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History's Headlines: Firefighting in Bethlehem

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BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Images of 19th century firefighting are like scenes out of a Norman Rockwell magazine cover.

The clanging bell, the panting, charging horses with reins held by a steady driver with a long mustache, the steamer fire engine sending smoke into the air, and beside it, a racing Dalmatian.

All of this crosses the mind. Although part of this image has romantic truth, there is a lot more to it. And in their new book “Firefighting in Bethlehem Pennsylvania 1741-1917,” (Perseverance Publishing LLC; 136pp; $34.95) authors Chris Eline, Nancy Rutman and Karen Samuels give the real, behind-the-scenes stuff behind the fire excitement, although there is plenty of that excitement there also.

Equipment didn’t come cheap and those horses were sometimes difficult to come by. City councils and citizens were often reluctant (“hey the bucket brigade always worked before”) to spend money until the next big conflagration convinced them of the wisdom of doing so. And then there were the arguments over volunteer firefighters vs. full-time professionals.

The authors have created a book that is both good history and makes interesting reading. One of the things that enhances their work is using contemporary description of actual fires taken from Bethlehem newspapers. And arson was as big a threat then as it is today.

One of those was clearly an act of 18th century domestic terrorism taken against the Moravians.

Another aspect that readers will enjoy is the colorful personalities like chiefs S. Charles Seckelman (1841-1900), William E. Beckel (1852-1922) and William W. Yohe (1840-1885?). Along with being a fire chief, Yohe was also the father of Augusta May Yohe, the music hall star who married an English lord.

Fires have been the bane of cities since there have been cities to burn. Rome didn’t need much encouragement from the emperor Nero to catch fire. Several huge fires swept it when it had a population of 1 million under the Caesars. And in 1666, the Great Fire of London swept that large city. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches and the old Gothic St Paul’s Cathedral. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants.

The Moravians established Bethlehem in July 1741. Interestingly, the first Bethlehem fire occurred the following November. The next was in 1745 and by 1747 a fire bucket brigade was formed.

There was one problem: the chief source of water was a spring below the town in the industrial area. In case of fire, it had to be carried up the hill where most of the communal Bethlehem buildings were located. A building could burn down before the water got there.

In 1754-55, the Moravians had created the first municipal waterworks in British North America. Using  pumps and wooden pipes, water could be carried up to the buildings above. “By 1756 a large reservoir had been built in the little square in front of the building now known as the Bell House,“ note the authors. “No more trudging up the hill with buckets!”

It was in 1763 that Bethlehem witnessed perhaps the worst fire of its Moravian period, and it was most likely arson. The linseed oil mill was a major part of the industrial quarter that helped produce a product used in paints that was sometimes sold as far away as New York or Philadelphia to produce revenue to support the community.

But on the night of Nov. 18, 1763, it burst into flames that even threatened the Single Brethren House and the waterworks. Only snow on the roof and the hard work saved them. But the mill and its contents were destroyed.

Apparently local settlers were convinced that the Native Americans at the Moravian mission settlement at Wechquetank in what is now Monroe County were to blame for attacks they suffered during the just-ended French and Indian War. They burned the mission to drive the Indians out and hopefully give them an excuse for conflict. When the Indians sought refuge in Bethlehem, the infuriated settlers secretly came to the town and burned the mill in revenge.

“That the torch was applied first at that point… revealed an intelligent plan in that act of dastardly wickedness which would not have governed the attempts of wild Indians,” notes Moravian historian Joseph Levering.

Four days after the fire, Bethlehem got its first fire engine. Imported from London and probably built between 1724 and 1750, it was known as the Perseverance and for about 200 years was believed to be the oldest fire engine in America. But Boston apparently had an earlier one that came over in 1698. The engine was designed by a Richard Newsham.

The authors give a detailed account, complete with diagram, of how the Perseverance was able to throw a stream of water at 78 gallons per minute to a height of 75 feet. It was used at Bethlehem into the 19th century. As Bethlehem expanded more fire engines were added. The next one, another London import named the Diligence, arrived in 1792. It was followed by others.

In 1869, the cry went out that the city had to have a steam powered pumper if it was to keep up with its neighboring towns.

“Stupid, snail-like retrogressive Easton already boasts of four engines,” snarked the Bethlehem Daily Times that year, “and yet, let it be said to her shame, progressive, active, and growing Bethlehem refuses to purchase even one.”

It arrived finally on April 28, 1869, on the North Pennsylvania Railroad and went to the fire station on East Broad Street. Local folks came to "ooh" and "ah" at the gleaming piece of technology that would soon be “racing” through their streets.

But they were being pulled by the firemen themselves, and this was discovered to be awkward.  So in September 1872, the Perseverance Fire Company launched a subscription program to raise money for two horses. At once thrifty Pennsylvania Dutchman wondered why not just borrow the horses from a local livery stable for $100 a year rent? By Oct. 1, the money was raised - all of it from subscriptions by members of the fire company itself.

The authors do no confine themselves to North Bethlehem but give detailed accounts of how South Bethlehem, West Bethlehem and Northampton Heights formed their own firefighting systems. It concludes in 1917 when they all became one. For anyone interested in Bethlehem history or the development of a firefighting in America in general this book is an important contribution.

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