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Boston’s Fallen Chief: William T. Cheswell

Firefighting is, and always has been, a dangerous profession. All firefighters, even chief officers, risks their lives simply by doing their job. Among the many chief officers who have died in the line of duty was William T. Cheswell, who was the Chief of the Boston Fire Department from March 1901 until his death on February 15, 1906.

2 Torrent Six
William T. Cheswell initially was a member of Boston’s volunteer fire department, which operated with hand drawn fire engines until 1859.

William Thomspson Cheswell was born in Boston on January 7, 1843. He was the son of William Oliver Cheswell and Mary Ann (Thompson) Cheswell. When he was just nine, he started to help the members of Engine Company 9. He served as a volunteer firefighter as soon as he was old enough to join the Department. In late 1859 and early 1860, the Boston Fire Department transitioned from a volunteer force, with 14 engine companies with hand engines, to a paid department with 11 engine companies operating steam fire engines with a mix of permanent and call firemen. The volunteer companies then were disbanded.

1860ish Amoskeag
The Boston Fire Department operated several early Amoskeag steam fire engines like the one shown in this 1862 lithograph

In April 1863, Cheswell was appointed as a hoseman with Engine Company 7. He was one of eight “call” members of the 11-man engine company. The Engineer, fireman and driver for the steamer were fulltime and followed the continuous duty system. The hosemen would respond only when there was an alarm.

Shortly before Cheswell was appointed, the company received a new Amoskeag steam engine, Serial No. 35. After slightly over a year at Engine Company 7, in June of 1864, Cheswell was promoted to be a driver and was transferred to Engine Company 4. That company operated with an 1860 Amoskeag steam fire engine, Serial No. 8.

1872 Boston
This Amoskeag steam fire engine pumps in earnest in the aftermath of the Great Boston Fire.

On January 1, 1871, Cheswell was appointed assistant engineer of Engine 4’s steamer. In that capacity, he fought the Great Boston Fire of 1872. In April 1874, he was promoted to engineer. Around that time, Engine 4 was changed from call to permanent status. Within the week of being appointed engineer, Cheswell was promoted to Captain of Engine Company 4. In July 1880, Cheswell was appointed as a District Chief in command of the Fourth District. He later was assigned to the Fifth District. In 1883, at age 40, he married Millie Belle Avery, who was 22 years his junior. In February 1895, after almost 15 years as a District Chief, Cheswell was promoted to the rank of Second Assistant Chief. He soon was promoted to First Assistant Chief. Then in March 1901 he became the 11th Chief of the Boston Fire Department.

Ames Building Lincoln Street
Five Boston firefighters died in the Thanksgiving Day Fire in 1879.

Cheswell was rather fortunate that before he became Chief of the Department, he was only severely injured once. This was no small accomplishment given the dangers to which he had been exposed over his 38 years of service and him having been at every major fire in Boston during those years. Among these fires was the “Thanksgiving Day Fire,” in November 1889. The alarm for this fire was transmitted from Box 52, which had been the first box of the Great Boston Fire 17 years earlier. This general alarm fire required mutual aid from several neighboring communities and destroyed about two blocks of commercial buildings, including those on both sides of Bedford Street. Five firemen were killed when the walls of the six-story Ames Building, at the corner of Kingston and Bedford Streets, collapsed. The steamers of Engine 22 and 26, the Hayes aerial ladder truck of Ladder 14 and Boston’s 50-foot Greenleaf water tower were destroyed in the collapse.

Chief's Buggy

According to the editors of Fire and Water Engineering, Cheswell always was on the lookout to learn something that would be useful to the fire service and the Boston Fire Department. He was a progressive chief and was very considerate of his firefighters. He was strict but fair and was well respected by his officers and men. He was very active in the International Association of Fire Engineers and the Massachusetts Fire Chiefs’ Association. He served as Treasurer of the Firemen’s Charitable Association, the Boston Firemen’s Cemetery Association, and the Barnicoat Fire Association, as well as Director of the Boston Firemen’s Mutual Benefit Association and the President of the New England States Veteran Firemen’s League. Among Chesswell’s many accomplishments as Chief was the adoption of universal hose couplings for use by Boston and the other fire departments in the Boston metropolitan area.

SFE at work 17, 18, and 21, Dorchester, 2-3-1896
Several Boston steam fire engines operate at a fire circa 1900.

During Cheswell’s tenure as Chief, six Boston firemen lost their lives. The manners of their deaths illustrate many of the hazards of firefighting. One died after falling from the hayloft in a firehouse. One had a heart attack in quarters. Another died from inhalation injuries and one fell from a roof during a smoky fire. Two died after having surgery.

Cheswell’s luck would run out in late 1905.On December 20, 1905, he was thrown from his wagon at Albany and Bristol Streets while he was responding to an alarm from Box 48.Ironically, this turned out to be a small fire.His horse had been going at full speed to the fire, when, without any cause, it stopped abruptly.The suddenness of the stop threw Cheswell forward and out of the buggy.He landed head-first on the sidewalk.He suffered a fractured skull, two deep gashes on this left temple and two broken ribs.He was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital where he was admitted.For some time, there was concern that the Chief might not survive his injuries.He remained in the hospital until December 31, 1905. He then went home to continue his recovery.

Columbia Electric 1905
In January 1906, Chief Cheswell began using a Columbia electric car like this one for nighttime alarms.

On January 22, 1906, Cheswell reported back for duty. At that time, he started to use a Columbia electric car to respond to nighttime fires. It was equipped with a gong and a single fire extinguisher. He still used his horse-drawn buggy for daytime alarms. Three weeks after his return to work, on February 15 Cheswell answered an early morning alarm for Box 15. This was a fire at a wholesale grocery business at 72 Commercial Street, near Richmond Street, in the North End. This is near where the Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park is today. The weather was terrible with snow and sleet. Cheswell arrived in his Columbia car and took command of firefighting operations at about 5:00 a.m. As he was directing operations, he suddenly staggered and fell to the sidewalk. His aide and other firefighters quickly loaded him into his car and brought him to the the City Hospital. Shortly after his arrival, Dr. George H.M. Rowe pronounced him dead at 5:26 a.m. His cause of death was determined to be heart failure.

Cheswell funeral
Fire and Water Engineering included this collage of photos from the funeral of Chief Cheswell.

On February 19 Chief Cheswell was given a public funeral. His casket was transported from his residence to the Tremont Temple Baptist Church. It was escorted by six district chiefs and 60 firemen plus delegations from the IAFE, the Massachusetts State Firemen’s Association, and several other organizations. His funeral was attended by Mayor John F. Fitzgerald and fire chiefs and firefighters from across New England. During his funeral services, the city’s fire alarm telegraph transmitted 6-3, Cheswell’s age, to honor him. The streets were lined with thousands of Bostonians, who turned out to pay respect to the fallen chief. Cheswell was buried in the Forest Park Cemetery in Boston. He is the only Chief of the Boston Fire Department to die in the line of duty. Millie Cheswell never remarried and died in 1929. She was buried with her late husband.


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