History of the Key West Fire Department

Key West was incorporated as a City on January 8, 1828. In October 1834, one of the first volunteer fire departments in the State of Florida was organized in that city.  It was called the Lafayette Fire Department, named after the French General Lafayette, a Revolutionary War hero. After the Revolutionary War, Lafayette toured the country, speaking at various engagements about his war experience, and became quite popular.

Years following the war, people became very patriotic, and all the fire companies throughout the country used names with a Revolutionary War theme.  For example, names like Washington, Franklin, Eagle, Bunker Hill, and Lafayette were common; it is assumed that Key West also followed that trend.  They elected the following officers: President Thomas B. Townsend, Vice President Asa F. Tift, Secretary Joseph A. Thouron, and Treasurer William H. Shaw.

1830s Population & Fires

In the 1830, Key West's population was a little more than 500 inhabitants and there were about 160 wooden structures on the island, the two largest structures being warehouses.  Three months later in January of 1835, a small fire occurred in the outhouse of Judge Webb's yard. The Fire department failed to respond.  Many of the island's citizens inquired why the apparatus was not conveyed to Judge Webb's residence after the fire. The fire department's excuse was that there was no fire alarm in the city to alert them.  Had some type of alarm been given, the active members would have conveyed the engine to the fire scene. It would have been an opportunity to put the company to the test.

Shortly after the incident, the citizens met to try reorganizing the fire department.  They offered as bait a new engine and hose purchased at public subscription.  Engraved on the front of the apparatus was the motto (Where duty calls there, you will find us.) The meeting was held at the engine house at candlelight on the 12th instant.  Twenty-five members showed up for the meeting.  They elected Stephen Mallory as their new director.  A few blasts from the directors' trumpet, accompanied by a long protracted cry of fire the company was assembled.

Confederate Army Role

Stephen Mallory was later elected to the U.S. Senate in 1851.  During the Civil War, Mallory served as secretary of the Navy for the Confederacy under President Jefferson Davis. Stephen Mallory and associate Asa Tift from Key West were instrumental in developing the Ironclad ships during the Civil War. Mallory was captured toward the end of the war in 1865 and sent to a Union prison in Lafayette, New York, where he was kept until 1866.

Warehouse Fire

In 1843, a large wooden warehouse owned by Fielding A. Brown caught fire. The fire company brought the hand engine to the scene.  The engine was seldom used except for parades and special occasions.  So when the firemen tried to use the hand engine, it proved unfit for duty, and the building was totally destroyed by the fire.  So after the fire, the disgusted citizens and firemen carried it to the end of the wharf and threw it into the sea.

New Fire Chief

By 1843, Stephen Mallory had already moved to Pensacola Florida where his wife's family was from. That left Joseph A. Thouron in charge of the fire company.  After the removal of Mr. Thouron to Charleston South Carolina in 1848 the company totally disbanded. It wasn't until 1859 when Key West suffered its first big fire in a warehouse owned by L.M. Schaefer at the corner of Front and Duval Street.  The fire burned for eight hours, and in a two-block area, every building except two was consumed (seventy-one buildings and forty outhouses in all).

Military Fighting Fires

No organized body of firemen existed in the city at that time. The military used whatever apparatus they had to fight the fire. The preservation of the remaining portion of the city was attributed to the thoughtful and daring action of Henry Mulrennon. He procured a keg of gunpowder from Ft. Taylor, and with the fire raging around him, he entered his own house at the corner of Fitzpatrick and Greene Street put the keg of powder in place, laid a train, and blew up his own house preventing the fire from spreading any further.

Civil War Base

Two years later the Civil War broke out and quickly the Union took control of Fort Taylor, which faced the Key West harbor. By taking control of that fort the Union could set up a blockade to stop any Confederate contraband from getting through. The blockade proved to be very successful during the War. The military presence being so great at that time they assumed all responsibilities including the fire protection for the island of Key West.

Written Accounts from War

These are a few accounts written by Union soldier Henry J. Hornbeck of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers who was stationed on and off in Key West during the Civil War.

Saturday, March 28, 1863

At Key West, about 1 o’clock tonight was roused up by a cry of Fire, a house, and barn burnt down in the heart of the city, (Henry Hornbeck) assisted as much as possible in quelling the flames, subsided by 4 o’clock, it is almost a miracle that the whole City did not burn down, having no Engine in this place, and all the water was passed in buckets, had it not been for the Soldiers and Sailors everything would have been destroyed, went to bed again at 4 o’clock.

December - 1863

The workers at the fortification in Key West demanded back pay and a raise in December; their rate was $1.40 per day. The town had some excitement in December as a spark from a railway locomotive set the mess hall on fire, burning it to the ground; and nature retaliated with a violent storm, which caused heavy damage, putting the railroad out of service.

Continuing Military Protection

This military fire protection continued well after the Civil War. It wasn’t until November of 1875 when Key West reorganized its fire department. Some of the original charter members were J.C. Whalton, H.G. Fulford, J.W.V.R. Plummer, O.H. Dorsett, and George McDonald. A few moths later in February of 1876 they elected O.H. Dorsett as their new chief. It was mainly a volunteer department consisting of 103 members. The parent hose company was Hook and Ladder. Chief Dorsett quickly started to shape the new department by drilling and disciplining his men. The department not having any apparatus of its own was allowed to use the government’s hand pumper, but then the city decided to buy a new hand pump and hose reel the pump was know as "Big Six of New York", however, it did not give satisfaction and the city purchased a Button Steam Fire Engine and hose reel.

Fireman’s Parade

Shortly after on July 4, 1876 the first of several parades began at 9 am. It was the firemen’s parade, let by the Isle of the Sea band, and a shining new fire engine. The seventy-five men of the newly reorganized Hook and Ladder Company paraded along proudly in their handsome uniforms. They marched towards city hall, which was to be dedicated that morning with suitable ceremonies. One part of which was the installing of the fire department’s new accommodations. Flags were flying, and the music was playing, one noticed that a celebrating cannon had discharged a shot into Mr. Alderslades’s roof. The cannon shot continued to smolder in the attic between the shingles and the ceiling. At twelve noon, while the dedication of City Hall was in progress a few blocks away the fire blazed through Mr. Alderslade’s roof. The fire alarm sounded, seventy-five firemen darted to the fire with their shining new fire engine, and subdued the flames in less than ten minutes.

Large Fire & Repairs

After ten years the Button steam fire engine was seldom used only for parades and being used by inexperienced people it had to be sent to New York for repairs arriving on April 1, 1886. Just days before on March 30, 1886 the biggest fire in Key West history had occurred. The fire started in the San Carlos Hall a favorite meeting place for Cuban revolutionaries. The fire department turned out promptly, but had only hand pumpers to fight the fire. The fire quickly spread to surrounding buildings and soon was out of control. The fire burned for twelve hours destroying two thirds of the business district in all about fifty acres. It was estimated between 1.5 million and 2 million dollars in losses.

New Engines

Profiting from this severe lesson, the city bought two powerful Button steam engines and the county one. The only wooden firehouse on the island behind city hall was destroyed in the fire. Within months a one-story wooden firehouse was built at the same location. Followed by another firehouse on Fleming Street behind the county jail. Then in 1887 another firehouse was built on Division Street now Truman Avenue.

New Water Works

In 1888 a system of water works for fire fighting purposes was installed using salt water. That same year a privately owned telegraph fire alarm system was installed throughout the city with their main office in the Western Union building on Greene Street.

New Firehouse

With the completion of a new City Hall on Ann and Greene Street in 1891, a new red brick firehouse was built behind City Hall to replace the temporary wooden structure erected after the Great Fire of 1886. This was the home of Hook and Ladder Number 1.

Fire Alarm System

In 1906 a Gamewell Fire alarm system was installed throughout the city at a cost of $7000. A fire bell was also purchased from Meshane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Maryland and was connected to the fire alarm system.

A devastating hurricane hit Key West on October 11, 1909 destroying firehouse Number 1 and damaging firehouse Number 3. The tower containing the fire bell was destroyed, but the bell was not damaged. Within six months a new tower was erected for the fire bell in the city cemetery near Grinnell Street.

Newer Equipment

In 1910, two new boilers of 100 h.p. each was installed for pumping water into the standpipe through the city mains. That year the fire department relocated downstairs in the meat market that was located at City Hall.

The fire department received their first motorized American LaFrance fire engines in August and September of 1914, one engine going to Number 1 and one engine going to Number 3. By 1917 the Key West Fire Department was fully motorized except for one steamer, which was left in reserve at Number 3, thus bringing the era of the horse drawn steamer to an end.