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The Quiet Protectors: New Book Chronicles History of the Portsmouth Fire Department
By Matt Kanner   - 03/26/2009

The Wire

Three major fires scorched downtown Portsmouth in the early 19th century, permanently altering the city’s landscape. The first occurred on Christmas Day, 1802, when 132 buildings near Market Square burned to the ground. The second broke out almost exactly four years later, on Christmas Eve, 1806, when a blaze on Chapel Street leveled St. John’s Church and 13 other buildings. The third and most devastating conflagration took place on Dec. 22, 1813, when more than 270 buildings burned.

“The city was decimated, and there was not a lot of money to rebuild,” said assistant fire chief Steven E. Achilles, author of the new book “Portsmouth Firefighting.” “So, Portsmouth goes from one of the most critical and most prosperous ports in the United States to… not.”

In the introduction of his new book, Achilles writes that those three fires “would forever shape the city.” At the time, Portsmouth had emerged as a top harbor town in the United States and a bustling business community in New Hampshire. Had it not been for the fires, Achilles surmises, Portsmouth might have grown to the scale of Boston or Philadelphia. Instead, it became a small working class town and, eventually, a shipbuilding hub.

But, just as a forest fire paves the way for new growth, the massive infernos of the early 1800s would help define Portsmouth’s unique character. As a result of the fires, citizens voted to prohibit the erection of wooden buildings over 12 feet high, resulting in the brick structures and slate roofs that prevail to this day.

Released this year by Arcadia Publishing, “Portsmouth Firefighting” traces the history of the city’s Fire Department back to the mid 18th century. The department’s legacy unfolds with the aid of dozens of photographs and captions illustrating the people, equipment and fires that shaped both the department and the city.

The 125-page book is divided into seven chapters, each spotlighting a different aspect of the department’s history. One chapter focuses on advancements to the city’s fleet of fire engines, while another outlines many of the “spectacular blazes” that have ignited over the years. Yet another chapter is devoted to the colorful characters who helped define the department, such as Chief George T. Cogan, who served the force for more than 50 years and was “chief engineer” from 1938 to 1952.

A member of Portsmouth’s force since 2000, Achilles scoured archives and old photos at the Fire Department, Portsmouth Public Library, the Portsmouth Athenaeum and Strawbery Banke Museum. The many old articles and other historical documents he read have painted a vivid picture in his mind of what firefighting was like 200 years ago. Back then, he said, firefighters battled massive conflagrations with an arsenal of six hand-pumped fire engines and a crew of mostly volunteers.
“Their actions or their inactions could affect the landscape of the city and a lot of lives,” Achilles said.

Before the time of telephones and sirens, city watchmen would patrol the streets for fires and cry out if they witnessed any flames. The church sexton would then ring a church bell to alert the town, and citizen firefighters would grab their gear and lug hose reels and axes to the scene, often with a mob of spectators watching or assisting with buckets.

“You think of the backdrop of the fire, the glow, the crackling, the smoke,” Achilles said, painting an eerie and chaotic scene. Without the aid of motorized ladder trucks or high-powered hoses, fires would often jump from building to building, filling the streets with pulsing, tangible heat

Whereas modern firefighters try to contain fires to a single building, firefighters in the 1800s and early 1900s concentrated on keeping blazes to a single city block.
“We don’t know how many people have ever died fighting fires in Portsmouth, but you have to imagine it was pretty significant,” Achilles said.

Portsmouth purchased its first fire engine—a wooden vehicle with a seesaw-like pump and a nozzle on top—in 1744. The department did not hire a full-time member until 1891, when Eugene Hoyt became the city’s first permanent firefighter. By 1900, the department consisted of six permanent firefighters and 93 call men.
For most members of the department, firefighting did not constitute a living but carried some fringe benefits. Firefighters were exempted from military service and other duties, and they were well-respected heroes in their communities. Firemen’s Day parades were held every year.

“They were doing some stuff that most people wouldn’t do,” Achilles said. “I think it still lives within firefighters. It’s not just a job.”

“Portsmouth Firefighting” also sketches the history of Portsmouth’s engine houses. The current central station on Court Street was constructed in 1919, replacing a station built next door in 1863 for about $3,550 (now home to Baker and Wright Auto Electric Service).

But one key question remained unanswered by Achilles’ book. The cover image shows a group of more than a dozen firefighters standing in a row in the late 1880s. One can’t help but notice that each and every man pictured has a mustache. So, why do so many firefighters wear mustaches? (Achilles, himself, sports a mustache, as do Chief Christopher LeClaire and many other Portsmouth firefighters.)

“There’s folklore about mustaches and beards in the fire department,” Achilles said. The advantage of having facial hair when battling blazes was that, in the days before air packs were invented, thick bristles helped filter the smoke that firefighters inevitably inhaled, he explained.

Today, the Portsmouth Fire Department has about 60 full-time members and receives some 5,000 calls for service per year, responding to medical emergencies, car accidents, alarm activations and rescues. The department responded to about 300 calls during an ice storm in December to deal with everything from structure fires to downed power lines and flooded basements.

In modern times, firefighters’ bravery and heroism often goes unnoticed. Citizens simply assume that, in the case of an emergency, someone will come to the rescue. Throughout Portsmouth’s history, the Fire Department has answered that call, expecting little recognition in return.

“That’s another legacy of this fire department. It’s the quiet vigilance, the quiet protector,” Achilles said. “I’m very glad that I picked this career path, because you’re part of something bigger.”

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