Norwich — Most of the aging leather helmets and fire buckets, scrapbooks and photographs were stowed away after the move from the longtime station on Chestnut Street. They were pieces of the larger story of more than a century of firefighting in Norwich by a career department.
The discovery was the beginning of his quest to compile information about the history, and more importantly the people, who built the department. Two-and-a-half years of research and another nine months of composing led to the publication of “Norwich Firefighting.”
“Newspaper clippings, maps, pictures — it was a huge puzzle,” Watts said, “each part leading me to something else.”
A smattering of nearly a dozen volunteer fire companies covered the city until they were first consolidated in 1876 under Chief Joseph B. Carrier. A paid force started in 1902 and evolved into a fully paid department by 1922 — which also marked the end of the horse-drawn era.
The book was a labor of love for Watts who poured through city directories, set up interviews with past chiefs and probed for any information he could get his hands on.
Former Norwich Fire Chief Harold Lamphere Jr., 79, who started at the department as a call man in 1949, has seen a bit of history himself and passed along some of his knowledge. He thinks there are plenty of people in the city who would be proud to see that many of the names of people involved in the department are included in the book.
“He’s done a good job.” Lamphere said. “It’s more than we ever had and at least tells some of the stories.”
Lamphere was a firefighter during the Van Tassel warehouse fire on Forest Street, in which four firefighters lost their lives. Watts dedicated his book to those men, and all of the nine firefighters who lost their lives while serving with Norwich Fire.
The apparatus used back in the day is almost as interesting as the people who used them, Watts said. Norwich fire headquarters on North Thames Street is still home to the city’s first fire engine, The Torrent. Built in 1769, the wooden-wheeled, hand-riveted copper 110-gallon tub was pumped by four to six men with an additional dozen filling the tub by hand.
“(Watts) went off on his own with great enthusiasm and passion,” Norwich Fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato said. “It shows how we have evolved.”
Many of the pictures capture not the men and apparatus of the day, Scandariato said, but origins of many changes that occurred later. The Van Tassel fire, for example, led to stricter guidelines for transportation and labeling of hazardous material.