History of the Marquette Fire Department: Part I

Downtown Marquette after the Great Fire in 1868.

The history of the Marquette City Fire Department has greatly influenced Marquette’s history, from a village to a flourishing city. Today the department carries on a tradition of pride and dedication to the community. It wasn’t long ago, however, that Marquette didn’t have an organized force to reckon with fire hazards.

In the 1850s, homes in the village of Marquette were made of wood, so fires would destroy them quickly. Though a new home could be built, the contents inside would be lost. Since merchant ships frequently failed to make it to the harbor, a loss of resources in a fire was a detrimental event. There were no insurance companies in the region at the time, so families had to pay for the entire cost of the damage and loss of possessions.

Due to this rising concern, the men of the village regularly watched for forest fire threats, as a wildfire was more likely to start a fire in town. Despite the watchmen keeping an eye out for fires, the people still feared the day a fire wouldn’t be recognized in time to save the village. As more outlying homes were unable to escape fires, the city realized the need for immediate protection.

In 1861, the first fire engine was ordered and arrived by boat in August. The first Marquette fire company was established, known as the Phoenix Fire Company No.1, speculated to be named in relation to the first chief engineer being an agent for the Phoenix Fire Insurance Company. The volunteer firefighters occupied the engine house of the Marquette, Houghton, and Ontonagon Railroad. In 1862, the fire department elected its first official officers, and by 1863 the fire department was organized as an efficient team, with M.H. Maynard as the first fire chief.

In 1868, a crucial yet devastating event in Marquette’s history occurred, known simply as “The Great Fire.” As the story goes, the night watchman at the railroad office discovered a fire in the engine room. Too late to put it out, the guard sounded the alarm and retreated to safety. The Phoenix Fire Company No.1 arrived and began using their pumping engine and hoses to put out the fire, but it spread too fast to control.

As a result, the adjacent machine shop, gas house, blacksmith shop, pattern room, carpenter shop, tank house and railroad office were destroyed on Front and Main streets. The fire spread along Front Street as far as Washington and Superior streets, sweeping across the lakeshore to the docks. The Burt Block, the Houghton & Ontonagon Railroad’s shipments, iron company merchandise and a large quantity of lumber, iron ore and limestone were destroyed by the fire.

The only dock to survive the onslaught of the flames belonged to the Cleveland Iron Company, as the fire engine had been sent there in hopes of saving what remained of the village.

The fire was halted at the Tremont House on Superior Street when the citizens drenched the building and hung wet carpets over it. Through similar efforts, the people saved the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad offices on the corner of Front and Superior streets as well. The greatest losses were the town library, government records and town hall. The town hall was where the fire department and Phoenix Fire Engine had been moved to just as the building’s construction had been completed, yet this building, like the hundred other lost buildings in Marquette, went up in smoke. Forty homes were destroyed in addition to their adjacent stores. A drug store and meat market on Spring Street were all that remained of downtown Marquette. In four hours’ time, the fire had wiped out the entire business district of Marquette.

This tragedy left Marquette in ruins. The level of damage gave way to a building boom that instigated a city-wide renovation. Brick and sandstone replaced wood buildings, and city ordinances and inspections were established. Roofs were made of tin, and all chimneys, boilers, furnaces and fireplaces were inspected. As fireproofing the city was underway, the city realized it needed to establish a water works and joint hose house location. In 1876, all newly designated hose companies ordered hats and necessary equipment, refurnished to match the design of their companies. Taking residence at the multiple hose house locations, all divisions became loosely referred to as the Marquette Fire Department.