Firefighting’s storied history in Nevada City |

Firefighting’s storied history in Nevada City

In the early morning of March 20, Nevada City suffered a disastrous fire that destroyed the old Elks Club building at North Pine and Commercial streets, causing damage estimated at more than $1 million. Surrounding business also suffered losses and many people were without jobs. Scores of firefighters from many surrounding departments fought the stubborn blaze.

Since the last great fire in 1863, Nevada City has recorded few major conflagrations because firefighting has become far more scientific, equipment and training of personnel have greatly improved, and building specifications require a greater measure of fire safety. One-hour fire walls, smoke detectors, fire doors and sprinkler systems are a few of the modern aids that help today’s firefighter. The early days were quite different.

Noah Webster defines a volunteer as “one who enters into or offers himself for a service of his own free will.” Through the years, hundreds of men have offered themselves for the service of protecting life and property from fire. (Please, I do not slight women firefighters; they have been a recent addition to the ranks of the volunteers.)

None of the surviving Gold Rush towns have escaped the lash of flames. Nevada City has had more than her share of whippings. The first great fire leveled the town in 1851, destroying property valued at $1.5 million. Arson was the cause.

Four more times fire scourged the town before Nevada City’s women decided that it was time for action. Between Christmas and New Years of 1859, they sponsored a grand ball and staged a theatrical production, netting $1,075. The money went to help establish a permanent fire department.

The men went into action six months later, and on June 12, 1860, Nevada Hose Co. No. 1 came to life with a complement of 47 members. Right on their heels, in fact the next day, the men of upper Broad Street formed Eureka Hose Co. No. 2 with 34 volunteers. A third group, Protection Hook & Ladder, did not survive infancy; its men and equipment were divided between the two remaining companies.

The purchase of additional equipment by Eureka Hose in 1860 resulted in a name change. Up from San Francisco came an almost new, brightly painted and lettered fire wagon of the latest design bearing the inscription “Pennsylvania Engine Company No. 12.” To disfigure the ornate gold leaf and other hand-painted embellishments would have been tantamount to sacrilege!

The Eureka members allowed that they could fight fires just as well under the Pennsylvania banner as they could under the Eureka flag. So they carefully scratched off the “1” and have ever since been Pennsylvania Engine Co. No. 2.

The original wagon is part of the fire department’s collection of historical vehicles. It is kept in good order and is occasionally seen on Broad Street in a Fourth of July parade.

Each company had its own firehouse for its equipment. Eureka Hose (Pennsylvania No. 2) was the first with a permanent home. The cornerstone for the stately red brick building on Broad Street was laid Oct. 17, 1860, and was occupied the following January.

Nevada Hose Co. No. 1 completed its building on Main Street near the intersection of Commercial on May 30, 1861, and moved in the following week. The building was in service until 1938, when the present City Hall was completed and both companies’ equipment was housed in the new fire station built as part of City Hall.

After the formation of the Nevada County Historical Society in the early 1940s, Firehouse No. 1 became the society’s museum. It is probably the most-photographed building in the entire California Gold Rush country. It is owned by Nevada City and underwent a complete overhaul and stabilization in 1988 with a grant from the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The building is brick with an ornate wooden facade.

Both buildings are well into their second century of public service and are included in Nevada City’s Historical District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A new firehouse on Providence Mine Road in the southern part of Nevada City now houses all of the city’s firefighting equipment.

Paid fire personnel are on duty; volunteers are on call. The City Hall facility served residents for more than 60 years until eliminated by the building’s renovation in 2000.

Both firehouse No. 1 and No. 2 proudly bear bronze plaques placed by the Wm. Bull Meek-Wm. Morris Stewart No. 10, E Clampus Vitus (Clampers), Nevada City.

Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, an author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. He writes history stories twice a month. You can write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.

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