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History
The history of New Canaan Fire Company, No. 1 can be traced as far back as 1845, if not beyond, when informal bucket brigades were first organized in town. The loosely organized volunteer response of the early bucket brigades has been organized, formalized and augmented by full-time paid staff in the past 125 years, but the spirit that drives neighbors to respond when others are in need remains at the heart of the fire service.

After a local newspaper called for better fire protection in 1869, the Hook and Ladder Company was formed, and reorganized. In 1873, Quinnipiac Hook and Ladder Company No. 3 was formed. The Fire Company as it exists today, was chartered on December 8, 1881, and New Canaan Hook and Ladder Company and Fire Engine Company No. 1, was incorporated by the Connecticut legislature in 1885.

 

In the century and a quarter since 1881, New Canaan Fire Company No. 1 has changed in an evolution that continues today. No longer is the department all volunteer. Paid firefighters are also called to respond to incidents. Initially, career staff members were drivers, responsible for getting apparatus to the scene. The position then changed to fire engineers. Twenty-four career firefighters now work 24-hour shifts, supervised by a career Assitant Chief.

Town Charter revisions in 1963 established a Fire Commission to oversee the Fire Company and Fire Marshal’s office. Members are nominated by political Town committees and appointed by the Board of Selectmen.

At any given time, some 30 volunteers are ready to respond to emergencies along with the six members of the career staff who are on duty. Fire Company activity is based at the corner of Main Street and Locust Avenue, which was the site of a large fire in 1904. The original firehouse was erected on Forest Street and was paid for with a $500 loan. In 1891 a two-story firehouse was erected on Railroad Avenue, now known as Elm Street. This building later became La Plume Doree. In 1938, the current firehouse was constructed at the intersection of Main Street and Locust Avenue. An addition that doubled the space for fire apparatus was constructed in 1965

Career firefighters sleep at the firehouse during their 24-hour shifts. All hands can be called in on standby in an emergency.

Firefighters were once summoned to the firehouse by a bell, then a horn. Now radio pagers alert firefighters to calls, and dispatching duties were recently assigned to a regional operation. However, the fire horn is being prepared for use in case of emergencies.

 
 
 
 

Renovations are under way in an effort to improve a building in which parts remain relatively unchanged from the original construction.

Trucks are housed in bays on the main level, as well as in the back, lower level. New Canaan’s first fire engine was a Gulf Stream Hand Pumper, purchased from the City of Stamford for $400. Stevens Livery Stable provided the horses to pull the pumper.

That pumper was traded in for a truss ladder capable of pumping 300 gallons per minute — an astounding feat in those days.

In 1912, Mr. A. H. Mulliken donated a combination hose and motorized fire truck. On its first alarm, this truck had difficulty leaving the firehouse due to the number of firemen who climbed aboard. Today’s modern fire apparatus are a far cry from the early fire trucks. They are custom built to meet the specific emergency incidents encountered in the community. The department owns eight engines and trucks. Each vehicle is designed to carry out a specific fire fighting or rescue function. Its engines can pump 1,500 gallons per minute and carry between 500 and 3,000 gallons of water.

The aerial ladder truck, a 2003 Seagrave, has a 100-foot, rear-mounted ladder. It was built following specifications designed to allow it to safely traverse the winding roads and long driveways so common in New Canaan. It required expansion of the opening leading to one bay in the firehouse because of its height.

New Canaan is awaiting its newest truck, a tanker, which is anticipated to arrive in July, 2007.

With specialized vehicles and tools, the training of firefighters has become more rigorous and technical since the days of the bucket brigade.

Today firefighters are trained to respond to structure and brush fires, hazardous materials incidents, motor vehicle accidents, confined space rescues, and a variety of other situations in which residents need our assistance. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — personnel from New Canaan were among the many who traveled to the World Trade Center on that day to offer assistance — firefighters are also trained in how to deal with incidents involving weapons of mass destruction and biological and chemical agents.

That training can be put to the test at any time, in any number of situations. Firefighters have recently been called to structure fires, rooftop rescues, situations involving downed electrical wires, auto accidents, gas leaks and to extricate ducklings stuck in drain pipes. Each requires skills honed during regular drills.

As construction materials and houses have changed, so too have the challenges facing firefighters. When fire strikes a larger structure, more manpower is needed. Vast spaces can make containing the blaze difficult.

Gone are the days of throwing on a raincoat and boots and charging off to a blaze. Turnout gear is heavy, waterproof and fire resistant. Breathing apparatus protects firefighters from smoke and noxious fumes cast off by building materials and chemicals.

Nearly half of the time, no tools are needed by today’s firefighters, as they roll to a record number of false alarms, taxing equipment and budget.

But the Bravest never know what is at the other end of the drive when they roll on an alarm, and throughout its history New Canaan has seen its share of major fires, the first century of which were chronicled in the program from the Fire Company’s centennial celebration in 1981.

A Valentine’s Day, 1875, blaze, called the “greatest conflagration in New Canaan history” during the centennial of New Canaan Fire Company No. 1, destroyed buildings at Railroad (now Elm) and Main streets, including the Fairty story and the Benedict shoe manufacturing plant.

Archive fire calls of the 19th century frequently mention the loss of barns and nurseries, in addition to houses. A note from 1886 indicates that at the time, the loss of a barn and its contents represented a greater loss in value than the average residence.

A serious fire occurred at Francher’s shoe factory, at Elm and Park streets, in April of 1897.

The Raymond Building (which became Silliman’s) burned in 1899, in what is called “New Canaan’s most famous fire.”

Fire struck the Big Shop in 1904. It was torn down in 1925, and is now the site of the firehouse. A housewarming for the headquarters, still home to the Fire Company to this day, was held in 1938.

A P-47 crashed from the sky into a Valley Road residence in October, 1942, destroying the house.

In 1949, a February fire on Smith Ridge caused $100,000 in damage, then Jelliff Mill was destroyed in a March blaze.

In 1951, total calls to the Fire Company passed a record 171. In 2005, call volume surpassed 1,000 for the first time.

The Vista, N.Y., fire house was destroyed by fire in January, 1954.

In 1958, a March fire in the basement of Gristede’s store caused $7,000 in damaged, followed a week later by a blaze that destroyed LeMay’s Auto Body Shop and cars there for work, causing $60,000 in damage.

In January of 1960, the Silverberg building on Elm Street was hit by a fire that caused $300,000 in damage. A fire around the same time in the basement of Lang’s Pharmacy kept firefighters on duty for 26 hours straight.

A shed at New Canaan Fuel & Lumber was lost to fire in April, 1961, causing $50,000 in damage, but firefighters saved other structures at the site.

A fatal fire struck at the Hampton Inn in January of 1962.

In June of that year, the Fire Company purchased a rescue truck — the first new vehicle it had received in its 81-year history.

In December of 1962, fire destroyed half of a building at 100 Main Street, closing Jake’s Barber Shop anLaundereze. Demolition of the building was ordered in August of 1963. The alarm system was credited with saving New Canaan Country School when an oil burner malfunctioned in April of 1966.

In December, 1973, an ice storm cut power to much of town. Firefighters reported 28 alarms in three days, 15 the day after the storm — both large totals for that time.

Fatal fires were more common up into the 1970s, according to archives. One of the most tragic occurred on Thanksgiving, 1975, when a mother and two children perished in a blaze at their Betsy’s Lane residence.

On July 13, 1976, a commuter train running ahead of schedule collided with a vacant train being moved onto a side track while on the way to the New Canaan railroad station. Two women were killed, 29 people were injured.

The Christian Science Reading Room and Decorator’s Choice store were destroyed by fire in March of 1978.

New Canaan was featured on the CBS television show “Rescue 911” on December 18, 1990, when a segment recounted a call on May 21 of that year when a firefighter suffered a heart attack in a fire engine on the way to a call.

Firefighters were at the ready as 1999 rolled into 2000, with fears that computers, unable to read the date properly, would shut down, stopping essential computer systems and creating chaos. Midnight of 1/1/00 passed without incident.

A fire on Weed Street on February 2, 2005, was frequently cited in efforts to add a sixth firefighter to each paid shift. What Chief Jonker said looked like a small fire erupted when ventilation was attempted, sending two firefighters who were inside scrambling to safety. One lost his helmet and suffered burns to the scalp through his fireproof hood. That fire was blamed on a space heater.

CherryStreet East, long a destination for those seeking food and beverage, was closed by a fire that erupted from a fryer as staff prepared to open on Sunday, April 30, 2006. More volunteer and paid firefighters that would usually be present were at the firehouse that morning, preparing for the Young Women’s League’s annual Touch-A-Truck Festival, which had been rained out the previous Sunday. The extra manpower allowed an immediate attack that Chief Jonker credits with saving the building, and the owner has announced plans to rebuild.

In the late 1990s, a frantic call went out for volunteers, especially after a New Year’s Eve fire on Country Club Road at which the attack was delayed while awaiting help. Today, the Fire Company has more than 30 active volunteers, and reports healthy progress in recruiting.

Current firefighters report varying reasons for joining. Some were driven by a personal experience or the terrorist attacks of September 11. Others are following a family tradition. Some are simply born with that deep-seated interest in firefighting. It’s been said at a recent meeting that whether paid or volunteer, those who don the turnout gear just want to put out fires and help people, without regard as to who is being paid for being there.

All, it seems, hear the same call to help neighbors in need that those who formed the early bucket brigades answered more than 125 years ago.