Firehouse Folklore

Madison, Ind., has a storied history with nation's oldest operating firehouse

The Washington Fire Co. No. 2 firehouse a state gem

January 2020 Cover

(January 2020) – Firehouses dot our American landscape from coast to coast, standing as not just another building on our streets but truly as protectors of our communities and our lives. There are many architectural treasures that are home to fire companies in cities large and small, and while many have great historic value, both locally and nationally, only one can proudly boast the title of the oldest firehouse in continuous service – and that one is home to the Washington Fire Co. No. 2 of Madison, Ind.From left, brothers Jim and Graham Lohrig pose at the Western Firehouse No. 3 in Madison, Ind.

Tucked away the shadows of the Ohio River valley, the historic city of Madison was formed in 1809 as a stopping point between Cincinnati and Louisville. The city soon sprung to life, and by the 1820s it became one of the most important shipping locations for timber, produce and most notably pork products, in the Midwest. It became so popular, in fact, that the famed singer Jenny Lind performed there in a whitewashed pork slaughterhouse in 1836.
Early Madison, like other newborn villages, was plagues by fires that consumed its wooden buildings, making life on the first frontier even tougher. An especially tough fire that occurred on March 19, 1845, devastated two city blocks and destroyed the grand Episcopal Church. City fire protection was already provided by the Fair Play Fire Co., which had existed since 1841. Its history was traced way back to 1821 by other names.
However, after a dispute during a drill from the Crooked Creek in 1846, several men left the Fair Play Co. and established the Washington Fire Co. No. 2 on Jan. 22, 1846. The new company, commonly known as “The Twos,” was given the existing end stroke hand engine “Hoosier,” which had been built in Madison in 1844. The big Philadelphia-style machine was housed in a local barn before the city fathers in 1848 voted to build two identical engine houses.

Photo by Don Ward

The Washington Fire Co. No. 2 firehouse in Madison, Ind., is the oldest firehouse in continuous service in the nation.

The firm of Temperely & Dutton was selected as the architects of the new firehouse, while William Harrington was awarded the contract to build both of the firehouses. Construction began on April 25, 1848. Things were noted as “not going well with Harrington,” and he was fired before the first floor was finished.
Construction then fell upon the members to complete their new homes to their liking, and soon enough the Washington Firehouse was finished. The new home, located on West Third Street near West Street, was the pride of the city. Of the two, Washington’s firehouse was especially elaborate. Constructed of brick and measuring 20x60 feet, its grand hall was home to some of the finest Cotillion dances in antebellum Madison. The entire building was graced with a magnificent bell tower enclosed in an octagonal cupola, which stood watch over the city for 70 years.
The company’s fire bell, which weighed in excess of a ton, required an elaborate winch and pulley system to place it in the cupola. The winch and equipment are still in place today since it was impossible to remove them after the tower was built. The hall of the “Two” was lit by two gas crystal chandeliers that were brought to Madison from France in 1855. Nothing was too good for the “Two’s.”The Washington Fire Co. No. 2 firehouse in Madison, Ind., is the oldest firehouse in continuous service in the state of Indiana.

Photo courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society

The No. 2 Fire Co. was extremely proud of taking delivery of the Reanie & Neafie Steam powered fire engine It was one of the first in the West and served the city for many years.  The only other known to have survived is on display in the Philadelphia Fire Museum.

In 1925, the company donated them to the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site across town. After nearly 80 years of gracing the Lanier Mansion, the State of Indiana returned the chandeliers to the company, where they once again hung from ornate plasters ceilings in meeting room.
The firehouse has housed some impressive equipment over the years, including one of the first steam fire engines in the West, a Philadelphia built Third Class Reanie & Neafie Engine, which was brought around Florida to New Orleans and then up the rivers to Madison in 1859. That trip took almost a year to accomplish. The Washington Fire Co., always looking to take advantage of advances in firefighting technology, purchased steam engines twice more with a First Class American LaFrance Cosmopolitan in 1899.
Afterward, a 1916 Aherns Fox, arrived, which was recently returned to the city by a generous benefactor. Motorization continued as one of the very first American LaFrance 700 Series pumpers arrived in 1947. The company’s current 1994 Seagrave fits very nicely in the building with its 14-foot ceilings.
During these years, the firehouse has been continually updated, however, the integrity of the building has always been perfectly maintained. The company’s horses were stabled in the rear of the building for decades, and it was the duty of the company messenger to feed, water and keep them happy in between fire runs.
It should be noted that during the 19th century it was uncommon for small town fire companies to own their own horses. Most were “borrowed” from milkmen or the iceman, or they would just grab a few steeds at the local livery stable when the alarm came in.
One story that still circulates is that during a particular fun company birthday party in the early 1970s, a member who opened a second floor window to get some fresh air fell out to the ground below, some 20 feet. Stunned but uninjured, he soon re-appeared at the party bruised and embarrassed but surely not prepared to go home just yet.
When the companies 1964 American LaFrance was delivered, the large oval doors had to be replaced, since the new modern engine just wouldn’t fit. Many of the traditions that existed 150 years ago still occur in Madison. For instance, when a city firefighter dies, members will ring fire bells at the three downtown firehouses, spreading first word that a death has occurred.
Today, the Madison Fire Department consists of six independent volunteer fire companies operating from six firehouses protecting this city of 13,000. Most remarkable about the fleet is that every company has its own color scheme, which includes yellow, green, white, red, red and white, and blue. It is a testament of tradition and pride that in the days of modernization, urban renewal of the 1960s and the fire services general desire for “bigger and better,” that this one 170-year-old firehouse has not only survived intact but continues to serve in the 21st century.
You see, in Madison, tradition and the fire service proudly exist side by side in America’s oldest operating firehouse. I think Ben Franklin, who co-founded American’s first volunteer fire department in 1736, would be quite proud.

• Tim Regan is a 31-year veteran of the fire service and has had published more than 25 books on fire service history. He is an avid Madison, Ind., photographer and historian who currently resides in southern Arizona, where he serves as the Fire Prevention Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. Special Thanks to B.J. Combs, Bill Combs, Dave Snodgrass, Jamie Edwards, John Dietrich, Frank Taff and all the members of the Two’s.

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