2021 marked the 150th anniversary of the establishment of a paid municipal fire department in Philadelphia. This article will look at our neighborhood in terms of past fire stations, significant fires, and fire marks.
In the early 1700's individual homeowners were responsible for possessing a leather or canvas bucket to form bucket brigades to extinguish fires in the neighborhood. In 1736, under the leadership of Benjamin Franklin, the Union Fire Company formed as a volunteer association that would provide aid to all homes and businesses. Eventually there came to be some hundred fire companies, with enlisted membership of over 20,000 men total, although perhaps only 4,000 of those actually were interested in putting out fires. The rest just enjoyed their buddies, beer, and brawling.
In 1855, one year after the boroughs and townships that made up Philadelphia County were consolidated into the City of Philadelphia, the volunteer fire companies were organized as a city department under one chief engineer. In 1871 professional, paid municipal fire companies replaced the volunteer companies. The paid staff would be made up of 337 men in 22 engine companies and five hook and ladder companies. Base pay was $350 per annum. For an 8-minute video look at the history of the volunteer firemen in Philadelphia, see outside link here.
Neighborhood Fire Stations
In 1851, the Spring Garden Fire Engine Company #41 was established at 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (the latter now the Callowhill Cut). At that time, being north of Vine Street, it was not part of the City of Philadelphia, but within the southern edge of the densely populated Spring Garden District. In 1850, Spring Garden was the 9th most populous city in the entire United States, but would become part of the City of Philadelphia in 1854. This fire company would move to 1903 Callowhill Street when it acquired a steam fire engine in 1864. In 1871 the building and equipment of the Spring Garden Fire Engine Company #41 was acquired by the City and renamed Fire Engine Company #18 (the former Engine Company #18 at 3rd and Spruce Streets had been decommissioned in 1870). In 1900 Engine Company #18 would move across the street to a new building at 1920 Callowhill Street, and would be moved again to northeast Philadelphia as Engine #71 in 1937. This was the same year that most of the former Baldwin Locomotive Works buildings in the neighborhood were torn down. For the first time in 86 years, our neighborhood would be without a fire station.
The fire house at 1903 Callowhill Street would become a livery then a garage for the Philadelphia Police Department. Most of the northern side of the 1900 block of Callowhill Street was demolished between 1985 and 1990, with 1901 and 1903 Callowhill Streets lasting until 2009. The Granary Apartments occupy the site today.
The City would acquire 1920 Callowhill Street and nearby buildings for conversion into a municipal parking lot with attendant's booth in 1965. The buildings from 1900-1930 Callowhill, 1917-1931 Carlton, 1909-1915 Wood, and 318 North 19th Street were razed as part of this surface lot. The lot is still there, one of the few buildable lots in the neighborhood.
The mostly mustachioed men of Engine #18 in 1876. Steam engines were introduced into Philadelphia in 1858 and Engine Company #18 acquired one in 1864.
Page from a City report of 1877
Hoseman James Clayton, eighth from the top, would be crushed by a falling wall at a fire in 1884.
1903 Callowhill Street is second from the right, here in 1896 (from the Streets Department).
Advertisement from the March 18, 1903 Detroit Free Press
As the copy says, Fireman Hugo Hutt of Engine #18 became sick, and recovered after drinking Dr. Kilmer's Swamp-Root medicine. Hugo then went on to appear in tens of thousands of newspaper ads like this as a spokesman for the treatment.
Photo from the 28 November 1900 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer: dedication day at 1920 Callowhill Street
Portion of 1917 Sanborn insurance map showing the fire station moved across the street to 1920 Callowhill Street.
A chemical hose truck was basically a 30-gallon soda-acid extinguisher on wheels. Two and one-half pounds of bicarbonate of soda were dissolved into 30 gallons of water. Approximately a quart of hydrochloric acid was suspended above the mix. When you arrived at the fire, you turned the tank upside down, the acid mixed with the bicarbonate of soda mix and this created carbon dioxide gas which pushed the soda-acid mix through the hose and nozzle to extinguish the fire.
1924 newspaper photo (March 21, 1924 Philadelphia Inquirer) of the last engine company to have horse-power.
Chemical 1 and Chemical 2 were chemical fire stations that would get rid of their horses on December 31, 1927, according to an article in the January 31, 1928 Philadelphia Inquirer.
Fire "engines" are the trucks that have pumps to propel water. Not all fire trucks are fire engines.
1920 Callowhill Street on the right in 1955. The engine company had moved to northeast Philadelphia in 1937.
The fire station at 1903 Callowhill Street had been converted into stables, then a garage, for the police department. Here a police car pulls in for servicing in 1955.
Summary of the history of Engine 18
There was one other fire station in the immediate Baldwin Park neighborhood from 1888 to 1920, the 9th District substation house, at 1725-27 Wood Street. This was a residence before and after its use as a fire station. Deed records show the City buying the properties in 1888 and selling them in 1920, with the fire station being decommissioned in 1911.
There were two near-neighborhood stations. The first was the Good Will Hose Company #25 at 21st and Callowhill Streets. It opened in 1832 and moved west to 2233 Wood Street in 1859 when it purchased a steam fire engine. The hose company was replaced by an iron foundry by 1875.
Another station, the Western Engine Company #37 started in 1840 at the northwest corner of 15th and Callowhill Streets. It moved to 1530 Callowhill Street in 1865 when it acquired a steam fire engine. This company was also gone by 1875.
Portion of map from 1901 showing the fire station at 1725-27 Wood Street. This site is now occupied by The Watermark.
If you visit the iron art work at the entrance on Noble Street to Phase I of the Rail Park, you will notice this Fire Engine House at 17th and Wood Streets. Some liberties were taken with scale in this beautiful sculpture, as the fire house was just two adjoining row homes.
Good Will Hose Company #25 at 2233 Wood Street in 1865 (photo credit here)
This site is now occupied by the Park Town Place Apartment towers.
Portion of 1867 map showing the Western Engine Company #37 fire station on the south side of the 1500 block of Callowhill Street, lower right.
Significant Neighborhood Fires
July 13, 1860. Fire. Kimball & Gorton's car factory, Fifteenth Ward, 21st and Hamilton Streets
February 6, 1862. Fire at the Lips' brewery on the north side of the 1700 block of Buttonwood Street.
March 16, 1863. A boiler explosion at the Norris Locomotive factory at 17th and Hamilton Street instantly kills engineer William Rodgers. Fire box fire contained.
April 20, 1864. Grant's candle factory, Fifteenth Ward, 23rd and Hamilton, burned. Loss, $75,000 ($1.26 million in today's dollars)
August 8, 1870. Large mill of Theodor Vetterlein, 22nd and Wood Street, destroyed (insured for $47,500)
October 18, 1870. Building owned by the Reading Railroad at 21st and Pennsylvania Avenue, with multiple textile firms within, with total damages of around $30,000
April 18, 1873. Explosion of a still filled with oil at the Adamantine Candle Works of C. H. Grant & Co., southwest corner of Twenty-third and Hamilton Streets. Alexander Wilson and Samuel Walker, employees, were burned and lost their lives.
October 31, 1875. Fire at Carlton Woolen Mills, Twenty-third and Hamilton Streets; loss, $500,000 ($12 million today).
July 20, 1881. Three-alarm fire destroys two five-story buildings at William Wood Cotton & Woolen Mills on the northeast corner of 22nd and Hamilton Streets (now Whole Foods).
May 13, 1883. Fire at 1512-16 Spring Garden St., occupied by North American Smelting Works; Pennsylvania Brass Works; D. W. Bing, foundry and machine shops; D. B. Birch, miller; Fayer, cigar-moulder, and James Kerr, manufacturer. Loss, $35,000 ($1 million today).
February 16, 1884. The four-story Lathbury Flour Warehouse at 1414 Vine Street is heavily damaged. At the rekindle fire four days later, Foreman James Clayton of Engine Company #18 is crushed by a falling wall and dies two weeks later.
August 4, 1884. Machine-shop, store-room and pattern-loft of Baldwin Locomotive Works, Broad and Buttonwood Streets, partially burned. Loss, $150,000 ($4.4 million today).
July 19, 1895. While the hose cart of Engine Company #18 was going to a fire, it was overturned in a collision with a huckster at Nineteenth and Vine Street. Hoseman John F. Ryder, of 1911 Callowhill Street, was killed, and four other firemen who were riding on the cart were injured. One of those injured was 23-year-old William Murphy of 1907 Callowhill Street.
February 4, 1905, fire at 1804 Callowhill Street (then a restaurant and now Sabrina's), damages $1,025.
January 29, 1907. Fire at Baldwin Locomotive Works at 15th and Spring Garden Streets. The machine and erecting shops were destroyed. The flames jumped Spring Garden Street to damage six properties on the north side of the 1400 block.
December 16, 1909. Fire at the Schrack & Sherwood Undertaker Supply Company at 1516-22 Callowhill Street takes the life of Engine Company #18 hoseman Joseph Toner and others. Toner was working with his fireman father when the floor collapsed beneath him, dropping him into roaring flames. When fire fighters arrived employees were hanging from the windows due to the intense smoke and mushrooming flames. Six employees were killed. Ten homes on Carlton and Callowhill Streets were also destroyed.
March 11, 1924. The Twentieth Street granary burns to the ground. Most of the structure telescoped into itself and the railroad tracks to the north, throwing up embers that slightly injured 45 firemen. The High Pressure Fire Service hydrants only extended as far west as 16th Street, so the thin streams of low-altitude water could not save the building. The fire was apparently started by embers from a passing locomotive. Total loss: $1.25 million.
September 20, 1969. Seven-alarm fire at the Hancock-Gross Warehouse at 420 North 20th Street. Damages estimated at over $1 million.
August 24, 1986. Fire at the Highway Tabernacle Assembly at 18th and Spring Garden Streets.
Remains of the Baldwin building at Broad and Buttonwood Streets in 1884.
Work was displaced to other buildings until the structure was rebuilt within the year.
December 16, 1909 fire at 1516-22 Callowhill Street.
The six-story Schrack and Sherwood casket manufactury was completely destroyed and hoseman Joseph Toner of the Engine 18 was killed.
Image from The Philadelphia Inquirer
Coincidentally, this red fire hydrant was removed from 15th and Callowhill Streets in 2021 and left as junk at 1516 Callowhill Street (the Vine Street exit ramp today). This hydrant was undoubtedly used to fight the fire at the casket factory in the photo above.
In the last years of the 19th century two major Center City fires destroyed whole blocks. Insurance companies raised rates and threatened to not underwrite fire policies there unless more efficient water supplies were put in place. The red High Pressure Fire Service (HPFS) hydrants were instituted in 1903 and could shoot a two-inch stream of water 230 feet vertically. The system was decommissioned in 2005, made obsolete by fireproof construction and sprinkler systems. The HPFS fire hydrants are red, with three turn-offs on top, and with a manhole cover marked "HPFS" within a few feet. There are still two HPFS hydrants on the west side of 16th Street above Callowhill Street.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer March 12, 1924
The burning to the ground of the old granary at 411 North 20th Street. It was replaced the next year by the current concrete granary which as of 2021 serves as a liquor store and hotel.
The Hancock-Gross Plumbing Supply Company was incorporated in 1948. In 1961 the business was located in four industrial buildings near 2nd and Chestnut Streets in the Old City section of Philadelphia. The Redevelopment Authority, in an effort to clean up that section of town, wanted to bid good riddance to large industrial operations. It arranged a swap: Hancock-Gross out of Old City and into...our neighborhood! The warehouse operations with 300 jobs were moved into 420 North 20th Street, stretching from 20th Street to 21st Street, with two stories below grade and two above. This was basically where MANNA is today. Old City was spruced up and the jobs stayed in Philadelphia.
On September 19, 1969, a seven-alarm fire tore through the four-story block-long Hancock-Gross building. The east wall and upper floor were destroyed, and the homes from 417 to 429 North 20th Street had to be evacuated. The fire was brought under control and the warehouse eventually rebuilt, but the business went bankrupt in 1981.
Jack P. Gross was a partner in Hancock-Gross. The old business was located near a former fire station at 147 North 2nd Street in which a small-scale fire museum had begun in the 1960s. Gross helped raise funds for the extensive renovation of this station and in 1976 he became the first president of the renamed Fireman's Hall Museum (which you must visit!).
From the Philadelphia Inquirer of September 21, 1969
This view is looking northwest at the corner of the building closest to 20th and the Callowhill Cut. The metal rail along the bridge of today can be seen on the lower left of this photo. The ramp down into the Cut had not yet been built.
Ironically it would be Jack Gross, of Hancock-Gross, who would be the first president of the refurbished Firemen's Hall Museum in 1976.
Here he is on the right accepting the honorary feedbag from Fire Commissioner Joe Rizzo.
Photo from August 21, 1986, of the fire at the Highway Tabernacle Assembly at 18th and Spring Garden Streets, looking to the southwest across 18th Street.
The same view later in the week with outdoor services.
Same view June 2021
Fire Marks in the Neighborhood Today
Before there were municipal fire companies, volunteer fire companies relied on the financial support of the community, the City, and on sporadic donations from insurance companies. Homeowners could buy fire insurance and the insurance company fire mark would be placed on the home as an advertisement. Despite claims to the contrary, fire companies did not require seeing a fire mark before putting out a fire.
There are three such fire marks in our neighborhood:
The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire was started by Ben Franklin in 1752 and is considered the oldest property insurance company in the United States. It is still in business with headquarters at 410 South 4th Street. The four interlocked hands called attention to the mutual nature of insurance: other Contributionship policy-holders were alerted to help out when fires affected marked houses, since it was in their financial interests to do so.
The Fire Association had its roots in the 1805 Fire Hose Association, which was organized and managed by volunteer firemen themselves. Hose companies were possible starting in 1801 after the City laid out pipes from the waterworks that could be tapped in case of fire. The holes augered through the wood pipes would be plugged afterwards and marked, the source of the term fire plug for hydrants. The first above-ground cast-iron hydrants are credited to Frederick Graff, chief engineer of the Philadelphia Water Works, who replaced the wooden water mains with cast-iron pipes. The Fire Association replaced the Fire Hose Association in 1817. This association originally had 11 engine companies and 5 hose companies. Fire engines carried a reservoir of water, which was then pumped using human pumping power, which was replaced gradually by steam-powered pumps starting in Philadelphia in 1858. Hose companies carried only lengths of hose that depended on a ready source of water near the fire.
The third mark is less common in Philadelphia, since it was a Baltimore-based business.
423 North 20th Street.
Mark of the Philadelphia Contributionship, started in 1752.
512 North 19th Street.
The Fire Association of Philadelphia operated under that name from 1817 to 1958.
417 North 20th Street (the Baldwin locomotive mural is on the south side).
Associated Fireman's Insurance Company of Baltimore, started in 1848. The fireman carries a torch and a primitive loudspeaker
The latest firefighting technology in the neighborhood, on the NxNW tower just north of the east side of Baldwin Park.
In 2009, seven fire companies in the City were disbanded because they were no longer needed. Buildings are safer.
Jack's Firehouse restaurant at 2132 Fairmount Avenue is the closest former firehouse to our neighborhood. The fire company at Jack's location was Truck A, now referred to as Ladder Company #1, and is now part of Engine #13 since its move to 1541 Parrish Street in 1954. Fire Engine #43 at 2108-14 Market Street is the closest active firehouse to our neighborhood.
The Firemen's Hall Museum is a worthwhile stop for those with more interest in the history of Philadelphia firefighting. The museum is located in a converted 1902 firehouse at 147 North 2nd Street, just north of historic Elfreth's Alley.
Newspaper articles on many of the neighborhood fires discussed above can be found on our page here.