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From bucket brigades to hose cart

• Mar 9, 2017 at 11:54 AM

Norwalk’s fire department has a long and varied history, of which I have written several times in the past. Of course, it started with citizens volunteering to form a bucket brigade from the closest well to the fire scene. Other courageous men were on ladders to throw the pails of water onto the fire or onto the adjacent buildings to prevent the flames from spreading.

There were independent “hook and ladder” and “hose” companies formed at different times. Some of these were volunteer and independent and some were subsidized by the village government. An 1840 village council ordinance required every person to keep a leather bucket of at least a two-gallon capacity near their door, and every two-story building was to have two buckets available for fire fighting.

About 1850, several wells or cisterns were built around the village at every intersection to provide water for fighting fires. These were built of wooden timbers and had stairs in them so the water supply could be reached. Eventually these were filled in or covered over and forgotten. In 1910, a sewer project on Railroad Avenue uncovered one of these cisterns, and one of the workers came close to falling in. This cistern was 17 feet wide and still held 10 feet of water!

Village Council reorganized the fire department in 1872 with a central headquarters for the hook and ladder gear at 36 East Seminary. There were hose houses at several locations around town. All of these functions were consolidated in 1900 in the area of our “old” fire station at 42 Whittlesey, where one can still see the construction of the horse stalls in the building.

A new hose cart was bought by council in 1882. When it arrived, it was the pride of the town, with “City of Norwalk” and “No. 1” painted on each side. A new team of horses had been purchased to pull the new cart, and were trained by Norwalk liveryman Mitch Harkness. Their first practice session went perfectly. The gong sounded, the horses moved to the doors of their stalls, and ran to the proper spot under the harness. When the harness fell, it was buckled in a few seconds, the hose cart was secured and all was ready.

This practice was fine, but the rest of the test conducted later in the day was much more interesting. A gentleman from Cleveland who had driven fire horses in New York City and other places was here to handle the team, which had not been exercised for several days. Hitching up was complicated by there not being any blinders available for the team, but finally the station doors opened and the outfit was “off”.

Seminary was a narrow street, and the driver had to make a quick left turn toward Benedict. West Seminary was blocked off, so he had to make a left turn down the hill. Already he’d made the turn out of the fire station on two wheels, and did the same thing at Benedict Ave. The team tore through the flats and up Norwood Avenue before they could be stopped.

Luckily, there was no damage to any life or limb or equipment, except that the driver’s hands were bloodied from holding the reins to control the team. He said later that this experience was the hardest pull and narrowest escape he’d ever had in his years of driving. Afterward, the team was completely subdued, and I presume they served the fire department for a long time.


DON’T FORGET! —My “Just Like Old Times” books can be purchased at Colonial Flower & Gift Shoppe at Seven West Main in Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed in permanent book form.

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