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Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company: Online Exhibit

The Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company was first established by the River Falls Common Council in June of 1885. The Council quickly bestowed wide ranging authority in the new municipal department with Ordinance No. 21. Through this ordinance, a fire warden was allowed to enter any building in the city between sunrise and sunset to inspect for potential fire hazards. All instructions by the warden were to be followed at the individual's own expense. The ordinance also stated that all citizens present at a fire were to obey any orders given to assist in extinguishing the blaze. In 1886, a Fire Limit Ordinance was issued requiring buildings to be made of brick or stone.

J. Walter "Pat" Patterson, who joined the Pioneer Company in 1904, was a volunteer firefighter for fifty years. As chief he was paid $4 for every alarm he responded to, twice as much his crew.

Chief Patterson (seated in center with lighter coat) and the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 firefighters, 1913

Before a city waterworks existed, townspeople engaged in experimental firefighting methods. "Bucket brigades" existed in the early days in which pails of water were passed from the banks of the Kinnickinnic River toward the fire, a method which proved difficult if the fire was a good distance from the river or in the winter months when the Kinnickinnic was frozen.

A Pioneer Hook firefighter remembers working with what was referred to as the "Old Soda Fountain," a chemical extinguisher that proved to be inadequate. "...we used to go to the nearest well, fill the tub with water, put in some acid and soda and watch the thing belch forth, sputter and spew; then we would fill her again and by that time the building had burned down. The boys said "no good" and sent it back."

By 1887, 500 feet of hose was purchased by the city which was enough to protect the commercial district although not the entire city. In 1888 the Common Council purchased 3 200 barrel cisterns to be placed in strategic areas but neither measure was enough to protect from another series of dangerous fires which destroyed AW Lunds Carriage store downtown and several other businesses in the commercial district. In May of 1893 a resolution was passed to establish a city waterworks, the most prominent reason being better citywide fire protection, and it was in place by 1894.

Original Normal School building fore, 1897         River Falls fire truck, 1948
riginal Normal School building fire, 1897; River Falls FD truck near station, 1948

Prairie Mill fire, 1916

River Falls Prairie Mill Fire, 1916; the Mill also burned in 1896 [Read River Falls Journal article about the blaze]

Like most towns of the era, wooden buildings constructed in close proximity to one another coupled with kerosene lamps and coal furnaces were a recipe for rapidly spreading fires in nineteenth century River Falls. In October 1875, a fire broke out in the new Metropolitan Hotel and burned eight surrounding businesses before it was brought under control. A few months later, another fire erupted which destroyed every building north of the post office on Main Street. In April, 1878 a fire downtown in Cameron's Bakery burned an entire block including fourteen buildings to the ground before it could be extinguished. The River Falls Academy, Prairie Mill, the original Normal School building, and the Commercial Hotel, among many other structures, all fell victim to destructive blazes.

River Falls Fire Department, 1939

 Members of the RFFD, successor of the
Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company, no. 1.

For more information see Pierce Series 119: Fire Department records, 1926-1974.

Sources Used:

ARC Photograph Collection
Timothy Erickson. River Falls, Wisconsin: A History-1885-1910. (UW-River Falls, 1981)
John Prucha and Norman Foss. Kinnickinnic Years. (Arrow Printing, NY, 1993)
River Falls ARC Photograph Collection
River Falls Journal, 3/16/1896
River Falls Journal, 6/25/1896
River Falls SC 182

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[Created 7/2006]