Last week’s 911 memorial service at the Key West Fire Department Station # 3 was far more than a local tribute to the victims of the World Trade Center and the first responders who lost their lives in a terrorist led tragedy.
Alex Vega with Old Firehouse Preservation sponsored an event that featured the return of the old fire bell to the firehouse museum, a handful of New York firemen, a wide spectrum of local first responders, politicians and hundreds of citizens. The New York firemen brought two metal beams salvaged from the wreck of the structures that were engraved with a tribute to the fallen. One of the pieces will become part of the display at the firehouse museum. Frank Madiedo also contributed a glass window shard from the World Trade Center to the museum.
Fire Station number three was built in 1907. It is believed to be the oldest active fire station in Florida until 1998. When the station opened, the Key West Fire Department had 12 paid firemen and 200 volunteers.
The station has endured several hurricanes including the devastating storm of 1909 which hit Key West with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour. The roof was heavily damaged but the building endured. Notice the concrete block construction. The rough-hewn blocks known locally as “Indian blocks” are solid concrete. They became a popular building material in the late 1800s and were thought to make a structure fireproof.
Fires were fought with horse drawn steamers and hose carriages until 1914 when the department received its first two American La France motorized fire engines. While the advent of modern, motorized fire engines was a great fire-fighting improvement, the romance of the horse drawn steamer engines remained strong
.Many of our older citizens probably remember the first fire bell located in the cemetery ringing to announce a fire. Most houses had a chart that showed the fire location based on the number of rings being tolled. While a modern fire engine with its blaring siren’s is an eye opener, imagine the spender of witnessing a brass plated steamer engine harnessed to a set of horses galloping down the road on its way to a fire. Crowds of spectators would form along the route and everyone knew the horses by name.
The fire department had 14 horses with names like Big George, Old White, and Tammany. The firemen and community were attached to the horses and old habits and sentiment launched a campaign to extend the services of the steam engines for 9 years after the arrival of modern motorized fire engines.
The White Street fire of 1923 at the corner of White and Newton Streets was an intense fire that started in the old Nichols Cigar Factory building. Fire engines from all over town including the steamer engine were called to the scene. Strong winds and low water pressure made the steamer useless. By the time it was extinguished 43 homes were destroyed in what is now referred to as the Meadows. Shortly after, the steamer engine was abandoned and the horses were put out to pasture ending a colorful chapter in our fire-fighting legacy.
By the late 1940s many changes took place. Interior stairs were added, a cement hose trough and wooden hose racks were built behind the station. The station had replaced all of the horse drawn steam engines and the horse stalls behind the station were removed.