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A Very Brief History of New England Firefighting

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

The New England fire service has a very rich history that goes back to the Colonial Era.

New England states were among the first to develop a strong volunteer fire service. Some of the most prolific and important builders of early fire apparatus were in New England. New England’s great fires and the firefighters who fought them have had a significant and enduring influence on the American fire service.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries a significant portion of the hand-drawn fire apparatus built in the United States was built in New England. Many of the hand engines that protected New England’s towns, and formerly protected the big cities, were built in Boston by William C. Hunneman (1769-1856). Hunneman was an apprentice to Paul Revere. In 1792 he started building fire engines. He purchased the patent for a pair of fire engine designs from Jacob Perkins, a prolific inventor from Newburyport, Massachusetts. Hunneman’s son joined the business in 1838, which then was called William C. Hunneman & Co. In 1845 a grandson joined the enterprise as an apprentice.

In the 19th Century the industrial revolution transformed the fire service in New England as many communities adopted steam fire engines. Many of these were built by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company of Manchester, New Hampshire.

There were many other New England builders of steam fire engines. These included William Jeffers of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the Allerton Iron Works Manufacturing Company of Naugatuck, Connecticut, Junkett & Freeman of Boston, the Portland Machine Company of Portland, Maine, and the Cole Brothers of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Unfortunately, firefighting technology did not keep pace the growth of New England cities in the 18th and 19th Centuries devastating conflagrations happened with alarming frequency. The best known among these is the 1872 Great Boston Fire. Other conflagrations included Fall River (1843) Portland (1866), Boston (1894), Lynn (1889) Lowell (1904), Chelsea (1908), Bangor (1911), Houlton (1911) and Salem (1914). These fires had a tremendous economic impact on the communities in which they occurred. Many smaller conflagrations and mill fires have left hundreds of New Englanders homeless or jobless.

New England was not the birthplace of motor fire apparatus in the United States. However, it was the region in which motor fire apparatus proliferated most rapidly. From 1907 until the early 1920s, New England had the greatest concentration of motor fire apparatus in America.

New England also had the greatest concentration of early motor fire apparatus manufacturers. These firms included Knox, Locomobile, ALCO, Pope-Hartford, the American & British Company, the Combination Ladder Company, P.E. Cleary, O.F. Kress, James Filleul, D.E. McCann & Sons and the Maxim Motor Company.

Maxim would become one of the leading regional builders of fire apparatus in America as well as a leading builder of aerial ladder assemblies that were used by several other firms. Other significant fire apparatus builders in New England included the Woods Engineering, the Farrar Company, Continental Fire Trucks, the Providence Body Company and Ranger.

Despite New England’s pioneering adoption of motor fire apparatus, New England’s dense urban environments continued to suffer terrible conflagrations. These included Fall River (1928), Auburn (1933), Dorchester (1964), Chelsea (1973) and Lynn (1981). New England also suffered some of the most-deadly fires in American history. These include the Coconut Grove Fire (1942) and the Hartford Circus Fire (1944).

As New England was the first industrialized section of America, it also was the first region to experience deindustrialization on a large scale. Because New England had a diverse manufacturing economy, different parts of New England experienced industrial and economic decline at different times.

After the post-war boom of the 1950s many cities in New England lost many manufacturing jobs and experienced sharp population declines as residents moved to suburban communities. This demographic shift created many challenges for the New England fire service and municipalities.

The New England fire service has been one of the most progressive in the nation. New England fire departments were among the first to use self-propelled steam fire engines (1872) and electric powered fire apparatus (1905). With the adoption of motor fire apparatus starting in 1906, several New England fire departments pioneered the adoption of motorized manpower squads that changed the way that many American urban fire departments operated.

The New England fire service also has paid a terrible price in protecting the region’s residents. Hundreds of New England firefighters have died in the line of duty.

Today New England is protected by thousands of firefighters. These brave men and women continue this proud heritage of service.


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