History of the Omaha, Nebraska Fire Dept.
From: Omaha: The Gate City
and Douglas County, Nebraska
Arthur C. Wakeley, Supervising Editor
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago 1917


The first mention in the records of the council proceedings relating to protection against fire was on October 27, 1857, when Councilman Bovey, chairman of a committee appointed to investigate the matter, reported in favor of the organization of a hook and ladder company and the purchase of four ladders two 20 feet long, one 40 feet long, and one 60 feet long. The report was adopted, but no immediate action was taken toward the formation of the company or the purchase of the ladders. About a month later the firm of Schneider & Hutford offered to sell the city a fire engine for $1,500, one half payable in one year and the remainder in two years, but the proposition was rejected and Alderman Visscher was appointed a committee Of one to procure at once the ladders previously recommended by the committee and "a sufficient number of hooks." It is presumed that Mr. Visscher carried out his instructions and for about three years the hooks and ladders thus provided for constituted the whole of Omaha's fire fighting apparatus.

On June 25, 1860, the following petition, or communication, was presented to the council: "To the Honorable Mayor and City Council of Omaha: The undersigned, officers of Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, respectfully show to your honorable body that the said company is fully organized; that they have under contract and nearly completed a truck with the necessary hooks and ladders; that the whole will be complete and in running order by the 1st day of July, 1860, and that they are without a place to keep the same. We therefore respectfully ask your honorable body to procure for us a proper place to keep the said truck and its appurtenances.

Assistant Foreman

The constitution of the company accompanied the petition and the city clerk was directed to issue to each member of the company a certificate of membership. The petition was referred to a committee, with instructions to find a suitable place for keeping the hook and ladder truck, and at the next meeting it reported that a building on Twelfth Street had been secured for the use of the company. This was the humble beginning of Omaha's fire department.

Among the members of this first volunteer fire company were several who were prominent in Omaha affairs. Benjamin Stickles, the foreman, was appointed the first city fire warden in November, 1862, and held the position for about four years. Josiah S. McCormick, the assistant foreman, was a member of the first wholesale grocery firm in Omaha. During the Civil war he served as quartermaster of the Second Nebraska Cavalry, and in 1869 was elected a member of the city council. James W. Van Nostrand, the secretary, was county clerk at the time the company was organized, having previously served as city clerk, and was secretary of the first school board. W. J. Kennedy, the treasurer, established the first jewelry store in Omaha, afterward extensively engaged in the agricultural implement business, and closed up the affairs of the old Omaha and Chicago Bank. He was connected with the city fire department in an advisory capacity for thirty years. Henry Gray served as second lieutenant of Company D, Second Nebraska Cavalry; was elected to the city council in 1862; city treasurer in 1868, and was one of the promoters of the Omaha & Southwestern Railroad. M. H. Clark was city printer and proprietor of the Nebraskian at the time the company was organized. In 1861 he was elected a member of the Legislature. Henry Z. Curtis, a son of Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, published the first daily paper in Omaha. He enlisted at the beginning of the Civil war and died while serving his country. Andrew J. Simpson established the first carriage factory in Nebraska. He was one of the promoters of the first county fair in 1858, exhibiting one of the first vehicles ever built in the state. In 1866 he was elected to the city council and the same year was made chief of the fire department. At one time he was grand treasurer of the Knights of Pythias for Nebraska. Phineas W. Hitchcock was a delegate to the republican national convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency in 186o; served as a delegate to Congress from Nebraska during the territorial days: was one of the founders of the Evening Tribune in 1870, and in January, 1871, was elected to the United States Senate.

On May 25, 1862, a special election was held to vote on the question of allowing the city to borrow $800 for the purchase of a hand fire engine. Only thirty five votes were cast, all but one in favor of the loan, but the council found it difficult to borrow the money and the subject was allowed to rest for about eighteen months. Not long after this election the city purchased part of the lot at the corner of Twelfth and Douglas streets of Redick & Briggs for $215 cash. There was a small building on the premises and the property was turned over to the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company.

In March, 1864, the question of better fire protection again came before the city council and a committee was appointed "to ascertain the cost of a fire engine and other necessary apparatus, and of a suitable number of cisterns to afford adequate protection against fire." If the committee ever made a report it has disappeared from the records. Early in September, 1865, a council committee of three was appointed to solicit contributions for the purchase of a fire engine. But the people took the view that, as they paid taxes to support the city government, the engine should be purchased by the city. A special election was then called for October 14, 1865, to vote on the question of the city making a loan of $3,000 to buy an engine, hosecart and a supply of hose. At this election 132 votes were cast, all in favor of the proposition, indicating that the citizens of the city were well aware of the importance of better protection against fire.

In December following the mayor was authorized to enter into a contract with the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company for a No. 3 steam fire engine and 1,500 feet of hose, at a price not exceeding eight thousand dollars. The contract was made, but a short time afterward Alderman Charles H. Brown called attention to the condition of the municipal finances and offered a resolution to countermand the order to the Amoskeag Company and purchase a hand fire engine and hose "to cost not more than five thousand dollars." The contract was accordingly canceled and another effort was made to have the city buy the engine that had been brought to Omaha by the hardware firm of Schneider & Hurford, but it was not successful.

In March, 1866, Alderman A. J. Simpson reported that he had carried out the instructions of the council and purchased a hand fire engine at Davenport, Iowa, the cost of which was $800, which sum was appropriated by the council. About the same time a petition, signed by some two hundred residents, asking for the purchase of a steam fire engine and protesting against the purchase of the hand engine, was presented to the council. A special meeting was called to consider the petition and a resolution was adopted providing for the purchase of a steam engine, provided the citizens of Omaha would take the $3,000 of city bonds ordered by the special election of the preceding October, and guarantee the additional $5,000 necessary to make the purchase. This the citizens were unwilling to do and the purchase of a steam engine was again postponed indefinitely.

The hand engine bought by Mr. Simpson for the city was christened the "Fire King" and turned over to the Pioneer Fire Company No. 1, which Company was accepted by the council as the official fire department of the city. In August. 1866, a lot was purchased from Aaron Cahn, where the Chamber of Commerce was afterward located, and the following spring a building was erected thereon, at a cost of a little over four thousand dollars, for an engine house. This building was erected by H. H. Visscher, who received in payment city bonds payable in one year. An effort was made to borrow $12,000 to develop the department, but the committee appointed to dispose of the bonds reported that the only offer was one from Edward Creighton, who agreed to take $6,000 of the bonds at 90 cents on the dollar, the city to pay 12 per cent interest on the face value. The bonds were not sold. Twenty years later Omaha city bonds, bearing only 5 per cent, were sold at a premium.

By 1870 the financial condition of the city had improved sufficiently to justify the purchase of a second class Silsby rotary engine for $5,500 and 1,000 feet of hose for $2,000. The same year an electric alarm system was put in by the Gamewell Company at a cost of $5,000, with ten alarm boxes and about seven and a half miles of wire. The Omaha fire department, as thus equipped, was an object of pride to the citizens. In 1885 the change was made from a semi volunteer organization to a full paid department; with John H. Butler as chief. From that time the growth of the department has been steady and continuous. Without attempting to follow all the steps in the great improvements that have been made, it is deemed sufficient to say that Chief Charles A. Salter's report for the year 1915 shows 285 officers and men in the department, divided as follows: I chief, 2 assistant chiefs, 4 battalion chiefs, 26 captains, 26 lieutenants, 1 master mechanic, I secretary, 5 first and 5 second engineers of steamers in active service, 72 drivers, 100 pipemen and 42 truckmen. The total amount expended in support of the department during the year was $307,979.59, quite a change from 1866, when the city "strained a point" to pay $800 for a hand fire engine. Fully as great an improvement is seen in the quarters occupied. Instead of one little building that cost $215, the city had at the close of the year twenty one fire stations, so located that every portion of the city is well provided with protection against fire. The ground upon which these buildings are situated is valued at $128,000, and the buildings at $253,000, or a total of $381.000. Add to this the value of the six steam fire engines (one of which is held in reserve), five hook and ladder trucks, four automobiles, hose wagons, etc., and the city has over half a million dollars invested in its fire department. The Gamewell alarm system has been developed until there are now 123 boxes, so distributed that every resident of the city is within easy reach of an alarm station. During the year 1915 the department responded to 1,131 alarms.

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