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  At this second meeting the $1200.00 appropriation was rescinded and plans for the new hydrants were tabled.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

The 1911 Knox


1911 Knox

1911 Knox Combination Automobile Wagon. Click photo to enlarge.


Pictured in front of the old Engine House on Campbell Avenue, this 1911 Knox was one of three Combination Automobile Wagons in service by September of 1911.  On the back left tailboard is firefighter W. Charles Darby who would become one of the first six permanent paid Grade A firefighters in 1933.  The man on the sideboard with the cigar is actually an employee of the Knox Company who stayed in West Haven to teach the firefighters how to drive.  Prior to the purchase of the Knox apparatus all fire equipment was either pulled by hand or by horse.

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 Chemical 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 Chemical Combination Automobile Wagon – click photo for more info