ISHPEMING - When the Ishpeming Fire Hall opened in 1912 it was said to be a thoroughly modern building, built to house state-of-the art fire engines, and the teams of horses to pull them.
A century later, the building is showing its age. It's plagued with structural problems and its future as an active fire hall is up in the air, but it will always be a large part of the history of Ishpeming and the Ishpeming Volunteer Fire Department.
An article in The Weekly Mining Journal from Dec 14, 1912, described the building as being "absolutely fire proof and as nearly sanitary as it possibly can be."
When the Ishpeming Fire Hall was built, it was meant to house teams of horses that were trained to run from the stables to the harnesses in front of the fire wagons when they heard the alarm sound and the stables opened. The last horse team was used in 1936. (Photo courtesy of Marquette County Regional History Center)
The contractor who erected the fire hall was Herman Gundlach of Houghton and the architect was D. Fred Charlton. At the time, Marquette Fire Chief Timothy Maney, who had been with the organization for many years and had seen most of the principal fire halls in the country, visited the fire hall and was reported saying he had never seen a hall where the details were so complete.
With three teams of two horses, the building needed to be easily cleanable. Removable oat baskets and enclosed oat cleaners were installed. Closed closets were provided for moving hay and bedding from the storage room above the stable, so that absolutely no dust would escape from the stockroom into the stables or another part of the building.
The stables were located in the back part of what is now part of the police station, said retired Ishpeming Fire Marshal Dan Gaboury. Gaboury worked at the fire department for 30 years and his father worked there for 40.
"You could say it's kind of a family tradition to work there," Gaboury said. "Even now there are people there who have had families work there for generations. It's kind of a father-son thing."
Gaboury said his father worked at the fire department when the horses were still being used to pull the fire wagons. The horses were trained to come out of the stalls when the alarm sounded and take their place in front of the wagons, ready to have their harnesses lowered down from the ceiling. The last horse team, Ned and Mag, were on duty in 1936.
"They would just lower the harnesses on top of them, strap them in and away they'd go," Gaboury said. "The older guys used to tell me that it took hours and hours to train the horses to do that - and there were some horses they couldn't even train."
The equipment room hasn't changed much over the years. It now holds the equipment and coats for the Ishpeming firefighters. The old double doors on the front of the building were replaced with more standard garage doors. There were also four single stalls on either side of the runway leading from the equipment room to the stables. The horses were trained to return to their stalls through the runway instead of through the stall doors.
Also in the equipment room were sliding poles that led down from the dormitory on the second floor directly opposite of the runway, That way, when firemen were descending, they would not be in danger of being trampled by the horses rushing from the stalls into their proper places. One of these copper fire poles still exists in the front right corner of the equipment room.
The equipment room, 57 feet by 48 feet, is floored with creosoted brick set with asphalt on top of the concrete foundation. There were tracks for fire sleigh runners that were equipped with small stationary steel rollers. Sleighs remained there year round because they didn't interfere with the operation of the wagons during the summer season.
Today, the floor of the equipment room is being watched closely. The basement is currently unusable due to flooding and support pillars are developing cracks, causing the structure to weaken. The size and weight of the current fire trucks is simply too much for the old building, built to house horses and fire wagons, to bear.
According to Gaboury, the basement was used on a regular basis to host parties. It was a designated bomb shelter during World War II.
"Of course the water table went up when the mine shut down and they're having problems with flooding down there because of it," Gaboury said.
The Ishpeming City Council discussed the future of the fire hall at its April meeting. The supports for the equipment room were being monitored and three new cracks had appeared, which has caused concern among city officials. Multiple options for repair have been discussed over the past year - from filling in the basement to moving the department to adding additional support beams.
The fire department is considering moving to a temporary facility on Carson Road, which is the recycling building and compost site for the city. The move is being prompted by the Partridge Creek reconstruction project, which will involve street work directly in front of the fire hall.
Adelle Whitefoot can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 243. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.