Key West is loaded with history; some of it has been preserved in old black-and-white photos and the oral history still shared most mornings while having café con leches at a neighborhood sandwich shop’s takeout windows. But few pieces of history can be witnessed firsthand.
The Key West Fire House Museum, on the corner of Grinnell and Virginia streets, is one of the protected pieces of history that the public will be able to explore after its grand opening on Jan. 26 at 6 p.m.
And, according to retired firefighter Alex Vega, who spearheaded the project to save old Fire House Number 3 from developers, and museum curator Rich Siniscalchi, the historic building might not be as vacant as it looks. A year ago, two different teams of paranormal investigators visited the firehouse and declared it haunted.
“The Miami group, Messenger Paranormal, spent the night,” Siniscalchi said. “I stayed with them and it made a believer out of me.”
According to Siniscalchi, there were hundreds of photographs that showed glowing orbs, lit objects in the dark and even recorded voices.
“But the thing that really convinced me was one photograph,” he said. “It was a group shot and in it was the image of a small African-American girl, dressed in the fashion from the early days of the firehouse. She wasn’t there. How’d she show up in the photo?”
Siniscalchi also said things went bump in the night and out of nowhere his bicycle tire exploded.
“We were talking about Bum Farto and then the bike fell over,” he said, referring to the historic and notorious Fire Chief Joseph “Bum” Farto who faced sentencing on a drug conviction and disappeared in 1976. (“Where’s Bum Farto?” T-shirts were popular for years afterward in Key West.) “The tire was almost new and it has leaned against the same wall without ever falling over,” he said, adding that the air mattress he was sleeping on that night was repeatedly “kicked” by invisible forces.
The restored firehouse has also caught the attention of the Fringe Theater group and they are planning to do a historic play there in April.
“I’m not sure what the play is about, but they’ve said it involves Bum Farto,” Siniscalchi said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe the theater people think Bum Farto’s ghost is here.”
Built in 1907, Fire Station Number 3 is one of the oldest fire stations in the state of Florida. When the station opened, the Key West Fire Department consisted of 12 paid men and 200 volunteers with horse drawn steamers and hose carriages. In that era, each station had its own outfit name – this station housed Sunnysouth Engine Company and Tiger Hose Company Number 3. The station has endured several hurricanes; the worst being the storm of 1909 that hit Key West with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour. During the storm, Chief Hyam Fulford ordered his men to take the steam engine outside in the backyard. Shortly after that order was given, the roof was completely destroyed.
The fire department received its first two motorized American La France fire engines in August and September of 1914. The first engine went to Station Number 1 and the second to Station Number 3.
By 1917, the Key West Fire Department had been completely motorized, except for one steamer that the department kept in reserve at Number 3 until 1923, thus bringing the era of the horse drawn steamer to an end.
Many changes took place in the late 1940s.
Interior stairs were added and a cement hose trough and wooden hose rack were built in the rear of the station.
From the early 1950s until the early 1960s, more changes took place. The horse stalls at the rear of the station were removed to make room for a new kitchen and bathroom. The sash windows changed to jalousie windows and the original red brick engine room floor was covered with a concrete slab.
“We’ve done a lot of work to bring the station back to what it was,” Vega said. “Everyone seems to want to slide down the pole.” Vega pointed at the shiny silver pole coming from the second floor. “We’ve got the cover upstairs fixed so no one will fall through during the tour, or ‘accidently’ slide down,” Vega and Siniscalchi laughed.
The men estimate that it has taken almost $500,000 to get to where they are now. Most of it has come from donations and state grants.
“Volunteer labor has been a great help,” Vega said.
Preserving history is no stroll on the beach, both men agree.
“We’re in Old Town so that means we need HARC’s approval on everything,” Vega said. “And don’t forget, even though we’re city property, we have to follow ADA compliance.”
Word of the fire museum has spread throughout the firefighter’s coconut telegraph already.
“We’ve had firefighters from around the world knock on our door,” Siniscalchi said. “We give them a private tour and often they leave a donation and maybe later we get one of their uniform patches in the mail.”
Vega has put together a photo book of the history of the firehouse and when the museum opens this month it will be one of the items available in the gift shop. Proceeds will benefit the museum.
Last year, on Sept. 11, the museum held its second tribute to the victims of the twin tower tragedy. In attendance were firefighters from different cities and the museum received a piece of metal from the North Tower to put on display. Also on display is a montage with the names of all 343 firefighters that died that day.
The public is invited to the opening at 6 p.m. on Jan. 26. For more information, go to www.keywestfirehousemuseum.com.