By: Natalie Kammerer
In continuation of our holiday exhibit and blog series dedicated to Highlighting our Heroes, we’ve done a deep-dive into some of our collections that tell the early history of Omaha’s Fire Department. We unfortunately don’t have names to put to many of these men’s faces, but their stories are as much a part of our history as those named and featured in our exhibit!
The Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company was established in 1860, six years after Omaha City’s official incorporation. A local carriage builder named Andrew J. Simpson estimated that it would cost him about $75.00 to build a “truck.” A handful of local insurance agents pledged contributions to help cover the cost. Before long, Omaha’s first fire vehicle was ready for action. [It was] …“a hand pulled cart with hooks on the sides on which to hang the ladders and the buckets. It was about twelve feet long, painted bright red, and had small wheels for turning corners easily.”
When the city invested in this high-tech machinery, they realized that they would also need a permanent (and convenient) location to store it, so the first fire station was built on the west side of 12th Street between Farnam and Douglas. At this time, the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company was comprised solely of volunteer firefighters; when a fire was reported, church bells were used to call members into action. They would rush to the station, get the cart, and pull it to the fire as fast as they could.
Though this seems almost comical today, Omaha was still in its infancy during these years. Not only was the city’s geographical footprint small, the scope of its construction was simple as well. Most buildings were one or two stories of frame construction, so the “bucket brigade” method did the job just fine for a while.
For a few years, it seems that improvements within the fire department generally kept pace with the city’s growth and expansion. In 1866, Andrew J. Simpson (who was now serving as chief of the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company) facilitated the purchase of a hand engine called “Fire King” which was bought second-hand from Davenport, Iowa. The next year, a steam engine called the “Omaha” was acquired. Over the next two decades, the city continued to build up a small fleet of modern equipment that was able to pump water from a new network of cisterns located throughout the city. Though a definite improvement over hauling buckets, this system had its limits, as well. Namely, the cisterns simply weren’t big enough to hold the water required to fight a really large fire.
The worst illustration of this problem came with the 1879 fire at the Grand Central Hotel, a newly-remodeled five-story brick building. After a while, it became clear that the cisterns were running low, and the Hook and Ladder Company’s hoses simply couldn’t reach the upper floors. Five firemen were killed when a floor collapsed, and the building was a total loss.
Around the same time, it was also decided that the volunteer Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company was becoming obsolete – they were no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the growing city. Paid professional companies were proving to be more popular among members, and also more sustainable, considering how quickly the city was growing. A volunteer fireman simply couldn’t keep up with the demands of his professional life and the increasing need for fire services. In 1885, after 25 years of fighting the city’s fires, the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company voted to disband.
This shift toward a fully paid and professional force came at about the same time that Omaha was establishing its waterworks. The system of pressurized fire hydrants and reservoirs was completed in 1881, and proved extremely effective. Between the improved water systems and continued investment in modern equipment, people felt so confident in Omaha’s fire protection that in 1886, insurance premiums were lowered citywide.
The issue of water quantity and pressure continued, however. On multiple occasions, it was determined that low water pressure had hampered the fire response, and there were often complaints about poor service, mismanagement, and deferred maintenance. Omaha’s buildings were getting taller, and the water supply situation was quickly becoming untenable. Unsurprisingly, this led to multiple instances where firefighters were limited by their own tools, sometimes causing heavy property losses, and occasionally human losses as well.
Late in 1886, when construction was just being completed on the new Barker Building at 15th and Farnam, it burned to the ground. The fire department was quick to note that they “would have been more effective in handling this fire if they had not been handicapped by the low pressure of the water.” Between 1887 and 1894, there were 1,945 alarms rung in to the department, and monetary losses totaled about $2,165,000. At least four firemen were killed in the line of duty during those years, and many more experienced severe injuries.
Finally, in 1910, a U.S. Supreme Court decision ended decades of heated debate over Omaha’s water works. By 1899, continued conflict surrounding the volume of water available, and the rates charged for it, had led the city to approve a $3,000,000 bond issue to purchase the water company. The company refused to sell for that price, so a committee was tasked to come up with a more objective appraisal. One member was appointed by the city, one by the water company, and the third was chosen by the first two appointees. After three years, the number they settled on was $6,000,000, which the city refused to pay. A 1907 Federal District Court decision sided with the city, but this decision was reversed in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. Finally, in 1910, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city was obligated to pay the price set forth by the committee. This was a big year for the department – they also purchased the city’s first motor-driven engine! The department also continued to expand in order to bring services to different corners of the community.
Like many neighborhoods and services of the time, the fire department was initially segregated. Omaha’s Hose Company No. 11 was organized in 1895 to serve the city’s Black residents. Their station stood at 30th and Spaulding Streets, and the five men who made up the company were laborers, barbers, and tinsmiths by trade. The creation of this company is generally attributed to Omaha community leader and Nebraska legislator Dr. Matthew Oliver Ricketts. At the time, social taboos limited the neighborhoods that fire companies would service, and also dictated that Black firefighters could not fight fires from inside white homes., The department wouldn’t be officially desegregated until 1957.
Interested in learning more stories about essential workers who have made a difference throughout Omaha’s history? Visit us at the General Crook House Museum – our holiday decorations and exhibit “Highlighting Our Heroes” will be on display through Jan. 13. Each room of the house celebrates dedicated Omahans who have worked to improve our community in industries like education, medicine, transportation, social justice, delivery services, and more!
 Some sources name this date as 1895, others as 1885.
 The Omaha Fire Department, compiled for the Benevolent Association of Paid Firemen. Burkley Printing Co., 1895, p. 81.
 “More Than a Century of African American Firefighters in Omaha.” Accessed 19 December 2022: https://www.theclio.com/entry/22510.
 It’s unclear whether this was an explicit rule of conduct, or a more unspoken expectation.
 Dice, Harry Edward. “The History of the Omaha Fire Department 1860-1960.” UNO Masters Thesis. 1965, p. 91.
 Ibid., p. 33.
 Ibid., 38.
 The Omaha Fire Department, compiled for the Benevolent Association of Paid Firemen. Burkley Printing Co., 1895, p. 49.
 Ibid., p. 59-60.
 Ibid., p. 53-55.
 Dice, Harry Edward. “The History of the Omaha Fire Department 1860-1960.” UNO Masters Thesis. 1965, p. 51.
 City of Omaha v. Omaha Water Co. United States Supreme Court Record, 1910. Accessed 9 December 2022: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/218/180/.
 Ibid., p. 27.
 Ibid, p. 12.
 Dice, Harry Edward. “The History of the Omaha Fire Department 1860-1960.” UNO Masters Thesis. 1965, p. 9.