Book recounts city’s firefighting heritage
Fire was a constant threat to the Moravian community that had settled in 1741 on 500 acres of land on the north side of the Lehigh River in what is now part of the city of Bethlehem. Many of the community houses were built partly of wood, and were interconnected to protect the residents against the harsh winters. Some farm buildings were made with logs, and filled with flammable contents. All of these structures were highly vulnerable to fast-spreading fires.
The story of how vulnerability to fire was addressed by the early settlers and those who followed in succeeding decades is told for the first time in historical detail in the beautifully illustrated book “Firefighting in Bethlehem: 1741-1917.” Co-authored by Chris Eline, Nancy Rutman and Karen Samuels, the book’s content is based on contemporary news accounts, archival records and rare artifacts and photographs.
During a recent slide presentation sponsored by the Lower Saucon Township Historical Society in Seidersville, the authors told the audience that the community’s first fire department began in 1747 after major fires in 1741 and 1745.
Rutman, a local historian noted for her Facebook page the “Lehigh Valley Historical Archive,” explained that the first fire department consisted of a bucket brigade. “Every household had a bucket to bring to the fire. It was hand-to-hand combat.”
The Northside didn’t get its first fire engine until 1763. Named “Perseverance,” it was built in London, and arrived four days too late to fight the destructive fire at the Linseed Oil Mill. It had side pump handles, and took six men on each side to work it, according to Rutman.
The Moravians purchased their second fire engine, “Diligence,’ from Germany in 1792. Its advantage was that the pump handles were on the front and back, allowing the engine to work in narrower spaces. It was used until the 1860s. Both engines are on public display in Bethlehem, Samuels said. “It’s amazing that these engines are still around.”
“Firefighting in Bethlehem” is divided into four sections corresponding with the four boroughs that existed until the mergers of South and West Bethlehem with North Bethlehem to eventually become the City of Bethlehem in 1917. The fourth borough Northampton Heights remained a separate political entity as Bethlehem Township.
Fire companies formed first on the Northside and, according to Samuels, they were all volunteer until payment of firefighters began in the 1890s. Rutman added that despite agitating for years for horses to pull the heavy fire engines, including the first fire steam engine purchased in 1869, the North Borough refused to buy any horses until 1872.
By the time South Bethlehem had organized its first sustainable fire company in 1875, the state legislature voted to allow fire companies to raise funds. Many did so by sponsoring balls, carnivals and even Christmas putzes. “Some of these [companies] evolved into social clubs and beer halls – not much about firefighting,” Rudman observed
Each of the four boroughs had their own different fire-fighting equipment, according to Eline, who is a 24-year veteran of the Bethlehem Fire Department. If there was a fire in one borough, other boroughs couldn’t help because things like hose couplings weren’t compatible. “Toward the end of the 19th Century, they decided they had better coordinate, so they standardized sizes of hookups for hoses,” Eline said.
A disastrous fire in 1884 completely destroyed the Bethlehem Opera House on the South Side in part because of poor firefighting equipment and inadequate water pressure. The borough’s response was to purchase the first hook and ladder truck, and establish the Lehigh Hook and Ladder Co. #1 with its own building.
Bethlehem Steel in the South Borough established its own fire company, and upgraded it, Samuels said, after several serious fires during World War I that were immediately suspected of being sabotage.
Eventually firefighting became very competitive, with fire companies in the four boroughs vying with each other over who had the best equipment, Samuels continued. “Newspapers were very good at covering everything, which is how we got our information.”
Photographs of that antique equipment and the courageous firemen who used it are among the 200 images featured in “Firefighting in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: 1741-1917.” The book is available at Amazon.com or the publisher’s website at perseverancepublishing.com.