Harmon’s Histories: Montana towns quickly needed fire departments

It wasn’t until 1887, according to city records, that “The first Fire Department facility was built … at the intersection of (what was then) Stevens and West Main Streets.”

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

The fire broke out at 4 a.m. Within minutes, a barn, carriage house, warehouse and stable were ablaze.

There was little that nearby residents could do other than save the horses. The town had no fire department, no equipment, no options.

The citizens “worked like beavers” to save nearby businesses and homes.

Later in the day, a frustrated resident, identifying himself only as “Truthful James,” penned a letter to the New Northwest newspaper. “The city government should have taken the matter in hand long ago,” he said, but they were more concerned with saving money than creating a fire department.

The year was 1884. The town was Missoula.

It wasn’t until 1887, according to city records, that “The first Fire Department facility was built … at the intersection of (what was then) Stevens and West Main Streets.”

All across Montana Territory, towns faced similar challenges. Wooden buildings were extreme fire hazards, especially in crowded downtown areas. Fire defenses were needed, as were better building materials, like brick.

In 1864, the Montana Post urged Virginia City citizens to support subscriptions for night fire patrols adding, “Any man who is not willing to contribute to so laudable an enterprise, should go and live by himself in the wilderness where he could burn his own house down at pleasure, without injury to his neighbor.”

Helena suffered numerous devastating fires in the late 1860s. What was referred to as “The Big Fire” occurred in April 1869. “Originating in a house in Chinatown,” recounted the Helena Weekly Herald, it “consumed almost the entire business portion of Helena, together with a number of dwelling houses. The loss (was) estimated at from $200,000 to $500,000.” 

Helena officially organized its fire department on December 29, 1872.

In 1882, Bozeman created a hook and ladder company.

In 1885, Miles City’s newspaper, the Daily Yellowstone Journal, urged the town to create a fire department saying, “There is no reason that Miles City should not be on so good a footing as Bozeman.”

Once fire departments were established, training and resources were needed.

Missoula proudly showed off its new hook and ladder truck in the fall of 1889. It featured “a 45 foot ladder and 12 rubber buckets.” The Weekly Missoulian lauded the horse-drawn acquisition with its “picks, crow-bars, hooks, ropes and chains.” 

The paper concluded, “Nothing is more neglected in all small cities than fire protection, yet nothing is of more importance,” and urged everyone to turn out for the grand ball in November to support the department.

For a time, it was common to summon the fire department by firing shots in the air. By the 1890’s telephones and fire bells were more common.

Training exercises were always a popular spectator sport.

In Missoula, the local papers would announce the planned evening “runs,” and locals would turn out in great numbers to watch the show.

“A large crowd turned out last evening to witness the trial run of the fire department to the Northern Pacific Depot, reported the Missoulian in the spring of 1894. “The start was made promptly at 7:30 o’clock, and the distance accomplished and the water turned on through the length of hose in exactly 3 minutes and 20 seconds, a remarkable achievement, everything considered.”

Missoula Fire Chief Jason Diehl

Later that year, Missoula hosted the state fire convention and wowed visiting fire chiefs and delegates with their demonstrations.

Today, Missoula’s fire department boasts a $12.5 million budget, five stations, 95 personnel, nearly 20 vehicles (including a near-million-dollar ladder truck acquired a couple of years ago), a boathouse and watercraft.

Chief Jason Diehl says two new type-one engines are on order. They take about a year to build and should arrive sometime this summer.