The origins of fire protection in Baltimore go back to the first organized firefighting force in Maryland. In September 1763, a diverse group of artisans and skilled men organize the Mechanical Company of Baltimore. They conduct military drills for defense, fight fires and rescue victims and property. In 1769, Mechanical Company members persuade a ship’s captain to sell them a hand powered ship pump attached to a water tank. Until now, firefighting is by way of simple bucket brigades. Company members mount the pump and tank on a hand built wagon naming it The Dutchman” after the heritage of the ship’s captain. The company then alters its name to the Mechanical Fire Company. Other volunteer fire companies also form in Baltimore and the adjacent but ultimately annexed Fells Point. In 1810 the aptly named First Baltimore Hose Company organizes followed by several others of similar title reflective of the recently applied application of hose in firefighting.
Early in 1832, delegates from each company meet and establish the Baltimore United Fire Department. The then existent 15 companies are assigned numbers and response districts with rules and regulations drafted for conduct and operation. Unfortunately by the 1840s, rivalries among the companies have like in other cities lead to violence and destruction. The volunteer fire companies once the focal point of the community have come to attract bullies, brawlers and drunkards many seeking to enhance political agendas and social status.
Through the 1850s, more new companies form including two ladder companies. On May 18, 1858, a steamboat captain whose vessel is docked at the Harbor Basin tells of a new fangled steam powered pumping engine he has on board bound for Norfolk, Virginia. Word gets out and soon a group of fire company volunteers arrive. After some persuading, the new machine is removed form the boat and put to work. This draws a crowd and the largely present First Baltimore Hose Company offers to buy it on the spot. After some more persuading a deal is struck and this becomes the first steam pumping engine in Baltimore aptly named the Alpha. Two more follow at other companies in subsequent months. While greatly improving water delivery for firefighting, these large machines are quite heavy pulled by as many as 25 men.
Of course by this time fighting among companies is an ever increasing problem and the suggestion horses pull the pumping engines a bone of contention with many. Things finally come to a head as by city ordinance enacted February 15, 1859, the Baltimore United Fire Department is abolished with all of the volunteer fire companies required to cease operation. That day, the Baltimore Fire Department is born drawing upon paid and call-men selected from the volunteer ranks. This new city department begins service with five companies using apparatus from the volunteers housed in vacated volunteer fire houses. A Chief Engineer is placed in charge with two Assistant Chief Engineers covering eastern and western districts. To pull the apparatus, horses are placed in each fire house kept in recently added stalls on the apparatus floors.
On June 1, 1888, the Baltimore annexes some 23 square miles of territory on the north and west from Baltimore County. This includes some seven fire stations of the recently created county fire department that immediately become city department companies. On March 1, 1890, the first fully paid company Engine 15 organizes. By January 1, 1893, all of the call-men have been replaced the department now fully paid.
One of the greatest challenges ever faced by the department begins on the cold and windy morning of February 7, 1904. An automatic heat activated thermostat alarm is received before 11 am from the John E. Hurst Company building on the south side of German (now Redwood) Street between Liberty Street and Hopkins Place. The six-story, iron-front building is packed full of dry goods. As events unfold, the building becomes enveloped in flames, spreading through the block to several blocks becoming a raging conflagration moving out of control northward then southeastward. Fire departments from all over as far as away as New York City respond the combined force of over 1,200 firefighters stopping the inferno after 30 hours. The Great Fire of Baltimore consumes over 86 city blocks destroying 1,526 buildings. There is one possible fatality and injuries are minor the Chief Engineer and a York Pennsylvania firefighter suffering the worst. Three city firefighters later succumb to illness as a result of their exposure.