To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Camden Fire Department, a very limited edition history was published in 1994. The fire fighters of Camden have served the city well, often with less than adequate staffing and equipment, and have compiled an admirable record not only during the years covered in the abovementioned book, but in the years since. I doubt that anywhere in the United States have so few done so much for so many with so little.
That being said, I believe that the story of the fire fighters in Camden deserves being told to a much wider audience that the original limited edition book could ever hope to reach, so it will presented here and on other web-pages within the www.dvrbs.com website.
Please contact me with any comments, questions, or corrections.... and I'm always happy to add further information about the people and event described here. Books have limited space. This website has unlimited space!
This page was first set up on February 27, 2005. Pictures will be added soon
|Camden Fire Department 1869-1994|
In 1950, Acting Chief Walter Mertz retired from the Department. He was succeeded by Chief of Department William Van Pfefferle. "Pappy Van" as he was fondly called by the men of the department, was the last of an old breed, cast from the same mold as such men as Lennox and Elfreth before him. Under his tenure, Van would bring to the Department the time honored values and disciplines of the old fire service.
From 1950 to 1959, the department would also replace its entire fleet of hose wagons. The Department Shop under the direction of Superintendent Al Healy, Assistant Joseph Snyder and Fire Mechanics Earl VanSandt and Ed Campbell, would design and manufacture most of these apparatus in house. A young fireman, John J. Mogck Jr., would be detailed to the Shops because of his skill and experience in welding and cutting. The Department would acquire commercial truck chassis upon which the hose wagon bodies would be fabricated. The first of these units was a 1951 GMC, two and one-half ton chassis. The hose wagon body was equipped with a 250 GPM Hale Pump, a 1000 GPM deckpipe, a 150 gallon booster tank, and a cartridge canister containing "Wet Water" - an additive agent designed to allow water to penetrate and soak through deep seated fire in baled rags; paper; etc. Engine Companies 2 and 8 were the first units to receive the new hose wagons. Subsequent years would also include Dodge chassis.
On March 6,1950, the Courier Post Headlines read: "City Studies Closing of Police Precinct and Firehouse - May Be Shifted to Headquarters". In a politically contrived proposal, Public Safety Director David Aaron announced that the closing of the Third District Police Precinct and the quarters of Engine Company 9, Ladder Company 3 and the 2nd Battalion were under consideration. He also said that if the police and fire stations were closed, the buildings would be sold. East Camden residents and merchants were outraged at the announcement. Various civic associations and community groups protested vigorously. The debate continued for several months. Many in the Department were less than concerned over the planned reductions, in that few could take the announcement seriously. The proposed closing would leave Engine Company 11 by themselves in the Cramer Hill section, to cover all of greater East Camden and without the services of a ladder company. The plan was more than folly - it was ludicrous. Finally a decision was made: the police station would close and personnel would transfer to Police Headquarters at City Hall. The firehouse would of course remain open.
The Electrical Bureau was the municipal agency responsible for the maintenance of traffic signals, police call boxes and fire alarm boxes throughout the City. On March 3,1950, Bureau Chief Harry A. Wolfe retired following nearly fifty years of service to the City. Patrick J. Sullivan was appointed his successor. Harry Wolfe had worked with such old timers as Fire Dispatcher Billy Brower at the old fire alarm office in City Hall on Haddon Avenue. The Electrical Bureau shop was located next to Fire Headquarters at Fifth and Arch Streets.
On January 1,1951, the Department adopted a three platoon, 56 hour work week to replace the former two platoon, 72 hour system. The Department would add fifty-three Probationary Firemen to the ranks, and a reorganization would abolish the titles of Battalion Chief and Deputy Chief, adopting the consolidated position of District Chief at the salary level of the former Deputy Chief's rank. This reorganization was effective at midnight, July 1st.
The nineteen fifties witnessed many spectacular fires in the City of Camden. Commercial buildings, mercantile properties and very old churches provided a seemingly endless source of Greater Alarms. In terms of the old adage "Practice Makes Perfect", the experience level among Camden Fire Fighters in combating major fires was formidable to say the least. The Department also incurred more than its share of arduous fire duty at many other incidents of less notable nature.
The Cramer Hill waterfront was frequently the scene of such lesser campaigns. The Cramer Hill mud flats along the Delaware River extended northward from 27th Street and Buren Avenue, along Adams and Farragut Avenues to about 33rd Street. Along this area of shoreline was a grave yard for derelict barges and scowls, that ran for several city blocks. A majority of these discarded vessels, grounded and fully exposed at low tide, were comprised of rotting, heavy timbers with some being as large as two and three stories above grade. One especially spectacular blaze during 1951 started in Noecker's Shipyard on the river above 27th Street. Salvagers using torches to remove metal from a 182 foot long floating dry dock, accidentally set fire to ancient timbers. Attempting to put out the fire with hand extinguishers, they were soon driven back as flames roared out of control. Engine Company 11 arriving first due, found fire shooting 75 feet over the tree tops with large embers blowing down wind igniting derelict barges. District Chief Robert Wonsetler transmitted a second alarm on arrival. The heavily wooded area, remote from paved streets, posed serious access problems for responding companies. When the river tide was favorable, a Philadelphia Fireboat could often get in and darken the fire in a short period of time. But when the tide was out, the boat had no access. This remote area, also absent of hydrants, compelled fire fighters to stretch hoselines for several blocks, often by hand as they wore themselves out in the process of getting water on the fire. Over some twenty year period, hundreds of Mud Flat Campaigns were waged by Cramer Hill Fire Fighters, many of which were Greater Alarms.
For many years throughout the 1930s and 40s, Engine Company 2 at Fire Headquarters performed double duty as a Rescue Squad. The unit was designated to carry special equipment including a pulmonary motor (inhalator), mechanical jacks, forcible entry tools, bung and plug accessories, and a first aid kit containing splints, bandages and distilled water. Industrial accidents, refrigerated ammonia leaks, broken acid carboys, and medical emergencies - the dispatcher would take Engine Company 2 out of service and the Rescue Squad would respond throughout the city.
In later years following the organization of a dedicated Rescue Company, Engine Companies 3 and 9 would similarly carry special equipment to function as ancillary Rescue Squads in their respective areas of the city. In 1951 the Department organized Rescue Company 1 and purchased a new apparatus with accompanying equipment. It would be the last new fire company organized in the City of Camden. The Rescue Company was very well suited to performing special operations where physical entrapment demanded expert skills. But it's hallmark of service to the Department, established early on, was it's ability to perform extraordinary fire duty. The company's roster included such stalwarts as Philip "Unck" Stinger, Artie Batten, John DiMaggio, Bill Stibi and big Ed Brendlinger, to name just a few. The experience level and professional capabilities of these fire fighters established the Rescue as a premiere unit. Over the years, there were Chief Officers that would special call the Rescue Company to the fire in lieu of a second alarm assignment! No greater mark of professional homage could be paid.
On October 28, 1951, a blaze occurred at the Giordano Waste Material Company on Mt. Ephraim Avenue at Olympia Road, Fairview. The fire was located beneath a metal press and baling machine at the bottom of a 16 foot pit. One worker was critically burned while two others were killed - their bodies found in the trench. Engine Company 10 controlled the blaze while Rescue Company 1 extricated the victims.
On October 26, 1952, Firemen Joshua Robinson and William Hinch of Ladder Company 2, rescued a woman from a fire at Locust and Chestnut Streets, South Camden. The victim was removed to Cooper Hospital for serious smoke inhalation and survived. On the following morning, a spectacular third alarm occurred at the West Jersey Paper Company, Delaware Avenue and Elm Street, North Camden. District Chief Harry Wagner found flames leaping 100 feet above the 50 x 150 foot, one story building. Fire fighters mounted huge piles of coal in the adjoining Shelton & Sons coal yard to position hose streams on the burning factory. The plant was a total loss.
On Tuesday morning, December 16, 1952, Second District units of East Camden were dispatched to a dwelling fire. Shortly thereafter, another alarm was received for the Grace Baptist Church at 27th and Cramer Streets, just one block from the quarters of Engine 9 and Ladder 3, which was vacated by the previous alarm. First District units from center city and North Camden normally assigned on the second alarm, were now responding first due to the church. Off duty Fire Dispatcher Rex Hurlock, who resided a few doors down from the church, saw the heavy smoke and was able to rescue an infirm 76 year old woman from an adjoining building. First arriving units transmitted the second alarm, and Chief Van Pfefferle shortly thereafter, called a third alarm. South Camden units from the 3rd District responded on the second alarm, while the original units from East Camden that were becoming available from the dwelling fire. responded on the third. The blaze originated in the basement and extended upward through interior walls, venting out the roof. In the early stages of the fire, an inside odor of illuminating gas was detected and companies were withdrawn from the interior as the gas company was summoned to shut off t he gas service at the street. At the height of the blaze, huge pieces of razor sharp roof slate rained down, endangering firemen. The fire destroyed most of the building including a six thousand dollar pipe organ. Estimated damage was $75,000. The church had over 600 members. The original church erected in 1890, was destroyed by fire in 1904. A new edifice completed in 1906 was also destroyed by yet another blaze in 1913. Firemen Elmer Johnson and John McKay were injured at the latest incident.
During 1953, the City was informed by the Federal Government that the Civil Defense agency was furnishing heavy rescue vehicles to scores of major cities throughout the country. Camden was a selected municipality. Later the Department would accept delivery of a 1955 Diamond Reo, heavy rescue van The Department's current rescue, a 1951 GMC, was less than four years old when the C.D. rig was delivered. The GMC was reassigned to the quarters of Engine Company 7, first as a spare rescue apparatus and later, as an un-staffed special unit equipped with foam. The apparatus was designated as "Special Service 1" and remained in operation until its disposal in 1976.
On May 19,1953, Fireman Dominick Persiani of Engine Company 7 made the Supreme Sacrifice in the line of duty.
At 9:23 P.M. on the warm evening of July 4, 1953, a Box was transmitted for Argonne Street and Saint Mihiel Avenue, South Camden, reporting a fire at the Camden Convention Hall. The facility was a converted iron foundry, 100 x 150 with an adjoining annex and seating capacity for 7500. A second, third and fourth alarm was pulled in rapid succession as the building lit up. Extremely low water pressure hampered firefighting efforts and a six hour battle ensued before the blaze was controlled. At the height of the fire, two off duty members attending a fireworks display a few miles away in Dudley Grange Park, East Camden, stated that the column of fire and smoke in the sky was so spectacular, that hundreds of people ignored the pyrotechnic demonstration to watch the looming holocaust in the west. For the first time in many years, extensive mutual aid from Pennsauken, Delaware Township (Cherry Hill), Merchantville, Woodlynne, Collingswood and Gloucester City were relocated into the City to cover vacated firehouses. This incident was considered by many to be the worst fire since the R.M. Hollingshead blaze of 1940. Until the following October.
At 8:30 P.M. on Wednesday, October 6, 1954, Box #9 at Delaware Avenue and Market Street was pulled for a fire in the Market Street Ferry Terminal at the Delaware River. The 100 year old ferry house had four slips that extended several hundred feet out into the river. The ferry terminal immediately adjoined the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, a large passenger depot that was attached to frame train sheds, and a long row of retail shops with lofts above. A short circuit started the fire in the loft above a drug store in the retail row. The blaze rapidly extended to the adjoining ferry house and onward to the railroad station and train sheds. First arriving units ordered a simultaneous second and third alarm as a stiff breeze blowing off the river sent hot embers raining down over the massive complex of connected buildings. Upon his arrival, Chief of Department William Van Pfefferle transmitted the rarely heard "Signal 3-3-3" summoning a General Alarm response to the fire and a recall of 25 off duty members. Chief Van also special called two fireboats from the City of Philadelphia to darken the fire from the river side. The blaze was fought throughout the night and a section of the ferry house collapsed briefly trapping several members. Sixteen firemen were injured at this incident.
Also in 1955, all Chief's vehicles were equipped with two-way mobile radios operating on the police frequency. This new capability enabled Chief Officers in the field to maintain contact with the Fire Dispatcher via Police Communications. The Department's radio call signs on the City police channel were FD-1 for the District Chief of the 1 st District; FD-2 for the 2nd District; FD-3 for the 3rd District; FD-4 for the Duty Staff Chief; and FD-5 for the Chief of Department. This system remained in effect until 1961 when the Department received a dedicated fire radio frequency.
During 1956, at least a dozen members received hospital treatment for nail puncture wounds of the feet. In March, 1957, Chief William Van Pfefferle issued a Department Order mandating that all members obtain steel insoles for turnout boots. This directive reduced subsequent foot injuries by over 90%. In the annual report for 1957, Ladder Company 3 received a new American LaFrance 75' midship aerial ladder. Its former 85' tractor and tiller Pirsch was appropriated as a spare rig, replacing the 1928 American LaFrance aerial that was formerly in reserve. In 1957 the Department also replaced all of its 1950 sedans with new station wagons for Chief Officers. The Department also mounted a flood light appliance on the hose wagon of Engine Company 8. This modification would for the first time, provide the Department with a major source of emergency lighting during night time operations. Engine Company 8's hose wagon was special called to many night time operations throughout the City.
From the mid to late 1950's, the number of alarms and working fires in Camden continued to decline. Like much of America, the City was enjoying the prosperous peace time years. A stable tax base and booming population, coupled with a high level of rateables made Camden an attractive place to live, work and play. It has often been said that the rise and fall of America's cities are reflected in the statistical records of Fire Departments. In the mid 1950's, few could imagine the phenomenal changes that would occur, just within the next decade. But in 1957, fire service demand was a declining industry as the quality of life among urban dwellers was prodigious. During 1957, the Department rescued fifteen domestic animals from trees. By the end of the following decade, there would not be enough available fire companies to respond to fires.
On January 27,1957, three alarms were transmitted for a factory at Marlton Avenue and Mickle Street, East Camden. On May 25th, another third alarm occurred for row dwellings on Howard Street above State, North Camden. On September 12th, three alarms for stores and apartments on Broadway near Chestnut Street, injured several members. And on December 22nd, three alarms for a vacant factory at Sixth and Byron Streets, North Camden, destroyed yet another former industrial facility.
In Spring 1957, fifteen members of the Department graduated from the first Heavy Rescue and Civil Defense training course sponsored by the New Jersey State Police at Hammonton, New Jersey. The Chief of Department in his annual report recommended to the City that a new fire station and training facility be constructed in the vicinity of 17th and Mickle Streets, East Camden; and that Ladder Company 4 be reorganized in their former quarters at 2500 Morgan Boulevard, South Camden, to alleviate excessive response distances for Ladder Company 2. These recommendations were never acted upon. Also during 1957 and in the interests of morale, the Department issued one new pillow case to each member of the Uniformed Force for his personal use and care, precluding the need to share linen among multiple members.
In 1958, Chief William Van Pfefferle retired from the service of the Department. For several weeks following Chief Van's severance, Chief Harry Wagner was designed as Acting Chief of Department on an interim basis pending action by the City. Chief Edward R. MacDowell would be appointed as permanent successor shortly thereafter. Chief MacDowell was a distinguished and unassuming man of quiet nature; very competent and highly experienced, whose presence solicited a paternal respect among the men of the Department. 1958 would be the last year for well over a decade that the number of alarms would decline from the previous year
In the wake of an insurance rating survey by the National Board of Fire Underwriters in 1959, Chief Edward MacDowell recommended to the City a reorganization of Engine Company 4 in new quarters at 7th and Vine Street, North Camden; of Engine Company 5 in new quarters at 17th and Mickle Streets, East Camden; and of Ladder Company 4 at their former quarters in South Camden. Chief Edward MacDowell's proposal to include a fire training facility with drill tower and classroom space at the proposed Mickle Street site mirrored the recommendation of his predecessor - Chief William Van Pfefferle in 1957. Chief MacDowell reported that these proposals were based upon the findings of the Underwriter's survey pursuant to assessed deficiencies. None of these recommendations were followed. 1959 saw a marginal increase in the number of alarms over the previous year. Eight more members would complete heavy rescue training with the State Police in Hammonton and two Officers of the Rescue Company would attend a one week instruction course in Radiological Monitoring at Brooklyn, New York. Major incidents for the year included:
On January 17, 1959, a third alarm for a large warehouse on Kaighns Avenue near Locust Street. On the same day, another third alarm for a commercial building on Kaighns Avenue near 10th Street, South Camden. On December 14, 1959, three alarms for row frames on Mechanic Street above Second Street, South Camden.
The Forbes Mill (also known as the State Street Mill) occupied several acres of land bounded by 9th Street, State Street, 10th Street and Grant Street along the west bank of the Cooper River in North Camden. of three- and four-story brick and heavy timber construction, the factory was occupied by a commercial wool scouring plant and erected before the turn of of the century. Large openings in floors to accommodate a network of conveyors, coupled with with heavy machinery and oil soaked timbers impregnated with the dust of decades, made the factory ripe for fire. Indeed over many years several serious blazes were fought and the property saved through the extraordinary efforts of Camden Fire Fighters. By the late fifties, the factory became just another vacant commercial building among the growing list of formerly prominent industries that had made their home in North Camden.
Following its closing, at least ten Greater Alarms occurred at the he site over a period of several years, slowly demolishing the property one section or floor at a time. Integral to its wool production, the factory contained areas of the building where processed wool was rendered by dying. The blue room room, the red room, and various other areas of the building were described to indicate dye processing locations. After the building was abandoned, large quantities of residual dye product remained. One veteran fire fighter described the scene of a Greater Alarm where Engine Companies 2 and 11 were operating their deckpipes from opposing sides of the fire. Engine 2's stream would enter an upper floor window and cascade out the opposite side of the factory, showering ELEVEN'S crew in a spray of deep blue water. Similarly, Engine 11's pipe would shower TWO'S crew in a crimson bath of red liquid. There was no escaping the menacing dye that permeated everything and turned hose, skin, hair and gear to varying shades of blue, red or yellow. The dye permeated the pores of the skin and members reported that white sheets covering the firehouse bunks, were stained in blue perspiration even weeks after the fire. The shell of the factory was finally razed during the late nineteen sixties, but not before extracting one final toll of misery. During demolition, the collapse of a wall crushed a worker to death. Fire fighters labored amid the rubble for sometime to locate and exhume the body..
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