The Kalamazoo Fire Department

Firemen's Hall

Firemen's Hall, S. Burdick Street
1853 map of Kalamazoo, published by Henry Hart, New York
The story of the Kalamazoo Fire Department begins on 5 June 1843, soon after the first charter of the village of Kalamazoo became effective. The village trustees passed an ordinance requiring all homeowners and storekeepers to provide themselves with two ladders and buckets. The citizens were being told to fight fires themselves; the ordinance was later repealed in 1850. A volunteer fire company, the Kalamazoo Hook and Ladder Company, was finally created on 11 March 1846. Other fire companies soon followed, including the Burr Oak Engine Company, the Excelsior Fire Company, and the Star Fire Company. Arcadia Creek first provided the city's water supply, but because horses were not used, firemen literally had to run back and forth between the Creek and the fire with their buckets of water. In the 1840s, an elaborate system of cisterns was built downtown. Intended to serve as an adequate source of water for fighting fires, the cisterns were frequently emptied before the fire had been extinguished. This lack of a reliable water supply motivated the village trustees to authorize the construction of a public water works in 1867. A large blaze on Academy Street in April 1869 hastened the construction of the plant, which became operational in October of that year.

Central Fire Station

Kalamazoo Public Library postcard collection, uncataloged

A Fire Department Develops

The city's first fire engine was bought second-hand in 1853, and a second engine was purchased soon after. Firemen's Hall, the general headquarters for the various fire companies, was completed in 1853 after several delays. Located at 136 South Burdick Street, the Hall served as Kalamazoo's center of social activity for many years; the building was demolished in January 1942. The Kalamazoo Gazette reported that "Kalamazoo can now boast of as fine a building...for lectures, concerts, exhibitions, parties, etc. as can be found in the state." Kalamazoo's first fire alarm system was later installed in the clock tower of the First Baptist Church in 1855. Despite little financial support from the village government, the fire department by 1862 had nonetheless grown to three engines, three horse carts, a hook and ladder truck, over 1800 feet of hose, and 148 men in several companies. Corporation Hall, built in 1867, soon became the new home of the village fire companies and other civic and governmental groups. Two of the original tenants included the Ladies Library Association and the Kalamazoo Public Library; the building also served as City Hall from 1884 until 1931. In 1870 the fire department was reorganized with four hose companies of twenty men each, and soon after firemen finally began to be paid for their work. A new Central Fire Station was constructed in 1907 on the corner of Burdick Street and Lovell Street. Responsible for protecting downtown, the building stood until it made way for Jacobson's (now the Epic Center) in 1959. The fire department first became motorized in 1916, with the last of the horse-drawn trucks being retired in 1924.

Kalamazoo’s Most Memorable Fires

Perhaps the worst fire in Kalamazoo's history occurred on 26 February1898 at the Hall Brothers Chemical Company, 453 North Church. Ten people were killed, including four firemen, and twenty-seven seriously injured. As large amounts of chemicals stored in the building mixed with the fire, explosions shook the building. One fireman was blown thirty feet into a snowbank, and debris from the blaze could be found three miles away. The fire made front-page news for ten consecutive days. On 8 December 1909, a great fire consumed the Burdick Hotel. The hotel's 160 guests were rushed outside to safety, and no one was killed. The flames raged out of control for over fifteen hours, even with the support of the Battle Creek and Grand Rapids fire departments. Little remained of the hotel except the entrance. Rebuilt in 1911, the hotel was demolished in 1971 to make way for the Kalamazoo Center. An unsolved string of arson fires in the winter of 1925-26 destroyed three major downtown churches--First Congregational, First Presbyterian, and First Methodist, in the latter of which two firemen were killed and several others injured when part of the roof collapsed. Another blaze on 5 February 1945 destroyed the J.R. Jones' Sons and Company building on West Michigan Avenue and South Rose Street. Damage to the downtown landmark was over $300,000.

Memorial display

Memorial display honoring firemen killed fighting the Hall Brothers fire in 1898. Although it isn't clear which man is which in this photograph, the men were Eugene Dole, George Halliday, Patrick McHugh and William Wagar.

Department of Public Safety

In 1982, the cities of Kalamazoo and Portage agreed to a mutual aid pact for shared fire and emergency responses. That same year and despite high opposition, the city of Kalamazoo approved a controversial plan to merge the city's police and fire departments into one Department of Public Safety. The city's level of protection increased, as the new public safety officers were cross-trained for both law enforcement and firefighting. As part of the integration plan, the city was reorganized into nine districts of public safety, beginning in December 1982. The integration was completed in 1988.

Kalamazoo Fire Chiefs

Charles Russell

Charles Russell, Kalamazoo's longest running fire chief

Thomas O'Neil

1882

Hugh Beggs

1882-1884

Byron J. Healy

1884-1902

Henry P. Raseman

1902-1907

Clifford Miner

1907-1909

Charles H. Russell

1909-1934

Maurice Welch

1934-1935

J. Frank VanAtta

1935-1952

Lloyd J. Curry

1952-1961

Chester W. Douglass

1961-1975

George H. Danz

1975-1982

Written by Kris Rzepczynski, formerly of the Kalamazoo Public Library staff. Page launched February 2007.

Sources

Books

History of the Kalamazoo Fire Department, 1900  

  • Kalamazoo (Mich.). Fire Dept.
  • City Doc F 2H67
  • H 352.3 K141

History of the Kalamazoo Fire Department, 1843-1900  

  • Rohloff, P. F.
  • Typescript, January 1950
  • H 352.3 R73

Articles

"Kalamazoo's Worst Fire Disaster Occurred 100 Years Ago Feb. 26" 

  •  Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 March 1998, page A1, column 2

"The Night Fire Destroyed Old Burdick Block” 

  •  Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 December 1986, page B4, column 1

Local History Room Files

Orange Dot File: Fires & firemen – Kalamazoo  

Subject File: Fires & firemen - Kalamazoo