Without a water system, the earliest companies were largely volunteer bucket brigades, which transported water to fill small, hand-operated pumps. Throughout the first part of the 19th century, companies would form in the various city wards, last several years and then disband.
According to Harrisburg fire historian David Houseal, 1841 and 1858 marked significant years in the early development of the fire company. In 1841, the city’s first water system was completed and water became readily available in most locations. With this came the first hose companies and carriages. In 1858, the first hook and ladder companies formed, largely because buildings in the downtown area approached three stories.
As the Civil War came and Harrisburg transitioned into a rail and industrial center, more local companies were founded and steam pumpers and horses were added to the city’s fire apparatus.
Petitions were circulated throughout the late 19th and early 20th century in an attempt to abolish the volunteer companies and establish a full-time, paid force, but it was not until 1913 that the Harrisburg Fire Bureau was established.
Over the course of the 20th century, numerous smaller companies were closed as fire houses were abandoned, torn down (in the case of those formerly in the Capitol complex area), or converted to different uses. The department also moved further toward full-time paid staff and relied less on volunteer companies, though, according to Houseal, numerous volunteer companies still exist on the books.
Additionally, the city restored the Reily #10 firehouse and opened the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum, which catalogs and honors the 223-year history of Harrisburg’s fire department.
At one time, Harrisburg had more than a dozen firehouses scattered throughout the city. With the recent closing of Paxton Station No. 6 in Shipoke, only three remain: one in Uptown and two on Allison Hill.
Moreover, the spirit and function of these firehouses has changed greatly through the years. The buildings once functioned not only as firefighting units, but almost as much as neighborhood and social centers.
Today, that function has largely been lost. However, in its stead, Harrisburg has gained a well-trained, professional and capable force focused on its job of fighting fires.
Jason Wilson is an historian for the Capitol Preservation Committee.