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Our History


New Bern's fire department has a long and storied history.  The Atlantic Hook and Ladder Company was chartered on May 14, 1845 making it the oldest company in the state.  When hostilities between the states started in 1861 most of its members left to join the Confederate Army.   After New Bern fell to the Union army led by General Ambrose Burnside, the Union Army took over firefighting duties.  A Provost Marshall was set up by the Federals to patrol the streets between 6:00pm and 6:00am.  All hearth fires had to be extinguished by 9:00pm.  Chimney fires were a special concern due to the wooden construction of roofs and the close proximity of the houses.  On January 1, 1865, The New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company No.1 was formed with equipment sent and donated from the north.  This would later become known as the Button Company.   This company was comprised of Union soldiers.  

As the war wound down, members of the Atlantic Hook and Ladder Company returned home and took up their duties in the fire department.  At the same time, some Union soldiers decided to stay and kept the New Bern Steam Engine Company No. 1 going.  A heated rivalry started between the two companies.  They competed against each other in firefighting competitions through out the state.  In 1868, The New Bern Steam Engine Company received a new steam engine.  It was a hand pulled engine known as the "Amoskeag."  It was considered big enough for the entire town until a large fire burned down part of downtown New Bern.  City officials deemed it necessary to buy another engine.

The Amoskeag was eventually traded for a Button Engine, made by the Button Manufacturing Company in Waterford, NY.  This happened in 1884 and was presented to the New Bern Steam Engine Company No.1.  Since then we are known as the Button Company.  This engine was one of only 229 made between 1862 and 1892.  

                     The Amoskeag                                                     The Button Engine

During the period after the Civil War,  the two companies built a rivalry between each other.  During competitions, the two companies set and reset many world records for producing standing steam.  To this day, the Button Company (my company) holds the world record for running quick steam at 1 minute 46 seconds.  The citizens of New Bern benefited from this rivalry.  Each company wanted to do better than the other, so fires were brought under control faster, with faster response times.

Today, the rivalry is a good natured one.  Both companies are made up of dedicated volunteer/professionals, whose only goal is to protect the lives and property of the residents of New Bern.  We work as one team along side each other as well as our paid members.  This combination works pretty good.  When the alarm comes in, the paid members respond from the nearest station with the volunteers coming from all over town.  With our quick response, most fires are brought under control before too much damage is done.   

We have recently undergone a reorganization of the entire department.  Along with some major staff changes, the two volunteer companies have now become one  division.  Each company's charter is still alive and will remain so but we are all known as New Bern Fire Department Volunteer Division.  Now instead of two volunteer chiefs we are represented by one volunteer Chief that is appointed by the department chief rather than elected.  All other officers are still elected but must meet certain guidelines and credentials.  The department chief used to be one of the volunteers and switched yearly between the two companies.  Now he is a city employee hired by the town manager and approved by the city Alderman.  This has been and ongoing project for a couple of years now but most of the kinks have been worked out.


All of the history of NBFD can be seen at the Fire Museum.  Included in the museum is original equipment used by the department.  There are steam engines, horse drawn hose carts and an early model ladder truck.  Some of these date back to the late 1800's.

Also included, is the stuffed head of Fred.  Fred was the dedicated horse used by the Atlantic company at the turn of the century.  He faithfully served the department and the community for 16 years.  Back then, the alarm was given throughout the town by a bell centrally located.  Fred would automatically leave his stall or the job he was performing at the time, and wait patiently in front of the steam engine whenever the bell sounded.  Fred passed away in the line of duty with a heart attack, while answering what turned out to be a false alarm.  In salute to his dedicated service, the Atlantic company gave Fred a Ceremony and decided to mount his head for future generations to see this magnificent animal.  

Unfortunately, the museum has been slated for closure by the city manager due to current budget problems.  We are fighting to keep it open, but it doesn't look good.
(June 2003)
The future for our museum has brightened.  It has been reopened and the city has appointed a commission to examine ways to keep it open.  This action was in large part due to a few firefighters alerting the local media and getting the word out.  The local newspaper has been instrumental in achieving results..  The future is still not certain but with public awareness now much higher, it is looking up.

Here is a quick synopsis of the history of firefighting in the historic town of New Bern, North Carolina.  All of the information below was obtained from the Craven County Regional Library .  There are several texts used, but 95% of the information comes from a book entitled A History of New Bern and Craven County.  I do not know the author's name, but don't blame me, I was horrible at English in school and never learned anything about bibliographies.

 The town of New Berne is founded by Swiss immigrants.  The settlement is named after Berne, Switzerland.

The legislature of the colony authorizes New Berne to create a fire company and purchase equipment for it.

Following major fires on May 25 and November 17, a fire watch is established in the town.  It is to roam the streets looking for fires from 9:00pm until daylight.

Tryon Palace, the former colonial governor's residence burns to the ground.  Following this the state legislature tries to reorganize fire companies in the state.  All citizens are required to keep two fire buckets and one ladder at their residence.  They also order all persons in the local militia to report to the scene of a fire when the alarm is given.  Town commissioners are given authority to levy a fire tax to pay for a hired night watchman.

The town hires James Buxton at 50 dollars a year to keep up the fire house and apparatus.

Thomas Gooding and Martin Stevenson take over the duties of Mr. Buxton.

Mid 1820's
New Berne acquired at "great expense" an engine of "superior force" and a new fire house was built to house it.

On April 5 the town leaders appointed five men as Fire Wardens.  These men were Francis Hawks, Jeremiah Brown, John Snead, John Burgwyn, Asa Jones, and Moses Jarves.  They were given authority to direct all firefighting efforts in the town, including the demolition of buildings to stop the spread of a fire.

After another large fire, the local newspapers complain of the lack of organization of people  in order to combat the fire.  Another committee recommended the formation of 3 fire companies each with 20 men.  They also recommended a fourth company made up of Good Samaritans that how up at the scene.

A major fire ravaged New Berne in each of these years.  Each fire destroyed several blocks of homes and businesses, including 20 or more buildings.  These fires found the town's fire companies unprepared.  Once more efforts were made to reorganize fire companies.

On May  14, 1845 The Atlantic Steam Engine Company No. 1 was formed.  It is still in existence today, and is the oldest in the state of North Carolina.

New Berne has two fire companies, The Atlantic and the Neuse Fire Company No.2.  The latter was authorized to enroll 40 members, but never had more than 4.  This was not even enough to operate the pumps of the day.

The Neuse Fire Company No.2 was dissolved.

The Civil War began.  Many members of the Atlantic Steam Engine Company No.1 joined the Confederate Army and left the town.

In March, the town fell to Union forces and the Union Army took over Firefighting duties.

On January 1, the union army formed the New Berne Fire Department.  The department consisted of five companies.  These were:  The Foster Hose Company, The John Decker Engine Company, The Lady Washington Hook and Ladder Company, The Denny Bucket and Axe Company, as well as The Atlantic Steam Engine Company No.2.  All these companies were under the command of the Provost Marshall.
They used a hand operated pump sent from up north.  This required eight men to operate, four on each side pushing a huge lever to build up pressure.

During the night of November 19-20, the new department got its biggest test.  A fire on the wharf started and eventually consumed more than 20 buildings.

Confederate soldiers return home from the war and restart the Atlantic Steam Engine Company No.1
Also, several Union soldiers stayed in New Berne and formed the New Berne Steam Engine Company No.1.  A heated rivalry between the two starts.

A major fire in town caused more than $200,000 in damage.  The blame was put on the lack of cooperation between the companies.

The state legislature consolidated all fire companies into one department.

Samuel Radcliffe is named Chief Engineer and in charge of all the companies.  By this time there were several companies in the town.  These were The Atlantic Steam Engine Company No.1, The New Berne Steam Engine Company No.1, and The Holden Hook and Ladder Company No.1.  However, all companies still elected their own leaders, a tradition that holds to this day.

 The Reliance Bucket and Axe Company is formed.  It was the first all black company in the town.

The Reliance Company is denied admission to the fire department for reasons of prejudice.  However, the mayor recognized a need for a company in the black community and authorized city funds for them.  These funds were to be used for the purchase of an engine and other firefighting apparatus.

New Bern Fire Department consisted of:
The Atlantic Steam Engine Company No.1
The New Berne Steam Engine Company No.1
The Excelsior Bucket and Axe Company No.4
There were also two black companies in the town:
The Reliance Bucket and Axe Company
The Mechanics Hook and Ladder  Company
Exemption from some city taxes went a long ways to encouraging active memberships in the fire companies.
Also in 1879 the city bought a Silsby Engine and 1000 feet of hose for $4200.  This equipment was given to The Atlantic Engine Co.



Above is a picture of an 1896 model Silsby engine.   This picture was provided by Frank  Dealy of the Wissahickon Fire Company in Ambler PA.  This was state of the art 100 years ago,  boy we've come a long ways since then!

A heated rivalry exists and grows between the Atlantic and The New Berne Steam Companies.

Fire alarms become competitions between The Atlantic and the New Berne Steam.  When the alarm is given the two companies raced each other to the fire.  The citizens of New Bern were more interested in who won the race than about the fire.  The mothers of the town would dress their babies in the colors of their favorite company.  There were also monthly parades in which the companies would show of their equipment and prowess.

New Bern obtained its first fire boxes.  They were provided by Southern Bell Telephone Company.  It still took 10 more years for New Bern to get more than 150 telephones.

A Button Engine was bought by the town and given to the New Berne Steam Engine Company No.1.  This replaced the Amoskeag that they were using up until now.  Within months they were known as The Buttons which became The Button Company.  We are still referred to by this name, although our official name is The New Berne Steam Engine Company No.1.

New Bern Fire Department won the state championship in Quick Streaming at Greensboro.  They also won the Horse Hose Wagon Race.

New Bern Fire Department is considered one of the best in the state.  They routinely beat departments from Raleigh, Greensboro, and Wilmington at fire competitions throughout the state.

On November 6 the first recorded death in the line of duty occurs.  Johnnie J. Gaskill is killed when a fire horse kicks him in the head.  Also that year The Button Company sets its first world record at Quick Streaming.  Between 1904 and 1911, the Button and The Atlantic trade this record back and forth.

The Button Company sets the world record for Quick Streaming that stands to this day.  The record reads like this:  "The horse used named Ben Hurst.  Ran 300 yards , laid 288 feet of hose, connected to hydrant, screwed on nozzle and showed water in 26 2/5 seconds.  We also hold the world record for producing Quick Steam at 1 minute 46 seconds.

New Bern Fire won 8 out of 10 first place finishes at a state competition held in Wilmington.

On Thanksgiving Day NBFD became motorized when the Button Co. received a fire truck from the city.

In March, the Atlantic also took delivery of a new fire truck.

The Great Fire occurs.

All intercompany rivalries are laid to rest.  A new firehouse is built to house both fire companies and all of their equipment.  However, one concession is made to the differences.  The station is built with two poles, one for each company.

Edgar D. Elliott drowns while fighting a river front fire on June 10.

The city of New Bern forms another company.  This time they are all paid and work in conjunction with the volunteers.  Their main responsibilities include keeping up the equipment, and driving and operating the trucks.

Hotel William Tryon burns to the ground.  This fire has firefighters on scene for 43 hours and requires the assistance of surrounding communities as well as Cherry Point MCAS.

New Bern grows and with it the department expands to include 4 stations strategically placed throughout the town.

A five year plan is implemented to modernize the department.  In this plan are the purchase of one new engine, one new arial truck, a boat, and a new headquarters. Also this plan scheduled the purchase of new SCBA's, large diameter hose, new nozzles and other necessary equipment.

June 2002
      Take delivery of a brand new Sutphen pumper.  


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