Ronald Churchill, Attleboro's retired fire chief and current mayoral candidate, took members of the community on a trip down memory lane.
Churchill was invited by the Attleboro Historic Preservation Society to speak at their monthly historical presentation Thursday held at the Attleboro Industrial Museum.
For three generations, during a span of 102 years, Churchill's family has been fighting fires in the city of Attleboro.
His grandfather began his career in 1908 as a volunteer firefighter and ultimately achieved rank as deputy chief. His father was chief and Churchill himself became a chief until retiring in 2010.
During his grandfather’s time, there was very little communication available as electronic alarm calls were received on a “tapper system” at the station house – the device rang out a number sequence relating to the location call number. The number was matched against a list of call box numbers on the station wall. “There was always concern that the right number was counted at the fire house," Churchill said. "When the crew departed, there was no way to call them back if a mistake had been made.”
“As for the World War II generation firefighter, their protection was basically a rubber coat, aluminum helmet and gloves," he added. "There were no gas masks.”
Today’s firefighter training is much more sophisticated, protection equipment farther advanced and communication equipment systems varied, but Churchill cautioned that difficulties with communication during emergencies will always problematic at times.
Chief's share of fires
Having worked decades at the Attleboro Fire Dept., Churchill has seen his share of fires. Some big, some small.
The Thompson Chemical fire during his father’s tenure as chief had been the largest fire in Massachusetts history until the 1980 fire in the city of Lynn. It was so bad that even Attleboro dispatched a truck to Lynn.
Since then, there has been a stronger shift in emphasis extended toward emergency medical care. The training is more focused and intense.
“I have always been interested with the cause of fires and fire investigation," Churchill said.
One audience member asked if there was a comprehensive publication relating to the history of the Attleboro Fire Department. “It is unfortunate that this history is not preserved as it should be," Churchill said.
Steam Power Fire
One fire that could be included in a publication if one is ever created is the fire of the Steam Power Company in 1859.
Steam energy arrived in the tiny community of East Attleboro during the mid 1840s with the introduction of a street grade freight railway. The development and ultimate fortune of East Attleboro was forever altered. As a result, the rural community inherited a direct link to the ports of Providence, RI and Boston, which included access to related world markets.
Steam energy allowed year-round industries to cluster and so, an industrial district developed in close association with the railway along Union and Dunham Streets.
Opportunity knocked as a steam power plant was established on Union Street to produce power for nearby factories through a subscription arrangement.
In 1859, the Union Street Steam Power Company caught fire and burned, a result of questionable incendiary origin remains a mystery to this day. Ironically, it is also said that the water supply in the area had been shut off due to street construction, which further compounded the difficult situation.
The East Attleboro economy was interrupted and local citizens were sorely concerned. As a result, on November 19, 1859 a volunteer Attleboro fire department was established. The movement transcended a traditional and limited wet blanket and bucket brigade strategy.
“It was a fire that gutted the Steam Power Company building…in the center of the community…that agitation was started toward the formation of fire prevention methods," according to Mandley Sturdy's historic account of the fire.
This “agitation” coincided with a general fire prevention movement which occurred in tandem throughout the United States and accelerated through the period of the American Civil War and did not abate. Fire prevention had become a serious matter of national proportion, more so in northeast cities and towns.
For four decades following the 1859 fire, Attleboro fire prevention methods improved, but not without calamity.
City plagued with major fires
By 1872 the Attleboro Fire Department had become an official Attleboro enterprise. Volunteer firefighters were gradually phased out.
During almost two decades from 1898 to 1917 four major fires plagued Attleboro.
The Great Fire of 1898 destroyed the industrial center of Attleboro along Union and Dunham Streets. Nineteen firms were ravished along with houses and one fire barn situated at the corner of Union and Dunham. Attleboro was brought to its knees, but quickly reacted as strong community spirit prevailed toward eventual recovery.
Three other fires recorded during the two decade time line were:
- The Bates Building Fire, North Main and Park Streets, January, 1912
- The Watson Building Fire, Bank Street, October, 1912
- The Herrick’s Corner Fire, South Main Street to Railroad Avenue, December, 1917
Horse-drawn engine still around today
Churchill recounted with irony that no horse-drawn steam engine ever existed in Attleboro. Horse-drawn pumpers were standard equipment until the "motors" were adopted during the early 1900s.
Early on, a hand pumper wagon was purchased in the 1850s from the William Jeffers Company of Pawtucket, RI and required a crew of 24 men to pull and operate the apparatus. The pumper wagon called the “Fire Queen” is fully restored and presently situated in the . The Fire Queen is available for public viewing made possible by the Attleboro Fire Fighters Relief Association.
"Modern liability issues occupy a great deal of administrative effort these days," Churchill said. “When I arrived at the fire department there was only one training manual, now I can’t put all the required stuff on this table,” Ron quipped as he concluded his informative and well-received presentation.