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
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.
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
The Button Engine
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
town of New Berne is founded by Swiss immigrants. The settlement is
named after Berne, Switzerland.
legislature of the colony authorizes New Berne to create a fire company and
purchase equipment for it.
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
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
hires James Buxton at 50 dollars a year to keep up the fire house and
Gooding and Martin Stevenson take over the duties of Mr. Buxton.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
soldiers return home from the war and restart the Atlantic Steam Engine
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.
legislature consolidated all fire companies into one department.
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.
Reliance Bucket and Axe Company is formed. It was the first all black
company in the town.
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:
Steam Engine Company No.1
The New Berne
Steam Engine Company No.1
Bucket and Axe Company No.4
also two black companies in the town:
Bucket and Axe Company
Hook and Ladder Company
from some city taxes went a long ways to encouraging active memberships in the
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
rivalry exists and grows between the Atlantic and The New Berne Steam
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Take delivery of a brand new Sutphen pumper.
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