Wildfires and fires in the city have always been a frightening reality for Napa County residents and all Californians. During these infernos, as private citizens evacuate, emergency response personnel rush in, especially the firefighters. So, in honor of all those individuals who willingly put their lives on the line to assist others, this column is dedicated to their valor, and, sadly in some cases, to their memory.
The information for the following story about the early days of the Napa Fire Department was gleaned from a historical manuscript written by Rita Harren Bordwell in 1962. This long ago Napa native and resident was a very active, vocal and beloved community member.
Bordwell began, “This is being written at the request of several of the boys of the Napa Fire Department who were desirous of knowing something of the early day history of their organization. I promised to write it because I was born and raised in Napa, and came from an old pioneer family who helped to make early day history in Napa. Unfortunately, there are very few records of the organization still in existence.”
She continued, “Napa, like all towns in early times, went through the pioneer days, the hardships, privations, floods, fires, epidemics and water shortages. The menace of every growing town or city, in early days, was the fear of fire which frequently occurred because of the lack of fire protection. It was a constant worry to the residents of Napa, due to the shortage of water.”
To emphasize the local concern regarding fires Rita quoted an early Napa historian and librarian. “In a Napa County history book written by Lyman Palmer in 1881, he said, ‘For nearly fifteen years the water shortage, this vexed and vexing question, has agitated the minds of the people of Napa, and we are no nearer a solution today. Fires are now rapidly increasing due to the influx of people here, and we must have adequate water to combat them.’”
In addition to rapid growth and a water shortage, Napa was faced with another problem regarding fire safety. Bordwell explained, “My mother told me her father, William ‘Wall’ Kennedy, told her when he came to Napa as a young boy, 1854-1855, Napa had no fire protection. The only protection against fire was the efforts of what they called ‘The Bucket Brigade.’
“Every home had a well and pump, that was the only method of securing water. Some had a couple of wells on their property, and a hand pump in their homes for household use. Some of the wells became dry in the summer and fall. When a fire occurred, the women and girls did the pumping, the men and boys stood in a line and passed the buckets, and the water was thrown on the fire. In grass fires, wet sacks were also used.”
While the water situation persisted, the lack of fire protection was solved in April 1859 with the organization of the first volunteer fire department. She continued, “They were called ‘The Pioneer Engine Company, No. 1.’ The volunteers were considered a necessity but no one bothered to keep records, and the few that were made were either lost or destroyed as time went on.”
Fortunately, she did find some records of the activities of the original Pioneer members. For example, Bordwell reported the following, “(A membership) election was held and Robert Crouch was elected President; Edwin Chesebro, Foreman; J. H. Moran, Assistant Foreman; Harvey Wilder, Secretary, and B.F. Townsend, Treasurer.”
These first volunteer firefighters tested their abilities and their $2,500 fire engine for the first time on June 6, 1860. Eventually, more equipment was added to the local protection arsenal, including a hook and ladder truck as well as eight Babcock Extinguishers.
Bordwell also wrote, “The equipment of the Pioneer Engine Company No. 1 was stored in a barn on Main Street near Napa Street owned by a Mr. Murphy, a fellow member and contractor. This was used as an engine house until a contract was let on May 9, 1867 to William Richmond. For $5,450 he built a brick fire house across from the Court House on Brown Street. (A newly constructed coffee-house built with some of those bricks now occupies this site.) All of the equipment of Pioneer Engine Company No. 1 was moved to that location.”
More of Rita Harren Bordwell’s recollections will be the featured subjects of future Memory Lane columns.