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Reaching a Milestone

Johnstown Fire Department observing its 200th anniversary

October 27, 2008
By MICHAEL ANICH/The Leader-Herald

JOHNSTOWN - In addition to celebrating its 250th anniversary, the city is observing another milestone this year as its Fire Department turns 200.

Fire Chief Bruce Heberer said he couldn't be prouder.

"We have a fantastic group of core firefighters here," Heberer said.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Johnstown Fire Chief Bruce Heberer poses in front of his vehicle at the Johnstown Fire Department building this morning. The department is observing its 200th anniversary.

He said the department has maintained an excellent level of service for city residents for two centuries.

The department was formed on a volunteer basis April 1, 1808. By December of that year, there were 24 appointed volunteer firefighters.

Heberer said his department today has 25 paid employees, including himself.

By May 27, 1809, the first hook, ladder and spud company was formed. Also that year, the first hand engine house was built in the city.

The antique chemical fire engine on display outside the firehouse, on the corner of North Perry and Briggs streets, was originally bought for $500 in the 1860s, around the time the first chief, W.N. Clark, was appointed.

As a contrast in price, the city is now considering purchasing an $850,000 ladder truck for the department.

The old pumper was patented in 1867 and built in Newark, N.J. It was donated to the Fireman's Home Museum in Hudson, Columbia County, and returned to Johnstown in 1974. City firefighters built the brick-and-glass display case for the vehicle this year in commemoration of the department's anniversary.

Mayor Sarah J. Slingerland said she is proud of the accomplishments of the Fire Department. Though the job of a firefighter has evolved and become more demanding over the years, the local firefighters maintain a caring approach to their jobs, she said.

"I think the city of Johnstown is extremely fortunate to have such a professional group of firefighters," the mayor said.

Slingerland said she was especially impressed by the performance of city firefighters and Heberer during the massive April 24 fire on West State Street. One of the largest blazes in the city's history, the fire destroyed several old mill buildings before it was quenched by city firefighters with the assistance of more than a dozen other fire companies from around the area. Several firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Slingerland said all the residents of the city can be very proud of its firefighters.

"I feel the city is very fire-response safe," she said.

Slingerland said the Fire Department also does a good job of handling non-emergency business. She said that work includes pushing for fire safety at schools and in the community and the department's vital code-enforcement work throughout the city.

Heberer said the city needs the new ladder truck he is requesting. Heberer has said costs keeping rising each year to repair a current 1982 truck that keeps breaking down.

The Common Council recently sought bids for the truck. City officials have already talked about borrowing and seeking grant money to pay for the expensive piece of fire equipment. The truck won't arrive for another year.

The department has two other smaller pumper trucks built in 1990 and 1996.

Heberer said how his department has fought fires has changed over time with the city's changing architecture. Now trucks have to reach the heights of large structures, such as those at the Johnstown Industrial Park.

"The city's a lot better off," Heberer said of today's equipment situation.

The city's first water system was built in October 1877, and it was first used for fighting fire on Aug. 30, 1878. Because of the pressure in the system due to the location of the reservoir in the mountains, steam fire engines were not needed.

At that time, the Johnstown Fire Department comprised five volunteer companies: Independent Bucket Company, Tryon Hook and Ladder, W.S. Northrup Hose Company, W.S. Northrup Bucket and the Rip VanWinkle Engine Company.

The first fire alarm system was approved in the city in 1889.

On Dec. 18, 1893, the first paid members were appointed as a driver and an electrician. Also, the first horse was used that year to draw a hose wagon.

By May 1915, the first motor truck had replaced the horse-drawn hose wagon in Johnstown.

In 1926, the department moved into a new home on South William Street. That building is now Partner's Pub.

By 1937, the city purchased a new Ward LaFrance combination hook-and-ladder and pumper.

Historical records on the department since 1937 are scant, Heberer said.

"One of the big fires was the one at Lee Dye at the end of Yost Street in the late 1960s," said City Historian Noel Levee.

Levee said a firefighter died in the 1880s battling a blaze at the old Montgomery Street School, near the present site of Christ Lutheran Church.

In 1990, the department extinguished a fire that destroyed buildings on the corner of Main and South William streets, which is now a Johnstown Dodge car lot.



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