. It was completed in 1905, and fire hydrants were installed in 1906. It was believed that the new system would provide suitable pressure for plug lines. Hose carts were quartered around town for this purpose. Also, in 1905, a standard addressing system was introduced.

After the new water system became, operational changes started to occur in the department. The Silsby steam fire engine was sold. Pay for the chief engineer was decreased. The pay for drill and fire responses to the members changed.

The city was divided into four districts with a hose cart stationed in each one. Rescue Hook and Ladder ran out of the centrally located existing firehouse on Jefferson. Another change occurred about the same time. The Chief Fire Marshals had to be reappointed every year. Now that no longer happened. Marshals now served until they resigned or until they were removed.

At 03:00 on August 24, 1911, a phone call was received reporting fire through the roof at Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church's Carolus Hall School. The alarm was delayed since no procedure was established for the operator to alert the fire department. The building was damaged extensively and was unusable for a prolonged period of time.
Ruins of Carolus Hall (Saints Peter & Paul Parish's elementary school) after the fire on 8-24-1911.  After rebuilding and the dedication in 1912, Wenker Hall was renamed in memory of the previous Pastor. There were 250 students enrolled in 8 grades at that time.

1912 marked a milestone in the Naperville Fire Department's history. Until then, the only records available were newspaper stories, letters, and a single fire department log page of Hose Company № 1. The department logs are available, beginning in 1912.

The logs are not very detailed. What can be discerned is that the most numerous fires were grass fires caused by cinders from the Burlington locomotives. Chimney fires occurred on average of about fifteen calls per year.

In 1916 the city replaced Hose Company № 1 cart with an International Model H Chemical engine.  It ran out of the Central Fire Station on Jefferson.  It was a three-quarter-ton truck holding two thirty-gallon bicarbonate tanks and two acid chambers. The unit responded to all alarms city-wide, along with the hose carts for the respective district.

In 1916 Naperville planned a “Homecoming “celebration to show off the town’s progress over the years. A souvenir book was printed containing a description of the fire department.

Companies № 1 and № 5 ran from the fire station. Company № 1 was the International Model H, and Company № 5 was a Hook and Ladder. Ten men were authorized to each. Companies № 2 and № 3 had hose carts and covered the West Side and East Side, respectively, with four men each. Company № 4 had the North Side with a roster of seven men. The Joe Naper Engine Company was not mentioned. 

On May 11, 1918, the department had its first automatic alarm malfunction. A short caused the alarm to go off at the Central Station. 

On October 25, 1918, the Naperville Fire Department responded to a serious fire at Edward Sanitarium, now Edward Hospital. The log house burned down. The cause was listed as a soup cooker.

The call volume for the Naperville Fire Department was around thirteen a year. 1920 saw a jump to 20 calls, some were serious incidents. Another fire at Edward Sanitarium caused $25,000 ($341,000 today) in damage. March 1st saw a fire on the Hunt Estate at what was described as a shoe factory. Damage was listed at $10,000 ($136,500 today). March 14th, a fire occurred at the Goodwin residence. After companies left the scene, the fire rekindled. The house was a total loss. Several chimney fires were reported during the winter, but no more major incidents.

On November 13, 1920, the Naperville Fire Department responded to a fire at the Schwartz Lumber Company along the railroad tracks. All available resources were used, hose carts, the chemical engine, hook and ladder, and the Joe Naper Engine Company. Winds fanned the flames, creating an ember and exposure problem. Aurora was called for additional aid. The fire resulted in $11,000 ($150,000 today) in damage. The cause was never determined.

At four o’clock in the morning on June 4, 1922, Bertha Keller reported a fire at Saints Peter and Paul Church. The building was heavily involved upon arrival. The attack was defensive and mainly to protect exposures. People at the scene gasped when the steeple collapsed.
Steeple falling over as fire completely destroys
Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church on June 4, 1922.
On July 16th, 1922, Boeker’s Coal and Grain suffered a $30,000 ($487,500 today) loss when fire consumed a grain bin. (The Boeker's were a prominent family in Naperville. One of their descendants, Paul Boecker, served as a Naperville Firefighter and became the Chief of Lisle Woodridge Fire Protection District.) On October 1st and November 11th, fires occurred at the Kroeler Furniture Factory nearby. The building was equipped with a water reservoir and pump preventing serious damage. On June 15, 1923, Grace Evangelical Church burned, but a total loss was averted. On July 29th the Goodwin’s barn burned. October 24, there was a fire at the North Central boiler building. This was the only one of the several fires whose cause was determined to be a malfunctioning oil heater.

With such an outbreak, arson was suspected but never proved. Points of origin were similar and other coincidences, but no further action could be taken without modern investigation techniques. Regardless of the cause, there was increasing concern about the level of fire protection in the city. The entire force consisted of one hand pump, five hose carts, and a motorized chemical engine.

On July 24, 1924, the council announced bids for a motorized fire truck. In February 1925, the contract was given to Ahrens Fox to buy a 1000 GPM pumper for $13,000 ($207,500 today). 1925 is considered the beginning of the modern age for the Naperville Fire Department.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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