October 28, 1871: Duluth’s first fire hall goes up in flames

On this day in Duluth in 1871, the building housing equipment used by Duluth’s volunteer fire department was destroyed by fire. The Minnesotian reported that the fire was discovered in the engine house—described as a “shack” located on First Avenue East at the “base of Minnesota Point—at 2:30 a.m. By the time Duluth’s volunteer firefighters could respond, the building was engulfed in flames. The building, Duluth’s new $5,000 Third Class Silsby steam-powered fire-fighting engine (pump), hose reels, and the hoses were all destroyed, as was the adjacent home of William Simmons, the pump’s engineer. Williams had started a fire in the building’s stove at 11 p.m. the previous evening and thought it was safe to leave it unattended until the next morning morning. A cry of “Fire!” by an unknown individual awoke Williams and likely saved his life. The following week’s edition of the Minnesotian noted that the Duluth City Council had advertised for bids to build a new firehouse made of brick and ordered another firefighting engine from the Silby company. The Minnesotian objected to the purchase of fire fighting engines, which it considered “steam playthings” and “hand toys” as Duluth’s infrastructure—or rather, lack thereof—made such engines useless. “In the present condition of our water supply and roadways a Steam Fire Engine—and especially a “third-class” abortion— is premature. Such an engine [requires] wage works and good roads and horses constantly at readiness to draw the machine over them…. Duluth has none of these conditions.” The paper instead suggested a $50,000 water system. The city bought another Silsby.

Member of Duluth’s “Hose Company #1″—the city’s volunteer fire department—posing on the steps of the Clark House Hotel in 1872. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

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