200 Years of the Montgomery Fire Department
Since much of the early history of The Montgomery Fire Department is so closely interwoven with the early history of the Village of Montgomery (originally named Ward's Bridge, after James Ward who owned the largest grist mill in Montgomery), and because of the destruction of all fire department minutes prior to 1913 in the disastrous fire of that year, it is necessary to review the early history of the Village of Montgomery to get a clear picture of the organization of our present fire department.
The village was incorporated by an Act of the Legislature in 1810, only eight years after the incorporation of the Newburgh-Cocheton Turnpike (1802) which, with its tollgates and historic road-side milestones, opened up the territory from Cocheton to the Hudson River in Newburgh. This route was heavily used by local market wagons and ox-teams with their loads of grist to be ground into flour. The village incorporation took place twenty years after the founding, in 1790, by Johannes Miller of the famous Montgomery Academy (the fourth oldest Academy under the Regents in this State) and from whose walls emanated many people prominent in the business and professional life of New York.
The Charter of the village provided for the appointment of fire wardens and on March 6th, 1810 the first fire wardens appointed. These wardens were Joseph Conklin, Joseph Nicholson and Walter Mead. From this date, our fire department history started. These fire wardens were required to visit every home to see that its fire places, chimneys and stoves were in a safely operating condition. They were also required to see that each house was provided with a leather bucket, which when an alarm of fire was given, would be placed on the sidewalk while the occupant of the property got dressed. This method enabled a quick assemblage of a “bucket brigade” as the buckets were gathered up by anyone passing, thus ensuring an earlier arrival at the scene of a fire.
In those early days, the main sources of fire protection were from barrels and tubs collecting water from the roofs of the buildings, cisterns, the Wallkill River and a small spring from which “Spring Street” derived its name. This spring was located east of the present railroad tracks between the Pine Bush Auction building and Chambers garage.
For thirty years after the origin of the department, many amendments to the charter of the village and ordinances relative to the fire department were adopted. One such ordinance “forbade the blocking of streets by piles of firewood.” A large amount of legislation, like the above mentioned, was enacted to protect the young village from fire, and the residents felt that such legislation was warranted to protect their homes. As a reward for their service, the early Montgomery firefighters were exempted from jury duty provided the number of firefighters exempt did not exceed sixteen.
On November 8th, 1817 a committee made up of Daniel Frye and David Strachan reported to the Village Board of Trustees that they had purchased a fire engine for the village. The committee purchased this engine from the City of Kingston in Ulster County, New York. This became Montgomery’s first fire engine, which was then second hand, and became known as “Engine No.1”. This engine was for many years, until the erection of the first fire station on Clinton Street, stored in a small building attached to a local blacksmith shop. This shop was owned by Montgomery firefighter and future Chief Engineer, Joseph W. Haskin.
On March 29th, 1842, a major amendment to the village charter was passed by legislature. Its first article related to better fire protection through the organization of fire companies, the erection of suitable stations for them, regular inspection of fireplaces and chimneys, and the construction of public cisterns, wells and water supplies.
In the year 1850 came the erection of the first official fire station (at the site of the present entrance to the village parking lot) and Engine No. 1 was moved to this new location. This first fire station was a small two-story, wood-frame structure which was capable of holding two pieces of apparatus. The station also had a bell tower equipped with a bell to alert firefighters to fire alarms. This fire station was known as the “Fire Hall” to the residents and firefighters of Montgomery at the time.
In 1860, the village had begun installation of a central water system which was to provide early fire hydrants throughout the village, thus increasing the efficiency of the fire department. Also in this year, the Board of Trustees voted to provide the fire department with $1,000 to purchase a new fire engine and to repair the old engine. The new engine was built by Button and Blake and was purchased from Watertown, NY at a cost of $800. Along with the purchase of an engine, the firefighters also purchased ninety-nine feet of hose for $103.95. The repairs to Engine No. 1 cost $87.05, bringing the total cost of all purchases to $991.00. Once this new engine was purchased, a fire company was organized on November 3rd, 1860 to take charge of it. This company was known as the Wallkill Engine and Hose Company. [The Wallkill Engine and Hose Company was later incorporated on September 2nd, 1913]. Also in 1860, the Office of Chief came into being in the Montgomery Fire Department. Prior to 1860, firefighters were directed and lead by the “Foreman.” The Foreman was the modern day equivalent of a Captain, with a few extra duties since there was no "Chief" position. The rank of Foreman was the top spot, followed by 1st Assistant Foreman, 2nd Assistant Foreman, and so on. Once the organization of the Wallkill Engine and Hose Company in 1860 was complete, Henry H. Hallett of Ward Street was chosen as the first Chief Engineer of the Montgomery Fire Department.
In conformity with the 1842 amendment to the village charter, in the year 1866, Allen Mead, the village President (Mayor), ordered the construction of a large brick and domed roof cistern in the village square at the intersection of present day Union Street and Clinton Street. This cistern was so well constructed that when the huge twenty-ton boiler for the Walker Paper Mills passed over it, it held up under the severe strain and for many years afterwards it never showed a leak or any damage from the heavy loads of pulp and paper, carted from the paper mills to the depot. This village cistern continued for many years to be the main source of fire protection from which the hand pumpers would operate. It was frequently refilled with water from the Wallkill River when the rain waters could not fill it.
On November 6th, 1882 the Board of Trustees, upon request, organized an additional fire company, known as Independent Engine Company No. 1. This now gave Montgomery two fire companies. The new company took charge of the old Engine No. 1, which was purchased in 1817, and repaired and bought new hose for it. (Independent Engine Company No. 1 continued to exist until 1893, when it was disbanded because of a lack of membership after many of its members had moved from the village).
In 1887, a second fire station was erected to replace the earlier wood frame “Fire Hall”. This new station was built on the same plot as the original station, which had been removed to the rear of the Egan, or later Wildermoth, blacksmith shop. This station was a brick and frame building erected by Chauncy Brooks at a cost of $3,200. It was a well-built structure with trustees’ rooms and firefighter’s parlors on the second floor and fire apparatus stored on the first floor in three bays. The basement of the fire station had two jail cells and a courtroom. This courtroom was often the scene of many early “firemen’s fairs.”
On April 4th, 1895 the Board of Trustees voted to construct and better maintain a system of water works in the village. This system of hydrants and cisterns was constructed during the summer of 1895 and it was filled with water in October of that year. This gave the Wallkill Engine and Hose Company new life, as they now always had a water source from which to fight fires from. On November 4th, 1895 the Board of Trustees, upon request, organized yet another fire company, known as the Fleet Hook and Ladder Company. In 1896, the Fleet Hook and Ladder Company purchased a Gleason and Bailey horse drawn Ladder truck to use as its apparatus. [On October 7th, 1899 the Fleet Hook and Ladder Company became incorporated].
In 1902, the department purchased a beautiful hose carriage at Roanoke, Virginia, which was used by Wallkill Engine and Hose Company. Also In 1902, the firm of William Crabtree and Sons, donated to the department a chassis to motorize the Fleet Hook and Ladder Company’s horse-drawn 1896 Gleason and Bailey Ladder truck. The machine shop of William O. Hall donated all the labor in assembling the truck placed on this chassis and the veteran fireman, John D. Haskin, donated the iron for the job. Thus, the department received its first motorized truck at no cost whatsoever.
In 1910, the village and fire department celebrated their Centennial (100th) Anniversary. It was a huge celebration, with special trains running on the Erie and Wallkill Valley railroads, bringing thousands to Montgomery for the day. Though the temperature was ninety, there was a big fire department parade, banquets and a grand display of fireworks in the evening.
On March 7th, 1913 at about 4 a.m. in sub-zero weather, Montgomery suffered its most devastating fire to date. The Palace Hotel livery stable barn, only a few feet away from the fire house, caught fire from what was believed to be the tobacco pipe of a man sleeping in the barn which was filled with hay and straw. The adjoining buildings and sheds, which were occupied by the Lare Livery stable, caught fire and quickly spread to the adjacent fire station and the Academy because of the high winds that night. Montgomery firefighter and Engineer Charles B. Crabtree, after a water shortage during the massive fire became apparent, placed the big triplex pumps at the Worsted Mill near the Wallkill River (located on Factory Street) into action to pump water directly from the Wallkill River into the village water mains and cisterns. Partially through the fire, Montgomery firefighters called upon Walden firefighters to assist in battling the blaze, since many were becoming exhausted with the long early morning hours of fire fighting. The fire was difficult to bring under control with so many buildings burning at once, such cold temperatures, high winds, and very few firefighters to provide relief to those who had been fighting all night. In an effort to provide relief and more firefighters to fight the blaze, the Goshen Fire Department was appealed to for help. Goshen responded to aid Montgomery on a special Montgomery and Erie train consisting of a locomotive, a coal burning car, a flatbed car for the hand pumper, and a caboose to transport the Goshen firefighters at about 7:30 a.m. of that terrible morning.
The Goshen Fire Department that morning was under control of Chief Engineer Frank Hock and forty of his firefighters. With Walden and Goshen’s help, Montgomery was able to gain control of the fire and undoubtedly averted the complete destruction of the Village of Montgomery. In the end, the roof and top floor of the Montgomery Academy was destroyed along with the fire station, hotel, and dozens of small homes and barns. Many other buildings in the village were also scorched by this fire, including the Presbyterian Church on Clinton Street. The loss of the fire station, with its storage of old fire hats, valuable maps, dozens of articles of the Montgomery Fire Department Drum Corps. and the destruction of all the minutes and records of the fire department from its date of inception was the most tragic loss of the fire. Even though so much was lost, the firefighters were able to pull out the Wallkill, Fleet, and Independent fire apparatus from the burning station. The independent engine had, unfortunately, been scorched by the fire. The scorch marks are still visible today when viewing the engine at the Orange County Firefighter’s Museum. In the time between the destruction of the fire station and the erection of the new station, the fire apparatus were stored in various barns in the village and a traditional iron ring was used to summon firefighters to emergencies, since the bell was destroyed along with the fire station in the fire.
One of the most notable incidents during this fire was the rescue of a prisoner from the basement of the fire station. Officer Jones, a village police officer at the time, had placed two men in the cells on the lower floor of the fire house to keep them from freezing to death, since the temperatures were far below zero that night. One cell contained an unknown man and the other cell was occupied by Morris Collins. The firefighters were unaware that the two cells were occupied when the fire broke out, so the firefighters focused on saving their equipment and fighting the fire. When the fire was at its height and the roof of the fire station was about to collapse, the unidentified man, in some unknown way, freed himself from his locked cell and escaped, never returned even to identify himself. Mr. Collins’ screams resulted in his rescue by Montgomery firefighters just as the roof collapsed. He was then led over to the Hanlon Harness Maker shop across the street to a safe place where he remarked that he had “never been so near hell in his life.”
Shortly after this fire, in 1914, the village and fire department erected a new fire station, which doubled as a village hall, on Clinton Street and Wallkill Avenue. Through donated labor for the cellar by fire company members, the building was constructed for the small sum of $9,000. The construction was under the supervision of trustee Edward Puff, with Chauncey Brooks and Harry Ward as the main contractors. In this building, a new mechanical fire siren replaced the larger traditional iron ring used after the destruction of the bell in the burned out brick fire station.
After the new fire station was erected, the Wallkill Engine and Hose Company purchased their first motorized vehicle in 1921, a Mack pumper with firefighting equipment for $8,500. Five years after the Mack purchase, in 1926, the use of universal threads and the standardization of fire hoses and hydrants came to be law. This assured the interchangeable use of all fire equipment.
In 1936, Montgomery expanded its fire protection area with the acquisition of a Fire Protection District. The fire protection district covered much of the land in the Town of Montgomery, outside of the Village of Montgomery. This protection cost the residents of the District nearly $350 per year. Also in 1936, the Fleet Hook and Ladder Compan purchased an American La France Quadruple truck with pumper and booster tank, which was added later, to replace the motorized Gleason and Bailey ladder truck.
In 1948, the Village purchased an American La France pumper at a cost of about $14,000 used by the Wallkill Engine and Hose Company which replaced the 1921 Mack pumper.
In 1955, the first resuscitator (SCBA) was purchased by the Montgomery Fire Department. A few years after this, in 1958, the village purchased its first 65’ International-American La France aerial ladder truck (which was the first of its kind in the area) to be used by the Fleet Hook and Ladder Company. This ladder replaced the previous 1936 American La France ladder truck.
In 1960, knowing the need for getting water immediately to a fire in the Fire Protection District, which had no hydrants, Montgomery firefighters convinced the district and the village residents to raise money to purchase a 1,500 gallon Ford tanker to be used as a water tanker. Then in 1965, the village purchased a Chevy van to be utilized for Fire Police duties (traffic control), followed in 1968 by a rescue van for the Fire Department, which was to be used at car accidents and other rescue calls. A year later, in 1969, the department purchased a Ward La France pumper at the sum of $42,000 to replace the previous 1948 American La France pumper for the Wallkill Engine and Hose Company.
The 1970’s brought the adoption of a Fire Police Squad (1971) to be composed of volunteer firefighters to aid in traffic control at emergency scenes, the purchase of a Ford brush truck in 1974, and a 1,500 gallon Brockway pumper/tanker in 1977. To go along with the adoption of a Fire Police Squad, the first fire police van was donated to the fire police by Al Turi in Goshen. Mr. Turi used it for a pool business and the van was in poor shape. The fire police squad, with members like Eugene Reynolds Sr. (Captain), John Matthews, Frank "Tex" Dayton, Walt Standard, Ed Shaffer, George Wheeler and more, raised money to refurbish the van. They took the van to Wallkill Correctional Facility and had all the mechanical work re-done on it and painted. It then came back and the fire police squad did the lights and interior. All money for the van was raised by the fire police squad members themselves. On May 25, 1978 the department began fund-raising activities to build a new fire station. Land was purchased from the Chambers family with a down payment on April 3, 1981. The Village of Montgomery agreed to lease the four bay fire station that was currently being erected at the location.
The 1980’s brought about the purchase of an 85’ Pirsch aerial ladder truck (1981) to replace the 1958 International-American La France ladder for the Fleet Hook and Ladder Company and a new Chevrolet van to replace the previous Chevrolet van to be used for the Fire Police Squad. In 1983, on January 1st, the current fire station was placed into service at 11:00 a.m., when the last of the fire trucks were backed into position in the new bays. It should be noted that much of the labor and materials used to build this new station was volunteer, provided by the members themselves. Then, on January 1, 1987, the Montgomery Fire Department separated from the Village of Montgomery to become the Montgomery Fire District. Fire protection by the department would be the same as provided when it was village owned, at this time, the Fire District would lease the village owned station. Lastly, in 1989 the District purchased a Young 2,000 gallon pumper to replace the 1960 Ford tanker.
During the 1990’s, the Fire District purchased its first Chief’s vehicle (a 1995 Jeep Cherokee), a 1991 Emergency-One walk-in rescue truck to replace the earlier 1968 rescue van, a 1995 13’ Quicksilver rescue boat with a 20 horsepower motor, and a 1,500 gallon 1997 Central States pumper/tanker to replace the 1969 Ward La France pumper. In January of 1992, an addition of three bays and offices was added to the fire station. Much of the labor and material for this was also volunteered, like the construction of the original fire station. In December 1992, the department was able to purchase the adjacent Cole property. This property was rented out as another source of income until 2008 when it became vacant. It is now in the process of being demolished for possible expansion of the fire department.
The new millennium began with the purchase of a 100’ Emergency-One aerial ladder with 500 gallon water tank in 2000 to replace the 1981 85’ Pirsch, a new 2002 Chevrolet Tahoe to replace the Jeep Cherokee Chief’s vehicle, a 2002 Ford F-350 4x4 brush truck to replace the previous Ford, a 2004 Ford F-350 pick-up truck with a swab pioneer series rear to replace the Brockway pumper/tanker since the Montgomery Fire Department had began responding to ALS (Advanced Life Support) medical calls, a 2006 Emergency-One rescue/pumper with a 750 gallon water tank to replace the 1991 Emergency-One walk-in rescue truck, a new 2007 Achilles rescue boat with a 30 horsepower motor to replace the previous 1995 boat (this was done with insurance and FEMA funds after the massive floods of 2007), an ice rescue trailer with equipment, and a 2007 Chevrolet Suburban to act as the new fire police vehicle. The district also purchased all three Chiefs brand new Chief’s vehicles, one for the Chief (a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe), one for his 1st Assistant (a 2009 Chevrolet Suburban), and one for his 2nd Assistant (a 2010 Chevrolet Tahoe).
Aside from all of the positive advancement of this decade, the fire department suffered a painful blow in March of 2005. On the 26th of that month, Montgomery firefighter trainee Robert Brooks Sr. was participating in a live burn drill with his fellow firefighter trainees when he collapsed outside of the taxpayer building at the Orange County Fire Training Center. Brooks had suffered a massive brain aneurysm and was rushed to the Horton campus of Orange Regional Medical Center. Tragically, on the 28th day of March 2005, Robert Brooks Sr. succumbed to his injuries and passed away. The passing of Robert Brooks Sr. was the first recorded line of duty death in the Montgomery Fire Department’s history.
One of the most notable dates in this new century is the year 2010. The 2010 marks the 200th year of existence for the Montgomery Fire Department. In recognition of this momentous occasion, the department held celebrations and events all throughout the year. The celebrations began with a 200th Anniversary dinner where plaques and awards were handed out in April. This was followed by much last-minute fund raising and preparation for the largest event of all, the 200th Anniversary Parade. The parade took place on July 17th, 2010 and it consisted of over 100 fire departments from around the state, even bringing in departments from as far away as New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A carnival and night of awards, food, and fireworks followed this huge celebration in Montgomery, ending what had been the largest parade and celebration in the fire department's history. The year was concluded with a weekend vacation trip for all members of the department to Lake George, NY to relax and reflect on the events of the year and other years past.
Tragedy struck Montgomery Fire Department again on January 10th, 2015. That morning, MFD was dispatched under mutual aid for one engine to stand-by at the Cronomery Valley Fire Department while they operated at a multi-alarm fire in Clintondale. As Engine 219 was pulling out, Firefighter Charles V. Wallace stepped into the road to stop traffic for the engine company. A vehicle that was traveling eastbound did not see Firefighter Wallace and struck him. E-219's crew immediately jumped into action (the crew witnessed the entire incident) as the alarm was sounded for the car vs. pedestrian infront of the fire station. Members worked feverously to save the life of one of their own. A medical helicopter was called and landed on the rear pad of the fire station as members transported Firefighter Wallace to the landing zone in their own vehicle. Firefighter Wallace was flown to Westchester Medical Center where he underwent multiple surgeries and was placed in a medically induced coma. As Firefighter wallace exited his coma, he was approved to be tranferred to Helen Hayes Hospital for rehab on February 3rd, 2015. During this transport, Firefighter Wallace developed difficulty breathing and passed away before he could reach the hospital. LODD servies for Firefighter Wallace were held on February 7th, 2015. At the time of is death, Charles had been a 42 year member of the department, Chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners and had been awarded many awards such as Firefighter of the Year, MFD Live-Saver's Award, and the Commissioners Award for Excellence.
The Montgomery Fire Department, as it exists today, makes its home in a seven bay fire station. The station houses a pumper/tanker, a pumper, a 100' quint, a medical vehicle, a heavy rescue, a brush vehicle, a fire police vehicle, an ice rescue trailer, and a rescue boat. The station also contains a meeting hall with a kitchen, a lounge, the office of the Chief, an Officer’s room, a Commissioners’ room, and many storage rooms.
None of the above would have been possible without a generous public, the past Village Boards of Trustees, hard-working officers, Chiefs, firefighters, volunteers and Boards of Fire Commissioners with a vision for the future. Reference should also be made to the rapidity with which our brave firefighters answer the call to duty when an alarm is sounded. It is, undoubtedly, for this reason, that no major fire or incalculable loss of life or property has occurred within our town and village. City dwellers, accustomed to a paid fire department, perhaps fail to realize that the Village and Town depend entirely for protection on volunteers and many have commented on the skill and alertness of Montgomery’s volunteers.
The history of the Montgomery Fire Department is the history of all movements and all organizations that have for their object the uplift of mankind and the amelioration of those evils to which flesh is heir. The present efficient condition of the Department is the result of time and labor. Not the result of spasmodic effort, but the continued and unceasing vigilance. The result well pays for the labor. If those who are now responsible for the maintenance of the Department, and those who are to take their places, will do their duty as have those who have gone before, there is no need to fear for the future of the Department. It will be even more glorious than has been its past.
"City dwellers, accustomed to a paid fire department, perhaps fail to realize that the Villages and Town depend entirely for protection on volunteers and many city dwellers have commented on the skill and alertness of Montgomery's volunteers." - F. Edward Devitt, 1976
March 17th, 2011
Robert Reynolds Sr.