By Sara Byron

Fire companies in Allentown during the late nineteenth century are very unique. Allentown fire companies follow a few trends when it comes to fire companies across the United States, which I will talk about a later on in this post. In the first and sixth wards, fire companies are not established until tragedy strikes! Before we get into that let us talk about and understand the fire department of Allentown.

The Allentown Fire Department was comprised of seven different fire companies in the late 1800’s. The number of companies is debatable because the companies have different date for establishment and incorporation. Establishment is when the company is created and incorporation is when the company is accepted into the department. Some people believed that the number of companies should follow establishment date, while others believed it should be based on the incorporation date. The companies were numbered based on when they were incorporated into the department to make it easier to keep track of all of them. None of the companies were given the label of No. 1 because the companies fought over it (Seibert 1992); the companies were, also, not labeled as No. 1 because it was thought to be a commemoration of the companies that had become extinct (Hellerich 1987).

It is not surprising that there was fighting among the companies, even if that was the only fight the companies had at that time. Fire companies fighting was a trend across the United States. The one place, other than Allentown, that did not have much fighting was San Francisco. Another trend that Allentown did not follow was paying the fire employees in the 1850’s. In the earlier 1870’s the only person within the department being paid full-time was the Chief of the Fire Department, John P. Dillinger (Hellerich 1987). Dillinger was the Chief of the Fire Department for seven years. The chief’s assistants were paid as well but they were considered part-time employees (Hellerich 1987). The firefighters were not paid for their services until mid to late 1870’s (cite). It is surprising the firefighters are paid at all because I am used to volunteer companies. But even when the firefighters were being paid for the work, firefighting was not considered their profession. I understand this though because that’s how it works for volunteer companies. The people of Allentown might not have thought of firefighting as a career but they did know it was very important.

Figure 1. The image shows seven of the fire houses in 1908; the fire house in the middle of the top row is Allen Fire Company (Chamber of Commerce 1908, 32).
Figure 1. The image shows seven of the fire houses in 1908; the fire house in the middle of the top row is Allen Fire Company (Chamber of Commerce 1908, 32).

The people of Allentown knew that the companies were important for the city that they spent quite a bit of money on them. Some companies bought equipment, such as carriages and eventually steam engines, for as much as $4,000 (Seibert 1992). The companies were responsible for buying equipment, such as hoses, uniforms, ladders, horses and sometimes pay part of the carriage fee. However, it was the city’s job to give and maintain fire houses and stables for horses. The companies would use fundraising as a way to get money to pay for the equipment they needed. The companies in the first and sixth wards, though, got their equipment from companies in Philadelphia (Hellerich 1987). The two companies were Allen Fire Company (also called No. 7) and Hibernia Fire Company (also called No. 6) (see Figure 1).

Allen Fire Company (No. 7) was located on 136 Linden Street in the first ward (see map below – Image 2). Hibernia Fire Company (No. 6) was located in the sixth ward on Ridge Avenue (or Road) (see map below – Image 2). Hibernia (No. 6) and Allen (No. 7) fire companies were created because there was a fire at the Allentown Iron Works (Hellerich 1987). The people of Allentown realized it took too long for a company from center city to get to the first or sixth ward. Allen (No. 7) and Hibernia (No. 6) were established to cut down on travel time. I think it would have made more since to have companies in the first and sixth ward first since industry in Allentown was so important to the people. Aside from the fire, there was also an explosion that occurred at the Rolling Mills which killed fourteen people (Whelan: 1984). With problems such as fires and explosions happening at the factories it is clear that the working conditions were not very good. The fact that the conditions were not good probably adds to the reasons for creating Allen (No. 7) and Hibernia (No. 6) Fire Companies.
The people of Allentown realize that having fire companies all over the city is more helpful than not having them in some places. I would say the people are also more than willing to fund the companies, if necessary. As time goes on in Allentown, changes and improvements continue to make the department function as well as possible.

Figure 2. Allentown in the late nineteenth century. The three points represent Allen Fire Company, Hibernia Fire Company and John P. Dillinger’s house (Chief of the Fire Department). Clicking on a point will identify the location.

Chamber of Commerce 1908. Allentown, Pennsylvania, illustrated. Allentown: Chamber of Commerce.
Hellerich, Mahlon Howard., ed. 1987. Allentown 1762-1987: A 225-Year History. Allentown, Pa.: Lehigh County Historical Society.
Seibert, Harold. 1992. Allentown Fire Department, Allentown, PA – First 125 Years 1867-1992. Allentown: Allentown Fire Department.
Whelan, Frank. 1984. “The Rolling Mills Explosion 14 Men and Boys Died When Boiler Blew Apart.” Sunday-Call Chronicle, January 8.