The Breckenridge Fire Department
Written by Rebecca Waugh, Breckenridge Town Historian
In early 1880, Breckenridge was booming with symbols of prosperity and permanence. Under construction were fine residences and commercial, false-fronted buildings. Wooden boardwalks lined the walkways along the wide Main Street. The buildings in town were constructed of log or wood, with muslin or paper insulation lining the interior walls. And, they were firetraps.
The threat of a major conflagration, accentuated by an occasional small blaze, was the reason for the formation of the Breckenridge Fire Department in 1880. The volunteer department soon boasted one hook and ladder and two hose companies. A “company” was a group of men organized to fight fire-women were not considered for service in those days.
Pioneer Hook & Ladder Company
The Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company Number 1 owned the hand-drawn wagon that carried the hooks, ladders and leather buckets for the fire crews. The Blue River Hose Company and the Independent Hose Company were brigades armed with hose carts that ran with the “hooks”.
Firefighters Through the Years
Through the years, the Breckenridge Fire Department was comprised of miners, teamsters, saloonkeepers, merchants and others. A sampling of the members reveals a broad slice of Breckenridge society; George Bressler, blacksmith; John Roby, Main Street merchant; John B. Dewers, saloonkeeper; and William Harrison Briggle, cashier of the Engle Bros. Exchange Bank. Side by side, they worked as equals to defeat the “fire demon”.
In the early days, it was never an easy task to fight fires in the isolated mining towns. Hidden dangers were present during Breckenridge’s fire of 1884. The fire had a tremendous head start on Main Street when it leapt from Finding’s Hardware Store, where it started, to adjacent buildings and then up to Ridge Street. To add to the peril, there were also hundreds of pounds of “giant powder”-or dynamite - stored in the back rooms of burning buildings.
Working amid intense heat, smoke and hot embers, firefighters were successful in preventing the spread of the inferno to the west side of Main Street, but the flames were so hot that the paint was scorched off the sides of buildings and every pane of window glass was cracked. Firemen sucked the wells dry and much of Breckenridge’s commercial district burned to the ground.
Breckenridge Fire Department
All 3 companies were overseen by the Breckenridge Fire Department and were headquartered in the 20 foot by 60 foot Fireman’s Hall. Built in 1880 on Town property, the Late Victorian building had many features including a louvered bell tower. Inside the 2-story hall were fire apparatus and wooden cabinets full of leather helmets, caps, torches, axes, belts and parade uniforms. A fine public room upstairs was used for town and fire company meetings, public entertainment and an occasional church or funeral service.
Local newspaper editors were particularly supportive of the fire companies in Breckenridge. They gave accounts of the elections, drills, meetings, social events and the latest information on what were, at the time, the most powerful organizations in town.
Move to Main Street
After Fireman’s Hall was moved to Main Street in 1888, the hall’s interior was renovated and redecorated, and its outdoor stairway was enclosed. The front of the building was ornamented with the names of all three fire companies painted on their respective doors, and the belfry was “relieved of its unfinished appearance”.
Fireman’s Hall remained the center of Breckenridge’s cultural activity until it was torn down in 1941. Its lumber was used to build a new town hall across the street.
The Breckenridge Fire Department worked hard at the fires, but it was “all-volunteer”. Consequently, when South Main Street exploded into flames in 1896, the Town’s firemen were at work in the area mines. No one was on hand to fight the fire except women, children, the Methodist minister and a “few town bummers”. All of the buildings between Washington Avenue and Adams Avenue were destroyed before the wind changed direction and spared Breckenridge from total destruction.
Today, Breckenridge’s fire department is no longer “all volunteer”- it is a professional, all-hazards response fire department and new legislation has created stricter fire codes. The Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District’s fire museum houses the Town’s antique fire apparatus and artifacts. Yet, no matter what the crisis, our firefighters are still always on hand to help. In times of fire or other emergencies, day or night, the example set by these modern-day heroes and heroines is one of leadership and sacrifice. Some things never change.