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Over 160 Years of History
Written by: Robert E. Williams


160 Years of Service
In the year of 1850, the population of Bloomington, Illinois was just under 2,000 people. The City Fathers had begun to recognize the dangers of fire and the need for a "Fire Warden". It was decided that a warden be appointed and his duties set forth. "The Warden would inspect each building once a month. Each building that used a fire inside was to provide a ladder, installed with 30 feet of the building.

Prairie Bird Fire Co. & Hose Cart.Prairie Bird Fire Co. & Hose Cart. Our first engine was a hand pumper with long poles on each side. As the men pumped down on one side, the other side would push up and vise versa. It arrived in December, 1855-just two months after a devastating fire south of the courthouse.

It was at this time, just as the hazards of fires were beginning to be recognized, that a young man by the name of Marion X. Chuse arrived in Bloomington with his parents. Although only 19 years of age, Marion X. Chuse had already been very active with firefighting. In the St. Louis area, at the age of 14, M.X. helped the men in the Washington Fire Co. No. 2. At age 18, he became a member of the Liberty Co. No. 6.

It was in 1854 that the citizens of Bloomington decided to organize their first Fire Co. It was M.X. Chuse who rang the courthouse bell to call the citizens together. On October 16, 1855, a devastating fire destroyed eight buildings on the south side of the courthouse. An engine had been ordered but the newly formed group had only buckets, ladders, and hooks to combat the fire.

The new engine finally did arrive in December 1855 and was promptly named the Prairie Bird No. 1.

Prairie Bird Fire Co
Prairie Bird Fire Co. No.1 and Hose Cart. Engine purchased in 1858.
Taken at Main & Washington Streets facing East. Picture taken 1862

M.X. Chuse worked as a harness maker, always ready to drop everything to fight a fire. He worked as a pipeman initially advancing to "1st Assistant Forman of the Hose" under Ephrime Platte-the 1st appointed Chief of the Prairie Birds.

A second fire company was established and named the "McLean". It would later be known as the "Young America". Both of these companies were private fire companies manned by volunteers.

In 1865, at the age of 34, M.X. Chuse was appointed "Chief Engineer". It was M.X. Chuse who went to Rode Island in 1867 to purchase the City's first "Steam Fire Engine". When the new steamer arrived, it was necessary to have someone "on duty" at all times to keep the steamer "stoked and ready". For that reason, on June 19, 1868, the following ordinance was established:

"Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Bloomington,
that the Fire Department shall consist of a Chief Engineer,
and Two Assistants, who shall be appointed annually by the City Council,
and of Engine and Hose Companies and Hook and Ladder Companies."

With those words the "Bloomington Fire Department" was formed. There were three full-time people: M.X. Chuse, Chief Engineer; the Assistant Engineer; and the Driver.

It was just three short years later, in 1871, that an urgent message was received from Chicago by telegraph that will forever be part of firefighting history. The Call was as follows:

"Our Fire Department is entirely used up,
with a number of engines burnt and disabled."

The message went on to say that the entire City of Chicago was on fire and help was desperately needed. Just 12 hours after the alarm sounded in Chicago for the "Great Chicago Fire", M.X. Chuse, along with six other men, loaded their new steamer (less than two weeks old) onto a railroad car and within four hours, they were in Chicago. Two days later, the "Gallant Prairie Bird Firemen" had reached home with the engine in good condition and the boys all well-with no one killed, wounded or missing.

Marion X. Chuse, known to all as M.X., served the citizens of Bloomington for 32 years-21 of those as Chief. He nurtured the Bloomington fire Department-sharing his knowledge through its infancy stages, taking it from buckets and ladders, to organizing its volunteers and on to a fully-manned, fully paid department in 1888.

M.X. Chuse was probably the most significant individual
in Bloomington Fire Department History.

The members of the Fire Department wish to express our most grateful appreciation.


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The Early Days
In the early days, citizens and patriotic volunteers used only buckets, and ladders and hooks. They would form lines, passing the buckets from one person to the next until the fire was out, or as most often was the case, the water ran out. Cisterns were built in the downtown area to keep a good supply of water. They were approximately 1,000 gallon capacity. It was not unheard of that a store owner would actually fight the volunteers away from their cisterns, not wanting to use up their water supply unless of course their store was on fire.

The ladders were used to get to the upper floors and the "hooks" were to pull the building's walls down to prevent spread of the fire. Today we have similar tools called "Pike Poles".

Our first "engine" was a hand pumper with long poles on each side. As the men pumped down on one side, the other side would push up and vise versa. It arrived in December, 1855 - just two months after a devastating fire south of the courthouse.

Soon after that fire the City passed an ordinance to build five downtown cisterns. The first hand engine was called the "Prairie Bird". A second and pumper was purchased from Chicago in 1858 and was called the "McLean". Its name would be later changed to "Young America". In 1861, a third pumper was purchased. It became the new "Prairie Bird" and Hose Co. No. 1. The original pumper became the "Westerner", because it was sent out to the west side. All of these engine companies were private volunteer companies although the engines were purchased by the City.

This "Steamer" was Bloomington's second
This "Steamer" was Bloomington's second. It was purchased from Chicago as a second-hand
machine and won many trophies during state tournaments for its pumping capabilities.

The Private fire companies were enthusiastic, to say the least. They raced each other to the fire and their language and actions were so bold that the citizens complained regularly to the paper. It was not unusual for the men to actually fight each other and trample through a yard trying to get there before the other companies.

There were many problems in the early years. The Prairie Bird Engine and the hose cart were heavy. If there was a recent rain and the streets became muddy, "there wasn't much of a chance for a house fire". The streets were not paved in those days and it took approximately 20 men to pull the Prairie Bird with 7 or 8 men pulling the hose cart. It was not unusual if the streets were muddy for the men to pull the engine on the sidewalk. Another major problem was the lack of water. It would only take a few minutes to empty a cistern and go into another.

Fighting fires has never been an easy task but in the "Early Days" a firefighter had much more than the fire to fight.


The Steam Era
As time went on, the City recognized the terrible threat that fire presented. Cisterns were built in the downtown area and after the major fire in 1856 on the south side of the courthouse, an ordinance was passed that no more wooden buildings could be built in the downtown area.

In 1867, with the advancement of the fire engines, M.X. Chuse was sent to Rhode Island to purchase Bloomington's first steam engine. When it arrived, the citizens threw a grand ball and celebration in its honor. It was a heavy piece of apparatus and had to be pulled by hand at least for the first year until harnesses were made and horses could be trained.

Because of the expense of steam engines and the need to constantly tend them, City Council adopted an ordinance establishing that a Chief and two Assistants be appointed.

The Prairie Bird steamer was heavy. Its tongue stuck out in front six feet. Four men held the tongue while others pulled ropes. The critical job of those pulling were the men on the tongue. The head man at the right of the tongue did the guiding around the corners and through the ruts. It was also the men on the tongue's job to see that the wagon did not overtake the runners. It was not unheard of for a man to be run over if he fell. The firemen were constantly training and could hitch up the horses and be out of the station house in eight to fifteen seconds.

Bloomington's second steamer was purchased in 1871 from Cole Brothers in Rhode Island for $4,300. It was much lighter and could pump two lines instead of one.

It was in 1888 that the department became a fully-paid department. Before that time, there were approximately 18 full-time men and the rest were paid on-call. The men used to get $10 a month to be on call. These men usually worked near the station house so they could answer the fire bell.

Bloomington Fire Department had only two steamers to fight the great fire of 1900. One was 32 years old and the other 29 years old. In a matter of days after the great fire, a new steamer was purchased and money allotted for what was to be the finest firehouse seen in Illinois - a Central Station that would eventually be used as the City's only station when Bloomington became fully motorized in 1916.


The Modern Era
On December 11, 1911, Bloomington Fire Department took a step toward the future when it purchased its first motorized apparatus. It was a 1911 Seagrave Chemical Truck. It carried hose and ladders and used a dry powder chemical for small fires.

Engine Co. No. 4
Engine Co. No. 4, Driver A. Giermann, Captain J. Butler, and Pipeman H. Woods.

The City was very pleased with the purchase because it saved many thousands of dollars that would have been needed for horses, feed and their care. The Fire Department was fully motorized by 1916. The old steamer, purchased in 1902, was kept in reserve and was actually used in 1939 on a large downtown fire. The steamer was taken to the waterworks, disassembled and used as a boiler to power a portion of the plant.

It was one of Roland Behrends' first duties in 1920 (he would later become Chief of the Bloomington Fire Department) to take the last of the horses out to Forrest Park for retirement.

On May 4, 1920, all stations were closed except for the Central Station at 220 E. Front St. It was thought that with the faster, motorized vehicles, the City could operate with just one station. It was on January 10, 1922, that a two platoon system was instituted. Before that there was a 10-hour day shift and a 14-hour night shift.

As the Fire Department moved into the future, the old chain driven trucks were phased out and new state-of-the-art apparatus was purchased. In 1928, the Bloomington Fire Department received a new 1,000 gallon per minute pumper. It was an Ahrens-Fox from Cincinnati and cost $13,000.

1926 Ahrens-Fox
Above is the 1926 Ahrens-Fox. It was the latest in fire equipment
and could pump 1,000 gallons per minute. 

Later, firemen converted old vehicles into usable pieces of apparatus. An old pumper was made into a service truck and went into service on December 25, 1929. Its first fire turned out to be at the home of one of its drivers, John E. Farmer.

Ladder Truck
Ladder Truck was rebuilt from Pumping Engine by members of Water & Fire Dept. and placed into service on December 25, 1929. Tillerman W. Reiner, Ladderman R. Irwin, Captain E. Water, and Driver R. Behrends.

Before 1933, all promotions and appointments were made by the mayor. It was recommended by Underwriters Laboratory that the Fire Department adopt Civil Service Regulations. They also indicated the department had become inadequate with not enough apparatus and needed more manpower and better coverage of the City.

The City suffered a large loss fire on the corner of Main & Jefferson Streets when "The Durley Building" burned on February 4, 1939. Again, the City asked the Underwriters Laboratory to come and evaluate the department. In the next year, the City purchased a 1,250 gallon per minute pumper, and 85-foot Seagrave aerial ladder, and a 65-foot aerial ladder service truck.

Pictured in front of the old "Central Station"
Pictured in front of the old "Central Station", on East Street,
is a new 1939 - 85-foot Seagrave aerial truck.

At approximately the same time, the firemen's pay was cut causing eight men, including the Chief, to retire to keep their pensions from being reduced. Then in 1941, the manpower was cut from 37 men down to 26 men.

The department took a big step forward in Fire Prevention when the City adopted a Fire Prevention Code in 1953. A Fire Tax was passed by referendum in 1956 to provide funds for the Fire Department.

Firefighting has come a long way since the days of buckets. Not only has the equipment been modernized, but the actual fires have become much harder to fight. With the amount of plastics and chemicals in the average home today, fires have become increasingly more deadly for the homeowner and the firefighter as well.

Today, firefighters work with the latest methods, modern equipment and training available. Computers are now part of firefighting technology, being used both at the stations and inside of the fire apparatus as well.

Bloomington presently has five fire stations and 106 full-time, paid firefighter positions with eyes on the ever expanding community of Bloomington.

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