FIRES AND FIRE-FIGHTING

FIRES AND FIRE-FIGHTING

Source: The Early Life of Lexington [KY] before the Year 1820, Mary Estelle Delcamp, A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Transylvania College in Candidacy for the Degree of Master of Arts June, 1916

The people of the period previous to 1820 lived in constant dread of fires, because of the inadequate protection afforded against this devastating element. The first reference to a fire in the newspaper reveals somewhat the conditions during the time: "Samuel Cooper takes this method to return his sincere thanks to the citizens of Lexington for their timely assistance in saving his house from being consumed by fire; earnestly recommending to every citizen their attendance on similar occasions with their buckets filled with water from their own houses, as it was by that expedient alone that his house was saved" (Dec. 22, 1787).

There were various other instances in which buildings were saved by the exertions of citizens (May 18, 1793 & May 14, 1799). Not always, however, was the owner so fortunate. In 1800 a cooper's shop on East Main was entirely consumed (Apr. 3, 1800). In another case the building was pulled down to keep the fire from spreading (Apr. 10, 1800). Six years later the Hart and Dodge Rope Factory burned, together with about twenty tons of raw hemp and a lot of spun cordage. The loss was placed between $6,000 and $7,000. As in many other cases during those years, this fire was thought to have been the act of an incendiary. The conflagration was so menacing that the whole town was threatened with destruction for the paper asserted that houses one-fourth of a mile distant were covered with fire (June 24, 1806). In 1810, at the destruction of a stable by fire, one of the good citizens sarcastically placed the blame thus "The destruction of the old stable, and the bustle and confusion which it caused, it attributed by some to the imprudence of a select gambling party of black gentlemen, who sometimes meet on the Sabbath in hay-lofts and who follow the fashion in amusing themselves with cigars" (Apr. 17, 1810). Two years afterwards Hunt's Bagging Factory, with 70 or 80 tons of hemp, was destroyed by an incendiary (Jan. 14, 1812).

In 1819 Mr. Murphy's and Mr. Prentiss' dwelling house, the jail, Mr. Usher's Tavern and Mr. Blount's grocery were burned down. The rest of the block was saved only thru the valiant efforts of citizens (Nov. 12, 1819).

Efforts were constantly being made to supply adequate fire protection. As early as 1791 Lexington could boast of a fire company (Apr. 23, 1791). Seven years later the town possessed one fire engine, and was about to purchase another (Dec. 26, 1798). The citizens were called together in 1800 to form into fire companies, because at that time there was no properly organised company in town (Feb. 20, 1800). Tho there were all these attempts at organisation, facilities for fighting fire were sadly lacking: for four years Later (1804) the editor of the Gazette much wrought up over the danger of fire to which the printing office had been exposed, called the attention of the public to the fact that the fire-engine had been out of repair for twelve months, that the fire company had not had meetings for twice that long, that there was a lack of fire-hooks and buckets, and that the union fire company, the only one to hold regular meetings, had only 53 members with two buckets each (Sept. 11, 1804).

The next year a joint committee, appointed by the trustees of the town and by the Union Fire Co., took up the matter of providing one or more chimney sweeps (Feb. 19, 1805). In 1806 the Trustees passed the following ordinance: "All proprietors must have buckets; - each house valued at $3,000, four buckets; at $2,000 to $3,000, three buckets; at $1,000 to $2,000, two buckets; all under $1,000, one bucket. These must be provided by Sept. 1, under penalty of $10 fine. It shall be the duty of every citizen on the alarm of fire to repair to the place of danger- anybody failing to attend, or disobeying orders of the officers, shall pay the sum of $3 (June 28, 1806). In spite of such ordinances and the repeated calling of town meetings, conditions remained about the same (June 28, 1806). In 1810 all three of the engines were out of order, and there were insubordination and lack of discipline among the members of the company (Apr. 17, 1810). As late as 1815 complaint was still registered against the fire-engines which badly needed repair (Nov. 6, 1815).

The next year (1816), in order to provide a greater water-supply, there was a project to build gates at the upper part of the bridge over the canal in Water Street. But one cynic vouched the following prophecy: "If the public will consider how long they (i.e. the trustees) pondered and pondered, and resolved and resolved about fixing gates to the public burial ground, after having put a brick wall around the public expense, an age may be expected to elapse before anything is done with the canal (Apr. 29, 1816). In 1820 the trustees passed an ordinance, prohibiting the removal of public ladders and fire books from the market house on penalty of $10 fine (Feb. 19, 1819).

In order to insure against losses by fire, the Kentucky Mutual Assurance Society was formed in the year 1814 (Feb. 18, 1812). Applications for insurance could be made everyday from ten a.m. to 2 p.m., at Lewis Sander's store. Merchandise, machinery and household furniture were insured for a premium paid "annually, monthly, or at a longer period." When the application amounted to $20,000.00, the society was authorized by law to issue policies (Apr. 28, 1812). The rates of insurance were as follows: houses of brick or stone covered with wood, in which hazardous trades are carried on, one and one-half percent; houses part brick or stone and part wood, two percent; houses all wood, two and one-half percent. If the building was contiguous, or thirty feet from other buildings, a small additional charge was made (May 19, 1812).

Transcribed February 2001 by pb

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