MOBILE, Ala. — The threat of fire hung over the young city like the Spanish moss that drapes her live oaks.
Three times the city has burned down almost to the ground. Old photos show scenes where nothing was left but chimneys and steps.
It’s no wonder then that Mobile, Ala., has one of the nation’s oldest volunteer fire departments. And it shares the history of those firefighters in the Phoenix Fire Museum.
Built in 1859, the old home of Phoenix Volunteer Fire Company No. 6 was standing in the road of progress when Mobile’s civic center was built.
Instead of demolishing the beautiful brick building, however, the city moved it several blocks away to its new location on Clairborne Street.
“Supposedly they took it down board by board, brick by brick and moved it here for a museum,” said museum guide Gerald Janssen.
The free museum opened its doors to the public in 1964.
“We get people coming here from all over the place,” Janssen said.
The building houses an interesting collection of authentic turn-of-the-century steam engineers as well as other fire fighting equipment and mementos.
Probably the most unusual artifact is two steamers bought in 1900 with consecutive serial numbers. In very good condition, the steamers may be the only two displayed in one place.
From 1819 to 1888, Mobile firefighters were organized into all volunteer companies, whose service was a badge of honor.
The first volunteer fire department of Mobile was a loosely formed group of volunteers. In 1818, five years after Mobile became part of the United States, it had only one piece of equipment — a small hand pumper imported from Boston.
When another pumper was brought to town in 1819, a decision was made to formally organize two fire companies. One of these was Creole No. 1. The other was Neptune No. 2.
Together, these companies fought a large fire in August 1820 that destroyed 30 houses and many stores. They also fought a major fire in Oct. 1827 that destroyed 169 structures.
In 1965, Mobile again was hit hard when a Civil War ammunition dump blew up and burned most of the north end of town.
Buildings in early Mobile were composed primarily of wood so fire spread easily.
“Fire was a big worry,” Janssen said. “The buildings were made of dry wood with wooden shingles on the roof. A cinder flipping through the air could land on a roof and it would be set on fire.”
Mobile’s first firefighters were volunteers from all walks of life. Membership in the companies was a special privilege and an important civic duty.
Election to membership brought honor and respect from the community and a special social standing. It also demanded considerable sacrifice — volunteers had to be available at all times, every day to respond to a fire.
Their duties were combined with an active social life that included competitions, parades and festive balls.
The fireman’s ball was the big social event of the year. The firemen parades were even bigger than Mardi Gras.
In 1888, the companies were municipalized into a professional department, the seventh oldest in the country. Mobile now has 20 fire companies with almost 500 paid firefighters.
At the museum, visitors can see the rich history of Mobile fire fighting. On display are steam engines, hand pumpers, photos, journals, news clipping, extinguisher grenades, fire poles, helmets, belts, uniforms and much more.
One engine features a black and white Dalmatian dog perched along the driver’s seat. “Dalmatians were often at fire houses because they would calm down the horses,” Janssen said. “They worked really well with the horses. Of course, fire departments don’t use horses to pull the fire engines anymore but some of them still have Dalmatians as mascots.”
A fire pole shows how fire fighters could make quick work of coming down from an upper floor in the firehouse. “Which would you rather do at 3 in the morning – slide down a pole or run down a flight of stairs?” asked Janssen, 72, who retired after 30 years in the Mobile Fire Department. “Believe me, it was safer and quicker to slide down the pole.”
For more information, contact the Phoenix Fire Museum at (201) 208-7569 or call the Mobile Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 5-Mobile.