Author: Marcia Green
It was just after the turn of the 20th century when the villages of both Berkeley and Ashton each secured charters and began the process of collecting equipment enough to call themselves fire districts.
Almost from the start there was talk of merging the two districts, but it wouldn’t happen until 1992 when the two created the single Cumberland Fire District.
These villages were desperate for fire protection in 1899 when the Pawtucket Times reported the Lonsdale Mill was willing to contribute “liberally” for evening protection to supplement its well trained fire brigades of the mills.
By 1902, a news story described an Ashton district that “is fairly equipped and it is believed by the fire wardens that it is much better prepared to meet emergencies than any village in the town outside of the Valley Falls fire district.
“The town has furnished an abundance of fire hydrants, the district has a hose reel, 65 feet of hose, two nozzles and the customary paraphernalia of a hose company. It is believed that under ordinance conditions at least two streams of water can be put on any fire and possibly more.”
A year later came this story about adjacent Berkeley: “The recently organized fire district for the village of Berkeley will meet again tomorrow evening in the Berkeley Hill.
“Since the last meeting of the organization there has been a fire of serious import in the village and this fact will no doubt act as an incentive toward the speedy erection of the hose house and the equipment of the building with the suitable fire fighting apparatus.”
The reference was to April of 1904, when a brush fire came within an acre of burning St. Joseph’s Church “had it not been for the timely arrival of the hose wagon, a whole square, consisting of the church and some seven acres” would have been lost.
An early news article notes: “It was proposed some months ago to combine the Ashton and Berkeley districts but for several reasons this combination is not likely to be formed. Many of the taxpayers of both districts believe this would be an economical plan in the long run but the difficulty of inducing Ashton and Berkeley people to combine on anything has stood in the way as it probably has for some years.”
And so they remained apart as friendly rivals, according to former Ashton Chief Joseph “Coke” Martel, except at musters when competition was fierce.
It would be the Berkeley Fire District that would take charge in two of the town’s most celebrated fires, the 1950 Monastery fire and the 1976 Peterson-Puritan explosion.
And it was the Ashton village that for decades accepted 24/7 responsibility for running the rescue squad with volunteers who went to bed with their pants hung on the bedpost and a Plectron emergency receiver not far from their pillows.
Thomas Malloy Sr. and former Chief Martel tell the story of the dedication that required.
Malloy, whose dad founded the Scott Road oil company, says back in the mid-century years they were trained to stop the bleeding, treat for shock, and basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation. But mostly they were trained to move quickly and head toward the hospital.
Martel, who lived two miles from the station on Scott Road, said the nighttime rescue’s “pretty good” response time was 25 minutes considering the time it took to dress and drive to the station.
He says he preferred to take the role of driver and “hand the others the bandages.”
He recalled the musters at St. John Vianney Church and ham and bean suppers at the Ashton school.
Says Malloy, “The Fire Department was like our boys’ club. A gathering spot for most of the boys of the village.”
He said they’d play some baseball or shoot hoops behind the station – the old one that sat closer to the street – and hope for a brush fire.
Mrs. Conway, who was raising eight children in a house across the street, “and was home 99 percent of the time,” got the phone calls and sounded the siren to call the volunteers.
At first, she had to get over to the station – not always easy with little ones – but later a button was installed in her home right by her phone, Malloy recalled.
The first ones at the station asked her for the address and wrote it on a board for the others.
Malloy, 74, said those who worked in town responded regularly to daytime calls – he along with Kenny Rowbottom, the photographer, Ray Potter, the insurance man, and some employed at the Fiberglas mill.
“I just liked the excitement,” he said.
Every spring, he said, there would be a brush fire at the Monastery. “Always the second week of April when the kids were out of school.”
The monks would help fight it, all the while maintaining their vow of silence.
He recalls merger efforts back in the 1950s and says they failed “mainly over who’s going to be chief.”
Retired Berkeley Chief Bob Joly may be the most outspoken opponent of the current merger plan in town. He’s calling it a “Pandora’s box” and questioning the role of the Fire Committee since the new chief will lead the department. He likens it to creating a committee to oversee Police Chief John Desmarais.
“There’s nothing complicated about running a fire department,” he declared.
He was Berkeley’s chief from 1968 to 1988, taking over a department he describes as “a zoo. A country club with a $1,100 budget.”
Joly, with a Marine Corps background, says initially, “The alarm would go off and nobody would show up. So I started recruiting and the first thing you know we have 15 or 16 volunteers.”
Joly says Berkeley had the town’s first ladder truck, “purchased by the district with the lowest income,” he says, through a lease.
It was Joly who gave the stations the numbers still in use today – Valley Falls is Station 1, Berkeley Station 2, Ashton Station 3, Cumberland Hill Station 4 and North Cumberland Station 5.
Recalling the Peterson-Puritan fire of 1976, he says “it was a very dangerous fire with 5-gallon drums exploding 100 feet into the air. There was a tank farm in the back of the property. If it caught fire, it could have leveled half of Berkeley.
He recalls the “nasty cold” and the call from Providence’s mayor, Vincent Cianci, asking what he needed. Joly told him air packs for the firefighters and Cianci arrived with them by helicopter, says Joly.