This content first appeared as a Facebook posting in August 2021.
Hey Mike, which fire department was the first in North Carolina? Great question. Let’s tease out an answer. First, some ground rules. For our purposes, fire department = fire company, as that was the verbiage of colonial times. Second, fire companies do NOT include those ad hoc groups of citizens that gathered at fires, to help battle the blaze. All that said, the answer is…
Salem in 1785, maybe. And if not Salem, then Edenton, Fayetteville, and Wilmington in 1791. How’s that for an inexact answer?
Here are my research notes, posted here for now. Will move to a blog post in a few days. Please check my work, and let me know your thoughts.
1745 – Wilmington – Legislation empowers city officials to collect tax for acquiring fire equipment. [MJL/NCL] However, they didn’t immediately “take advantage” of the act. [FAFC]
1750 – Wilmington – Town tax levied to purchase fire ladders and buckets. Similar taxes also levied in 1751 and 1755. At least four ladders and sixteen buckets were “immediately procured” and “to the dismay” of town officials, the ladders were used for “private purposes.” [FAFC]
1752 – Wilmington – Town officials decide that surplus tax revenues be set aside for purchasing a fire engine. This is done again in 1753, and 1754. [FAFC]
1754 – Wilmington – Legislation again empowers city officials to collect tax for acquiring fire engines. [MJL/NCL]
1755 – Wilmington – With surplus tax revenues insufficient to fund a fire engine purchase, town officials order “warrants of distress” against those who refused to pay their tax. This results in sufficient funds (they think) to buy the town’s first and state’s first fire engine. The cost ends up much greater, and measures are taken to, first, enlist citizen contributions (which fails) and then a new tax, in 1758, to pay off the loan, “build a shelter for the machine”, and presumably buy fire hooks. [FAFC]
First Fire Engine in State
1756 – Wilmington – First hand pump acquired, built in England. Caretaker hired to maintain and operate. No fire company formed in conjunction. [DB, pg.8] [FAFC]
1766 – Edenton – Legislation requires chimneys kept swept, also fines for fires in buildings. Also homeowners required to have ladders. [MJL/NCL]
1770-71 – Salisbury – Legislation requires households to have two buckets and ladder.
1773 – Salem – First regulations for fire prevention. [MJL/SFD]
Second Fire Engine in State
1773 – Wilmington – Second hand pump acquired, built in America. The old engine had “decayed” and was also determined as too small for the town. (Though it was later repaired and returned to working order.) No fire company formed in conjunction. [DB, pg.8] [FAFC]
1773 – New Bern – Legislation gives town officials permission to purchase a hand pumper. Upon delivery, a fire company would be appointed. Also, homes to be equipped with two leather water buckets and a ladder at least 25 feet long. [DB. pg.8] This hand engine was apparently never purchased.
1777 – Hillsborough – Legislation requires every household to have buckets and a ladder.
1778 – Wilmington – Town officials order the two fire engines repaired, two “public ladders” built, and handles added to the fire hooks. Once completed, the town contracts with a person to “find four able blacks to work the engines once a month.” [Were those “able blacks” also utilized for operating the engines during fires? No mention is made as such.] [FAFC]
First Fire Company in State? Maybe
1785 – Salem – Two fire engines delivered. Also, buckets ordered by town, with each household required to have at least one. New regulations are passed after their arrival, including roles of Fire Inspectors, with such duties as Overseer of Water and Fire Engine. Also notes, in case of fire, that the “Engine Masters and their allotted Brethren” as the persons who “bring the engines into play,” with twelve assigned to the large engine, and four to the smaller engine. [Does that meet the definition of a formal fire company? Maybe.] [MJL/SFD]
1787 – Edenton – Legislation requires town officials to repair fire engine, purchase equipment for fire engine, citizens required to help fight fires, and penalties for false alarms. [MJL/NCL]
First Fire Companies in State? Yes, If Not Salem
1791 – Edenton Fire Company incorporated by state. The legislative act lists 29 names of charter members. [MJL/NCL]
1791 – Fayetteville Fire Company No. 1 chartered by state. The legislative act lists 33 names of charter members. [MJL/NCL] They also had a pumping engine. [MJL/FFD]
1791 – Wilmington Fire Company incorporated by state. The legislative act lists 45 names of charter members. [MJL/NCL]
[When were each of these physical fire companies formed? To be determined. Were they operating prior to their charter, or after? To be determined.]
[Which of these charters was the first? To be determined. The incorporation of Edenton and Wilmington’s fire companies were granted in the same legislative act, while the Fayetteville fire company’s charter was a different one. Need to find the exact dates for each.]
1791 – New Bern – Legislation again empowers town to collect tax for fire protection, and to procure fire equipment, and to organize a fire company. [No fire company formed.] [MJL/NCL]
1792 – Washington Fire Company incorporated by state. The legislative act lists nine names of charter members. [MJL/NCL]
1794 – New Bern – Hand pump acquired by this time. First historical reference in 1794. Had a caretaker assigned to “routinely exercise” the engine and respond to alarms of fire. Town also had a “fire watch” (person) to detect fires and lawlessness. Upon discovery of a fire, the “fire watch” rang the church bell, informed the keeper of the engine (my words), and alerted those citizens nearby and ask them to assist in “quelling the fire.” [DB. pg.9]
1798 – New Bern – Tryon Palace burns. “There’s little evidence to support the idea that there was an organized fire company.” The fire was instead battled by militia members and citizens. [DB. pg.9]
1798 – New Bern – Second hand engine ordered, after Tryon Palace fire. Also, six fire hooks and 35 leather buckets were purchase. Also, person appointed to keep both engines “in proper order.” [DB. pg.9]
1798 – New Bern – Legislation authorizes and requires town officials to form fire companies, that citizens keep fire buckets, and militia take any fire buckets and report to fire company officers, in event of fire. Alas, there’s “still no evidence of any companies” at the time of the legislation. [DB, p.9]
1799 – New Bern – Fire companies established, comprised of five citizens and a Captain leading each. [DB, p.9, 10]
1801 – Raleigh – Legislation empowers city officials to stop fire by any means, including destroying buildings. Another law like this passes in 1813. [MJL/NCL]
1802 – Raleigh – Newspaper ads ask for money for purchase of a fire engine. None is apparently purchased. [MJL/RFD]
1804 – Smithville (Brunswick County) – Legislation empowers town officials to collect tax for acquiring fire equipment. Also, homeowners required to have ladders. [MJL/NCL]
1814 – Raleigh – City officials authorize purchase of a fire engine. It isn’t ordered until 1816, and isn’t delivered until 1819. Fire company formed at that time. [RFD]
1816 – Elizabeth City – Legislation empowers town officials to collect tax for purpose of purchasing fire engine. In 1824, another law empowers the appointment of a fire company. [MJL/NCL]
1816 – Lincolnton – Legislation authorizes the town officials to apply sale of property to purchase of a fire engine. One year later, law authorizes town offices to purchase fire engine. In 1821, the Lincolnton Fire Engine Company is incorporated. [MJL/NCL]
1818 – Salisbury – Legislation empowers city officials to organize fire engine companies. Another law like this passes in 1821. Incorporation of Salisbury Vigilant Fire Company in 1829. [MJL/NCL]
1820 – Tarboro – Legislation empowers city officials to organize fire engine companies. [MJL/NCL]
1820 – Fayetteville – Legislation empowers city officials to organize fire engine companies, as well as a water supply for town. However, in 1825, the law about fire companies is repealed. [Why?] [MJL/NCL]
DB – Daniel Bartholf, “History of Firefighting in New Bern, North Carolina – Colonial Days to the 21st Century”, book, 2019.
FAFC – Fire and Fire Control in Colonial Wilmington, article by Alan D. Wilson, in the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, Inc., Bulletin, Volume XVIII, Number 3, May 1975, https://legeros.com/blog/colonial-wilmington
MJL/FFD – Legeros web site, Fayetteville FD history – https://legeros.com/history/fayetteville/
MJL/NCL – Legeros web site, North Carolina Laws – https://www.legeros.com/history/laws
MJL/RFD – Legeros web site, Raleigh FD history – https://www.legeros.com/ralwake/raleigh/history
MJL/SFD – Legeros blog, Salem FD history – https://legeros.com/blog/salem-fire-department-1893