As a new and growing city full of sawmills and wooden buildings, fire was a concern for residents. In response, in October of 1856 the City created a volunteer fire company. Originally called Pioneering Engine Company No. 1, the name was quickly changed to Number One Niagara Company. Two more stations were created over the next year and worked independently until April 1857, when they were united as one department by the election of Captain Nathanial Emerson as Chief Engineer.
Each company had up to seventy men between the ages of eighteen and fifty who rotated shifts. Many of the volunteers considered it their civic duty to be a firefighter. The stations not only provided fire service, but functioned as a social club for the volunteers, many of whom were community leaders such as lawyers and politicians. Today, there is still a strong sense of camaraderie among firefighters.
This 1860 photo shows the firefighters of Germania Engine Company No. 2, the second company formed in Oshkosh, with their hand pump. It was so-named because the volunteers were German immigrants. Their firehouse was on State Street between Waugoo and Otter Avenues.
Image: OPM# P1922.2
The earliest apparatus used by fire departments was the hand pump, which was invented around 1600 in Europe. A hand pump would be rolled by firefighters to the site of the fire, then eight to sixteen people would push up and down on the long pumping handles to force air into the pump. This would create enough pressure to force water from a cistern or body of water through the pump and into a hose. These apparatus could pump about 100 to 200 gallons of water per minute, and shoot water about 100 to 200 feet. It was an improvement over throwing buckets of water on a fire, but was hard work!
Oshkosh purchased its first hand pumper engine in about 1858. It was made in the 1840s and previously owned by another fire department. This photo shows Oshkosh’s first hand pumper being brought back to Oshkosh for the Public Museum’s collection in the early 1900s—it had been sold to Wittenberg, Wisconsin after Oshkosh acquired steam pumpers. The drawing is a 1765 illustration of how a hand pump engine works.
Image: OPM # FP2020.1.1 and Library of Congress # 2014649343
In the early days fire chiefs used speaking trumpets to amplify their voices as they shouted orders during a fire. It became a tradition to present symbolic silver plated speaking trumpets as gifts to individual firefighters or fire companies. This trumpet was a gift from the Fond du Lac Fire Department to the Niagara Company of the Oshkosh Department. In July of 1858, Niagara Company firefighters were visiting the Fond du Lac Fire Department when a fire started at a saw mill, and the Oshkosh firefighters assisted in putting it out. The trumpet is decorated with firefighting symbols such as ladders, helmets, and hoses.
Image: OPM# 48-9
On May 10, 1859, OFD faced its first major challenge—at least 125 buildings on Ferry Street (now North Main Street) caught fire and were destroyed. Luckily there were no major injuries or deaths. A combination of strong winds, hot weather, and wooden buildings caused several devastating city-wide fires over the next two decades.
The most damaging city fire was in 1875. It destroyed most of the downtown business district including 70 stores, 40 factories, and 500 homes. Sadly, dozens of people died from smoke inhalation in this blaze. This photo taken after the fire shows the destruction of Main Street. The ceramic mugs were found outside a Main Street grocery story after the City Fire of 1874. They have been fused together by the heat!
Image: OPM# P1928.1.5 and 148-25
New stations were built in 1863, 1868, and 1874 specifically for steam engines. Steam pumper engines were invented in 1829, but were not successfully manufactured and sold until 1858. Acquiring this technology was a big deal for a small city like Oshkosh.
Steam engines were much heavier than hand pumps, which were carted to fires by the firefighters. So OFD invested in horses to pull the heavier equipment. Fire apparatus are a source of pride for firefighters and the community, which is why the engines were (and still are) often featured in parades.
This image shows the firefighters of William H. Doe Fire Station 3 with their newly acquired steam engine in 1874. This fire station no longer exists, but stood on the north side of High Avenue.
Image: OPM# P1934.1.1
Steam pumper engines use steam power from a boiler to force water into and out of a hose. They made getting water onto a burning building much easier— before the steam engine, fires were fought with bucket brigades or by a hand pumper machine. The steam engine was mounted on a carriage and pulled by horses, and could use water from rivers, cisterns, or hydrants. Steam engines were used until the invention of the automobile and internal combustion engine.
The steam engine pictured is nicknamed The Amoskeag after the company that originally manufactured it. It was used by the OFD from 1868 through about 1913. It could pump 700-1000 gallons of water per minute, and spray water about 200 feet. (Today, fire engines pump water an average of 1000 gallons per minute.) This engine is now part of the Oshkosh Public Museum’s collection.
Image: OPM# P2003.20.297
One of the early fire stations is still standing! The Brooklyn Steam Fire Engine Company Number 4 was organized on October 3, 1867. William Waters designed the two-story brick building with a bell tower in the Italian Revival Style. It was constructed by L. G. Alger and G. C. Fitzsimmons in 1868. An addition to the east side of the building was also designed by Waters and built by Alger in 1879, and was occupied by the Union Hook and Ladder Company. The building was in use until 1949. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 and is located at 17 West Sixth Street. It has been restored by the current owners.
This photo shows firefighters standing with hose carts and a hook and ladder apparatus in front of the fire house in about 1884.
Image: OPM# P2011.13.4
In 1877 OFD switched from a volunteer organization to being fully paid. This change happened for several reasons: More complicated apparatus and the addition of horses required specialized personnel, the department was receiving more fire calls, and the volunteers were being spread too thin. A department of full-time paid staff allowed for better training and service for a growing community.
This badge was presented to Chief Rudolph J. Weisbrod by members of OFD in July 1883 to commemorate his service. The leather helmet was used by Chief Charles Hasbrouck, who served in 1873 and 1881.
Image: OPM# L67-30 and 2154-55
Oshkosh’s first fire alarm system was installed in 1879. Three red alarm boxes were installed on city streets. Previously, residents would ring bells or yell “fire.” The alarm system used new electric and telegraph technology. The alarm sent electronic signals through wires to the fire stations in code, so firefighters would know which box was activated. As the alarm system expanded to more than 100 boxes throughout the city, stations kept lists of the alarm box numbers on the wall to be ready for the call and know where to go, such as this one used by Brooklyn Fire House No. 4 from 1889 to 1919.
Image: OPM# 6474-1
There were a number of major fires at Oshkosh factories through the years, but the 1899 Paine warehouse fire was one of the biggest. The Paine Lumber Company had prepared for potential fires by banning smoking on the property, coating warehouses with sheet iron, and having its own fire engines and pumping stations. These precautions were not enough to prevent the fire from destroying a 15,300 square foot warehouse, but they did help keep the fire from spreading.
The fire started the evening of August 24 on the second floor of the warehouse. Four of OFD’s steam engines were called in to assist in putting out the flames. They drew water from the Fox River, as seen in the photograph. The total cost of the loss of the building and product was $72,000 (about 1.9 million today), which was covered by insurance. No injuries were reported, and the cause of the fire was never determined, though there was speculation that someone may have been smoking in the warehouse.
Image: OPM# P1934.1.8
The first motorized apparatus arrived in Oshkosh in 1913—to mixed reviews. The Northwestern newspaper referred to it as the “Red Devil.” Some firefighters did not like the new vehicle because it was difficult to drive on the rough dirt roads of the city, and because the motor could be unreliable. Paved roads and better motors soon followed and by 1924 all horse-drawn apparatus were replaced. This photo shows members of OFD with a motorized ladder truck in 1915.
Image: OPM# P2003.30.288
Firefighters have long been first responders and assisted with many types of emergencies. This photo shows members of OFD cutting down tree branches on Jackson Street after a major sleet storm on February 22, 1922. The sleet weighed down the branches and they interfered with the power lines, leading to a week-long power outage. Most public buildings closed and railroad and streetcar service stopped due to unsafe conditions.
Image: OPM# FP2020.2.1
After the Great Depression and World War II, OFD started looking more like the department we know today. Over the next thirty years, as stations deteriorated new ones were built, including this station (Station 15), which was completed in 1970. In the late 1940s, Chief Leo Girens implemented new programs to better prevent fires and engage with the community, such as fire inspections of all public buildings and businesses, public fire prevention and safety training, and increasing professional training for firefighters, all of which continue to this day. This 1952 photo shows OFD during Fire Prevention Week. The service cap was worn by firefighter Joseph Perzentka in the 1950s.
Image: OPM# P2018.62.267 and 6595-3
Firefighting is a dangerous profession, and firefighters put their lives at risk every time they respond to a call. Unfortunately, Fire Chief Arthur H. Apel died from injuries sustained in the line of duty. In November of 1954, OFD was responding to a fire at the Badger Lumber Company. Apel and three other firefighters were in the factory’s paint spraying room when a flash fire erupted and threw clouds of smoke and chemicals into the air. The men were treated with oxygen and taken to Mercy Hospital, but Apel did not recover. Apel was an active community member. He joined OFD in 1916 and was promoted several times until 1951 when he was named Oshkosh’s 11th Fire Chief. He is the only OFD Fire Chief to have died in the line of duty.
Image: OPM# FP2020.4.1
In 1963, OFD became responsible for water and ice rescue on Lake Butte des Morts and sections of the Fox River and Lake Winnebago. Previously, Oshkosh Police Department had handled water distress calls for 17 years. This change better distributed responsibilities amongst the city departments to provide better service to the community. Today, Station 15 houses a Husky Air Boat, a Zodiac Boat, and diving equipment to be prepared for water rescues. This 1963 photo shows OFD members ready for training on the rescue boat. From left to right are Fire Captain/rescue squadron commander Russell Rothenbach, Curtiss Wolff, boat captain Fred Wetterau, Kurt Brandt, Richard Rennert, John Zwickey, and Erwin Borst.
Image: OPM# FP2020.5.1
As Wittman Regional Airport (then called Wittman Field) became busier, especially during EAA’s annual AirVenture convention, it was necessary to have emergency service resources nearby. OFD had provided emergency service to the airport previously, but in 1975 Station 14 was built on Knapp Street, right on the airport’s property. It serves both Wittman Airport and Oshkosh’s south side. Along with a ladder truck and ambulance, it also houses three special apparatus for fighting airplane fires, known as Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) trucks. The photo shows an ARFF truck during a drill at Wittman Field in 2015.
Image: Courtesy of Oshkosh Media
In the mid-1900s, US fire departments were taking on Emergency Medical Services (EMS). OFD made the transition very quickly in 1976. Previously, Oshkosh ambulance services were independently operated by a private company. When the Common Council and the company could not come to a service agreement, the Council gave EMS responsibility to OFD. The department rose to the occasion and instituted new training (pictured) for firefighters. Now, every firefighter is also a Paramedic, and can respond to a variety of medical emergencies. OFD ambulances respond to emergency calls within the City of Oshkosh, and if needed to surrounding communities such as Omro, Algoma, and Black Wolf. These photos show a 1976 ambulance and paramedic training.
Image: OPM# FP2020.6.1 and P2018.62.26
In June of 1994, OFD was called upon to save Oshkosh history. Oshkosh Public Museum is housed in the 1909 Sawyer home. Repair work was being done on the roof’s copper gutters, and a soldering torch ignited the wood house frame. The third floor was engulfed in flames. OFD used 750,000 gallons of water to extinguish the fire. They even had to break through the roof to reach the fire because it was too dangerous to fight it from inside. Unfortunately, 3000 artifacts were destroyed and another 3000 were damaged, but OFD was able to control the fire before it did more damage. The Museum rebuilt over the next few years and new fire prevention measures were put in place.
Image: Courtesy of Oshkosh Public Museum
The Oshkosh community is very supportive of OFD, and the department finds ways to give back. For instance, since 1998, OFD has operated a Food and Toy Drive. Each December, residents line the streets to donate food and toys as fire trucks drive by—with Santa Claus in the lead—to collect the items (pictured). All donations are sent to Oshkosh’s Salvation Army for families in need. Since 2010, more than 26,000 toys and 40,000 pounds of food have been collected. OFD participates in other charitable runs, sports games, and events throughout the year. Firefighters also contribute to Oshkosh Firefighters Charitable Foundation, which assists families displaced by fires, and funds two scholarships at Oshkosh North and West high schools for students pursuing a career in public safety.
Image: Courtesy of Oshkosh Media.
OFD’s long history is a story of camaraderie and public service. Over the years it has adapted and embraced changes in technology and the needs of the public, from steam engines to EMS service to social media. Today, OFD builds upon that history. With six stations and 110 team members, OFD is ready to face any challenge and will continue to be here to serve the Oshkosh community in the future.
Image: Courtesy of Pierce Manufacturing