Fires Are Rare Nowadays, but We Have Had Them.

Are We Prepared for More?

[Originally published in the Allentown Messenger, March 24, 1904]

The first fire organization in Allentown was that of the Perseverance Fire Company, which was organized on the 23d of November, 1818. A number of inhabitants met at the hotel of William Arnold (now the Union) for the purpose of forming a fire company. A constitution was drawn up and adopted. Each member was to provide himself with a fire bucket. The following are the names of the original members [many also served in the Revolutionary War]: David McKean, Robert DeBow, William Imlay, Joseph Robbins, Samuel Savidge, Michael Forman, William Foster, Peter I. Wikoff, Lewis S. James, George Sinclair, Nathaniel Britton, Edmund Tilton, R.D.L. Beatty, John Clutch, George W. Taylor, Eseck Robbins, William Sinclair, Samuel Cafferty, David Hay, James Imlay, John Palmer, John Chamberlain, Samuel Rogers, Silas Dunsmore, Garret P. Wikoff, Richard M. Stout, Graham Newell, John Vanhorn, James Cox, Gabriel Allen, Samuel C. Sprague, Samuel C. Newell, John Bunting, George Ford, James Clutch, Charles Ford, Cornelius Vanderbeek, Richard Bruere, Lewis Steward, Gilbert Voorhees, Charles Beatty, Joseph Lawyer, Jacob Ford, John Rogers, William Butcher, Charles H. Britton, Isaac Rogers, John Robbins, John I. Beatty and J. B. Beatty.


As showing the great interest taken in this early movement for a fire-organization, it might here be mentioned that in the above list are the names of all the merchants, manufacturers and business men in general of the town. Some of these are now no longer known in the vicinity, as all their descendants have passed away and the family name has become extinct. Ladders, fire-hooks and a hand engine, manufactured in Philadelphia, were purchased, and at a special meeting held November 28, five days after organization, a plan for engine house was presented and approved. The first officers were [Col.] David Hay, president: Richard L. Beatty, vice-president; David McKean, treasurer; Peter I. Wikoff, secretary. The presidents afterward were as follows: John Clutch, 1820; David McKean, 1822; Garret P. Wikoff, 1823; William Imlay, 1837; George Sinclair, 1841; Richard L. Beatty, 1845; Cornelius Vanderbeek, 1847; William Imlay, 1852; George Sinclair, 1858; John H. Rulon, 1863; John H. Meyer, 1875. The last named was president until his death in 1883, after which date no one was elected to the office, as the company was then reduced to a few members.


As has been stated in a former article, this engine was the means of saving the building that stood next to the country store when that structure was destroyed by fire in 1844. The framework of it is now in the barn that stands nearly in the rear of the Borough Hall [Church St. Annex].


The company’s fire buckets, including the handles, were of solid black leather, and were made by Daniel Leigh, of this town, who was the grandfather of Daniel L. Savidge. The name of each member was painted in yellow on his bucket. Two of these are now in the possession of Miss Gordon. They bear the names of William Imlay and Jonathan Fisk, and are still in good preservation. The company seemed to conduct their affairs in a businesslike manner. Meetings were held twice a year, at which the roll was called and the secretary’s report read. The engine was then taken to the town pump, where it was filled and given a trial. This program was regularly carried out as long as the company existed. The engine house originally stood on the easterly side of the driveway that leads to the rear of the Baptist Church [Library] property. The fire ladders were hung in a rack that adjoined the building and extended along the line of the sidewalk.


The house remained in this location for many years, until its removal to a lot which is now a part of the Catholic Church [First Washington Bank] property. After remaining here for several years, it was removed to the opposite side of the street, on a lot owned by J. N. Carr. After the death of Captain Meyer, the company ceased to exist. The engine was neglected and finally proved to be useless. In 1891 the building was removed by Mr. Carr, and the engine was taken to a lot belonging to Enoch Cafferty on Pearl street.


The old machine has lately been dismembered and its parts put to other uses. Thus has disappeared another relic of Old Allentown, which should have been preserved as a specimen of an old-time fire extinguisher.


 About the year 1856 some of our prominent business men considered that the town did not then have sufficient protection from fire, with only one engine to depend upon. After getting the views of many of our residents, Abel Cafferty, John C. Vanderbeek, and Elisha Robbins constituted themselves a committee to elicit subscriptions towards the purchase of another fire apparatus. The sum of $400 was finally secured, and an engine of Philadelphia make was then purchased.


An engine house had in the meantime been erected nearly opposite the gristmill. The morning of its arrival in town had been made a half-holiday for the school children, in order to give the boys an opportunity to take part in the reception ceremonies. The machine was brought from Newtown as far as Stout’s sawmill [over Indian Run at Church St.], where a halt was made as a procession was there forming to escort the newcomer to its future home.


First in line was the old Allentown brass band. Then came the Perseverance Company with their engine, which was gaily decked for the occasion. This was followed by the new “Hope,” which was drawn by school boys, each one of whom carried a bucket. The route was up Church street to Hamilton, to Broad, to Main, thence to the engine house. It was then decided to give the two machines a trial in order to show the superiority of the new purchase. The crew of each one determined to do their very best. Both threw streams over the roof of the gristmill, and to the surprise of all old “Persy” did such wonderful work that a comparison between the two on that occasion was indeed a very slight one.


About the first time the “Hope” was called into service was the summer of 1863, at the burning of the barn of Samuel Potter, which was on the property now occupied by David Mount. Although the barn was destroyed, the engine saved the residence of Henry Beekman (now occupied by Professor Taylor) by preventing the roof taking fire from the showers of falling cinders. It performed a like service by saving the Episcopal Church at the burning of the barn of W. C. Jimeson, which was struck by lightning in the evening of July 4, 1871.


William Hankins, in speaking recently about the fire that burned the Potter barn, stated that he was in the kitchen roof of the Beekman house, working with the bucket brigade. All of a sudden the stream from the hose was turned on the house, and he himself received a goodly portion of it, which almost knocked him off the roof.


Perhaps the most notable occasion in the history of the “Hope” was the saving of the residence of Mrs. Eliza Zelley (now occupied by H. Riley). On the morning of July 4, 1894, a fire was started in the roof by exploding fire crackers. The roof was entirely destroyed, and the whole building threatened; but the good service then rendered by the engine prevented the flames from spreading to the rest of the house. There are other occasions that might be mentioned where the engine was the means of preventing the spread of flames from burning barns, namely: The burning of Thomas Pearson’s on Imlaystown road; B. Gill’s at Eglinton; Mrs. Brown’s, just out of town; A. S. Taylor’s, on the Trenton road; and the late D. M. Buntings, on Waker street. The secretary’s records of the organization of the Hope Fire Company, with list of officers, etc., have unfortunately been mislaid or lost. It is very probable that the late J. C. Vanderbeek had such a record, and that he himself was secretary.