Brief History of the Rockland Fire Department
By Capt. Horace Benner, R.F.D
The first mention of a fire department for Rockland, Maine appears in Eaton’s history of Thomaston, Rockland and South Thomaston, dating it back to 1840. Cyrus Eaton’s account says that by 1840 the area that is now Rockland, had developed to such a degree that bucket brigades and hurriedly summoned neighbors failed to halt fires which were increasing in numbers. As a result, the community purchased the small hand engine “Resolution”, but no organization was perfected to use it to full advantage. It was soon apparent that a better engine and some organization was imperative, and the engine “Boston” was acquired and manned by a group of public spirited citizens who served without pay.
In 1853 the citizens of Rockland purchased two more engines after several fairly large fires, but the citizens also felt that fire fighting must become a business, fought by men on the job 24 hours a day and not answering alarms when the spirit moved. But before the new engines arrived, Main Street was visited by its first conflagration, a $200,000 blaze. Upon their arrival the new engines were named “Dirigo” Engine 3 and “Defiance” Engine 4.
On the evening of December 20, 1859 fire again struck the city when the Commercial House caught fire. Before the night was over one fireman would be dead and two others would be severely injured. While combating the fire from a ladder near the eve of the building, a portion of a large chimney came down knocking the firemen from the ladder. The nozzleman, Fireman James F. Sears, was killed by the chimney, thus becoming the first Rockland fireman to die in the line of duty. Edward Love and James B. Ulmer were seriously injured, but both recovered.
With the beginning of the Civil War the citizens of Rockland heard the cry for volunteers. The first groups of men to volunteer were 25 members of the Dirigo Engine Company. In April 1861 with the City needing money to help with the war effort, the two engine companies gave up their expenditures for one year.
In 1869 the famous hand engines General Berry (named after the famous General Hiram Berry of Rockland) and the N.A. Burpee (named for the first Chief Engineer of the Rockland Fire Dept.) were purchased. With the General Berry and the N.A Burpee as the first string of defense, the Dirigo and the Defiance slid into the background. Their names were changed to H.G Bird and John Bird, respectively and were later sold. A short time later, the Defiance was brought back through general demand and was quartered at the Highland engine house. The James Street engine house was disposed of at about this time.
Rockland saw its first steam engine purchased in the early 1870’s and housed at the Granite engine house at the corner of Summer and Main Street. It was named the City of Rockland, and was joined in 1879 was joined by another steamer, the James F. Sears. The hand engines Berry and Burpee were then sold.
The modern era of the Rockland Fire Department started in 1918 with purchase of an American LaFrance triple combination engine. This grand old engine was Rockland’s first line of defense for over 20 years. The LaFrance was joined in Central fire station in 1924 by a McCann-Chandler triple combination pumper and later by the 1927 motor ladder truck (presently owned by the Rockport Fire Dept.).
In 1927 all the outlying fire stations were closed and their fire companies disbanded. This would be the beginning of the career firefighters division in Rockland. Now both the career personnel and the call division would be working out of one central station on Spring Street (now Museum St.) in the heart of the city. In 1939 the 1918 LaFrance was disposed with the purchase of a 1938 Mack pumper.
During the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s Rockland saw many fires large and small, but none as devastating as the so-called Rockland Fire on the night of December 12, 1952. Before the fire was done a large portion of the Main Street are had been destroyed. Chief Van Russell would rely on not only fire departments in Knox County but his requests would go beyond the borders of Knox County to as far away as Brunswick, Bath and Bangor, with even the Portland FD on standby. This fire caused over a million dollars in damage, and was the biggest loss suffered in any one fire in Rockland in its history up to that point.
In January of 1968 the Fire Department went from a 72 hour work week to a 56 hour work week. This meant three shifts instead of the two as had been the case for many years. The city hired three new fire fighters to accomplish this shift change and the new shifts worked three 10 hour days and three 14 hour nights. This new shift lasted for one year and before changing to the 24 hours and 48 hours off system that remains in place today.
Some of the most memorable fires in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were the Samoset Hotel Fire, the Trade Winds Motor Inn Fire, and the Spear’s Lumber Yard fire. But sadly the one fire that stands out the most was the February 20, 1977 structure fire on Lawrence Street. This 3 alarm fire not only caused a total loss to the structure, but claimed the lives of four small children aged 8 to 14 years old. The first fire fighters on the scene had been told there were children trapped in the house; Asst. Chief Fred Beal, Firefighters Horace Benner, Willie Sutton and Larry Reed attempted to enter the building but were forced back by the intense heat and flames. Every attempt was made to effect a rescue as they broke out several upstairs windows, only greeted by flames. It was a terrible loss that remains as one of the worst tragedies in the City.
In 1977 the Fire Department took over ambulance responsibility for Rockland, and the fire department received its first ambulance, a Ford station wagon. This unit lasted for several years before the department received its first “real” ambulance. The full time fire fighters all became EMT’s at the basic level, that same year. Since that time the personnel have progressed to the paramedic level and serve not only Rockland, but the town of Owls Head as well utilizing three ambulances.
This is only a brief history of the Rockland Fire Department and some of the highlights.
References: Eaton’s History of Thomaston, Rockland and South Thomaston c.1865
Seventy Years of Fire Fighting by John M. Richardson c. 1950’s