The people of Pontiac commenced at a very early date to make preparations for guarding their property against fire. Early in 1833, four years before the village was incorporated, a petition, signed by Wm. Thompson, Olmstead Chamberlin, and others, was presented to the legislative council, asking for the incorporation of a company for the protection of the village from the ravages of fire, which petition was granted, and a company, of which the two persons named above were the principal members, was incorporated, under the name of "The Pontiac Fire Company," April 23,1833, to consist of not more than thirty members, and restricted in the amount of property which they should hold at the time of acquiring the same to eighteen hundred dollars, divided into thirty shares, of sixty dollars each. Under the terms of the charter the company were to procure on or before the first Tuesday of May, 1835, and keep in the village, a good and sufficient fire-engine, under penalty of being dissolved. A bucket company was probably organized, but there is no evidence of the purchase of any engine until 1839. In July, 1837, the council passed a resolution to provide fire-buckets, etc.
On the 29th day of May, 1838, Jas. A. Weeks, who had been appointed a committee to estimate upon the expense of a fire-engine, reported that a suitable engine could be purchased for from five hundred dollars to seven hundred and fifty dollars; riveted hose at eighty-five cents, and sewed hose at one dollar per foot; half cash, balance at six months.
A small engine was purchased of the "Great Falls Manufacturing Company," of Windsor, Vermont, in July, 1839, for which the village authorities agreed fo pay three hundred dollars in one year. But at a special meeting of the taxpayers in June, 1844, it seems it was still unpaid for, and it was voted not to pay for the same, on the ground that it was good for nothing. In the same month. an engine was purchased in Rochester, New York, of Lewis Seelye, at six hundred dollars, and in. November the "Pontiac Fire Company" was authorized to take possession of it.
In 1847 six hundred dollars was raised for the use of the department, and a new "Piano" engine was purchased of Thomas Snook, of Rochester, New York, at a cost of six hundred and fifty dollars. At that time the town had no permanent place for the use of the fire department, and the engine had been kept in rooms hired of various parties.
During the season of 1847 or 1848, an engine-house of brick, one story, twenty-nine by fifty-nine feet in dimensions, was constructed on the corner where Deuell's livery-stable now stands, at a contract cost of six hundred and fifty dollars. It was built by Messrs. Covington & Blanchard. The Rochester "Piano" engine was christened "Deluge Fire Engine, No. 2," the one purchased in 1844 being No. 1. Both these engines are in existence, and capable of doing very good work. The old first engine, purchased in 1839, has long since disappeared.
The following is a list of the original members of Deluge Fire Engine Company, No. 2, formed in 1847: Wm. S. Henderson, H. N. Howard, Wm. W. Phelps, Edwin H. Whitney, O. F. Olmstead, W. C. Palmer, T. R. Church, H. C. Linabury, H. C. Munson, Wm. B. Sherwood, A. G. Budington, C. A. Howard, George Leverton, R. H. Slayton, J. D. Hainer, Joseph Baldwin, Wm. Prentice, Lewis R. Bryan, Gus. Bacon, H. H. Paine, Robert Cotcher, Geo. Gale, Geo. Hodges, F. Darrow, J. G. Bishop, E. N. Carrier, R. B. Morris, J. E. Owen, Charles Allison, Geo. Dailey, J. M. Bishop, Jas. Y. Worden, Mortimer Smith, Wm. Allen, Alonzo Sherwood, A. A. Lull, Ira Oatman, O. W. Beach, A. F. Draper, Winm. Scott, J. R. Whittemore, P. Hogan, C. W. Tuthill, Jacob Henry, John P. Maxson, Charles Chamberlin, Ira Owen, Wm. Gahan, Wm. Hogda, L. D. Sperry.
The officers were: Foreman, Wm. S. Henderson; First Assistant Foreman, H. N. Howard; Second Assistant Foreman, Peter Hogan; Secretary and Treasurer, Wm. B. Sherwood; Engineers, M. Smith, Ira Oatman, and R. H. Slayton.
This list was increased from time to time by the addition of new members.
H. C. Thurber was soon after appointed chief engineer.
In August, 1849, the council resolved to add another story to the engine-house, and the contract was let to Mr. Blanchard at fourteen hundred and thirty-nine dollars.
In 1850, Colonel Archibald Spear was elected chief engineer.
In 1851, Wm. C. Palmer was elected chief, and the same year Julius Dean and Ezra H. Budington were appointed fire-wardens.
In 1852, James A. Weeks was elected chief engineer. It appears that after the addition of the second story to the engine-house or "Firemen's Hall," the department had more room than it needed, and the upper story was rented for a "select school" in 1855.
In the last-named year the fire department included two hand-engines, with a membership of twenty-nine and twenty-six respectively, one hose-cart, and company of eighteen members, and seven hundred and sixteen feet of hose.
The subject of building public cisterns was agitated during this year, and it was finally resolved, July 23, to build a cistern of five hundred barrels' capacity on the hill near the churches, and James A. Weeks and James Ogle were appointed a committee to superintend the work. But this important project was never carried out, and to this day there are no public cisterns in the city.
During 1855 the corporations constructed platforms for the use of the department along the river-bank, two on Pike and one on Lawrence streets.
In 1857, for some unexplained reason, the fire department got into difficulty, and finally disbanded altogether, and the village marshal was put in charge of the property; but the " sober second thought" prevailed, and it was soon reorganized, and two stewards were appointed to take charge of the apparatus and other property, at a salary of twenty-five dollars each per annum. In 1858 the fire companies were completely refitted and equipped.
In 1859 the department consisted of Pontiac fire company, No. 1, with forty-one men, and Deluge fire company, No. 2, thirty-seven men. The engines were reported in good order, with nine hundred and fifty feet of good hose, and two hundred and fifty feet which needed repairs, a small hose cart in need of repairs, and two ladders in good condition.
Seventy-five dollars were appropriated for the benefit of the department, and a speaking-trumpet was purchased for the use of the hose company, at a cost of nine dollars. In June, 1863, a new hose-cart was purchased in Detroit, at a cost of thirty-five dollars and twenty-five cents, and a new company formed and uniformed by the city.
STEAM FIRE-ENGINE. In 1865, the growth of the city had been so considerable that it was thought advisable to increase the capacity and efficiency of the fire department, and the council appropriated twenty-seven hundred dollars for that purpose. After due discussion a new steam fire-engine was purchased of the "Island City Works," Seneca Falls, New York, at a cost of five thousand dollars, together with one thousand feet of new hose, at a cost of two dollars and forty-five cents per foot, making a total cost of seven thousand four hundred and fifty dollars. To meet this expense the bonds of the city were issued to the amount of five thousand dollars, in five bonds of one thousand dollars each. The engine was warranted for five years.
The fire limits were extended, and G. W. Petty and Henry J. Clifford were appointed engineers to take charge of the steamer.
A new city building was erected in 1867-68, at a cost of twelve thousand dollars, for the use of the fire department and city council. The upper portion is fitted up and occupied by the engineer of the steamer, Mr. Ansell, as a family residence. A new hose-cart was added to the apparatus in 1869.
FIRE-ALARM BELL. A splendid fire-alarm bell weighing two thousand four hundred and thirty-seven pounds, and costing twelve hundred dollars, was purchased of the celebrated bell-founder, Meneely, of Troy, New York, in 1872, and hung in the new belfry of the city building. Mr. Ansell has invented and put in operation a very ingenious piece of automatic mechanism for ringing the bell in case of fire. It is propelled by a heavy weight, and will run, after winding, for three-fourths of an hour, regulating itself to a steady, monotonous stroke. A hook-and-ladder company was organized April 13, 1870.
About the year 1872 the steamer had become so much worn as to be in need of extensive repairs, and it was accordingly shipped to the manufactory at Seneca Falls, New York, and completely overhauled and repaired, at an expense, including freight, of two thousand eight hundred dollars. In 1876 further repairs were Inade in the way of new flues for the boiler, at an additional expense of about one hundred and fifty dollars.
CONDITION IN 1877. The present apparatus consists of the following: Ono steamer, two hand-engines (only one in use), three 'hose-carts, all in use, three thousand feet of first-class hose, and fifty feet of ladders, with tile necessary hooks.
The city hires three fine horses for the use of the department, at an annual cost of two hundred dollars.
OFFICERS. The present organization is as follows:
Chief Engineer, John P. Foster; First Assistant Engineer, Wm. P. Nisbett; Second Assistant Engineer, G. R. Fox; Engineer of Steamer, J. H. Ansell; Foreman of Steamer, Wm. H. Thompson.
The band-engine now in use is manned by a volunteer force of nearly a hundred citizens, the foreman of which is John Conway.
Star Hose Company, with steamer. Foreman, Edward Barton.
Eagle Hose Company. Foreman, John Andrews.
Including the chief engineer, there are twenty-one men belonging to the paid fire department, of whom two belong with the steamer, eight with the Star Hose Company, and ten with the Eagle Hose Company.
Everything about the building occupied by the department is in excellent order, and ready for instant use. Mr. Ansell has measured all important distances in the city, and knows in a moment whether the engine can reach the 'fire from any point where water is accessible. There is considerable discussion as to the propriety of purchasing a chemical engine for use in the suburbs beyond the range of, the steamer.
The city has recently put in operation in the engine-room a very ingenious apparatus, the invention of Mr. J. W. Button, of Detroit, called a "heater," which keeps the water in the steamer constantly heated when it is not in use. It will, if necessary, work up to a pressure of sixty pounds. When the steamer starts from the engine-house it disconnects itself, and by an ingenious but very simple arrangement the steam is shut off from escape, and the water escape-pipe is also closed at the same time.
FIRES IN PONTIAC. There have been quite a large number of fires in the place. Among the most disastrous were the following:
H. N. Howard's distillery, about 1840-42, perhaps entailing a loss of some five thousand dollars. Mr. Howard also lost his flouring-mill by fire about 1842, where the old gas-works are situated.
The most disastrous fire which ever occurred in Pontiac was the great fire of April, 1840, by which nearly the whole business portion of the town was destroyed. (Described in another section on Pontiac.)
On the 13th of March, 1854, the buildings located on lots 159 and 161 Saginaw street were destroyed, with many of their contents, and entailing a loss of eighteen or twenty thousand dollars. They were occupied by Charles Pitman and Mr. M. McConnell.
In the succeeding year, the block occupied by J. Seligman, and Wells & Co., was destroyed, with property to the amount of twenty thousand dollars. About the same time several frame buildings were also destroyed, about where the First National bank and adjacent buildings now stand.
About 1866, quite an extensive fire occurred in the block below the Hodges House; the buildings destroyed were mostly frames.
The old "Pontiac Hotel," on Saginaw street, Dearly opposite the "Railroad Exchange," was destroyed about 1870. A number of buildings, including the "Cooper House," standing where the Waverly building now is, were burned in 1868.
On the 30th of May, 1869, quite a destructive fire occurred in the rear of the Hodges House, which destroyed the back of the Hodges House and several other buildings. Loss estimated at seven thousand dollars.
In November, 1875, two frame buildings on the northwest corner of Saginaw and Pike streets were destroyed. They were among the oldest business buildings in the city, and one of them had escaped the great fire of 1840. This fire damaged the north front of the Hodges House to the extent of two hundred dollars, principally by breakage of glass.
January 9, 1877, a destructive fire broke out in the Millis block, Nos. 183 and 185 Saginaw street, which, with most of its contents, was destroyed. The loss was in the neighborhood of thirty thousand dollars. The buildings were occupied by Stout & Ingoldsby, agricultural implements, and the grocery-store of William Palmer. Several offices were burned out on the second floor.
Source: History of Oakland County, Michigan by Durant, Samuel W. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts & co., 1877.