WAY WE WERE: Fighting fires (and politics) the old fashioned way

We have a scene from what we believe is the mid-1920s as the members of the Augusta Fire Department’s Engine Co. No. 5 stand proudly with their pride and joy — a motorized firetruck. Such mechanized innovations had replaced the city’s horse-drawn vehicles only a decade before.

 

Augustans were generally proud of their firefighters. One Chronicle feature in 1922 put it this way: “From the days of the volunteers in 1798 to the day that it was made into a paid department, Nov. 26, 1886, it has numbered on its roll men who have always been noted for their bravery in the performance of their duties and up to the present day the members are still ‘carrying on’ upholding the traditions of the men before them.”

In this photo, the fire engine, possibly a 1925 American LaFrance, would have had an in-line 6-cylinder engine with a manual transmission.

Such vehicles, which weighed about 8,500 pounds, were well built and some remained in use for 30 to 40 years.

The men in the photo are not identified, but a 1922 report published in The Chronicle lists No. 5’s roster as: B.C. Hoy, foreman; J.J. Jones, acting assistant foreman; John Sikes, engineer; and privates Ralph Tuggle, John Stalnaker, H.W. Baldowski and K.G. Shipp.

Almost a century ago, Fire Station No. 5 was located near Gwinnett Street, today’s Laney-Walker Boulevard. It would later move to other locations, such as Milledgeville Road.

Unfortunately for the proud crew of No. 5, the Augusta City Council wanted to close their station. Always looking for ways to trim costs, the councilmen thought they could shift the crew to another fire station, No. 4, and let them work double shifts, what they called a “two-platoon” system.

The City Council wanted to “abandon” No. 5.

But the Augusta Civil Service Commission disagreed, and did so firmly. No. 5, they said, handled 40 percent more fire calls than No. 4. In a September 1922 story the commissioners — who hinted they knew more about firefighting than the politicians — said No. 5 needed more men, not closure.

The day was saved.

It wasn’t the last time that politics had crept into the fire department and certainly wasn’t the first. The best example of that would have been the Great Fire of 1916.

A 1974 Augusta College history department investigation into our town’s most celebrated calamity found the mayor and city council in 1916 had pinched pennies while overlooking safety needs and rejecting requests for fire engines that weren’t pulled by horses.

Revelation of such lack of public stewardship prompted Chronicle editor Louis Harris to write, “When someone asked me to define Augusta in one sentence, I offered this: A city wherein lives some of the finest and most generous people I have ever known, and some of the least capable politicians I have ever met.”

Harris said what saved Augus­ta were its good private citizens, not its political leaders.

“History generally proves itself to be an excellent teacher,” he added.

 

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