The history of Camden Fire Department
Because I wrote about Harold Drinkwater, who had been a fireman for so many years, I felt some may want to know the history of our fire department. Several years ago, I visited Camden Fire Department to find out more than I had ever known about it.
From a little notebook, handwritten by someone unknown, but with foresight, some knowledge came to light. The writer apparently was a fireman, who did not want the department's early history lost. As far as could be determined, the first fire company in Camden village was organized in 1847 and was known as “Hydrant Fire Company No. 1.” It did not operate for any length of time, but was reorganized in 1851 and again in 1854; each time adopting by-laws and the same name. During that period their equipment was a hand tub, hose reel, ladder, towing reels and ends of ladders, used in several fires.
Eighty-five young men of leading village families signed an agreement in 1867 to organize a company sufficiently large enough to take care of the hydrant, engine No.1 and Atlantic No. 2. From that time to present, the company has been known as Atlantic Engine Company No. 2. Their motto is: ”Always ready.”
The first fire station was located across from Camden’s present conference room on Washington Street. That lot is today a parking lot. The first officers were: A. B. Witherbee, foreman; E. T. G. Rawson, assistant foreman; Revel Philbrook, foreman leading hose; Samuel Ayers, assistant leading hose; John Campbell, foreman suction hose; C. W. Follansbee, clerk and treasurer; T. R. Simonton, W. G. Adams and Alden Miller Jr., finance committee.
During the “Great Fire of Camden” on Nov. 10, 1892, the whole business section of Camden went up in flames from Tannery Lane to present-day Rite Aid, including the Main Street end of Mechanic Street, Elm Street and end of Washington Street. It leveled 40 buildings, including the fire station. The company had only minutes to respond, but there was neither the water pressure not the equipment needed to contain the fire. The hydrants were cisterns and wooden troughs.
After that fire, the businessmen immediately made plans for buildings constructed of brick, and selectmen met Nov. 23, 1892, for some very important articles. Article 4 created a committee “to ascertain our standing in regard to water supply and protection against fire as to the feasibility of a new system or supply.” Article 5 (in part) voted that selectmen be instructed to purchase at once an Amoskeag No. 3 steam fire engine as specified at the sum of $3,50 or as less can be obtained payable June 1, 1893.” That fire engine was bought and operated by F. Hanson, Bert Fletcher, Bert Crosby and Lovell Thompson. A new fire house was constructed on the same location as the first one. For a number of years the American Legion Hall was on the second floor.
Another large fire broke out at the Bay View House, located next to Chestnut Street Baptist Church (where the Village Green is today). The alarm came in at 6:30 a.m. Nov. 17, 1917. One of the nicest hotels in Camden burned until it was completely destroyed. Its burned timbers were buried in the ground, as was the custom in those days. The children at Elm Street School were dismissed to go watch the great fire.
Gradually equipment was added to the department. A 1921 Rio truck was purchased for $5,000, followed by a 1925 Cadillac service car.
In 1924 two large fires broke out. The first one was in May on the waterfront, and the other was the Eastern Steamship Wharf, which burned completely on Aug. 1 and was rebuilt the following fall and winter. Another large fire happened May 19, 1935, when the old Anchor Factory burned, sending large burning pieces on the buildings down Bay View Street.
A 1926 hose truck was purchased for $6,000, as well as a ladder truck, which was hauled by horses for a period of time. A $500 motor was added to that vehicle with its high wheels and hard tires; pneumatic tires were also added to the rear and in 1939 it was completely remodeled with a new tractor.
An American LaFrance was added to the fleet for $12,500, and in 1938 a Seagrave replaced the Rio for $7,500. We finally had an ambulance in 1935 that was replaced in 1940 by the generosity of Charles C. Wood. The old one was put into fire service. We have had many changes and additions since that time, including a very nice ladder truck, needed for tall structures, donated, I believe, about 1993 by Charles Cawley.
The Allen F. Payson Fire Station was built in 1950 and named for a very popular fire chief. The residents of the town of Camden voted to build an addition to the present station and it was completed about 1993. It was named for our Fire Chief then, Robert Oxton . Bob lived and loved his job and Camden is a better place due to his services.
Our firemen are “call firemen,” who drop whatever they are doing to answer an alarm. He may be a lawyer who rushes from his office in suit and tie, or a shipyard worker, merchant or retiree. When the Knox Woolen Mill was operating as such, there were at least 15 employees who were firemen. When the fire alarm sounded, within 15 minutes enough firemen from the mill were at the station ready and aboard three trucks to go to the fire.
There were training sessions. A basic fireman could go to a fire but could not enter a burning building. A No. 1 fireman might enter a burning building and perform other duties for which he is qualified. No. 2 had learned it all. But like everything else it has become more complicated and more training. A criteria for becoming a fireman is long and includes: fire behavior, burning process, products, fire extinguishment theory, Indian tanks, self-contained breathing apparatus, ropes and knots, communication, ladders, rescue, automatic sprinkler systems and much, much more.
We owe a great deal of thanks and appreciation to our Camden Fire Department and Chief Chris Farley.
Barbara Dyer is Camden's official town historian.