Chief Charles A. Cameron

Charles Aubrey Cameron was born on February 28, 1872, in Kingsport, Nova Scotia.  He began his career with the West Haven Fire Service in 1892 as a member of the James Graham Hook & Ladder Company and, upon their demise in 1902, continued as a member of the West Haven Hook & Ladder.  He served as Assistant Chief under Chief Frank Sohn and became the department’s fifth Chief on January 10, 1905. Charles Cameron would hold the office of Chief for 12 years until December 31, 1917, becoming, by far, our longest sitting Chief prior to the modern era. In his quest to modernize our department he would often travel to other larger fire departments and bring their knowledge and experience back to West Haven, adopting these valuable ideas to further fire protection.  Most times he did this at his own expense.

In 1911, Chief Cameron purchased our first mechanized (motorized) piece of apparatus. Built by the Knox Company of Springfield, MA, this chemical combination engine so impressed the Chief that he purchased two more, one for North End Hose and one for Savin Rock Hose, as well as a three wheel tractor for Hook & Ladder to pull their ladder wagon.  These four pieces of apparatus were all in service by the end of September, 1911, making the West Haven Fire Department the first fully mechanized fire department in the United States.

In 1917, after serving as Chief for twelve years, Charles Cameron would fall out of favor with the firemen and be replaced by Chief Arthur Travis. This was not to be the end of Charles Cameron however. On January 1, 1918, just one day after the end of his term as Chief, he was appointed as Fire Commissioner along with James M. McDermott. They would be the first two official Fire Commissioners appointed under the new law (House Bill 177) and would prove (with great controversy) that the law was flawed and needed to be revised. Ironically, upon the revision of the bill neither man would retain his position as commissioner, however, Charles Cameron would be appointed Fire Commissioner once again on May 1, 1921 and would serve as Chairman of the Board for only two months before his death on July 7, 1921.

 

Chief 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.

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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.  On December 16,1927, they appointed Charles Leake to the position of 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 24, 1933.  Falling ill in 1940, he became the first man to retire from the West Haven Fire Department.  Two weeks prior to his retirement the Board of Fire Commissioners voted to make him an honorary Assistant Chief of the Fire Department.

 

Dr. William V. Wilson ~ 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.