The First Alarm: Oil Painting Shows Elkton Firefighters Answering the Call in 1892

Singerly Fire Company’s Amoskeag Steam Fire Engine and Gleason and Bailey Hook and Ladder answer the first alarm in 1892.

Singerly Fire Company’s Amoskeag Steam Fire Engine and Gleason and Bailey Hook and Ladder answer the first alarm in 1892.

For its centennial celebration in 1992, the Singerly Fire Company commissioned an oil painting that showed the company racing out of the North Street station on a cold winter evening in 1892 to answer its first alarm.  A team of galloping horses pulled the Amoskeag Steamer past the old courthouse as an early evening February twilight descends on Cecil County.  Immediately behind the engine, a group of men tug strenuously on the Gleason and Bailey Hook and Ladder as a fresh coating of snow makes their work slippery.  The old hose cart won’t be too far behind for it is just rolling out the firehouse door.

The toiling fire bell has called out the Elkton volunteers for their first general alarm on this winter day.  These pieces of newly acquired equipment, and one additional hose cart, which hasn’t answered the alarm yet protected the county seat from the ravages of flames for decades until they were retired as motorized units came into general use three decades later.

In preparation for the celebration of 100-years-of-service, the firefighters commissioned Doylestown PA artist Gil Cohen to produce the oil painting and the company sold a limited edition print.  When the company decided it wanted a unique scene showing the 19th century volunteers answering the alarm, they launched a search for an artist who could accurately depict the technical nature of the setting and capture the mood.  The nationally recognized artist, a member of the American Society of Aviation Artists and illustrator for major publishing companies, had done work for the United States Coast Guard Bicentennial and for other major national celebrations so he was selected.

A stickler for historical accuracy, Cohen did lots of research to recreate this scene from another century.  His first visited Elkton to get a feel for the town and begin research for the project. He walked down Main Street with a member of the Historical Society, studying old pictures and looking at modern vantage points.  “I conjure up images in my mind.  It’s almost like entering a time machine, where  I’m here but trying to visualize the street as it was before the turn of the century,” he told the Times.

He next utilized company members dressed in turnout gear to pose for him as he dramatically portrayed their 19th-century counterparts.  So on a cold Monday afternoon in February 1992, 100 years after the department was formed, Cohen had firefighters running down North Street and hanging off apparatus as bystanders leaned over the railings on the Howard House porch.  As the sun set, long shadows became more apparent on the buildings.  It was just the look and mood Cohen was after.  His research also took him to fire museums in Philadelphia and in New York as he interviewed experts on 19th-century apparatus and viewed old photos.

Once he completed his research and had visualized the twilight in that winter of long ago, he submitted several rough sketches for the company’s approval.  After the drawing was approved, the artist started to painting the scene.  Later that year, the company unveiled Singerly’s Call to Alarm, a fitting tribute to past firefighters who established a tradition of service and to the present members who faithfully serve the community.

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