Laramie’s Early Volunteer Firemen

 “There ought to be some sort of a fire organization here,” wrote Editor J.H. Hayford in the Laramie Daily Sentinel, in November, 1870, two years after Laramie’s founding. Luckily, no major fire had yet occurred, but that was no reason to oppose forming a fire department, Hayford reasoned.

It took five years for the city council to heed his call. In the meantime, there had been a major downtown fire in January, 1871. Four wooden stores were completely destroyed—it didn’t help that one of them was a liquor store that abetted the flames when the bottles exploded.

The first volunteer fire company was organized within days of that fire, independent of the city. They collected $200 to outfit themselves with buckets, axes, hooks, ladder--everything but a vehicle. 

In July, 1875, the first official fire company was formed.  Col. John Wanless, a Laramie pioneer settler, was asked by the Laramie City Council to form a fire hose company, after pressure from downtown merchants and residents.  The city provided a space, donations were accepted to purchase the wagon, and eager young recruits were selected for the hose company. Wanless himself was the only paid employee.

They held a ball to raise additional funds in November, 1875.  The gala affair was held at Ivinson Hall, the second story of Edward Ivinson’s new building located at the southwest corner of South A (now Ivinson Avenue) and 2nd Street.

The volunteer Excelsior Hose Company and Laramie Hose Company #3 were formed around 1877.  The Wanless Company disbanded, and two more companies came along: Railroad Hose Company #4 and Gem City Hose Company #5.  Each had about 30 volunteers and hand-drawn carts with no headlights.  Therefore “torch boys” went ahead of the carts at night, showing the way—a prestigious job for Laramie lads.

In 1875 the Union Pacific Railroad laid a 12,278 foot long cast iron water pipe from the City Springs east of town to the UPRR rolling mill (where the Safeway Plaza is today).  Water hydrants were installed along it on Grand Avenue for fire department use.

Training exhibitions were held often, and hose company teams competed with each other to see who could get hoses connected the fastest. Standards for the drills were 1) Water Race—600 feet completed in 35 seconds; 2) Hook and Ladder Race—500 feet, with a 30 foot ladder in 59 seconds;  3) Straightaway Race—600 feet in 25 seconds.

Laramie’s first city-built fire station was on the east side of North 2nd St. between Ivinson and University.  First to occupy it was the Wanless Hose Company, though that was a short-lived organization because Wanless left town. The first fire carts were either hand or horse-drawn.  A Silsby steam engine was purchased in 1882, with the reluctant support of Editor Hayford, who now felt the city water works and hydrants were more than adequate to fight fires. 

In 1880 the Holliday Planning Mill (lumberyard) at 3rd and Kearney Streets caught fire and was partially destroyed.  In 1882 there were four simultaneous fires.  Despite the work of the volunteers, by 1887 the newspaper reported that the Laramie Fire Department was close to being useless because of a lack of manpower.  It did survive, but it took a tragedy to spur revitalization.

In 1895, Augustus “Gus” Trabing’s large department store burned to the ground on South 2nd Street.  For the first time, a firefighter’s life was lost. George Cordiner was fatally injured inside the burning building. Reality set in and gradually Laramie’s fire department became more professional with paid firemen. 

The parking lot next to 416 South 3rd St. is where the next City “Hose House” was located in 1891.  It was in use through 1938 when the current Fire Station #1 on 4th St. was built.  Until 1953 the old hose house was in use for the city street department.  Soon after that, however, it was torn down.

 “Next to her schools, Laramie adores her firemen,” touted the Laramie Directory of 1892.  The same holds true today.

  By Jerry Hansen

Caption:  Laramie Hose Company #3 “champion” volunteer firemen undergoing a drill with an 11-man hose cart during a drill around 1894.  In the background is the original Albany County Courthouse (torn down in 1931). Bystanders are observing and perhaps timing the training exercise.  Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum from the Alan Robbins Family Collection