Oct 1, 2008 - Mar 1, 2009

Stop, Drop, and Roll: Firefighting in 20th Century Richmond

The Valentine


This exclamation is one of the most alarming phrases one can utter or overhear. That one word can cause a crowd to stampede from a movie theater or bring strangers to a person’s aid in an instant. Fire itself is a terribly dangerous element, taking lives and destroying buildings. Today, although fires are still a very real phenomenon, their daily possibility is largely abstract in our minds. Past generations, however, lived in a world of candles and oil lamps, an absence of building codes and fire resistant construction materials, and manual movement of water. Fires were a constant and unfortunate threat.

Fire protection in early Richmond evolved from on-the-spot recruitment of citizens in the 18th century to volunteer fire companies in the 19th century. With fire a very real and common danger in both residential and commercial spaces, being able to move water quickly from the river, springs and wells to the fire location was critical. Homeowners were required by law to own a bucket, which individuals employed in “bucket brigades” formed when alerted by alarm bells.

In 1792 the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia issued the nation’s first fire insurance policy on the Masonic Hall on East Franklin Street in Shockoe Bottom. Fire prevention continued to become organized with the formation of the Richmond Fire Society in 1816. By 1819, Richmond had three volunteer fire companies: one based near the Capitol, one at Rocketts Landing, and one on Shockoe Hill. Members maintained their own supplies, and each fire company sent representatives to Richmond Volunteer Fire Department meetings.

Late 19th century Richmond saw advances in firefighting technology and the founding of a paid city fire department. This exhibition focuses on this modernization of firefighting in Richmond from the late 19th century throughout the 20th century. Just as many aspects of life became mechanized and professionalized during this period, firefighting experienced advances in technology and administration, as well as increased diversity and community involvement.

October 2008 marked the 150th anniversary of the Richmond Fire Department. As you view these images and objects, consider the impact that firefighters have on our city, from protecting people and infrastructure to providing educational services to participating in community events.

Creating a City Fire Department

In 1830 the City of Richmond used city funds for firefighting equipment for the first time, marking the beginning of municipal involvement in fire prevention. The equipment included a water supply system, reservoir, pump house, hydrants and a Hydraulian, a hand-pumped engine that could throw a high arc. From 1837 to 1854 the Richmond Volunteer Fire Department was controlled by the Richmond Fire Association, a local insurance company. When Richmond City Council became unsatisfied with the Department’s handling of a fire at the State Penitentiary in 1854, it reorganized the Department under Head Engineer John J. Fry and made it accountable to a Council Committee. On October 25, 1858 City Council passed an ordinance disbanding the volunteer department and creating a paid Richmond Fire Department. Lewis L. Barnes was elected Chief Engineer.

The first steam fire engine in Richmond was produced in 1859 by a local company, Ettenger and Edmund. Frank L. Mullen served briefly as Fire Chief by Union appointment during the Federal occupation of Richmond in the spring of 1865 and was replaced by William A. Charters later that year. Charters served as Chief until his death in the balcony collapse at the Virginia State Capitol on April 27, 1870. George A. Ainslee replaced Chief Charters and served until 1880, followed by the appointment of G. Watt Taylor in 1880 and Arthur L. Fuqua in 1886.

In 1881 a steam water pump was introduced to replace the hand-powered pump at the water works, significantly increasing the pressure in the water mains and increasing the effectiveness of fire hoses. Beginning in 1888, William G. Puller became Fire Chief, and the Fire Department came under the operation of a Board of Fire Commissioners. By the end of the century, the Department employed 70 stationed firefighters and 62 “call men,” paid volunteers who worked fires as needed. The Department’s equipment roster included 8 steam engines and horse-drawn hook and ladder trucks.

Ettenger & Edmond Steam Fire Engine
Horse-drawn wagon for carrying fire hose

The Richmond firm of Ettenger & Edmond produced the city’s first steam fire engine in the fall of 1859.  Using designs from Alexander McCausland of Philadelphia, the firm built the engine for clients in St. Petersburg, Russia, conducting a trial on Main Street in Richmond. The company only made five engines, two going to St. Petersburg and three sold to the City of Richmond, before production was halted after the Civil War broke out. After the war, Ettenger & Edmond produced a final engine in 1877 for the Russian government and then stopped all fire engine production and sales.

This hose wagon would follow a steam engine to a fire, and firefighters would attach the hose onsite. Richmond painter John T. Chappell created the ornate design on the wagon.

Firefighters posing with 85 foot Hayes quick-raising aerial extension ladder truck

This Hayes truck was kept at Truck Company No. 2 at North 18th and East Grace Streets in Shockoe Bottom until 1913. In addition to its 85 foot extension ladder, the truck carried 12 ground ladders, totaling 308 feet.

Steamer Engine No. 6 in Oregon Hill
Engine Company No. 1 in Church Hill

Entering the Motorized Age

At the start of the 20th century, Richmond had a paid fire department with professional staff and equipment to combat a new age of fire disasters. In 1909, George C. Shaw succeeded Chief Puller. Chief Shaw’s tenure abruptly ended, however, when he died while fighting a fire in November 1908. William H. Joynes then became Fire Chief, holding the position until he retired in 1940.

The first decade of the century saw the expansion of the Department to 12 engine companies by 1909. In 1910 the City of Richmond’s annexation of the City of Manchester included the addition of Engine Company No. 13. A major technological advance in the Department’s equipment came in 1911 with the introduction of the city’s first motorized equipment, a 1911 Knox pumper truck, stationed with Engine Company No. 4 on North 3rd Street. Additional motorized pumper trucks, tractors, and chief’s cars replaced horse-drawn wagons until the Department was fully motorized by 1923. Motorcycles used to respond to small blazes appeared in 1924.

The 1910's and 1920's saw major shifts in the operational structure of the Department, beginning in 1912 with elimination of the “call men” system. Firefighters were now all paid and full-time employees on call 24 hours a day with a day off every 6 days. The shift system changed yet again in 1921 to a two-platoon system of 24 hour shifts. The Firemen’s Mutual Aid Association was also chartered in 1912. Replacing its predecessor, the Firemen’s Relief Association, the new organization provided its members with life insurance, pensions and social activities.

In 1919 the Department moved from under the Board of Fire Commissioners to the newly created Director of Public Safety, which oversaw a variety of bureaus, including the Bureau of Fire Alarm and Police Telegraph, the Bureau of Fire Prevention, the Bureau of Building Inspection, the Fire Department, and the Police Department. The new Bureau of Fire Prevention and Bureau of Building Inspection represented a new era in building safety, with city employees now issuing building permits, regulating the handling of chemicals and flammable materials, and installing fire prevention features in buildings. By 1928, Richmond’s fire rate was its lowest in 30 years.

Richmond’s first motorized fire equipment in front of Engine Company No. 4

Captain Norment is seated next to driver Charles Goode in the first vehicle, a 1911 Knox pumper truck, followed by three chief’s cars.

Richmond Fire Department Supply Station No. 2 in Shockoe Bottom
Men of Truck Company No. 1 with an American LaFrance tractor pulling an 85 foot aerial ladder
Construction of new Museum District fire station for Engine Company No. 18 and Truck Company No. 7

Expanding Department Functions

Chief Joynes’s retirement in 1940 brought an end to an era of great technological and administrative change in the Richmond Fire Department. The next decades were no less transformative, with expanding Department services and changes in hiring policies. World War II and the post-war period brought Civil Defense responsibilities to the Fire Department, working with citizen volunteers to respond in case of attack. Ainslee F. Taylor succeeded Joynes as Fire Chief, followed by John F. Finnegan, Sr., in 1944 and Edgar A. Sherry in 1971. The 1950s and 1960s also brought the Department’s first African American firefighters, first segregated in Company No. 9 and later integrated into the rest of the Department. Chief Sherry died of a heart attack in 1971 and was succeeded by John F. Finnegan, Jr., son of the prior Chief Finnegan. Finnegan’s successor was Ronald C. Lewis, Richmond’s first African American Fire Chief. The end of the 1970s brought Richmond’s first female firefighter, Barbara Hicks.

Throughout the 1970's and 1980's, the demands of the Department continued to expand into safety, and search and rescue, reflected in its current name, the Richmond Department of Fire and Emergency Services. Chief Jack K. McElfish directed the Department from 1995 to 2002, followed by Chief Lawrence A. Tunstall from 2003 to 2005. Chief Robert A. Creecy has led the Department since 2005.

Chief John F. Finnegan, Sr., testing first two-way radio in a pumper truck

Henrico County originally owned this 1939 Buffalo pumper truck. The City of Richmond took control of the Westhampton Fire Station and its equipment with the city’s annexation of more than 9 miles of Henrico land on January 1, 1942. Radio engineer Fred G. Allen, seated to Chief Finnegan’s right, installed the two-way radio, which was the first of its kind in a Richmond fire truck.

Captains L. M. Bowman, F. W. Schneider and Chief Ainslee F. Taylor inspect a 1942 Mack pumper truck 
Firefighters training in Church Hill

Built about 1905, this fire station has been the home of the Firehouse Theatre Project since 1994.

In this photograph, Louie Atkinson and Jessie Ancarrow train to attach a hose to a hydrant while George Tate, Captain F. I. Phelps and Engineer Howard Simms work on a 1948 Mack pumper truck.

Citizens with Civil Defense truck 

This 1952 REO truck was part of the city’s Civil Defense program. The vehicle was stationed at Engine Company No. 12 on Cary Street. The Fire Department later used the truck during large disasters as a command post.

Fire Station No.1
Safety Director William Groth speaking at the dedication of Fire Station No.1
Chief John F. Finnegan, Jr., and Captain Gibson inspect a building after a fire 
  Members of area rescue squads practice lowering a “victim” at the Richmond Fire Bureau’s practice tower in Fairmount

Who Are Our Firefighters?

By the mid 20th century, national opinion and social trends began to affect the policies of the Richmond Fire Department, most especially rules governing who could be a firefighter. Hiring policies in the Fire Department, like many other businesses and government agencies began to undergo changes with the modern Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960's and 1970's.

For the first half of the 20th century, Richmond was a segregated city. Although the city had separate white and black neighborhoods, no black Fire Department company existed. This changed in 1950 when the City of Richmond established the first African American unit, assigned to Engine Company No. 9 at North 5th and East Duval Streets in Jackson Ward. The 10-man unit operated under white supervisors until 1961, when Harvey S. Hicks, II, was promoted to captain. Captain Hicks led No. 9 until his death in the line of duty in 1963. Not finding a qualified replacement for Captain Hicks within No. 9, the Richmond Fire Department assigned a white captain, Clarence B. Gill, to direct the company. Firefighters from No. 9 were transferred to other companies throughout the city, and white firefighters were transferred to No. 9 to fill out the unit. The Richmond Fire Department was racially integrated for the first time.

Throughout the 1960's and 1970's, although now included in fire companies throughout the city, African American firefighters continued to face racial barriers within the Department. A 1974 federal class action law suit resulted in the Department admitting in 1977 to practicing past employment discrimination. In 1978, Ronald C. Lewis became the city’s first African American Fire Chief.

Women did not join the Richmond Fire Department until the late 1970s when Barbara J. Hicks became the city’s first female firefighter in 1979. A former Richmond Bureau of Police patrol officer, Prince Edward County deputy sheriff and sergeant for J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College’s security team, Hicks was the first woman to pass the written and physical tests to become a Richmond firefighter.

Members of Engine Company No. 9 posing with their rig at Station No. 3
Students presenting gifts to firefighters of Engine Company No. 9

In 1950 Paul McIntosh, Russell Webb and Joseph Mead, Juvenile Detention Center students, presented a shoeshine kit and checkerboards they had made to Warren Kersey and Linwood Woolridge, members of Engine Company No. 9

Members of Engine Company No. 9 practicing at the William Joynes Drill Tower
Herman O. Brown with the Battalion Chief’s car
Engine Company No. 9 Station

Herman O. Brown, a firefighter assigned to Engine Company No. 17, was the first African American to act as the “Chief’s Aid” when he filled in for the regular Chief’s Aid during a day off. The Chief’s Aid drove the Battalion Chief’s car and provided additional assistance.

The Jackson Ward fire station that housed Engine Company No. 9 at North 5th and East Duval Streets was abandoned by the Richmond Fire Department in October 1965 and demolished in December 1965.

Barbara Hicks, first female firefighter for the City of Richmond
Application for Fire Department, City of Richmond
Richmond Fire Fighters Need Your Help
Help! Stop Disparity

Snookums The Fire Dog

Firefighters love their mascots, and Engine Company No. 7 was no exception. “Snookums” was the Company’s beloved fire dog in the 1910s.  In a 1951 newspaper article, then Chief John F. Finnegan, Sr., recalled his days as Captain of No. 7, including stories of Snookums leading the horse-drawn fire wagons on pursuit of a fire. Sadly, Snookums’s days as a fire dog ended about 1920 when he was struck by a new, motorized fire truck. Snookums received a proper burial beside Engine Company No. 11 at North 28th and S Streets in Fairmount.

Members of Engine Company No. 7 with Snookums
Members of Engine Company No. 7 with Snookums and the Department’s first Battalion Chief’s car

Life at the Station and in the Community

Being a firefighter is a lifestyle. With long shifts, firefighters eat, sleep and socialize in their stations, ready to respond to an emergency alarm at any moment. Fire stations are equipped with kitchens, bunks, recreational rooms and living amenities to allow firefighters to perform ordinary activities while on duty, including cooking, cleaning and professional training. Activities outside of the fire station, from shopping for groceries to working out at the gym must be a group activity, ensuring that firefighters are ready to respond to an alert at a moment’s notice.

The Richmond Fire Department has a long history of community involvement. For decades, firefighters have worked to educate citizens about fire prevention. Since the 1920s, the Department has recognized Fire Prevention Week in October with publicity campaigns and educational programs to promote fire safety. The Department has participated in fundraisers for causes such as the fight against muscular dystrophy. Firefighters are frequent participants in city festivals and parades, allowing exploration of the fire trucks and equipment that fascinate children and adults alike. Today, the Richmond Department of Fire and Emergency Services continues to operate many community programs, including citizen ride-a-longs, event appearances, blood pressure screenings, child safety seat installation and fire detector distribution.

L. A. McDaniel, Engine Company No. 3, C. F. Jones, Truck Company No. 1, and Elvin Graham, Truck Company No. 1, cooking steak 
Richmond Fire Department kitchen

This image shows a typical fire station kitchen of the 1950s. Members of the Richmond Fire Department were responsible for providing their own pots, pans and cooking accessories. Besides basic food staples, groceries were also paid personally by firefighters.

Auxiliary W. C. Rogers sleeping with his boots and pants by his side
Chief John F. Finnegan, Jr., presenting awards to Firefighter Leon Jasper and Lieutenant Paul H. Rigsley 

At this presentation, Chief John F. Finnegan, Jr., presented the “Firefighter of the Year” award to Firefighter Leon Jasper, Engine No. 13, and the “Officer of the Year” award to Lieutenant Paul H. Rigsley, Engine No. 23

Fire Prevention Week committee discusses plans
Inspector Steve Foreman conducts a fire prevention class for students
Lieutenant J. D. Isbell observes a donation to the Richmond Bureau of Fire’s “Filling the Boot” campaign to fight muscular dystrophy

Fires in Action


Richmond has had many memorable fires throughout its history. The 18th and 19th centuries were marked by large fire catastrophes, from the burning of Richmond in 1781 by British troops during the American Revolutionary War to the infamous Richmond Theater fire of 1811 to the evacuation fire set by retreating Confederate troops in April 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Building codes, fire-resistant construction materials and technological improvements in fire prevention and firefighting have been among the many reasons that fires are now much less of a daily threat.

Modern life is not without crisis, however, and Richmond continues to see minor and major fire catastrophes yearly. These are just a few of Richmond’s more notorious fires that have been captured by photographers. Many more such disasters have taken lives, damaged property and changed Richmond’s landscape over decades.

Firefighters at Jefferson Hotel
Jefferson Hotel on fire

The 20th century began with a fire of spectacular proportions when a huge blaze destroyed the six year old Jefferson Hotel in Monroe Ward. During the evening of March 29, 1901, a fire was discovered in an empty room on the fourth floor of the hotel. Despite attempts of hotel staff to extinguish the fire, it spread quickly. All available firefighters were called to the scene. Fire personnel worked the blaze until noon the next day. When the fire died, the building had suffered extensive damages estimated at over $500,000. The Jefferson Hotel was rebuilt with some architectural changes, and it reopened in 1907.

One casualty of the disaster was Edward V. Valentine’s statue of Thomas Jefferson that was located in the Palm Court of the hotel. Despite the warnings of firefighters, several citizens were determined to remove the sculpture from the hotel. In the process, they broke off the statue’s head, which Valentine later reattached. The repaired sculpture continues to reside in the Jefferson Hotel today.

Interior of the Jefferson Hotel after the fire
Lexington Hotel on fire

Early in the morning on February 7, 1922, the Lexington Hotel, located near the Virginia State Capitol, experienced a tremendous blaze that swept up the building’s elevator shaft, trapping sleeping guests and damaging nearby buildings. By its end, the fire resulted in 12 deaths and 23 injuries. Damage to the hotel’s structure was so extensive that it was never rebuilt. Although the initial cause of the fire was unknown, the rapid spread of the fire was attributed to lack of fire doors and other modern building code requirements. The fire was considered the worst since the Jefferson Hotel burned 21 years prior.

  Fire engulfs Virginia Commonwealth University student housing building under construction 
Aerial photo of Virginia Commonwealth University fire scene, looking west across Goshen Street

In 2004 the Virginia Commonwealth University campus was the setting of one of Richmond’s worst fires in decades. In the early afternoon of March 26, 2004, debris, probably ignited by cigarette butts, caught fire in a trash chute located at a five-story apartment building under construction at 933 West Broad Street. High winds helped the fire to spread quickly, moving it across Broad Street to the roofs of nearby buildings and into the Carver neighborhood. By the time that firefighters extinguished the blaze later in the afternoon, 19 buildings had been destroyed or harmed, with damages estimated at $20 million.

The apartment building where the fire originated was intended as dormitory housing for VCU students. University officials quickly found alternate housing for students and established a relief fund for Carver residents who were affected by the fire. A subsequent investigation of the fire revealed that some of the building’s construction materials violated the building code. Workers remedied this problem during reconstruction of the building later in 2004.

Acknowledgement: Images Courtesy of Bob Brown and Lindy Keast Rodman of The Richmond Times-Dispatch


The men and women who train today to be firefighters are continuing a long tradition of serving their community and protecting their neighbors. They deserve our thanks and gratitude for their heroic work and sacrifices. Congratulations to the Richmond Department of Fire and Emergency Services as it celebrates its 150th anniversary during October 2008.

Credits: Story

Meghan Glass Hughes — Curator/Director of Archives and Photographic Services
Kristi Austin — Museum Technician
Richard Klemm — Operations Assistant
Jackie Mullins — Registrar/Collections Manager
Ken Myers — Director of Operations and Capital Projects
Edward Ragan — Historian
Suzanne Savery — Director of Collections and Interpretation
Tesni Stephen — Museum Technician
Brianna White-Gaynor — Museum Techician
Katherine Poole — Intern

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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