Cincinnati’s Firefighting History
Cincinnati has a unique, rich firefighting history. Discover all that has happened over the years—and then visit the Cincinnati Fire Museum to learn even more.
First Recorded Fire
In early spring of 1794, a brush fire was started to clear the land for farming, but wind spread the fire more than 100 acres east. Amid the chaos, the terrified settlers managed to save a small-frame law office that was owned by Thomas Goudy. Because of this, the fire was named “Goudy’s Fire.”
Cincinnati Council passed an ordinance to organize firefighting efforts
All Cincinnati homeowners and many of those renting are required to own a black leather fire bucket with the owner’s initials painted on its side for use in firefighting efforts. Men ages 16 to 50 were required to respond to the cry of “fire” and work to eliminate the emergency. Fines were also established for those who failed to comply with the newly established laws.
At a second meeting, a week later council voted to purchase 6 fire ladders and 6 hooks to facilitate extinguishment of fire.
Pumpers replaced buckets
A second and more effective fire engine is purchased by Cincinnati from The Hunneman Company. This hand pumper could throw a stream of water up to 133 feet to douse flames quickly. You can see this apparatus in our early firefighting display!
More work to be done
The volunteer fire department in Cincinnati owns two fire engines but both are said to be kept in poor condition. The public perception of the preparedness of the city for fire is poor.
Steam Mill Fire
The well known nine story stone steam mill on the Cincinnati riverfront burns down. Cincinnatians are convinced more needs to be done to protect the city from fire.
Ready for fire
There are nine organized volunteer fire companies and seven brick cisterns in the city. The public opinion of the fire department is greatly improved from ten years earlier.
Better Company Regulation
The Cincinnati Fire Association is created for regulation of the fire department. The organization has the power to settle disputes and provide for sick and injured firefighters.
A devastating fire
A massive fire destroys the pork house of Pugh & Alvord. At least eight people are killed and many more are injured. Among the dead is J. Chamberlain, the first firefighter noted to have been killed in service to Cincinnati.
A major problem
Over time fire companies became less disciplined and competition between the volunteers often turned violent. In 1850 alone there were at least six major fights in which two people were shot and dozens more injured and two arsons including the burning of Engine 02’s firehouse
Cincinnati inventors Alexander Latta and Abel Shawk create the “Uncle Joe Ross,” the first practical steam fire engine. Given the concerns about discipline in the volunteer system, leading citizens in town recognized the potential of this invention and created the first full-time, paid professional fire department. An innovative model using professional firefighters and horse-drawn steam fire engines was created after a study of other approaches to fire protection around the county. This model set the standard for fire protection throughout the world for the next sixty years until the introduction of gasoline powered apparatus.
The Board of Fire Commissioners was created and a major reorganization took place inside the fire department. Efforts were made to eliminate political interference and build a more professional department. Outside employment was forbidden and each rank was now given clearly defined duties. Firefighters began to spend most of their time at the fire stations. By this time 149 professional firefighters were operating 18 steam fire companies and 4 hook and ladder companies.
The deadliest day for Cincinnati firefighters
On December 11, 1880 a fire at the J. P. Gay bucket factory at 7th and Culvert killed 5 Cincinnati Firefighters. This remains the single deadliest day for Cincinnati firefighters.
Click here to review the names of the fallen.
The Courthouse Riots
Anger ran high in Cincinnati as citizens came to believe that the city was not doing all it could to ensure justice was served in the community. The breaking point was reached when citizens rioted following the sentencing of two men charged with the murder of a stable owner. Many were not satisfied with the sentence given and three days of riots followed. 56 people were killed, at least 300 were wounded, and the courthouse and jail were burned to the ground.
A fire disaster
On May 21, 1885 firefighters responded to a fire at the Sullivan Printing Company on 6th Street. 15 people, mostly young women, were killed when they were trapped in the upper level of a five story building. This is deadliest fire incident on record in Cincinnati. Building construction requirements were poorly developed and often little effort was made to provide for worker safety. This was one of many such fires around the nation that caused a push for the construction of safer buildings.
The height of the steam fire department
The Cincinnati Fire Department now operated 50 very reliable steam fire engines and an improved fire alarm system helped to provide the department with rapid notification of fire emergencies.
Engine Company 45
A new fire station is built in the densely populated “bottoms” of Cincinnati. Engine Company 45 was one of several companies that were stationed in this house which would one day become the current home of the Cincinnati Fire Museum.
The Shoe District Fire
On December 21, 1910 Cincinnati faced a fire that had the potential to destroy the entire community. The fire started early in the morning and was complicated by wind and freezing temperatures. 35 steam engines worked for 222 hours to prevent the destruction of the city. Dozens of buildings were lost and four people, including three firefighters, were killed.
After a number of large fires in Cincinnati and around the country, citizens again recognized the need to improve the fire department. Cincinnati purchased its first gasoline powered apparatus and steam pumpers were gradually phased out. By 1922 the department was completely motorized. Most of the early gasoline pumpers purchased by the city were built by the local Ahrens Fox Fire Engine Company.
The Cincinnati Firefighters Strike
The fire department suffered though two major events that created serious staffing problems. World War 1 caused many firefighters to leave the department for military service. As the war ended the Spanish Flu epidemic swept the nation. Firefighters suffered some of the highest rates of infection. At least 17 were killed hundreds took ill. This stress helped to draw firefighters together to push for better working conditions. A weeklong strike in mid-April was ultimately broken by the city. Firefighters would not be permitted to organize until 1936.
A Terrible Year
During the year 10 Cincinnati firefighters would be killed in a variety of incidents. This remains the worst year for firefighter death in the departments history.
Fire and Water
In January 1937, Cincinnati was devistated by the worst flood in the city’s history. During the flood several large fires, including the Crosley Fire on Black Sunday, kept firefighters busy. Though many had lost their own homes, firefighters worked day after day without rest to protect the city and rescue trapped residents.
Post War Suburbanization
The movement of people into the suburbs was already well established by the end of World War II. As service members returned home this growth accelerated. Many of the suburban fire departments in the region had been formed earlier but were expanded in this period to meet the growing needs of their communities.
A National Radio Program
“Firefighters,” A nationally syndicated radio show is recognized by Cincinnati Fire Chief Barney Houston for its contribution to fire safety. Over 200 episodes are produced telling the story of firefighter Tim Collins. Young listeners around the country join the shows Junior Firefighters Club and learn fire safety. The program also makes common the use of the term “firefighter.”
The Cincinnati Fire Department hires its first African American firefighter, Herbert Bane. Bane served the city for several years before taking a position with the federal fire service.
Our Longest Serving Chief Retires
Chief Barney J. Houston retired with 54 years of service to the City of Cincinnati. For over 41 years, Houston served as the chief of the department. Under his leadership the city weather the impact of numerous fires, the great flood, labor unrest, the impact of two world wars and the Great Depression, and major local political change. The department completed its mechanization and fully developed the prevention bureau. Houston pushed firefighters to approach the job as a science and focused on training to improve quality and reduce fire loss.
The Cincinnati Fire Museum
A group of firefighters and citizens join together to create The Cincinnati Fire Museum in the basement of the fire station at 9th and Broadway. Most of the items that were displayed at this museum remain on display at the current Cincinnati Fire Museum!
A National Tragedy
On May 28, 1977 a massive fire swept through the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Northern Kentucky. Fire companies from around the region, including Cincinnati, responded to provide assistance. 165 people were killed and over 200 injured.
A New Museum in an Old Fire Station
The Cincinnati Fire Museum opens in its current location, the former quarters of Engine Company 45. The new location offers the opportunity to expand the museum’s role. In addition to telling the rich history of the fire service in the Cincinnati area, the museum also provides life saving fire prevention education to thousands of children annually.
First Female Fire Recruits
The Cincinnati Fire Department hires its first female firefighters, Pateeser Jackson, Vickie Goodson, and Paula Duncan. Today, Vickie Goodson serves on the museum’s board of directors and volunteers to teach children fire safety.
Emergency Medical Services
The Cincinnati Fire department had been providing emergency medical treatment since first aid kits were distributed to companies in 1917. By 1929 all members were trained to render first aid. In 1982 the department required that all members be certified Emergency Medical Technicians. Finally in 1986 the fire department clearly assumed responsibility for all emergency medical functions by taking over all transportation of persons needing medical attention. Police scout cars would no longer be used for this purpose.
Major Industrial Emergency
An explosion and fire at the BASF facility on Dana Avenue generated a major fire response from the Cincinnati and Norwood Fire Departments. Firefighters were faced with a large fire, frequent explosions, trapped victims, mass casualties, hazardous materials and an evacuation. Two plant employees were killed and over 80 injuries were reported.
Multi Agency Response to A Large Cincinnati Fire
The Queen City Barrel Company erupted in flames generating a massive response from all around Greater Cincinnati. Over 25 fire apparatus operated at the scene. Outlying communities provided companies to support operations and staff city fire stations.
What is it like to be a firefighter today?
Today’s firefighter is a highly trained, specialized professional. He or she must be experienced in the use of complex techniques and equipment in order to combat fires. Today’s firefighter must be prepared to battle fire anywhere: on the 20th floor of a high-rise building, in the crawl space of a factory warehouse, or beside the main tank of an oil refinery.
In the dead of a winter night, today’s firefighter must be ready to endure searing heat and numbing ice. During a clear midsummer day, the firefighter must be prepared to run through pitch-black smoke.
Firefighting is tough, demanding work. It requires strength, endurance, intelligence, and courage.
Do you want to earn the title “firefighter?”
Fired Up for More?
You can learn a lot more about the history of firefighting in the Cincinnati area by planning a visit to the Cincinnati Fire Museum. You will find leather fire buckets, silver trumpets, parade helmets, the fire alarm drum, fire engines, and other exciting artifacts from our past. Our interactive exhibits provide the opportunity to understand how firefighters go to work to protect the community. Kids can even slide down a real fire pole! We hope you will learn a lot about our rich firefighting traditions and ways to help protect your family and friends from fires and other emergencies.