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History of the Bay City Fire Department.
The first fire department was esblished in 1859.
Added April, 2014.

Bay County Past and Present, by George Butterfield, 1918.


The presence of so much wood materials of all kinds – much of it sawdust, chip, and dry slabs – made fire very frequent. The wooden saw mills and the lumber piles cause the fires to spread with great rapidity and made them very difficult to stop when once started. Fires in the business section also cause a considerable damage.

The first fire of much size occurred in 1863. It began at Center and Saginaw streets and spread to Seventh on the south, and west to the river. In 1865 another fire on the opposite side of Center burned the block between Center, Saginaw, Fifth and Water streets, with the single exception of Arnold's bakery and residence. These two disasters showed the necessity of have fire limits, and after the second one, the erection of frame buildings in the business section of the city was forbidden.

1n 1871 there was a serious fire in Portsmouth, and in 1878 the worst fire in the city up to that time wiped out about four solid blocks. This began at the foot of Eleventh street and was carried toward the northeast by a southwest gale. It destroyed a great deal of lumber, and many houses located between Water and Washington streets from Eight to Eleventh streets. There was a loss of about $180,000, which was very great considering the size of the Bay City at that time. In 1881 a serious fire occurred in West Bay City between Lynn and Walnut streets on Midland, causing a loss of about $90,000. The worst fire in the history of the city occurred in the south end, July 25, 1892, “which wiped out all the mills, stores, and homes from the river to Jennison street, and from Twenty-eighth to Thirty-second streets.

The following account is made up of extracts from the Bay City Tribune:

“The most disastrous fire that ever visited Bay City broke out at 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon in the lumber piles south of Miller & Turner's mill, at the foot of Thirty-first street, and raged for five hours almost unchecked. The wind was blowing a gale from the south west and under its influence the fire went through the dry frame structures like a whirlwind.

“For blocks around people began moving their household goods to places of safety, using drays, buggies, wheelbarrows and hand carts. Calls for help were sent by Chief Harding to other places and soon the enter West Bay City fire department, two hose carts and a steamer from Saginaw, and a company and apparatus from Flint, were on the scene and gave very valuable aid. But there was no such thing as stopping the conflagration. The very air seemed to be burning. The streams of water turned into steam before they struck the buildings. Huge clouds of dust raise by the gale took fire as they dashed along the streets. It seemed as if a hundred cyclones had let loose and were carrying the flames onward, upward and everywhere.

“Some idea of the terrible heat may be gained from the fact that for hundreds of feet the center had been burned out of the paving blocks, leaving only a thin outside covering. Rails in the street railway tracks had been warped and twisted out of shape for several blocks.

Jessie M. Miller, a member of the Board of Education, was burned to death while trying to save his property. Property losses, including 4,000 feet of fire hose, amounted to a million dollars or more. When the fire was conquered after the wind had gone down with the sun, over thirty blocks, including about 350 buildings, had been burned. About 300 families were homeless, and there was much suffering in spite of the prompt relief measures that were begun the same night by the Common Council and citizens in general.

“Bay City's first fire company was organized in 1859. Its engine 'Try Us,' a small tub of a machine, was bought with money raised by popular subscription.” (Leather hose for use with the hand engine was borrowed, and a triangle alarm was obtained. Until about 1876 the firemen were volunteers.) “In 1862 a hand engine call the Tiger was purchased and later sold to the village of Sebewainge. Then $1,000 was raised by bonding the city for the purchase of another hand engine and a hose cart. The name of the engine was 'Red Rover,' and its home was in a wooden structure on Saginaw street. H. M. Bradley was the city's first chief engineer. He was appointed in 1861. At the fire of 1863 the Red Rover company attempted to pass the flames above Sixth street. The engine was being pulled by a line of about sixty men, and those ahead in rushing forward got into more heat than they could stand. They suddenly turned to the west, and the result was that the engine and hose tumbled over the bank and were allowed to burn where they lay. This left the city without any protection whatever.” In those times, if the fire was some distance away, the first horse that came along was hitched to the engine and was made to pull it to the fire. “Fires were of so often an occurrence that the council issued bonds to the extent of $6,000 to procure more apparatus, and a sufficient amount was ordered to be spent in a steam fire engine which, however, was not done for several years. Five hundred dollar were also appropriated at that time to repair or rebuild the 'Red Rover.'”

“In 1866 (probably as a result of the second big fire, which occurred in the preceding fall) the steamer Neptune was bought at a cost of $6,000, and about 1873 Portsmouth and Wenona purchased steam engines. When the waterworks were installed, the engines were not needed, and were replaced with hose carts. Electric fire boxes were installed in 1876, which was a great improvement. The chief engineer was then paid about $300 a year for his services. T. K. Harding, who had been on the force most the time since about 1867, became chief in 1883. The affairs of the department under the management of Chief Harding have been most satisfactory to all, and to him is largely due the reputation the Bay City Fire Department has won for itself outside, that of being one of the ablest and most efficient in the country.

“An old firemen tells of the following incident: 'I remember when Chief Harding was on the steep roof of a burning building at Water and First streets and began slipping toward the edge into the flames. Harvey Watkins threw him an axe , and Harding drove it into the roof just in time to save himself. As it was, his boots were burned off him and his escape from death was a miracle.' He is recognized as an authority on fire appliances among the fire chiefs of the big cities of this country.

“The manner in which Chief Harding handled the big fires that have occurred here since his reign, and the sudden way in which he stopped others that might have developed into disastrous conflagrations, stands out as evidence of his ability. The chief is popular with his men as well as with the general public, and he has never been known to ask a fireman under him to venture where he would not go himself.” It is said that Chief Harding invented his own method of fighting fires in the lumber yards. He would nail boards close together against the sides of the piles to prevent the flames from getting a start in the openings, and then he would keep the lumber drenched with water. He remained chief until his death in 1912.

The city was fortunate in having three such faithful and efficient men in charge of important departments as E. L. Dunbar, N. N. Murphy, and T. K. Harding. Today the city has an excellent fire equipment of the most modern automobile fire trucks. The time saved by these machines in reaching a fire often prevents what might otherwise be a disaster.

Related Note & Pages

Firehouse Morton St. Abt. 1884
(Click to enlarge)

Related Pages:
Union Red Rover 1861
BC Fire Dept.
People Referenced
Bradley, H.M.
Dunbar, E.L.
Harding, T.K.
Miller, Jessie M.
Murphy, N.N.
Watkins, Harvey
Subjects Referenced
Arnold's Bakery
Bay City, MI
Flint, MI
Miller & Turner Mill
Portsmouth, MI
Saginaw, MI
Sebewainge, MI
Wenona, MI
West Bay City, MI
WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.