COMMENTARY: Building fire protection

By Eugene Fernandez

On May 8, 1908, Mayor Frederic Combe’s administration carried out an overhaul of Market Square, whitewashing it and proposing that screens be put around the butchers’ booths.

An outgrowth of this initiative was that the firehouse was built during this time, completed around December of that year. It also was reported that the new two-story structure would possess indoor plumbing conveniences, and be completely outfitted with electric lights. This was to satisfy an immediate need to stand as a base for our primitive firefighting operation.

The force up to that point had been operating strictly as a volunteer unit with horse-drawn wagons. The hook and ladder bases that are identified on the Sanborn Maps that exist indicate somewhat of an “orphan child” rating for this service, evidenced by the many homes in which it was found from the time of the city’s founding into the dawn of the 20th century. The known sites for this operation were nothing more than sheds some 25 feet deep with perhaps as much of a depth in alleys off of the 1200 block of Washington, 13th and East Elizabeth streets, and 13th and Levee streets. The firefighters must have felt quite civilized to now have a brick structure and double their accustomed footprint.

In 1909 city leaders made a major effort to enact what was referred to as the “Fire Ordinance” for the core of Brownsville’s commercial district. This civil code set geographical limits of Levee and Adams streets on the east and west, and the quartermaster’s wall and 10th Street on the north and south. Within that zone, all major construction had to be brick, stone or concrete, and stringent roof requirements applied as well.

The first configuration of firefighting equipment to appear in the new quarters was obviously horse-drawn. Whether the horse teams were stabled in the breezeway between the north building and the old market house has lost itself to history, but more likely they were lodged at the Hicks Livery a block to the north on East Adams Street.

In that year the firehouse at Market Square became crowded with a permanent professional force, no longer relying on volunteers. The city took a serious approach to fire safety by employing a fire chief at $50 per month, three full-time firemen at $40 per month and a whopping seven assistants at $5 a month.

The city’s first motorized vehicle, based out of the market location, was brought on stream in 1917 and reportedly was retrofitted by merely attaching the old pumper apparatus, minus the wheels and horse tack, to the bed of a Model T Ford truck that cost the city fully $716. They called it the “hose and chemical truck,” which started out as a horse-drawn unit newly purchased by the city in 1911. Purchase of the new unit was spurred by public outrage after the W.B. Clint and J.W. Batsell homes burned in mid-year 1917. This equipment was yet superseded by a full-on American LaFrance pumper truck that arrived in July of 1918 and was a more solid answer to the demands of the people and cost a handsome $9,750. All of this action was brought on after Jimmy the fire horse went lame and was put out to pasture.

The argument that convinced the commissioners to make these investments, beyond the public clamor, was that savings could be had by eliminating the need for horse feed.

In November of 1928, the Fire Department vacated the Market Square structure and settled into its new $35,000 Central Station, one block away at East Adams and 10th streets. In 1923 another pumper truck of similar specifications as the 1917 unit was ordered from American LaFrance costing $12,750, and consideration was given to opening talks to acquire a large, 50-foot ladder truck as well. This larger truck arrived in January of 1928, mainly spurred by the opening of the eight-story El Jardin Hotel in 1927.

This type of equipment was far too large to be accommodated in the old fire hall at Market Square, and for that matter, the new aerial ladder truck, at 55 feet in length, couldn’t even be based at the new Adams Street Central Station until street and sidewalk work were executed on-site. It was temporarily housed at Funeral Director/Police and Fire Commissioner Burt Hinkley’s garage, which fronted on St. Francis Street.

Eugene Fernandez is director of the South Texas Center for Historical & Genealogical Research-501(c)(3) Historical Research Management Foundation.