Adolphus J. Thompson

On June 6, 1893, just a couple of months after the resignation of Chief William Wilson, Adolphus Jonah Thompson became the second man to hold the position of Chief. In 1894, he would see the end of the two year feud between the James Graham Hook & Ladder and the West Haven Hook & Ladder as well as the construction of a state of the art Town Hall (which, ironically, would catch fire shortly before it was scheduled to be occupied). In 1895 Chief Thompson would see the formation of North End Hose Company #3 as well as Seaside Hose Company #4 (later known as Savin Rock Hose), expanding our department to five independent volunteer companies. On March 17, 1898, Chief Thompson would tender his own resignation. Upon his resignation, William Wilson stepped into the role of Chief once again thus becoming the only man to hold the position twice. Chief Thompson resigned so he could run for the position of Warden which would be similar to what the Mayor of West Haven is today. He ran against a man named James Peck and he lost. In 1899 William Wilson stepped down and Adolphus Thompson would run for the position again. Although the Chief was “officially” appointed by the Warden and Burgesses of the borough, the firemen would first vote themselves and then inform the Warden of their choice. At this time a man by the name of Andrew B. Wilkinson decided to run against Thompson and a very tight race it was. Andrew Wilkinson was a very popular man and was Captain of the James Graham Hook & Ladder for five years running. In the end, Wilkinson would become the third man to be Chief of our department and Adolphus Thompson would fade into obscurity.


Deputy Chief – The Department Doormat

William Vincent Miller was the last of a dying breed but he was very far from the first.  From the very beginning, the position of Deputy Chief was in great demand, however, once it was achieved, it was usually abandoned just as quickly.  The West Haven Fire Department expanded to three volunteer companies in 1892.  These were Engine Company #1, The James Graham Hook & Ladder, and West Haven Hook & Ladder.  Firemen, as a rule, expect to be under the command of a Chief Officer.  The second in command was another story altogether.  Now that there was more than just one company, the Assistant Chief or Deputy Chief (they seemed to change them back and forth at will back then) was left to the mercy of his fellow firemen.  Unfortunately the firemen showed little or no mercy when it came to the Deputy Chief.  In 1895 Engine Companies #3 & #4 came into being and things really heated up for the second in command.  Now there were five separate volunteer organizations.  If, for instance, the Deputy Chief was from West Haven Hook & Ladder, the men of Hooks would revere their man in the front office while the men of the other companies would show him little or no respect.  Since he was not a member “of their company” they would have no trouble ignoring him or outright defying him, even on the fire ground. “You’re not my Chief” would be a comment heard quite often in the heat of the moment.  Since all the firemen of the day were volunteers, it left little recourse for any disciplinary action.  In most cases it just lead to the resignation of the Deputy.  All this would finally come to a head in the fall of 1927 – after almost 40 years of conflict.

W. Vincent Miller

We take you now to the year 1919.  Connecticut had just passed (and revised) House Bill 177 and with the new law the Borough of West Haven now installed three new fire commissioners.  One of their first official acts was to remove the current Chief of Department (Arthur Travis) and the current Fire Marshal (Andrew Condon) and replace them with their own choices.  On July 16, 1919 Lloyd Cameron became Chief of Department and W. Vincent Miller was appointed Deputy Chief / Fire Marshal.  And so began the short but colorful career of W. Vincent Miller.  The new law (commonly referred to as “The Firemen’s Act of 1919”) was widely untested and, right out of the gate, Marshal Miller was the object of some controversy.  Although it was agreed to pay him the sum of $100.00 per year, the maximum allowed by the new law, the Marshal submitted an expense report which included office supplies (which were paid) and his cigars (which prompted the board to table the request until further information was obtained).  These were small and even slightly amusing events but the bigger problem arose when the Fire Marshal began charging two dollars for inspections (as outlined by the new law) and assumed that, since he was performing them, the two dollars was his to keep.  In Vincent Millers defense, the law was not very clear in this area and the borough had to use the services of town attorney Charles Roberts to clarify the situation.  In the end, the legal opinion stated that the money collected in the performance of the Fire Marshal’s duties was to be turned over to the district.

The Curse of the Second in Command

West Haven became a town in it’s own right in 1921.  Even though we were officially separate from the Town of Orange and had our own Board of Selectman, the Fire Department was still governed by the Board of Fire Commissioners (as it still is today).  As the years marched on, W. Vincent Miller fell victim to the “Deputy Chief Curse” more and more often. Being a card carrying member of North End Hose Company #3, he had no problems when dealing with the men on Spring Street.  The rest of the companies were another matter all together.  Having his authority questioned or blatantly disregarded by the men was taking its toll.  The situation finally reached the boiling point in October of 1927 when the Marshal brought Fireman A. Stocker before the Board of Commissioners on charges of insubordination.  Stocker, a member of Engine Company #1, openly defied Deputy Chief Miller and “said things that were not very pleasant” when he was confronted as to the use of a can of polish that the Deputy said belonged to the police department.  When ordered to return the polish Stocker refused.  Although the records of the time are brief (and a little more than “politically correct”) one can imagine the heated exchange.

The Chain of Command

On October 4, 1927, Deputy Chief Miller appeared at the regular commissioner’s meeting with Fireman Stocker in tow.  Thinking he would finally get the respect that he deserved, he plead his case to the board.  After hearing about the repeated acts of insubordination the board asked Miller if he had ever reported any of these problems before.  He stated he had not and he was reporting them now.  He was then asked if he had ever reported them to the Chief.  He stated he had not, he was reporting them directly to the commissioners.  The meeting did not go the way Vincent Miller expected.  In the end, the board ruled that the Deputy Chief had exceeded his authority and had not properly reported the charges to the Chief.  Chief Cameron was then instructed to investigate “the supposed problems” and report back to the commissioners at a later meeting.  W. Vincent Miller then withdrew the charges against  Stocker and presented his resignation which was to take effect on October 6,1927.

With Regret

The commissioners decided, at first to table Miller’s resignation until Chief Cameron could complete his investigation and report back to the board.  Then they read the letter more carefully.  In his letter Miller stated that the reason for his resignation was “not being supported by my superior officers”.  Officers plural.  When questioned about who these “officers” might be Vincent Miller replied, “The Board of Fire Commissioners and the Chief of the Department”.  The commissioners apparently took exception to this and, at a special meeting held on October 11, 1927, they voted to accept Vincent Miller’s resignation with regret.  This did not sit well with the Deputy.  He informed the commissioners that, since they had tabled his resignation, he intended to withdraw it.  He was informed that withdrawing his resignation was not an option.  They had already accepted it “with regret”.  Marshal Miller fought valiantly, even going so far as to say he resigned from the West Haven Fire Department but NOT the office of Fire Marshal.  This touched off quite a battle but, when all was said and done, W. Vincent Miller’s career came to an end.

Doormat No Longer

As a result of all this controversy the West Haven Fire Department was prompted to make a bold move.  They appointed Charles Leake Fire Marshal.  They did not, however, make him Deputy Chief.  It was made very clear to Charles Leake that his position would be that of “Fireman / Fire Marshal” and that he would hold no rank.  He would hold this position, with little or no problems, until his retirement in 1940.  A quick historical note:  Charles Leake was one of the first six Grade A Firemen hired on January 23, 1933.  Falling ill in 1940, he became the first man to retire from the West Haven Fire Department.  Two weeks before his retirement the commissioners voted to make him an honorary Assistant Chief of the Fire Department..


Our First Chief

William Virgil Wilson was born in Milford, Connecticut on December 26, 1845.  His father, Elisha Wilson married Julia A. Benjamin of Milford and together they had eight children.  Of the eight, only three survived; William V., Eugene B., and Lillian E.  William Wilson went on to be educated at Yale, graduating from the Yale Medical School in 1867.  Dr. Wilson then relocated to South Brunswick, New Jersey where he practiced for eighteen years,  twelve of which he spent working as the surgeon for the Pennsylvania Railroad in New Jersey.  Dr. Wilson moved from South Brunswick to Willington, Connecticut and, in 1887, moved to West Haven.  He was married to the former Nellie H. Brayton of North Adams, Massachusetts and together they had five children; Cornelia G., Philip E., Nellie A., Nettie, and Elizabeth B.  Dr.Wilson was a member of the Connecticut State and Yale Medical Societies and was also vice-president of the Medical Practitioners’ Protective Alliance of the United States.

Dr. Wilson’s father Elisha built the first telegraph line through the Naugatuck valley.  He also invented the telegraph repeater about the year 1846.  The telegraph repeater was one of the most successful inventions of the age and without it, long distance telegraphy of one, two, and three thousand miles could not be accomplished on the single circuit over land lines.

It is not certain exactly when Dr. William V. Wilson officially became the first Chief of Department.  On April 22, 1889, in the wake of the Hinman Hotel and the M. P. Williams Livery fires, Dr. Wilson put forth a motion before the Warden and Burgesses of the borough “To investigate a combination fire engine and finances”.  This motion was seconded by a Mr. Hoffmeister and a committee of three consisting of Dr. William V. Wilson, Mr. Charles T. Sherman, and Mr. Joseph Andrews was formed.  On the advice of this committee the borough purchased an #3 Crane Neck Button Hand Fire Engine along with 800 feet of fire hose and a two wheeled hose cart.  These were the first pieces of firefighting equipment to be purchased by the West Haven Fire Department.  The department still has the Hand Pumper to this day and it can be seen at the Savin Rock Museum in West Haven, CT.

Although it is documented that Dr. Wilson was Chief of Department from as early as 1889, he was not officially appointed by the Warden and Burgesses until April 5, 1892.  On this date the following motion was brought before the panel:

“Motion that William V. Wilson be and is hereby appointed Chief of the West Haven Fire Department, said appointment to terminate December 5, 1892.  It being understood that the Chief receive no compensation for services rendered.”

Dr. Wilson would remain Chief of Department until his resignation on May 15, 1893.  On June 6, 1893, Adolphus J. Thompson became our second Chief of Department.  Chief Thompson held the top spot until March 17, 1898, when he stepped down to run for the position of Warden.  (He lost).  On March 18, 1898, William Wilson once again took over as Chief of Department and became the only man to hold the office of Chief twice.  He did not seek to remain Chief for another term and was replaced by Andrew B. Wilkinson on January 10, 1899.

The First Urban Legend

The Hinman House Fire

There are many “urban legends” scattered throughout the history of the West Haven Fire Department. The very first one concerns a fire that struck the Hinman House on the afternoon of November 6, 1888.  Urban legend would have us believe that, due to the lack of a local fire department, Hinman House burned to the ground.  The fact that the New Haven Fire Department was called in and could not respond in time to prevent the hotel from being a total loss spurred the residents of the Borough of West Haven to organize Engine & Hose Company #1 on November 18,1888, and thus the West Haven Fire Department came to be.

Fact or Fiction?

Hinman House, a shore front hotel on the corner of Beach Street and Washington Avenue, did indeed burn to the ground on November 6,1888.  A rider was sent to New Haven to alert the New Haven Fire Department and Chief Hendrick dispatched Steamer #1 from Howard Avenue to the scene.  By the time the NHFD arrived all was lost.  The fire had far too much of a head start and the hotel could not be saved. Even so, New Haven sent a bill for $250.00 to Mr. Louis Moegling, proprietor of Hinman House, for services rendered.  Mr. Moegling appeared before the Warden and Burgesses of the Borough and presented them with the bill.  It was decided that the borough did not feel the responsibility lay with them so they promptly returned the bill to Mr. Moegling, advising him to negotiate with the NHFD if he thought the bill was inappropriate.

But wait, there’s more…

Engine & Hose Company #1 was organized on November 18, 1888.  This officially established the West Haven Fire Department.  At a borough meeting held on 12-2-1888 it was voted to appropriate the sum of $1200.00 for fire protection equipment and to place twelve hydrants in strategic areas throughout the Borough.  Although this was great news for Engine Company #1, it was not such great news for many residents of the borough who were not able to attend the borough meeting.  They thought $1200.00 was an outrageous sum and quickly held a second meeting.  At this second meeting the $1200.00 appropriation was rescinded and plans for the new hydrants were tabled.

The M. P. Williams Livery Stables Fire

On March 27,1889, not long after newly formed fire department was denied their funding, a fire of a suspicious nature broke out in a horse stable on New Street at three o’clock in the morning.  The fire grew quickly and spread to the school house next door.  Although Mr. Williams’ livery stable and the school house could not be saved, the quick actions of all thirty-eight members of Engine & Hose Company #1, lead by Foreman George W. Adams, kept the blaze confined to the two structures.  Using only buckets and a garden hose the men were able to prevent the loss of the neighboring houses and bungalows.  A reward was posted for any information leading to the capture of the arsonist but no one was ever caught.  Foreman Adams reported that he and his men could have saved the two structures if only they had the proper equipment. This prompted the Burough to establish a committee to investigate just what kind of equipment would be needed to properly protect its residents from fire.  By the summer of 1889, West Haven had purchased a hose cart, about one thousand feet of hose, and a Button Crane Neck Hand Pumper.  The hand pumper can still be seen today on display at the Savin Rock Museum and Learning Center.

Great Controversy

Where was the New Haven Fire Department?  Why didn’t they respond to our call for assistance?  It seems that once the bill for the Hinman House fire was returned to Louis Moegling, he refused to pay it. When the call came for help with the New Street fire, the New Haven Fire Commissioners told Chief Hendrick that he was not to respond.  They claimed that the Burough of West Haven had not made good on their debt.  This touched off a flurry of newspaper articles and letters to the editor. In fact, the Burough of West Haven was never billed for the Hinman House fire.  That bill (for $250.00) was sent directly to Louis Moegling, the owner of the Hinman House.  Mr. Moelging tried to get the Burough to pay the bill but they refused.  He then approached the New Haven Fire Department to negotiate the amount and was told that the cost of the Steamer #1 was $50.00 an hour for five hours.  Mr. Moegling complained that his hotel had already burned to the ground by the time New Haven had arrived.  New Haven’s response was that, although Steamer #1 may not have been used, New Haven’s hose wagon and hose were in operation for seven hours.  Not only was the $250.00 charge appropriate, it had already been discounted by two hours.

The Outcome

After all was said and done it was determined that the Burough of West Haven was not, in fact, delinquent in their payment.  It was ruled by the Warden and Burgesses that, in the future, only a properly authorized officer of the Burough would have the authority to call upon the City of New Haven for assistance.  A private resident could of course seek assistance on their own but they would be wholly responsible for the cost.

In the end, Mr. Moegling lost his hotel but did rebuild.  Mr Williams lost his livery stables along with two horses and twelve to fifteen carriages.  The Burough of West Haven lost its school house.  And, New Haven was out their $250.00.  Did anything good ever come out of all this, you ask?  Why of course.  The West Haven Fire Department did.


In the beginning…

The formation of the Center District

To start at the very beginning, we need to travel back in time some fifteen years before Engine and Hose Company #1 was organized and the West Haven Fire Department came into existence.  In May of 1873 a resolution was passed through the General Assembly incorporating the “Borough of West Haven”.  Although the Town of Orange was still mostly farmland, the West Haven section of town was quickly becoming commercialized.  West Haven had a sawmill and a lumberyard, the West Haven Buckle Company, a ship building industry, and all the various businesses that go along with being located on the shore of Long Island Sound.  Along with all these many professions came the people to work them.  With the people, came more businesses to accommodate them.  Now the people of West Haven would have need for doctors and pharmacists, teachers for their children, furniture for their homes, food for their families, and so on and so forth.  What would eventually become the downtown area of West Haven was fast filling up with hundreds of dwellings.  What West Haven really came to need were roads.  The narrow horse tracks needed to be replaced with wider, more modern roadways to allow the movement of people and goods.  The Town of Orange, however, did not want to get involved with building and maintaining roads and so the Borough of West Haven came to be.

In the fall of 1873, West Haven became a borough of the Town of Orange and was empowered to govern itself.  A Warden and a panel of six Burgesses would oversee the the operations of the borough and have the power to appropriate funds from the borough residents.  Most importantly, they had the power to build roads and highways.  They would begin by straightening and widening the existing roadways.  They would determine that all roads running north and south would be called “Avenues” and that all roads traveling east and west would be called “Streets”.  They would raise the roads to keep them dry and harden them with clay gravel or, in many cases, oyster shells.  When it was hot and dry they would employ a “sprinkler” to wet down the roads to keep the dust at bay.  By the end of the nineteenth century they would be lighting the roads at night and installing curb lines and sidewalks.  It would not be until November 18, 1888 that, as a result of the Hinman House fire, Engine and Hose Company #1 would come into being and thus begin the long tradition of the West Haven Fire Department.

But that’s another story…

Borough Resolution

Who was first, indeed.

The first fully mechanized fire department

Urban legend would have us believe that the honor of the first fully mechanized (or motorized) fire department in the United States goes to the fire department of Savannah, Georgia.  In 1911, after the purchase and successful operation of the new American La France Auto Combination Chemical Wagon, Savannah’s City Council placed an order for 11 of the new apparatus to upgrade their entire department, thus making them the first fully mechanized fire department in the country.  But were they really?  By September of 1911 the West Haven Fire Department had accepted delivery of four Knox mechanized apparatus and had placed them in service in each of the four fire houses in town.  Engine & Hose Company #1, North End Hose Company #3, and Savin Rock Hose Company #4 each received a Knox Combination Automobile Wagon and Hook & Ladder Company #1 received a Knox Three Wheel Tractor to pull it’s ladder wagon.  Although Savannah had placed their order in 1911, delivery of the entire order would not be completed until 1912.  The FIRST fully mechanized fire department in the United States, West Haven, CT, had their apparatus in service by the end of September, 1911.


1911 Knox

1911 Knox Combination Automobile Wagon - click photo for more info