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History of the Beaumont Fire Department
 
History of the Beaumont Fire Department

History of the Beaumont Fire Department

 

With the Neches River as the common source of traffic for the lumber camps and sawmills of Beaumont, the timber industry was a contributing factor to the fast growth and development of the settlement. Utilizing the Neches River for the navigation of all timber flowing from the woodlands down toward the river, the logging camps began experiencing major problems with fires.

In 1800, the population had expanded to 1,000 people. The response to a fire was an unorganized effort with leather buckets, wet tote sacks and blankets. In many instances the hope of extinguishing a blaze was hopeless.

The city incorporated in 1838. On September 8, 1881 a large lumber yard fire helped the citizens of Beaumont recognize the need for fire protection. On December 19, 1881 the vote of the citizens committee created Beaumont Fire Company #1, consisting of 16 volunteer members. E.L. “Ed” Wilson was credited for organizing the volunteer force.

In addition to Wilson the remaining company members were Savince Blanchette, Val Boyer, George w. Carroll, A.B. Doucette, Tom Galgish, W.A. Ivers, Ed Ogden, W. J. Owens. Van Petty, Joe Reeves, Hank Small, Henry Solinsky, Ruben Weber and Lee Wilbarger.

            The attire of the new fire fighting team resembled that of the U. S. Calvary prepared for a parade. They wore double breasted shirts that buttoned from the sides and sported the number 1 in the center, blue trousers, with a wide belt and sported a dark leather hat that gave them a unified look of distinction. Mr. Wilson wore a white shirt indicating he was the officer or foreman of the company.

The population of Beaumont had grown to approximately 1,620 by 1881. The first Fire Company volunteers were considered to be dashing, debonair, handsome and rugged. Funds ($56.85 ) were collected from a Grand Fireman’s Ball were used to purchase the first piece of equipment.

The new rotary pump arrived in 1882, and was pulled by two great black mules named Kate and Rody. The fire equipment was originally kept in a small wooden building where the Julie Rogers Theatre now stands.

To assist these local heroes in 1884 two deep wells were dug. One well was located at the intersection of Pearl and Crockett Street and one at the corner of Crockett and Main Street.

 In 1887 the City received the second piece of equipment and Fire Chief Ed C. Ogden was named as the first recorded Volunteer Fire Chief.  As the town grew other fire companies formed.  Competition became keen among the companies. There was a $5 bonus given to the driver of the first team to arrive at the fire.

Also in 1887, the city of Beaumont purchased the land on Walnut and Mulberry for $1,113.00. A wooden structure was built where the Central Fire Station remains today.

The firefighters themselves were not paid for their service. In fact, they were willing to pay seventy five cents every three months for the privilege. Although most of the revenue originated from public contributions, additional capital was obtained by renting the fire mules to wood haulers and the ladies held bake sales. In 1888 the City began to build a water plant to overcome water supply problems.

The Wiess Hook and Ladder Company established a library for its members. The reading room was also open to the public. The City’s Public Library System can be traced to the Fire Department Library created in the early 1890’s.

            Between 1896 and 1898, 215 new buildings were erected in Beaumont at a face tax value of $276,000. In 1899 Mr. Ed Eastham was named the first official Fire Chief for the City of Beaumont. The city had 12 paid firefighters and 24 fire alarm boxes. Eastham was paid $25 per month and held the position from 1899-1918.

            At the turn of the century, a fateful event occurred in Beaumont that would have world-wide impact. A spectacular event took place on January 10, 1901. The Spindletop Gusher blew in just south of downtown.  This one well generated the major portion of the world’s oil supply for several years. The oil field would lead to the formation of several major oil companies including Gulf Oil, Sun Oil, The Texas Company, and Magnolia Petroleum that later became Mobil Oil Company. $300,000 was spent on new construction in the city during the boom.

Several large fires occurred at Spindletop and in Beaumont during the years following the first gusher. Reports of a fire on March 4, 1901 recorded that a derrick, a boarding house and a box car were all consumed by flames that soared several hundred feet high. In 1902 the City installed a large steam whistle atop Eastern Texas Electric Company. The number of blasts from the whistle would indicate the box number and location of a fire.

In 1903 the Hogg & Swayne Fire in Spindletop is recorded as covering up to 15 acres and consuming 175 derricks. By 1903 the BFD was a fully paid force. One of the challenges included keeping the horses from bogging down on the sulfur roads in clay and mud. A fire recorded at Gulf Oil in 1904 required assistance from Beaumont. One steamer and 500 feet of hose was sent by train to the fire scene.

In 1906 Chief S.D. O’Conner moved to Beaumont and accepted a position at one of the two fire stations. His starting salary was $45 per month with 8 hours off in every seven days. Life in Beaumont was too quite for O’Conner at first so he moved to California and Nevada. It is rumored that the taste of the Neches River and a longing for Beaumont brought him back to the Fire Department. He returned in the latter part of 1907. At that time the city had a population of 17,000.

The City officials became apprehensive about threats of devastating fires in the oil field area. There was a dramatic increase in population in Beaumont and citizens expressed concern for fire safety. The sleepy little lumber camp became home to processing plants, storage facilities, and shipping points.

Several new apparatus were added to the Beaumont Fire Department during the next several years including the 1909 75 foot horse drawn ladder truck. Also in 1909, the  wooden structure used to house firemen and apparatus was dismantled and a new fire station was constructed in the same location at Walnut and Mulberry.

            In 1911, the citizens of Beaumont witnessed the arrival of the first motorized fire truck. It was an American LaFrance combination Chemical and Hose Wagon containing a 40 gallon tank and 1600 feet of fire hose. The truck was involved in an accident on December 25, 1914, in which Beaumont’s first fire fighter fatality occurred. Fire Fighter Bob Glass lost his life in the line of duty. During World War I it is documented Beaumont fire fighters knitted wool socks for the men in the trenches.

            O’Conner made Captain at one of the new stations in 1910 and was assigned Lieutenant in 1913. He was promoted to Captain at Headquarters in 1914 and was named Assistant Chief in 1916. In 1918 he made Department Chief and remained in position for 38 years (1918-1956). Under his leadership, all seven stations were motorized. Speck and Teddy at Station 5 are the last known two sturdy horses used by the department.

            The year 1925 is known as the demise of the lumber industry and the second coming of Spindletop.  The economic growth brought more people, high rise structures and “Millionaire Row” to Beaumont. Miles Frank Yount, one of the petroleum industry founding fathers and President of the Yount-Lee Oil Company loaned the City payroll money during the depression. Yount was one of the prominent homeowners living on Calder Avenue.

By 1926 there were seven fire stations in town with 53 men. The chief’s car was one of the fanciest in the nation, a phaeton Cadillac with an  aluminum body. The city now had 84 call boxes and the Gamewell Fire Alarm System introduced in the late 1800’s was still in use.

Beaumont claimed a population of 50,000 people.  An American LaFrance Type 12  pumper arrives in Beaumont and becomes Engine 5. Now housed in the museum, the pumper could pump 750 gallons per minute. The central fire station housed 28 men on duty at all times, a triple combination  hose and pump engine, a 75 foot aerial ladder truck, a straight hose wagon, a combination hose and chemical wagon, the Chief’s car and the electrician’s car.

            In 1927 the population of Beaumont grew to 60,000 people. The city built a new central fire station. The cost of the new building was $85,000. Fire fighters placed a copper box with 10 cent pieces imbedded in metal plates bearing the names of every member serving in the department in 1927 behind the stone eagle on the west side of the building. The box also included other city and fire records. The Beaumont Fire Department consisted of seven stations, 54 men, and 14 pieces of equipment.

In 1926, Johnny Southwell, the city electrician designed and installed the city’s first traffic signal and the underground cable for the police department telegraph system. A few years later he designed and built the police and fire radio communications system, the seventh in the nation. With the help of  Lynn Gilbert, Lee “Blackie” Corder,

Ray  “Papa” Tanner, and Valder Watson  Southwell designed and built a Light Truck, the first of its kind.

The Light truck responded to the New London School natural gas explosion  in 1937 and the Texas City Disaster in 1947. Walter Cronkite, 21 years old at the time hitched a ride past barricades set up at the New London School on the Light Truck. It was his first exposure to National news. Cronkite was 21 years old at the time.

Southwell also designed the intercommunication loudspeaker system in 1930 which speeded up communications between the Central Fire Station and sub stations.

Stations 5, 7 and 11 were built in 1931. No. 2 was built in 1948. No. 3 was built in 1949. Station 4 was built in 1954 and remains at the corner of Gladys and Lucas today.

From 1957-1959, J. N. “Newt” Richardson(1896-1963) was Chief, he served a total of 42 years with the department. Richardson was automatically retired under the city retirement ordinance by virtue of being 65 years of age.

 Richardson was a mentor for a young boy who spent a lot of his childhood at the firehouse. The young Pete Shelton lived with his family next door to Fire Station number seven located at the corner of McFaddin and 7th Street.

Following in Ralph, D. Shelton’s footsteps and his childhood dream, Shelton joined the Fire Department soon after graduating St. Anthony High School. Ralph D. Shelton, Pete’s father worked for the Beaumont Fire Department for 48 years before retiring.

A “C” shift was created in 1960 and 40 additional fire fighters were added to the department. From 1960-1975 the department Chief was C. A. Chriswell. No. 8 station and No 10 was built in 1965. Because of its close proximity to numerous industries, Beaumont has witnessed several large refinery fires. Beaumont Fire Department units responded to a huge fire at Mobil Refinery on September 17, 1970. A bolt of lightening allegedly struck a storage tank setting off a chain reaction of explosions in the tank area. In 1974, a large fire resulted in the Goodyear Chemical Plant, resulting in a series of explosions. Flames reportedly mushroomed more than 600 feet above the plant.

Shelton married and his son, Pat Shelton became a fire fighter in 1981 producing a third generation fire fighting family.  Shelton became Chief in 1976. Shelton is recognized for building one of the most successful paid fire departments in the country. Under his command the Beaumont Fire and Rescue Team continued to train and organize to produce a professional fire fighting force.

A professional effective education and prevention team, a museum, training facility, administrative team, maintenance, supply, investigation and a communications team now places the Beaumont Fire Department in a position to help  protect and serve the citizens and property of Beaumont above and beyond the common perception of just fighting a blaze.  

Shelton credits his influence and success to his mentors. All of whom Pete was able to learn from their experiences ant triumphs. The men include Chief O’Conner, Chief Richardson, Chief C.A. “Red” Chriswell, Deputy Chief Hart Berwick, Deputy Chief Bob Bridgers, and Deputy Chief Bill Wilkinson.

The Central Fire Station remains the heart of the Beaumont Fire Department even though on May 1, 1981 all the modern fire equipment was moved to 747 College Street Station.  The building is now used to house the Museum and administrative offices. Old station number nine was closed and relocated to 7010 Gladys.

Shelton retired in 1995 as Chief and Micky Bertrand became the Chief in January 1996. Upon Bertrand’s retirement in 2006 Shelton returned after being asked by City Management to act as Interim Fire Chief until January 2008.  Shelton remains active in the preservation of Fire History by serving as a Board Member for the Fire Museum of Texas.  

Currently under the command of Chief Anne Huff, the first female Chief in Beaumont's History, the Beaumont Fire Department employs 238 personnel and is known for its facilities, modern equipment and extensive training programs. Chief Charles Mullinsiis the Assistant Fire Chief and Danny Cross serves as administrator.

Twelve Fire Stations in addition to the working Historic Central Fire Station is located throughout the city of Beaumont.  The 27 acre Training Center is one of the State’s finest fire training facilities offering various fire fighting projects and a six story training tower.

The Fire Museum of Texas open since 1984 is dedicated to the preservation and education of the rich history of the fire fighting service. The Museum is housed in the historic 1927 Central Fire Station The operating hours are Monday- Friday from 8:00 am until 4:30 p.m. Admission is free.  

            In addition to fire suppression services the modern Beaumont Fire Department provides citizens with first responder emergency medical services, hazardous material response services, a range of technical rescue response services, emergency management and critical infrastructure protection services, as well as non-emergency services in code enforcement, fire investigations and public information and education. 

            The 12 fire stations have been modernized and or remodeled over the years and remain home for fire fighters who work a rotating 24 hour shift every third day. The shifts are still referred to as, “A”, “B” and “C”.  

Fire Administration, 9-1-1 Dispatchers, Investigators, the Fire Marshall, Fire Chief, Purchasing and Supply  is housed in the historical Central Station. The Central station is also home to the Fire Museum of Texas.

 

2009 Beaumont Fire Stations:

 

Built in 1926 the  Central Fire Station is located at 400 Walnut & Mulberry Street in downtown Beaumon. (Currently is the 2nd brick structure original brick building was built in 1909, before the brick structures was a wooden building. Prior to the city structures firemen housed apparatus in a wooden building where the Julie Rogers Theatre now stands)

 

#1 Opened in 1981 at 747 College Street

 

#2   Opened in 1948 at 4495 Ironton (originally on Gulf St prior to 1948, the old bldg was torn down)

 

#3 Opened in 1998  at 805 Woodrow (1949 originally at Park & Harriot Street then it moved to Kenneth & Brockman before moving to the current location)

 

#4  Opened in 1954 at 1301 Lucas & Gladys

 

#5 Opened in 1998 at 6375 Walden Road (1931 originally on Grand & Concord. This station closed when 14 was built then re-opened in 1998 at current location . The bldg at Grand & Concord is still standing)

 

#6 Opened in 1999 at 1880 S. Major Drive (originally on Glendale in the Amelia area)

 

#7  Opened  in 1931at 1710 McFaddin & First (One of the two working stations with working poles still in use)

 

#8  Opened in  1964 at Hwy 105& Lampman (originally on Tram Road & Voth)

 

#9 Opened in 1981 at 7010 Gladys (originally east of the College & Holmes bldg was torn down)

 

#10 Opened in 1965 at 3855 Washington Blvd.

 

#11 Opened in 1931 at 2185 Sabine Pass

 

#14  Opened in 1991 at 8250 Old Voth Road  

 

There has never been a station 12 or 13 in the City of Beaumont

 

Father & Sons currently active in the Beaumont Fire Department:   

 

Anthony Barry, Jr. (son of Anthony Barry, Sr., retired)

                        William Buck (son of W. R. Buck, deceased)

                        Ben Dunham (son of Michael Dunham, active)

                        Gary Fondren (son of Bill Fondren, retired)

                        James Gillard (son of Charles Gillard, active)

                        Brian Hebert (son of Henry Hebert, retired)

                        James Mathews, Jr. (son of James Mathews, Sr., retired)

                        Jeffery Nesom (son of Lon Nesom, active)

                        Tracy O'Quinn (son of A. B. O'Quinn, deceased)

                        Casey Parigi (son of Cyril Parigi, retired)

                        Patrick Schroeder (son of Donald Schroeder, active)

            Patrick Shelton (son of C. A. Shelton, retired, son of Ralph Shelton, deceased)

 

 

The source of this data came from a collection of local authors including Beaumont Fire Fighter Joe Walker (dob 6-16-1940 dod 1-4-1997) Walker spent hours researching the History of the Beaumont Fire Department. Walker was an active fire fighter with the department from 1967 until 1991.

 

For additional information or to add or correct facts please contact,

Carol Gary at the Fire Museum of Texas. 409-880-3927 or send e-mail to firemuseum@ci.beaumont.tx.us

 

 

 
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