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Cincinnati’s Firefighting History

Cincinnati has a unique, rich firefighting history. Discover all that has happened over the years—and then visit the Fire Museum of Greater Cincinnati to learn even more.

What Part Has Cincinnati Played in Firefighting?

Cincinnati residents have been battling fires on the record for more than 200 years, since a brush fire occurred in the city in 1794. At that time, fires were fought by using "bucket lines," in which men formed a sort of assembly line. They passed water down the line to the scene of the fire. Women and children formed a second line in which they passed empty buckets back to the water source. This bucket line method of fighting fires was slow and tedious. In 1816, a new way to fight fires was discovered. The Hunneman pumper was unveiled at Washington Company No. 1. This pumper threw a stream of water up to 133 feet as 12 men pumped for a few exhausting moments at a time. At that time, Cincinnati started to develop from a primitive town to a crowded metropolis. As this happened, volunteer firefighting companies—made up of 50 to 100 men—were created in order to battle the increasing number of fires. But this quickly turned chaotic. The pumpers were inefficient, and the firefighting efforts were unorganized. When fires broke out, bells rang, crowds of citizens shouted, and people dashed into burning buildings—unprepared. Buildings often had to be torn down to stop the fire from spreading. Citizens were curious and clumsy, and possessions often were stolen in the midst of the pandemonium. In an effort to stop the chaos, the volunteer firefighting companies started to charge people for their services. The only companies that were paid were the ones that were first to arrive on the scene of a fire. This led to fierce competition among the firefighting companies, as they began to sabotage each other's equipment. These arguments often led to the building burning down as the firefighters fought with each other! In early 1853, the Fire Department Committee presented a plan that implemented a staff of full-time, paid firefighters who would use a horse-drawn steam engine. This steam engine allowed four or five men to spray more water on a fire than hundreds of people using hand pumpers. The Cincinnati City Council loved this idea. This plan became effective on April 1, 1853. Later in 1853, Cincinnati inventors Able Shawk and Alexander Latta created "Uncle Joe Ross," the first successful steam fire engine. This steam engine had the capacity of the six largest double-engine hand pumpers. "Uncle Joe Ross" fought fires by supplying three hand companies with water while simultaneously throwing a powerful spray of water onto the fire. This implementation paved the way for fire departments all over the country for the next 50 years! By 1913, the Ahrens-Fox Manufacturing Company of Cincinnati had become one of the most famous names in firefighting. This company developed steam engines, replaced horses with motorized tractors, and produced compressed-air aerial ladders to reach the windows of tall buildings. Less than 10 years later, the Cincinnati Fire Department became one of the country's first fully motorized fire departments. In 1969, the Cincinnati Fire Department used its first diesel apparatus.

Fired Up for More?

You can learn much more about the history of firefighting in Cincinnati by planning a visit to the Fire Museum of Greater Cincinnati. You'll find all kinds of historic items, including leather fire buckets, silver trumpets, a fire-alarm drum from 1808, the oldest surviving fire engine in Cincinnati, and a Hunneman hand pumper from 1836. Through interactive exhibits, you and your family can learn about the bomb squad, chemical spills, the Jaws of Life®, and more. Your kids even can slide down a real fire pole and interact with a modern emergency-one fire engine by flashing its lights, wailing its siren, ringing its bell, and pretending to drive it. If you'd rather show your support in other ways, we encourage you to become an official member of the Fire Museum of Greater Cincinnati or to donate your time, money, or artifacts.