North East, MD — When a fierce fire on May 7, 1911, destroyed the Methodist Episcopal Church and two dwellings, and threatened destruction to the entire town, North East realized that something needed to be done. The community had no fire department as some years ago, the town acquired a small chemical engine capable of squirting a modest stream of water on a fire, but it was virtually useless in the face of a roaring inferno like this. On this occasion, residents had stood their ground stubbornly. Buckets in hand, feeling the hot flames of the fire consuming the doomed structures, they had flung pail after pail of water on the blaze.
Calling for Assistance
At the fire’s height, they had turned for assistance to the nearest towns with fire departments, Elkton and Havre de Grace. Companies in those towns were unable to answer the urgent plea for aid because of the poor condition of the Philadelphia Road between the localities. Confronting the inferno alone—buckets in hand—townspeople eventually checked the “demons” spread. Then, as hours went by the fire finished devouring the structures already ablaze and the flames died out. Soon after daybreak (the sun came up about five o’clock that Sunday morning), the outcome was obvious. Exhausted, citizens had emerged victorious!
Although the fire had ravaged several buildings, the town was fortunate, the night was calm. What if the wind was blowing next time? Would the Philadelphia road be passible? What if the fire started “in some of the tinder boxes in town?” Buckets were all they had! What would North East do?
George O. Garey, Editor of North East’s newspaper, The Cecil Star did not have answers, but as ruins smoldered he knew something had to be done: The most serious problem is the protection of the community against fire, he said. “The people of a town of this size ought to be able to lie down to sleep at night, with a reasonable feeling of assurance that something is in readiness for the emergency of fire and that life and property are not dependent upon chance happenings.”
Many in the community were calling for creation of a fire department. Therefore, R. C. Simpers, secretary to the Town Commissioners, announced a meeting of taxpayers at the Grand Army Hall on May 24. Purchase of a steam fire engine and the protection of the town was the subject. “The responsibility rests with them (town commissioners), and it is right for them to get the view of taxpayers before taking any action,” Editor Garey stated.
The public must have wanted a steam fire engine for town fathers agreed to send C. P. Bartley and Clem Reeder to Baltimore to inspect a steam engine offered there for $350. Another committee, consisting of E. P. Fockler, J. F. Diggs, F. H. Thompson and John Tobin, was to solicit funds for the purchase of the apparatus.
Meanwhile, the Cecil Star had considered this problem some more. Its conclusion: North East needed an adequate system of water works. Anything short of this would be an “expensive and unsatisfactory experiment” as protection against fire. A steam engine would be okay if there was satisfactory water supply and outbreaks of fire occurred sufficiently often to keep an engine in readiness. “A town the size of North East would neither justify nor guarantee an efficient and permanent fire company. Machinery deteriorates rapidly when little used, and so do organizations of men,” the Star cautioned.
As for water works, the Star suggested that plenty of water, with good pressure, enough fire plugs, and a few sections of hose, would provide adequate protection. Besides, a water system was just as seriously needed for public health and domestic purposes. The price of this fire “would have more than paid for water-works,” North East’s newspaper observed.
At this point, unfortunately, there is a significant break in the copies of The Cecil Star which are available for research. Still, other county newspapers, for instance The Midland Journal of Rising Sun and the Cecil County News of Elkton, carry no indication of what transpired next. When the Star resumes a year or so later, our research has found nothing to suggest that the steam engine was purchased. (Water-works in North East were still many years away.)
The Old Chemical Engine
But what about that chemical engine mentioned in the Cecil Star? Where did it come from? Our research yielded answers on this: Town commissioners purchased from the Holloway Company of Baltimore a chemical fire engine in March 1901 at a cost of $450. Mounted on a cart, the engine had a hose reel, 75 feet of hose, a 65 gallon water tank, and a soda and acid pressuring mechanism. When the soda and acid were mixed, gas was created which forced water from the tank through the hose.
Citizens also organized a volunteer fire company in 1901. Dr. R. G. Underwood was the chief and Professor E. B. Fockler was the president. That 1901 fire company had its temporary quarters in the Star building. It established a “reading room and social room which was open to members every evening.” The new company inherited some equipment from town-fathers. North East had purchased two ladders and 24 buckets for protection a year earlier.
While North East may not have always had the most sophisticated fire-fighting apparatus early in the 1900s, its townspeople were certainly good at fighting the “fire demon” with their buckets. “The covered bridge on Main Street” caught fire in January 1901. Buckets in hand, citizens responded. They promptly put out that fire!
North East’s earlier fire company must have been very efficient too. Soon after the company was established, it was called out to an alarm. Mrs. R. T. Rambo’s millinery store caught fire, on March 23, 1901. The “North East Volunteer Fire Company” responded “within three minutes,” the newspaper reported.
A little way down the Philadelphia Road, The Perryville Record asked its town’s officials to take notice of goings on in North East: “The attention of our town fathers is called to the chemical fire engine that has just been put in at North East. Perryville is in sad need of some protection against fire, as it would be practically at the mercy of the flames should a fire start in its now unprotected state.”
It would be a few more years before a fire would occur that would spark the organization of the present day North East Volunteer Fire Company.