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The History of Engine House 10 - Camp Putnam

 

By 1900, Bridgeport was rapidly becoming the industrial capital of Connecticut. In the first 10 years of the 20th century, Bridgeport's population exploded from 70,996 in 1900 to 102,054 in 1910. Many of the new residents flocked to the East Side, also known then as East Bridgeport, where entirely new neighborhoods were rapidly developing for the huge new factories rising there.

Five out of seven of Bridgeport's firehouses were located either Downtown or on the West Side by 1900. Yet the department was making so many runs to the East Side and East End that in 1893 Engine 5's steamer on Middle Street was fitted with a third horse hitch due to the number of long runs it was making there. The only company actually located in PT Barnum’s East Bridgeport in 1900 was Engine 2 on Crescent Place, in the heavily industrialized, densely populated Lower East Side.  Across the Yellow Mill River, the East End was protected by Engine 6 and Truck 3, which operated out of the comer of Barnum and Central Avenues.

In 1904 Edward Mooney became the Chief of the Bridgeport Fire Department.  A dynamic, colorful, well-connected individual, Chief Mooney envisioned a first-class fire department.  He adopted new aggressive tactics which featured a type of 1-2 punch in attacking fires- an initial blitz with water supplied from booster tanks mounted on from specially designated "chemical" companies, hose wagons, and even ladder trucks. As this was occurring, big steamers would hook up to hydrants, and once the booster tanks were drained their hoses would mop up whatever fire was left with the unlimited water from the city’s water system. He also favored a large expansion of the fire department, so every area of the city would be adequately covered, as well as full motorization of Bridgeport fire apparatus.

Chief Mooney was able to secure funding for opening new firehouses housing Engine 8 in the East End, and Engine 9 in the South End, both in 1907.That same year, Chief Mooney recommended opening a "chemical house on the West Side, and another engine house "in the northern part of East Bridgeport". The first firehouse, housing Chemical 2, opened in 1908 on Maplewood Avenue. 

The new engine house took a bit longer to come about. In 1909 Chief Mooney again recommended the new firehouse, suggesting it be located near Noble Avenue and Huntington Road, and contain an engine company (Engine 10) and a chemical company (Chemical 3).  He also stated he hoped all apparatus in the new firehouse would be motorized.

In 1911, the Board of Fire Commissioners announced in their annual report the purchase of a 100x150' lot on the south side of Putnam Street between East Main and Kossuth streets for $2,025.  The Commissioners stated the urgent need to build a firehouse on the site to cover "the northern section of East Bridgeport, as well as North Bridgeport".

In 1913, Engine Company 10 opened on Putnam Street.  The new firehouse was basically an improved version of Chemical House 2, featuring a long, narrow, two-story brick building with a long bay running the length of it.  Access to Putnam Street was through a pair of thick wood doors, which were spring loaded to suddenly open when the "gong", also known as "trips" went off indicating an alarm.

The firehouse originally contained four poles, with a unique system described in Fire Engineering magazine on April 6, 1915: "One of the appliances in use in Bridgeport consists of an automatic opening sliding pole hole cover. In one situation (describing Engine House 10) in particular, three of these rise simultaneously at the sound of the gong.  They remain open for a minute and a half and close again automatically.  They are operated by hydraulic pressure.  The object in having them close is to keep the quarters above the station wan-n after the apparatus leaves, for the doors usually remain open for some time after the engines pull out. This work is the invention of a member of the Bridgeport Department, and it is probably the only installation of its kind in the country". The hydraulic pole hole doors remained in use at Engine House 10 until the early 1970s.

Two aspects of Chief Mooney's vision for Engine House 10 never made it off the drawing board.  Chemical 3 wound up opening up in 1919 at Engine House 6, which was much more spacious.  And despite the Chief’s recommendation that Engine 10's apparatus be motorized, the company’s first vehicles were a pair of horse-drawn apparatus from busier houses, which had just been replaced by motorized vehicles. A 3rd class, 600 GPM American steamer pulled by two horses, originally purchased in 1900 for Engine 2, was assigned to Engine 10. The steamer had the ability to pump over 650 gallons of water a minute.

            The second piece of apparatus was a hose wagon fitted with a 40-gallon chemical tank, also pulled by two horses. Formerly assigned to Engine 4, the wagon carried 1,000 feet of 2½ inch-thick  hose, 100 feet of 1 1/4" hose, and 250' of ¾” hose for the chemical tank.  It is interesting to note this particular hose wagon, along with Engine 1’s steamer, had traveled by railroad flatcar to assist Waterbury when that city experienced its terrible conflagration on February 2, 1902.  Both apparatus were fitted with new "band brakes", repainted, and renumbered.

The horses were quartered in the bay, in narrow stables set up against the inside walls of the building. Less than 30’ wide, the firehouse was constructed on the right side of the lot, and its design was based upon New York City firehouses. The yard on the left side of the lot allowed the horses space to roam, called a “trotting park”. The horses were exercised at least four times a day, at 8:00 AM, noon, 5:00 PM, and 8:00 PM. As early as 1912, the newspapers reported the new Engine House 10 was designed and positioned with an addition to accommodate a truck company on the building’s left side in mind.

Hay was most likely stored upstairs in the rear, at one time there was an outside door in back of the building on the second floor. Coal was dumped into a bunker through a set of steel doors below the left, outside wall of the firehouse.  About ten bags of coal were kept on hand at all times for easy loading of the steamer.  To keep the steamers operating at prolonged fires, a fuel wagon loaded with half a ton of coal was maintained by the fire department at Engine 1. The outside bunker doors and a retractable steel crane above them remain today.  When idle in the firehouse, the steamer was hooked up to a coal fired "heater". The heater kept the temperature high in the boiler, allowing it to get a head of steam, and in turn water into the hoses, quicker than a “cold start”.

Forward of the bunker was a 50' long set of shelves for drying and storing hose, which is still in use. Engine House 10 never had a hose tower, and enters the 21st century as the only Bridgeport firehouse that still dries its hose on shelves.

Engine House 10 was the last of four firehouses erected during Chief Mooney's tenure.  It is ironic that the firehouse he originally envisioned to be the first in Bridgeport designed from Day 1 to possess motorized apparatus would in fact become the last to get rid of its horses.

In 1915 Chief Mooney's successor Daniel Johnson announced he wanted three "combination" firehouses.  These firehouses would possess a two motorized apparatus, including an engine (the motorized apparatus used gasoline powered pumps, instead of an independent steam engine, and were thus called “engines”), but instead of a hose wagon they would be equipped with American LaFrance "city service trucks", which carried all the ladders and equipment found on a ladder truck, minus the aerial, as well as a large chemical tank and hose. 

Of the three proposed firehouses, Engine 11 and Truck 4 in Black Rock, and Engine 12 and Truck 5 in the North End opened in 1918.  The third firehouse, presumably housing an Engine 14 (Bridgeport never operated an Engine 13) and Truck 6, was to be located near Boston Avenue around Central Avenue in what was then called "Remington City", after the huge ammunition plant there. This firehouse was never built, but the idea of a combination company on Bridgeport's East Side would manifest itself later.

It was during World War I that the term "Camp Putnam" began to be associated with Engine House 10. Several areas with military links were designated "camps" about the city, while other places, like Engine House 10, were nicknamed the same.  Exactly why this nickname came about is unknown, but it most likely had to do with the personalities assigned to the firehouse at the time.

In 1918, the Board of Fire Commissioners approved the purchase of four Robinson motorized engines.  The Bridgeport Fire Department said goodbye to the last of its horses on December 31, 1918, when a 72hp, 750 GPM Robinson was placed in service at Engine 10. The Robinson carried no ladders, extinguishers, or chemical tank, and the only hose it carried was 500' of 2½" line. Accompanying the Robinson a new 32hp Macaar (Mack) hose wagon, which was rather large for its day, boasting twin 30 gallon chemical tanks, 200' of 1/4" chemical attack line, 100' of 1¼" regular attack line, 1000' of 2½" supply line, and 2 20' ground ladders. With the installation of this equipment at Engine House 10, the complete motorization of the Bridgeport Fire Department was complete.

The Robinson engine was a decent piece of fire apparatus, considering the state of technology in those days. However, fire engines were less durable back then, and not expected to last as long as they do today. Fierce bidding between the numerous manufacturers also kept prices down. The result of this fierce bidding, was that a number of apparatus manufacturers, such as Robinson, went out of business.  As a result, spare and replacement parts were no longer available, restricting the Robinsons' service lives even more.

Engine 10's Robinson was replaced by an American LaFrance Type 75 750 GPM fire engine in 1927. This was one of about half a dozen LaFrance engines purchased to replace the Robinsons and other first-generation motorized equipment in the Bridgeport Fire Department.  Like the Robinson, the new LaFrance engine did not carry water. Unlike the Robinson, the LaFrance was capable carrying two ladders and a full hose complement. 

On March 7, 1934, Engine House 8 on the East End was “temporarily” closed as a cost-cutting Depression measure.  This resulted in Engine 10's Macaar hose wagon being replaced by Engine 8's 1920 Packard hose wagon. Engine House 8 would reopen in 1949.

As it turned out, the LaFrances were the last fire engines purchased before the Great Depression struck Bridgeport, and the rest of the country. Bridgeport purchased no new fire apparatus between 1930 and 1935.  As older fire engines broke down, the severely under funded Bridgeport Fire Department had no choice but to prioritize to firehouses located in what the National Board of Fire Underwriters considered "high value" areas.  These areas were primarily in the downtown and industrial districts, and did not include primarily residential and light commercial areas like Engine 10's.

As a result, Engine 10 lost its Packard hose wagon to another firehouse and became a “single engine” firehouse. Although the Bridgeport Fire Department continued to operate hose wagons as late as 1993, by the time funds were available to buy Engine 10 a new hose wagon, the City had other plans for the Putnam Street firehouse. In 1929 Fire Chief Thomas Bums announced he wished to outfit Engine 10 with a city service truck similar to those at Engines 11 and 12. The Board of Fire Commissioners apparently agreed, but due to the Depression, and subsequent higher apparatus replacement priorities, the matter was not acted on for over a decade.

Ironically, it was one of Bridgeport's few "single engine" companies that wound up arriving first to one of the most devastating fires to strike the City in the 20th century.  A group of ice skaters lit a bonfire below Bunnell's Pond on January 25, 1939. It was a cold, windy day, with 40 mph gusts. The high wind spread the fire to a nearby large, five-story icehouse, located where Wonderland of Ice is today on Glenwood Avenue. The fire quickly consumed the icehouse. The roof was covered with a sticky, highly inflammable tar, which subsequently was caught in the wind, creating a firestorm over the neighborhood. The fire ultimately destroyed five houses, and damaged many others were damaged. 22 were injured, either through bums or exposure, and 40 were left homeless.

Located in Engine 10s still district, the infamous "Icehouse Fire" quickly grew into a General Alarm, with a number of neighboring fire departments responding mutual aid to the scene, something virtually unheard of in Bridgeport in those days.  Engine 10's 1927 American LaFrance pumped for 42 hours straight. A photograph in the Bridgeport Firefighters’ Historical Society’s book Images of America – Bridgeport Firefighters, shows Engine 10’s LaFrance at the fire, covered with ice, though still pumping water.

The Depression left a large number of skilled Bridgeport residents unemployed.  Many of them found work with the Civil Works Authority and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, laboring on municipal projects.  As a result, all city firehouses were altered, repaired, repainted, and repointed. New walls and lockers were built. It is most likely that any remaining trappings of Engine House 10’s horse and coal days were removed at this time, and the firehouse’s current basic floor plan came into being.

            The original method of “calling out” Engine 10 was through the "gongs". The gongs rang out alarm locations utilizing a telegraph-based system that struck bells in sequence with the number of the fire alarm box that was pulled, as well as other signals. The firefighter manning the watch desk had to keep tabs on which companies were out, and whether the company was supposed to respond on any given alarm. Failure to respond to a still alarm or box alarm that your company was assigned to was a grave offence. There are examples in the history of the Bridgeport Fire Department of firefighters being terminated for failures that lead to their fire companies not responding to assigned alarms.

            In 1935 the gongs were replaced by Chief Bums' revolutionary "talk-alarm" system. The talk-alarm was basically a closed circuit PA system allowing one-way communication from the Fire Alarm headquarters to the firehouses. The watch desk still had to be manned, but now alarms could be transmitted quicker and clearer, as opposed to waiting for the gongs to toll out box locations such as 897, and hoping that the man on watch didn’t miscount the number of bells.

          In 1939, the first of three new Mack city service trucks was delivered to Truck 4 at Engine House 11. The following year, Chief Bums authorized renumbering all truck companies to correspond to the engine houses they were assigned. In 1940 a Mack city service truck was delivered to the newly formed Truck 10. Engine 10 was redesignated combination company, resulting in its manpower rising from six to eight men on duty per shift. In nearly all cases, the apparatus responded together, and operated as a single company.

          The new Truck 10 carried 13 ladders totaling 231’, including a 55’ ground ladder equipped with "tormenter poles", that required about six men to raise. The truck also featured a 100 gallon booster tank and 250' of ¾” hose.  A city service truck third went to Truck 12 a year later.

By the time America entered World War II, Bridgeport's industry had expanded into Engine House 10's district, much of which was defense related.  Once again, Engine 10 had the distinction of arriving first at another one of Bridgeport's worst 20th century disasters, when an explosion leveled a one story brick rim-fire and packing building in the Remington Arms complex on Boston Avenue and Helen Street, killing 7 and injuring 80, on March 28, 1942.  First arriving firefighters had to dodge bullets, which a newspaper said was exploding all over the street "like popcorn".  Fire Engineering magazine stated "The blast, which reverberated over the entire city, sent great sheets of flame leaping hundreds of feet into the air, shattered windows for blocks around, and imperiled many residents as flying bullets pelted homes and streets".  "On the first alarm, Engines 2, 10, Truck 10, and Squad 5 responded.  Engines 6 and 5 and Truck 6 responded on the second alarm.  Firemen under command of Fire Chief Martin J. Hayden fought the blaze for two hours and remained at the scene until the debris were cleared and all bodies were recovered the following day".

After 21 years of hard service Engine 10 replaced its 1927 American LaFrance engine with a 750-gallon triple-combination Mack Type 85 pumper, on November 10, 1948. The new engine was equipped 1600' of 2½" supply hose, 400' of 1½” hose, and a 100 gallon booster tank with 250' of ¼” hose, along with a pair of 24' and 14' ground ladders.  The new Engine 10 was also the first vehicle assigned to the company that was equipped with a two-way radio, the Bridgeport Fire Department having obtained its FCC license only a year before.

 

In 1956 the Board of Fire Commissioners announced it wanted to put an addition onto Engine House 10.  This was one of the first of many such schemes to construct additions to, or replace outright, Engine and Truck 10's firehouse.  As of 2002, none of these plans have come to pass.

Engine and Truck 10 continued to serve Bridgeport with its two Macks throughout the 1950s and 60s.  During this period a number of large manufacturers decided to abandon their aging plants and rising labor costs, and leave town, causing some sections of the city to decline.  Engine House 10's neighborhood was remained relatively unchanged, though the companies' run total continued to increase.

          Bridgeport's city service trucks were nearing the end of their service lives by 1970. That year, a 100' American LaFrance replaced Truck 11’s service truck. The following year a second aerial was purchased for Truck 10. The two aerials were nicknamed "Baby LaFrances" by the firemen of the day, so named because they were single axle rear mount aerials, distinctly shorter from the tiller-drawn aerials which were standard in Bridgeport before 1970. The truck’s gasoline engine was later re-powered with a diesel.

More importantly, the new Truck 10 was short enough that it could fit into the firehouse, and could make the sharp turn onto Putnam Street.  The manpower of both truck companies 10 and 11 were increased when their new apparatus was placed in service to make them fully functioning truck companies, operating independently from the engine companies they were previously attached to.

          Engine 10's Mack was replaced only three years later by a 1974 Ward LaFrance pumper.  One of six Wards pumpers purchased by the Bridgeport Fire Department, these engines were distinct in that they were they were painted lime green, a trend which began in the 1970s.  Thankfully, at least for the Bridgeport Fire Department, the trend of painting new apparatus lime green also ended in the 1970s.

          The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a marked increase in both number and severity of alarms responded to by both Engine and Truck 10, both in their district and those adjoining. Crime and arson rose dramatically on the East Side, and Engine House 10 became a busy firehouse.  However, morale in the companies remained high. This was despite, or some might argue because of, the fact that all of the other “old” firehouses built before World War II were closed outright, or saw their companies consolidating into new, modem firehouses with facilities which made Engine House 10 look a bit Spartan in comparison. The high call volume often translated into more than one working fire every night, resulting in a high level of camaraderie and teamwork.  Track 10 “buffed” their apparatus up years before it became popular to do so in other places, dubbing it the "East Side Trucking Company", naming its aerial ladder "The Big Stick", and other customized decorations.

The large number of fires in the area made Engine 10 a priority on the apparatus replacement list- the Ward was rotated to slower company in 1982 to make room for a red Mack CF 600 pumper.  The continued closing of fire companies, particularly Engine 2 in 1989 and Engine 8 in 1992 left the Putnam Street firehouse in a more strategic position than ever, its companies making more and longer runs to protect areas formerly served by those units.

From 1986 until 1992, the City did not purchase any new fire apparatus, surpassing the previous record set in the Depression years. Faced with financial woes up to and including bankruptcy, the City of Bridgeport began rebounding in the 1990s. Accompanying the rebound came a series of new apparatus purchased orders.  With the remaining “dual engine companies”, running with engines and hose wagons, finally eliminate in 1992, combined with the actual number of fire companies reduced, the new fire engines traded to be of high quality, intended to perform a variety of functions.

The first batch of new apparatus was composed of three Pierce Lance pumpers assigned to Engines 4, 5 (later 12), and 10, and a rescue squad for Squad 5 (now Rescue 5). Engine 10’s old Mack CF 600 was briefly reassigned to Engine 14. The old Mack was reassigned to Engine 15 when that company closed, where it remained on active duty until 1998. 

By this time, Engine 10's call volume was increasing as the department had begun responding to medical emergencies and other non-fire related calls such as automobile lockouts.  Likewise, the actual number of fires was decreasing, as anti-crime initiatives and an aggressive new arson task force began making significant inroads on the East Side.

The 1990s saw Truck 10 re-designated Ladder 10. A 1996 Pierce Lance 105' heavy-duty aerial replaced the 1971 American LaFrance in January of 1997.  The new truck is about as large as space will permit in Engine House 10, clearing the bottom of the front door by inches and assisted by “all wheel steering” to make the turn onto Putnam Street. The all-wheel steering allows the truck to make sharp turns, and even move sideways!

Over the past few years specialized equipment has been added to this apparatus, such as a thermal imaging camera, cold water rescue suits, airbags and cribbing, a “jaws of life” for vehicle extrication, and others. One of four remaining ladder companies left in Bridgeport, Ladder 10 is the first due for the John (East Side), Mary (Engine 14’s old district in the North End) and Nancy (Upper East Side) districts, and second due for many others.

It is interesting to note that the 1947 Mack pumper was later purchased by the Bridgeport Area Retired Firefiglters (BARF) and used as a parade piece.  It was sold to the Bridgeport Firefighters Historical Society (BFHS) in 2000. The 1971 American LaFrance aerial served as a reserve piece from 1997 until it was declared worn out and retired from service in 2000. The BFHS is currently attempting to obtain this truck as well. The Mack CF 600 that served Engine 10 from 1982 to 1993, and Engine 15 from 1993 to 1998, still serves the Bridgeport Fire Department as a reserve piece.

2001 saw Engine and/or Ladder 10 respond mutual aid to the towns of Trumbull and Ansonia for very large fires there. Both Engine and Ladder 10 were alerted that they were selected for possible mutual aid, assistance, or coverage in the Greater New York City area after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Center and other targets.  Though the companies themselves never responded, many Camp Putnam firefighters volunteered to go to Manhattan themselves, the first group arriving within 24 hours of the fall of the twin towers.  Personnel from Engine and Ladder 10, and other BFD companies, remained on scene nearly continuously, aiding their FDNY brothers and sisters any way they could, in the days and weeks that followed.

Engine House 10 entered the 21st century as the oldest firehouse left in service in the City of Bridgeport, the last remaining from the horse-drawn era.  Maximum use was made of the limited space made for first-rate fire equipment and apparatus, at the cost of eliminating some of the creature comforts Bridgeport firefighters would normally expect at other firehouse. Despite this, Camp Putnam was a beloved post for many of the firefighters assigned there. The flag was hoisted from the firehouse’s tall flagpole for the last time on March 15, 2007. That morning, Engine and Ladder 10 pulled onto Putnam Street, took a right, and drove four blocks to a brand new firehouse located at Boston Avenue and Pembroke Street. Camp Putnam’s days as an active firehouse in the Bridgeport Fire Department had come to an end.

But the story didn’t end there. The firehouse continues as part of the Bridgeport Fire Department’s inventory to this very day. Its care has been entrusted to the Bridgeport Firefighters’ Historical Society, who envision converting the firehouse into a museum and fire education center. The Putnam Street Project, designed to make this goal happen, was inaugurated in September 2010.

As Camp Putnam approaches its 100th birthday in 2013, the firehouse continues to serve and protect the City of Bridgeport and its citizens, albeit in a way that could never have been envisioned in 1913. It also has another mission – to tell the story of the brave firefighters who called the place home for nearly a century, and the American Fire Service in general.

 

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