Expanded History

Chief McRae

This section is forever dedicated to the hard work and perseverance of Chief Max McRae.

The Houston Fire Department is rich in history and tradition.  Since 1838, the Houston Fire Department has helped Houston grow into the vibrant city that it is today.  Click on an era below to start your journey.


1838 – 1859

New York land developers Augusta and John Kirby Allen were traveling up Buffalo Bayou in 1836 searching for land to develop into a city. The last stop of the steamboat was Harrisburg where they tried to purchase some land, but the deal fell through. So the brothers continued upstream to Frosttown. They noticed the land across the Bayou was a perfect spot for their city, so they purchased 6,000 acres, divided the land into lots and began selling the land. Some 1,000 people occupied the new town by 1838. Log cabins were going up as fast as trees could be felled and hauled. Huge fires were set to rid the land of underbrush and the trimmings from the logs. Occasionally, sparks from the fires ignited a cabin or temporary tent. Everyone would quickly pitch in to help the stricken neighbor. Their efforts were usually not too successful. Augustus Allen noticed the chaos during a fire and decided to organize a bucket brigade. His native New York had many successful bucket brigades. A bucket brigade in Houston would not only improve the firefighting but could enhance the value of his remaining plots of land. Protection Fire Company No. 1 Augustus gathered together several businessmen at the Hedenberg & Vetteran Auction Mart on August 14, 1838 to discuss better fire protection for the town. He convinced the businessmen of a need for a bucket brigade, and they formed Protection Fire Company No. 1. Its motto was Semper Paratus (always prepared). The fire company bought a hand pumper in 1839, according to one reference; however another reference said Protection No. 1 did not get a pumper until December, 1859. (A force pump on a wagon frame showed up in 1847 and was used as an auxiliary to the bucket brigade.) The city fathers were convinced to construct a fire house for Protection No.1, which was built at the corner of Fannin and Preston. In 1848, the State of Texas granted a charter to Protection Fire Company No. 1, the first fire company chartered by Texas. Liberty Fire Company No. 2 In 1852, a group of prominent businessmen organized Liberty Fire Company No. 2. The businessmen purchased a Hunneman hand pumper, which they housed on Franklin between Travis and Milam. The pumper cost $2,000. One of the organizers of the fire company was William M. Rice, benefactor of Rice University. [The firefighting force after the organization of Liberty No. 2, according to a reference, consisted of Liberty’s pumper, the force pump mentioned above, and several bucket brigades until 1858.] Hook and Ladder Truck Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 was organized in April, 1858, by a group of the very wealthiest businessmen. The truck company had rigid bylaws. Applicants had to be recommended by three of the members, and the morals of the applicant had to be approved. The company began with a homemade ladder truck housed in a fire station on Congress in Market Square.

1859 – 1865 The three fire companies operated independently of each other. There were no set boundaries for the companies. They responded to every alarm of fire. This led to scuffles between the two engine companies, when a fire was not large enough for both. Each wanted to extinguish the fire. Their conflicts began to sour the public’s opinion of the firefighters. The ire of the public finally boiled over on February 28, 1859, when a major fire destroyed a square block in the heart of the business district bounded by Main, Congress, Travis, and Franklin. Only one brick building remained standing; all of the other buildings had been constructed of wood. Contributing to the fire loss, placed at $100,000, was the lack of a large water supply. City fathers responded quickly to the complaints of the citizens. They immediately put out bids for a large cistern to be constructed downtown, and approved an ordinance prohibiting wood construction within four blocks of Main Street. The three independent fire companies also took action to quell the complaints. They came together to establish a fire department. Each fire company had three representatives at the organizational meeting. The representatives, after lengthy discussions, approved the creation of the Houston Volunteer Fire Department. James A. Cushman was elected fire chief, but stepped down in 1861 to make munitions at his foundry for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Mayor T. W. House named Ed Bremond as fire chief. Chief Bremond filled out the remaining term of Chief Cushman and served until 1863. The Civil War spelled trouble for the Houston Volunteer Fire Department. Many of the firefighters joined the Confederate Army. It was hard to find replacements. (Twelve percent of the men in Harris County had joined the Confederate Army.) Hook and Ladder No. 1, which was comprised of some of the wealthiest businessmen in town, hired Negroes to keep the company active during the war.* Cooperation between the fire companies began to slip. Sam K. McIlhenny took over the volunteer fire department in 1863. Near the end of the War, the fire companies were back to total independence. The volunteer fire department had grown stagnant. *Another reference had a different version of dealing with the shortage of firefighters. It said slaves “took over and operated” the fire department during the Civil War. There were both freedmen and slaves during the time, and the latter were loaned out by their masters for a fee. Years later, one Houstonian recalled that the slaves were “splendid firemen who threw their hearts and souls into the work.”

1865 – 1870 Frank Fabj was elected fire chief as the Civil War came to a close. Union troops occupied Houston between June and November, 1865. During the occupation, the troops destroyed many of the city’s official documents that were stored in municipal offices. Hook & Ladder No. 1 moved into new quarters at Franklin & Travis in 1865. Horse-drawn SteamerThe first horse-drawn steamer was purchased by Liberty No. 2 in 1866. It was a Silsby steamer and cost $4,500. This freed firefighters from having to provide the manpower to pump water. (Manning the pump handles, called brakes, was a hard task and would exhaust a firefighter after about 10 minutes pumping at the normal speed of 60 strokes per minute. Firefighters had to continually rotate at the brakes throughout a fire.) Fire Chief Fabj was able to get the volunteer fire department going again. Many of the former firefighters were returning from war. Fabj held a reorganization meeting in June, 1866. The meeting allowed members to take stock of the fire department after five years of war, and provided an opportunity to plan for the utilization of the new steamers. Chief Fabj remained fire chief after the reorganized of the volunteer fire department. It was unlawful in 1866 to take water from a Houston public cistern for any purpose, unless to extinguish fire. Violations netted the violator a $25 fine for each offense, or imprisonment for 10 days. There was an urgent need for additional fire companies in the latter ’60s, and Stonewall No. 3 answered the call. It organized in 1867. John Kennedy, a wealthy mill owner in the Second Ward, donated a hand pumper which was housed in a building at Travis and Capitol. Protection No. 1 traded in its hand pumper for a steamer similar to Liberty’s steamer. Firefighters elected Dr. Tom P. Robinson as fire chief in 1868, and the military appointed Joseph R. Morris to be mayor. Chief Robinson soon found it extremely difficult to deal with the Morris administration. Turmoil spread within the volunteer department, and the department began to slip once again. Things finally grew so badly that Chief Robinson resigned as fire chief in 1869. Ed L. Hopkins was elected fire chief in 1869.

1870-1880 Fire Chief Williams established the first system for recording fire losses in 1875, and a loss of $200,000 was recorded for a fire at the Houston City Cotton Mills. Firemen’s Day evolved into a tradition after the 1875 celebration of the Battle of San Jacinto. Businesses always closed on the anniversary date of the battle, and people would celebrate. Firefighters decided to have a parade during the celebration. Volunteer companies from Dallas, Waco, Bryan, and Hempstead were invited and led the parade. Houston volunteers followed in their dress uniforms and with their apparatus smartly decorated. After the parade, fire companies put on demonstrations with their apparatus. A dance in the evening concluded the festive day. It was a hit and became a custom for many years. John H. B. House of Protection No. 1 was elected fire chief in 1876. Zach T. Hogan (Brooks No.5) was elected first assistant chief, and C. C. Beavins (H&L No. 1) was elected second assistant chief. On July 8, 1876, a suspicious fire destroyed the giant market and opera house on Market Square. Houston city hall was housed in the huge complex. The market house was built during the Scanlan administration at a cost of $400,000. It had opened only three years earlier. Many citizens referred to the building as “Houston’s great white elephant.” Scanlon had underinsured the market house for $100,000. The fire was the fiercest conflagration ever experienced by the fire department. (It is said that Thomas J. De Young rode bareback and without bridle on one of the horses that pulled Mechanic No. 6’s pumper to the Market Square fire. He was first on the scene and had first water. Later, he and another nozzleman became trapped on an upper floor of the building. They were forced to climb down a lightning rod to escape the inferno.) MarkethouseConstruction of a new markethouse began later in October. The proceeds from the fire insurance covered the cost of the new building. A new fire bell was cast and hung in one of the towers. The fire bell in the first markethouse had been destroyed in the fire. The city purchased two new Silsby steamers on credit in 1877. One of the steamers was given to Protection No. 1 and the other steamer went to Brooks No. 5. Joseph F. Meyer, foreman of Stonewall No. 3, was elected fire chief in 1877, after Fire Chief House refused a second term. A special call went out for assistance from the Galveston Fire Department in 1877. A fire that started in the show rooms of the Mendenhall Carriage Company on Congress between Main and Fannin was spreading out of control. The fire consumed many of the businesses on one side of Mendenhall’s. Some of the buildings were four stories tall. Galveston firefighters were credited with saving Gray’s Opera House on the other end of the fire. They made a record run of 55 minutes to reach Houston on the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad. Trains hauling firefighters and fire apparatus were given the “high ball.” All passenger and freight trains on the main line were switched to a siding until the special train passed. A 25-year contract was let in 1878 for a municipal waterworks using the water above tidewater of Buffalo Bayou. A New York firm got the contract and had the water lines laid by the following summer. Mechanic No. 6 got a new side-bar Bolton hand pumper in 1878. The company sold its old hand pumper to a new junior company called Rescue No. 7. (Junior fire companies, of which there were several over the years, were comprised of boys too young to join a regular company.) A record for the 250-yard run was set by Mechanic No. 6 in 1878. They competed with fire companies from across the state. For a 250-yard run, a team was timed to see how fast it could get water flowing through a nozzle after racing the pumper 250 yards and connecting two lengths of hose and the nozzle. It took the 21-man team of Mechanic No. 6 forty-six seconds to complete the race. The time set a record that was never topped. Martin Curtin replaced Chief Meyer in 1879. He had been second assistant fire chief under Chief Meyer. On July 10, 1879, a fire tested the new water system which had just been completed. The fire started in a barbershop at Congress and Main and spread to other buildings in the block. Pressure was boosted to 80 pounds in the water mains. Volunteers fought the raging blaze for two hours before getting the fire under control. The water system passed its first challenge with flying colors. However, boosting pressure for fires had its downside. Citizens had to put up with water unfit to drink for several days after a major fire. In 1878, the steamers given to Protection No. 1 and Brooks No. 5 by the city were repossessed after city fathers reneged on the loan. The city was still trying to recover from the indebtedness of Reconstruction. This left both Protection No. 1 and Brooks No. 5 without an apparatus. Stonewall No. 3 sold its Bolten pumper to the Beaumont Fire Department and replaced the pumper in 1879 with the hose reel that had belonged to Liberty No. 2.

1880 – 1885 In 1880, telephones were installed in all of the fire stations. Protection No 1, which was now without an apparatus after its steamer was repossessed, got a hose reel and became a hose company. With the new water system, hose reels and hose wagons became more important. They were needed to lay the fire hose. Curtin No. 9 organized with a hose reel on Commerce between Travis and Milam in 1881. Actually, Curtin No. 9 organized a couple years earlier as a junior fire company. Henry Curtain organized the boys. He had been a very active volunteer, beginning in the ’60s with Liberty No. 2. A couple of the boys found a force pump in a junk yard and mounted it onto a pine box. This served as Curtain 9’s fire apparatus. Henry Curtain later began to recruit older men for the company. After all of the junior firefighters had been replaced, the 32 grown men carried on the name of the company with a hose reel and joined the volunteer fire department. William H. Coyle of Hook & Ladder No. 1 was elected fire chief in 1882. Albert Levy (Hook & Ladder No. 1) and Alex Pastoriza (Stonewall No. 3) were elected his assistant chiefs. The volunteer fire department once again began to crumble. Because of the problems with the volunteers, Coyle tried to inaugurate a paid fire department in 1882 to “ensure perfect discipline, if nothing more.” He had the backing of some businessmen and aldermen. The firefighters objected strongly. The reason the fire companies did not respond as promptly to fires as in the past was because the city had failed to provide supplies, engineers and drivers, according to one firefighter. He reasoned that if the city cannot afford to help the volunteer fire department, how could it afford a paid department? Many of the volunteers were wealthy and politically influential, and the proposal for a paid department went down in defeat. Two members of Hook & Ladder No. 1, dissatisfied with the condition of the fire station, torched the wooden structure. The 1882 blaze destroyed the building and a fire truck. Construction of a new fire station began immediately at the old site. At the end of the year, the International Compress was destroyed along with 8,000 bales of cotton. Galveston Fire Department sent two steamers to aid the firefighters, after water mains had burst in two places. The Capitol Hotel opened at Texas and Main on December 31, 1882. The hotel was later bought by William Marsh Rice and was named the Rice Hotel after Mr. Rice (who was murdered in 1900). Stonewall No. 3 moved to a new location on Preston between Louisiana and Smith. The company had 25 active members. Chief Coyle was injured in his second year as fire chief (1883) when the front wall of the Fifth Ward Hotel collapsed on him and three other firefighters. Brooks No. 5 never was able to get another engine after Ben A. Riesnerlosing its steamer in 1878, and the fire company folded in 1883. Ben A. Riesner followed Chief Coyle in 1884 as fire chief. Riesner was a successful businessman and had been an avid volunteer firefighter. He was instrumental in preserving the volunteer fire department in 1882 by blocking efforts to start a fully paid fire department. Local business leaders and the insurance companies were pressing city fathers to replace the volunteers. There had been problems developing in the volunteer department during the past administration, and Chief Riesner was able to bring the department “through its peril and placed it on the high road to success,” according to Fire Fighters of Houston, 1838-1915. It was customary for fire companies to drill occasionally by starting six blocks from Market Square and, on a given signal, race to the Square and get water flowing through a hose. Each company was assigned a hydrant in the Square. Stonewall 3 and Mechanic 6 had been making the fastest times, but Curtain 9 was closing in on them at the last couple of drills. On the latest drill, Curtain 9 beat everyone to a plug. As the plugman swung open the plug, the hose line pop off, and Curtain 9 failed again to win. Someone had filed the threads on a nipple of the Curtain’s fire hydrant.

1885-1890 James K. P. Gillaspie became fire chief in 1886. Martin V. Curtin (Liberty No. 2) and Henry Ross (Mechanic No. 6) were elected assistant chiefs. One of the stories told on Chief Gillaspie was during the Southern Pacific passenger depot fire in the Fifth Ward. He felt he could handle the fire with just the apparatus in the ward. Soon it became evident the fire was spreading beyond control using only the normal water pressure in the fire mains, and the chief put in a call for a steamer. Roads were muddy from the winter rains, and there was a chance the heavy steamer could not make it, but Chief Gillaspie took the chance. If anyone could make the trip, he felt, Liberty No. 2 would be the one. Sure enough, Liberty 2 arrived a short time later, but there was not a wisp of smoke coming from the stack. The grate bars had been jolted loose on the rough trip and rendered the steamer useless. Bell’s Variety Show, commonly called the “Bucket of Blood,” burned in 1886. The fire threatened the entire business district before volunteers brought the fire under control. Two artesian wells were drilled in 1887 to supplemented the water from Buffalo Bayou for the distribution system. It was later determined to be the third largest artesian reservoir in the United States. That same year Curtin No. 9 fire company relocated in the fire station abandoned when Brooks No. 5 disbanded in 1883. Henry Ross was elevated to fire chief in 1988 by a vote of the members. His assistants were Eugene R. Parker (Hook & Ladder No. 1) R. M. Floeck (Curtin No. 9). Volunteer firefighters bought a lot in Glenwood Cemetery on Washington Avenue in May, 1888. It was intended for the burial of deceased members of the volunteer fire department. Cost of the cemetery lot was $300. The following month, firefighters began a drive to raise money for a monument to erect on the lot. They put on balls, picnics, theatricals, and other entertainment. Proceeds soon reached the needed amount, and a stone monument was ordered from a T. E. Byrnes. Eugene R. Parker took over as fire chief from Chief Ross in 1889. Frank McGovern and Joseph J. Walker were elected assistant chiefs. Protection No. 1 moved into a two-story brick fire station at 612 Fannin. Cleveland’s warehouse at the foot of Main Street was destroyed by fire in 1889. Loss of the four-story building was $40,000. The monument for the Glenwood Cemetery arrived in December, 1889. Atop the monument was a marble statue made in Carrara, Italy. It was a life-size statue of Robert Brewster, the oldest living volunteer firefighter at the time. The statue stood 5 feet, 2 inches tall, weighed 1,400 pounds, and cost $3,500.

NOTE: The monument in the Glenwood Cemetery was moved to the front of Fire Station No. 1 at 410 Bagby in 1976. Few people saw the monument in the cemetery, and some felt the move would give the monument better exposure to the public. In 1992, the monument was returned to its original spot in Glenwood Cemetery.

1890 – 1895 Thomas H. Martin, foreman of Mechanic No. 6, was elected fire chief in May 1890. Joseph J. Walker and John Roessler were the new assistant chiefs. Shortly after being elected, Chief Martin requested an increase in spending for the volunteer fire department from the Board of Aldermen. The city had recovered from the huge Reconstruction debt and had been paying more of the expenses of the volunteer fire department. The board voted to pay Chief Martin $100 per month and to hire full-time housekeepers for the fire stations. Liberty No 2 disbanded in 1890, after its worn out steamer was sold for junk. On May 20, 1891, a fire in Fifth Ward spread into a major conflagration. It started in the shaving shed of the Phoenix Lumber Mill on Providence Street and quickly spread through several lumber yards. Blocks of small stores and cottages were set ablaze. Again, Galveston Fire Department responded but could do little to help. The water mains had become clogged with sand, and fire streams could reach no farther than 12 feet. (Houston had no steamers at the time.) Loss was placed at $500,000. In June, electric streetcars were put in service, the first electric streetcars anywhere (so the reference claimed). They were to become involved in accidents with fire apparatus, taking the lives of several firefighters over the years. A Gamewell Alarm system was completed in April, 1892, and installed in all fire stations. The system came about because of the efforts of former fire chief Ben Riesner. He was elected city alderman after his two years as fire chief and became a strong ally of the fire department. He pushed for and succeeded in getting the Gamewell system after becoming chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s fire committee. This earned him the distinction of “Father of the Gamewell System.” It was around this time that the city began to pay one driver on each fire company. Paid drivers cared for the fire station and responded to all fires. They worked 24-7 and were paid $100 a year. The Kiam Clothiers five-story building was completed in 1893 and was the first building in Houston to have an elevator. It later was occupied by Sakowitz. In April, 1894, Thomas F. Ravell was elected fire chief after a hard-fought election. Chief Martin, the fire chief up for reelection, was being supported by Mechanic 6, and Stonewall No. 3 was backing Ravell, who had been Stonewall’s foreman. (This was one of the rare times that the roughnecks of Mechanic No. 6 lost a battle.) Washington 8Washington No. 8 began operations on August 4 at 1307 Crawford with a Clapp and Jones steamer and a hose wagon. William W. Thomas is credited with organizing Washington No. 8 and securing the equipment. Seibert No. 10 organized a couple weeks later. Seibert opened with a hose wagon at 205 Chartres. A new steamer was ordered to go along with the hose wagon. On September 27, 1894, two boardinghouses and four homes were destroyed by fire. The buildings were located in the block bounded by Texas, Caroline, Capital, and Austin. Water pressure was so low that hose streams could not reached the second floor of the wooden structures. Firefighting efforts at the fire did little to impress the businessmen and insurance companies who were pressing city aldermen to switch to a fully paid fire department. They felt the volunteer department was no longer adequate fire protection. A predawn fire the following month (October 16) finally sparked the end of the volunteer fire department. The fire originated in a boarding house on San Jacinto. Firefighters were having trouble because of bursting hose lines and low water pressure again. The fire spread quickly to the buildings of the St. Joseph Infirmary. Two nuns were killed and a third nun badly burned helping to rescue dozens of patients. After the fire, the clamor for a paid department swelled. An alderman and volunteer fire fighter, Si Packard, introduced a resolution to the Board of Alderman inquiring as to the feasibility of a fully paid fire department. Some opposition sprung up, but not among the firefighters, according to Charles D. Green, author of Fire Fighters of Houston, 1838-1915. He said the firefighters were “only too glad to be relieved of an onerous duty.” An article in the Houston Daily Post, however, said the volunteers expressed opposition to inaugurating a paid department. Mayor John T. Brown gave his sanction for a paid department, after he learned the city did not have to buy the fire stations of the volunteers. The city only had to purchase the apparatus and horses; fire stations could be leased. An ordinance was then drafted by Packard, and the ordinance passed at the next meeting of the Board of Aldermen.

1895 – 1900 Chief Thomas Ravell was appointed fire chief of the new fully paid fire department. He may have picked volunteer assistant chief Fred Kersten as his assistant, according to the archives of the Houston Fire Museum. The archives showed Kersten served as assistant chief from 1891 to 1898. Houston Volunteer Fire Department came to an end on June 1, 1895. Chief Ravell met with the Fire Safety Committee of the Board of Aldermen to establish rules for the paid department. Paid firefighters would work 15 days straight followed by one day off. The schedule was then repeated. Firefighters would rotate on outside fire watch during the night, usually in two-hour shifts. Being absent twice from his post and drinking on duty were causes for termination. Ravell decided to allow firefighters an hour off three times a day for meals. Some of the 350 volunteer firefighters were selected by Chief Ravell to fill the paid roster of 44 firefighters. More than one-half were single men who were paid housekeepers and drivers of the volunteer fire department. The balance were officers and firefighters from the ranks of the volunteers. A few of the volunteers were listed as extra men, later referred to as supernumeraries. They were new recruits who were trained at a fire station and became firefighters as openings occurred. (Other references gave 50 and “almost 50” as the number of paid firefighters originally. The “extra” men may account for the difference. Research by the Houston Firefighters’ Memorial Fund Committee found 49 men with entrance dates on or prior to the date of the paid department, the names of which are engraved on the Houston Firefighters’ Memorial Wall. A fiftieth man was found in later research.) Seven volunteer fire stations were taken over by the city. One was the station owned by members of Hook & Ladder No. 1 at San Jacinto and Prairie. It became the Central Station. Chief Ravell assigned Steamer No. 1, Steamer No. 2, Chemical No. 4, and Hook and Ladder No. 1 to the fire station. The other six fire stations were: Hose Company No. 3, 408 Smith; North Star Hose Company No. 4, Montgomery and Gano (another reference puts the location near North Main and Hogan); Mechanic Hose Company No. 6, 1106 Washington; Washington No. 8, 1307 Crawford; Hose Company No. 9 at 910 Keene; and Hose Company No. 10, 205 Chartres. The fire stations were leased by the city, and the fire apparatus and horses were purchased from the volunteers. The new Houston Fire Department began operations at one minute past midnight on Saturday, June 1, 1895. In 1897, the city contracted with the Gamewell Company to expand the Gamewell fire alarm system. James Hussey was named fire chief in 1898 to replace Chief Ravell. He was one of the volunteer firefighters who had been recruited for the paid department. A fire on June 8, 1898, destroyed seven houses in the block bounded by San Jacinto, McIlhenny, Fannin, and Hadley. A large crowd gathered to watch a strong south wind spread the fire from house to house. The Houston Relief Association of the Paid Fire Department of the City of Houston was organized on June 23, 1898. (Another reference gives the date as January 1, 1903.) Its purpose was to help members who were “distressed, injured, sick, or disabled.” Benefits included five dollars per week after the first week of sickness or disability, and $75 for funeral expenses. One representative from each fire company made up the board of directors. Captain Frank Hayes, Hose Co No. 10, was elected president. Later in November, 1898, a fire that started in the Ruppersburg stables spread to the wood-frame Salvation Army Hall at Milam and Capitol. A Salvation Army officer, his wife and their two children died in the fire. Both buildings were destroyed. (Another reference claimed the Salvation Army family lived over the stables [spelled Ruppersbery], and the fire occurred in 1897.) Station No. 7 went in at 2403 Milam at McIlhenny in 1899. It was the first fire station constructed by the city.