Author: Retired Chief Ernest P. Cimino
The Valley Falls Fire District Charter was enacted by the Rhode Island General Assembly on June 1, 1877.
The original borders were marked by the Rhode Island-Massachusetts state line at the east; Dexter Street in the Town of Cumberland at the north; and the center line of the Blackstone River on the west. The southern borders were the same as Lincoln School District No. 3 in the current City of Central Falls. This placed them as the center line of the Blackstone River to the east; Blackstone Street to the south; and Washington Street to the west.
As well as granting to the District the right to levy taxes to provide fire protection, the Charter also allowed it to light the streets, provide a police force to keep the peace, and supply water service for domestic and industrial purposes.
The existing volunteer fire association, known as the Cumberland Hose Company No. 1, owned the apparatus and equipment and provided the firefighting force.
In 1881, a struggle for control of the volunteer association led to a split in its ranks. On November 20, 1881, a splinter group organized a second association and hose company. They called themselves the Genuines. The existing company became know as the Originals.
Frequent conflicts between the two companies led to a special District meeting on August 21, 1882. In an attempt to unify the Department, the District purchased the apparatus and equipment of the two volunteer associations. Taxpayers approved the purchase of land at the corners of Broad and Geldard Streets to construct a station.
The new station, which opened five years later in 1877, was designed with a wall splitting its first floor to provide separate quarters for the two hose companies; its second floor was a public meeting hall. It would house the Department for the next 101 years.
On June 1, 1883, the General Assembly made changes to the Charter. The areas in the City of Central Falls were removed form the District. The new southern border would be the mid line of the Blackstone River. The right to tax to light the streets, provide police protection and water service was removed.
When the District took ownership of the firefighting apparatus and equipment is 1882, attempts were made to consolidate the leadership of the feuding hose companies. At that time, even within the same department, rivalries between fire companies were common. The attempts to form a unified Valley Falls Fire Department met minimal success. An article in the Central Falls Weekly Visitor on Friday October 23, 1885 that reports on a High Street house fire highlights the problem: The Genuine Cumberland Hose Company machine was soon on scene of the conflagration, and a stream put on, but there was not much force to it. The Originals did as much towards putting out the blaze as the Genuines, and it is a significant fact that the foreman of the Genuines had no control over them whatsoever. The Visitor hopes that the affect of not obeying orders will be remedied before a more serious conflagration may occur.
A Dangerous Fire Brings Changes to the Department
On Saturday April 20, 1907, a serious fire occurred that would lead to major improvements in fire protection for Valley Falls.
At 6:30 AM on that windy morning, a fire broke out at the J. B. Morin Construction Company at 199 Broad Street. The complex covered the east side of Broad Street from the current St. Patrick’s School to the post office building. There were several structures, the largest a two story wood frame of 72,000 square feet. Between the structures, there was storage areas loaded with combustible building materials. Fanned by the strong winds, and feeding on the stored combustibles, flames spread quickly throughout the complex. Wind blown embers landed on wooden box cars in the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad’s freight yard to the rear. Others were carried to the High and Abbott Street area where at least three houses were ignited. Intense heat generated by the fire threatened buildings all along Broad Street, and those that were closest began to burn.
A newspaper article appearing on Monday April 22nd reported that the fire came close to destroying the entire lower end of Valley Falls. The work of the Valley Falls firefighters, and those from other communities who came to assist, was credited with preventing a disaster. It described how residents, Railroad employees, and Morin’s workers pitched in to help stop the spreading flames.
According to the reporter, the need to improve fire protection in the District had been being discussed for some time without result. This fire made it clear to the people of Valley Falls that something needed to be done.
The first District meeting after the Morin fire took place on November 30, 1907. Taxpayers attending approved the funds to install a telegraph fire alarm system. At the time, the New York, New Haven & Hartford’s Repair Shop whistle was used to alert District firefighters. Fires had to be reported there. The information as to where the Department was needed had to be relayed up Broad Street to the fire station.
The telegraph alarm system placed coded boxes in District neighborhoods. A whistle was placed at the fire station. This whistle activated as soon as a fire alarm box was pulled. It blew out the coded box number, allowing firefighters to immediately know where their services were needed.
The date upon which the installation was complete is unknown. However, entries in the fire log provide an indication. The first box alarm of fire was logged on September 20, 1908: alarm for a fire was sounded from box 43 for a fire in a pile of sleepers in the freight yard at Lonsdale.
The first entry that indicates use of the station’s whistle does not appear until April 11, 1909. Up until then the log entries were prefaced by alarm sounded from the Repair Shop; beginning with that entry, the preface changes to alarm blown in. Ironically, that alarm came from box 25 located at Broad and Elm Streets for a fire in the Repair Shop complex.
In another attempt to improve the Department’s response time, arrangements were made with District businessmen who owned horse teams to pull the apparatus. The District never owned horses, and frequently the volunteers had to pull the apparatus by hand.
An entry in the fire log on November 29, 1908 marks the first use of a team with a note that Pat Walpole hauled machines to fire and back. With the Morin fire still a fresh memory, discussion on hiring full time firefighters grew serious; and several forward looking District Officials began investigating the purchase of a motorized apparatus.
Two years later, at the District’s annual meeting on December 6, 1909, a vote was taken to purchase a motorized apparatus. Headlines in the next day’s paper read: Motor Fire Truck for Valley Falls. Combination Automobile Wagon, First In the State, Provided by $5,000 Appropriation at District Meeting.
The vote was taken after a long debate. Some argued strongly for the purchase, including District Officials whom had gone to Lowell, Massachusetts to investigate that Department’s experience with a ‘machine.’ Others argued that the District should just buy a team of horses. Some thought it unwise for the District to be the first in the State to try the new idea. The District’s Moderator, Mr. Joseph Broderick, was a strong supporter of the automobile. In the end, the vote was 37 to 28 to make the purchase.
To provide a qualified operator for the ‘machine’, it was decided to double the salary of the man serving as the station’s janitor from $30.00 to $60.00 per month. Living next door to the station, he could have the machine ready to respond when volunteers reached the station. He would then drive it to the scene, and operate it. While there is no confirmation, I believe that this man was John A. Savage, who was appointed the Department’s first permanent firefighter on December 10, 1910. He lived next door to the station, and his name first appears on the roll call in February of 1911. He subsequently became the Department’s Chief, a position he would hold until his death on May 30, 1957.
The volunteer Chief of the Department, who had become the sole leader of the two dueling hose companies, and, who oversaw all of the District’s progress, was Chief Maurice Drew.
Mr. Broderick realized that the truck would bring increased expense to the District. He proposed that an effort be made to extend the borders to increase the taxable property. He saw the truck as an incentive to convince people to the north of the current line to join as it would enable the Department to reach them in less time.
Those efforts were successful, and on March 10, 1910 an amendment was made to the Charter extending the District’s northern border. Three-tenths of a mile north of Dexter Street, in the area of Minerva Avenue, was added. Also, the area between Dexter and Blackstone Streets became part of the District, as did another three-tenths of a mile along High Street to the north of Blackstone. The northwest border was extended from Dexter Street to Cross and Mill Streets, bringing the mills and village of the Lonsdale Company at Ann&Hope into the District.
The motorized apparatus was purchased form the Leverich Fire Apparatus Works New York, New York. It was in operation by late winter of 1911. Its first response, and the first response of a motorized apparatus in Rhode Island, was on March 16, 1911.
The northern border of the District was extended by General Assembly action on April 27, 1915. The Curran Farm property became part of the District, configuring the northeast border much as it is today.