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Historical Fireman's Wagon

CHAPTER VI Fires and Firefighters

The City Gets a Fire Department

On a windless summer evening in 1845, fire broke out in a carriage house on the property of John Drysdale at the corner of Marine Street and Bravo Lane. Luckily it was high tide, and the availability of plenty of water, plus the calm night enabled the citizens, who rallied to battle the blaze, to keep it from burning down the main dwelling. However, the fire spread to a building to the south, Major Joseph Hernandez's billiard room, and in a few minutes it also ignited his home.

The soldiers of the garrison came to the aid of the volunteer firefighters. Together they tore down a few frame buildings to keep the fire from spreading and eventually brought the conflagration under control, using the garrison's fire engine and plenty of buckets, also supplied by the army, for a constant and rapid supply of water.

It was a close shave and had a high wind been blowing, the entire town south of the Plaza could have been destroyed. Poor Major Hernandez's house and all that was in it had gone up in smoke, and a Mr. Crespo, who lived nearby, lost his kitchen and his storehouse. Thinking his dwelling was about to catch fire also, Mr. Crespo threw bundles of wearing apparel from the balcony into the street, and someone immediately carried them off. His large family was left practically without clothes and, worst of all, in one of the bundles was a package of money, about $800.00, mostly in South Carolina bills.

The next issue of the "News" reported the holocaust, and made a strong plea for municipal fire protection. At the next meeting of the council, the city fathers gathered to deliberate the problem, and after first remitting the fine of a man who had been punished for riding his horse through the streets at a pace faster than a trot, moved on to the matter of the big fire.

First they passed a resolution thanking the city's amateur firefighters and the soldiers of the garrison for their efforts in controlling the blaze; another resolution hinted darkly at arson and offered a reward for any, evidence of such a crime. They then decreed that a fire company be formed for the protection of the city and that a good fire engine and other necessary equipment be provided.

The St. Augustine Fire Company was soon organized under the direction of a fire chief who was empowered to draft all able-bodied citizens to man the hoses and the bucket brigade. Slackers were liable to a five dollar fine for refusing to pitch in in times of trouble. In 1847, the new fire engine, costing $450.00 arrived and was put into service.

Old St. Augustine was destined to experience many more devastating conflagrations, but at least some organized means for controlling fires had at last been authorized.

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