Miles City Fire Department had new truck in 1917

By: 
Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist

In the fall of 1917, Miles City was celebrating several months of having an actual fire truck. They had had some initial problems, damaging the clutch in an early run since they weren’t very experienced with motorcars, but they were getting better.

An article in the Sept. 2,1917 Miles City Star has a proud report on the new truck and a brief review of the early days of firefighting. Miles City was famous for its incredibly bad luck when it came to fire, burning down entire blocks on a regular basis throughout the 1880s. 

The “fire department” initially consisted of volunteer bucket brigades with “a couple of dozen leather buckets” and an alarm system described as “a 44 gun fired five times to apprise the citizens there was a fire.” The water supply was described as a few pumps every couple of blocks “with the chance that at a crucial moment, the water would fail.”

Eventually, once Miles City was formally incorporated in 1887, a few hand drawn hose trucks were purchased and the volunteers officially organized and ran drills. Most structures still burned to the ground but it was that way in most of the world.

In 1910, a horse drawn hose wagon was purchased and a building constructed to house the fire department. An elaborate system of ropes and pulleys held the harness and lines in readiness for a fire and the horses could be hitched up very quickly.

It helped but technology kept improving and the time came for actual fire hydrants, not pumps that had to be pumped by hand, and a chemical tank that could spray fire suppressing foam on fires in those cases where either there was no running water, water pressure was low, or it was below freezing in temperature. 

Another thing that was done was to require that brick buildings only be constructed within the downtown business district. When these buildings were new, they were more fire resistant than wood frame structures, but as everyone in Miles City knows, as they aged, their fire resistance vanished with holes cut in floors and dropped ceilings added and too many extension cords plugged into outlets.

Still, in 1917, the majority of new buildings were concrete faced with brick or limestone and the majority of those early twentieth century buildings still stand. Between better construction and better fire fighting methods, in 1917, the article states, “the present loss for 1917 is less than $5,000. 

Of course, according to on-line calculators, that is worth somewhere between $100,000 and a $1.5 million by today’s calculations, but there wasn’t a single major, block-clearing fire in 1917.

They took another precaution. “The chief, with his assistants, made periodical inspections in the business blocks and basements that rubbish not be allowed to accumulate and also to familiarize the department with the surroundings that they may work to the best advantage in the case of fire.”

According to the Star, “Today the department consists of George Aitchison, chief; Wm. Twible, assistant chief; W. C. Forgey, president; John Elgin, vice president; John E. de Carle, treasurer; and Frank LaBeau, secretary; five of whom are under pay.”

In other words, these were the paid professional firefighters. If you notice that it sounds more like a social organization than a fire department, you are right. The fire department was somewhat independent of the city and, in fact, were major investors in the old Empress Theater on the southeast corner of Sixth and Pleasant, better remembered as “the opera house.” The pre-City Hall fire house was actually attached to the theater and the income from the theater helped pay for the fire department.

By the way, they only started paying those five in 1916. 

 1917 Firefighters

Honorary members: Gus Tengwell, Joe Belsky, Wm. Bement, and Will Ingalls.

Active members: J. E. de Carle, George Aitchison, Fred Woolsey, John Elgin, James Nugent, Thos. Kelly, Wm. Twible, W. C. Forgey, Wm. Gilchrist, Frank Le Beau, Otis Ericcessen, Bert Page, Phil Server, Oscar Lindeberg, Joe Nugent, Frank Perry, E. de Vaul, Frank Casey, A. C. Leighton, J. J. McGill, R. H. Clark, Walter Aitchison, Tom Fields, Wm. Rohde, Wm. Golden and Joe Golden.

(Contact Amorette Allison at 406-234-0450 or mcreporter@midrivers.com.)

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