History of the Brookline Fire Department
(Originally presented by William E. Murphy at the spring meeting of the Historical Society, 1/15/1977)

On behalf of the Board of Fire Commissioners and officers and members of the Department, in particular Captain Zizza and the members of Station I, it is my pleasure to welcome you here this afternoon and share with you a bit of history and nostalgia.

This site itself, Brookline Village and the area surrounding or encompassing it for approximately one mile are important not only to the history of the town but to the Fire Department. The first building to house a hand tub was erected in the rear of this very station (Walnut St. and Village Way). The Punch Bowl Tavern and Lyceum Hall were located across the street, and two subsequent structures were erected adjacent to the tavern to house the hand tub "Vigilant." The tavern was very important to the early firefighters.

Pierce Hall, site of the First Parish Church, was also the site of the original meeting house whose bell was used to summon help and notify the hamlet of a fire. Brookline's first firefighters were, of course, residents of the town and family names mentioned in early records include: Aspinwall, Croft, Gardner, Sewall, Griggs, Clark, Davenport, Stone, Thayer, Goddard, Coolidge and many more.

So if you will, I have prepared a few brief notes which I will read and with the help of Chief Frank Pons we will comment on the slides. Your Fire Department is indeed an old one, its origin reaching back to the late 17th century. Recently, with the advent of our nation's bicentennial, a great amount of interest has been sparked in the history of the Boston area, its surrounding cities and towns and its institutions. Much of what we have seen occur in the course of events or history of the Brookline Fire Department parallels in microcosm the events and changes that have taken place within our country and certainly reflects the many changes that the Town of Brookline itself has gone through. Just as Brookline is a venerable old town its Fire Department, too, has an equally enviable history reaching back two centuries or almost 200 years.

However, the very first mention of fire in the town dates back even earlier to 1688, when Brookline was not Brookline at all, but rather "the hamlett of Muddy River," a part of Boston, Samuel Sewall, one of the town's most well-known founding fathers, entered into his journal an account of a fire that occurred on the banks of the Muddy in a wigwam when three Indian children lost their lives. Mr. Sewall's casual, brief mention of the mishap was the first recorded fire fatality in New England and possibly in North America. Three years later, on January 11, 1691, Samuel Sewall chronicled another fire tragedy: the house of Joshua Gardner burned to the ground and two of the Gardners1 small children perished in the blaze. The house was situated at the corner of Walnut Street and Kennard Road.

During the 17th and 18th centuries the only means of combating fire was by hand buckets supplied with water from a well, and once a fire started, losses were usually serious and extensive. At fires, bucket brigades would be formed by anxious onlookers eager to help their neighbors, yet equally eager to contain the fire lest it should spread and destroy their own homes. In these bucket brigades, the organized fire department had its roots. As primitive as they may seem to us by our present standards, fire brigades were nevertheless an organized system, a pre-planned method of fighting fire - and that is what is at the heart of every fire department everywhere, and what links the firemen of 200 years ago with the firefighters of today.

Brookline continued to rely on bucket brigades in fighting fires until 1784, when a chain of events led to the establishment of the town's first official fire company. On July 30, 1784, a rope factory near Milk Street in Boston caught fire. Before the blaze was brought under control, a total of 36 houses, barns and stores were destroyed in the conflagration which subsequently earned the title "The Great Milk Street Fire." Fire companies and bucket brigades came from many surrounding towns to aid Boston: Cambridge, Charlestown, Roxbury, Milton, Watertown and Brookline. The fire, therefore, had significance beyond the fact that jt was destructive in that it was the very first recorded instance of mutual aid in the United States; a mutual aid plan that is still operating and in effect today. At the Annual March Town Meeting in 1785 it was voted to pay one-half the expense of the Fire Engine in the future; thus,-the beginning of the Brookline Fire Department. Two years later in May of 1787, town records read: "Voted that this town will bear one-half the expenses of the new wagon for conveying the Fire Engine." The Fire Engine in use in 1787 was essentially a hand tub, filled by bucket, with water. The water was forced through by means of a lever-operated pump (muscle power) through a nozzle attached to the body of the engine; fire hose had not yet been invented.

The first fire engine was known as the "Vigilant" and the group of men who operated it as the "Vigilant Company." The first engine house or station was situated on Walnut Street near Village Lane.

In contrast to today, it is important to realize the prominent place engine companies held in those early days as a social entity. The engine company was, to its members, somewhat akin to membership in a fraternity or private club. Records show that the company would gather mo[e frequently for poker games and chowders than for fires, and probably saw much more of the warm tap room of the Punch Bowl Tavern than they did of the engine house.

In 1802 there was a fire of significant interest at Brookline's Meeting House. The house erected in November of 1714 was situated on Walnut Street, site of the present Pierce Hall - First Parish Church. Damage was slight and the fire was deemed set. It was the first recorded case of arson in the town, and also the first church fire in the town.

In 1828 the Town purchased a new engine for $400 (cost today, $90,000). The machine was jointly purchased and was to be for the protection of Roxbury and Brookline. The engine was christened the "Norfolk" and was housed in a new building spanning the brook off Washington Street where the M.B.T.A. railroad bridge is now located. The Norfolk differed from the Vigilant in that it had hose connected from the pump and water discharged from the hose line to the fire. Buckets were still needed to fill its reservoir and in that way it was similar to the Vigilant. The purchase of the Norfolk marked the demise of the old Vigilant Company. There are three massive volumes of manuscript stored in the Town Clerk's Office which tell the history of the Norfolk Engine Company during the years of its existence from 1828 to 1865.

In the 1800s fire alarms were sounded, not, of course, by automatic alarm, but rather by church bell. During the mid-1800s the old bell in the steeple of the Baptist Church was used; the Baptist bell inherited its job from the bell at the old meeting house on Walnut Street. There was, however, one drawback: the Deacons and ministers would not permit any interferences with services, and this included fire alarms.

Steam Engine
First steam engine, purchased in 1873.
Shown in front of Washington Sq. station.

It was in 1848 that Brookline's present system of water supply was introduced. This involved the laying of the Lake Cochituate water supply pipes through Brookline and Boston; one hydrant was located in Brookline Village and others along Boylston Street. In 1852 Brook- line purchased a hook and ladder at a cost of $200, its first ladder truck type of equipment- During the first few years of the decade of the 1860s Department personnel became somewhat depleted as a number of members joined the Union Army and marched off to war. By the close of the Civil War, the invention of the steam engine which revolutionized the world had ushered in the era of the steam fire engine - horse-drawn. Yet it was not until 1873 that Brookline purchased its first steam engine (price tag, $6,950). Brookline purchased its first chemical fire engine in 1874, It was also during this same year, 1874, that the highly advanced notion of a telegraphic fire alarm system was presented to the town; the system was installed 13 years later in 1887. In 1899 the Department was reorganized and permanent men appointed '(civil service). Complete motorization of the Department did not come about until 1915.

The Brookline Fire Department of 1977 is a far cry from the old Vigilant Fire Company of 1785. Despite the turnabout in the Town's physical appearance, you may rest assured that one thing has not changed throughout these nearly 200 years of firefighting in Brookline, and that is the essential spirit of the firelighters themselves. The risks to fire-fighters have not diminished. They still push themselves to the outer edge of endurance - and sometimes beyond. Even with advances in technology, there still comes a moment when the firefighter must turn away from the lashing tongues of fire. The struggle is still there, and it is still an heroic struggle. Now, as in 1785, Brookline firefighters remain alert and ready to respond to the needs of the town's citizens and, in fact, may even be called upon to risk their lives. That, in my opinion, stamps them as very special people. In closing, I would like to emphasize the fact that the vital force that sparked the formation of the Department in 1785 is alive and well in Brookline today.