A fire engine drawn by three horses leads a parade down Union Street in Schenectady circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of Schenectady County Historical Society)
It was back in December of 1899 that Chief Henry Yates officially formed the Schenectady Fire Department, and due largely to the efforts of Carl Derwig and Kyle O’Connor, more than 112 years of the city’s firefighting history will be celebrated tonight at the Schenectady County Historical Society.
“Smoke Eaters: Firefighting in the City of Schenectady” will be on display at the society’s headquarters through November, and an opening reception free to the public will be held tonight. Longtime Schenectady physician Lyle Barlyn will offer a few introductory remarks concerning the exhibit, which includes historic photographs, paintings and various artifacts from the fire department’s collection as well as from the shelves of the historical society.
‘Smoke Eaters: Firefighting in the City of Schenectady’
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 6 tonight
HOW MUCH: Opening reception is free. $5 for nonmembers during regular society hours
MORE INFO: 374-0263 or Schenectadyhistory.net
“If anyone deserves the credit for all this stuff, it’s Carl Derwig,” said O’Connor, a nine-year veteran of the force and the guy who is following in Derwig’s footsteps as the department’s unofficial historian. “He wrote a book covering everything that happened from 1900, and he’s the one who really got me involved in all of our history.”
Derwig retired in 1996 as deputy chief after 35 years with the force and passed away earlier this year. O’Connor, meanwhile, has been taking photographs and collecting history of the department since he was in the seventh grade.
“I’m a third-generation firefighter,” said O’Connor, who followed his father and his grandfather into the profession. “I always knew what I wanted to do, and I always enjoyed taking pictures. But the deputy chief [Derwig] is the reason we have what we do at our association building on Fourth Street. I’d like to see us have a little museum or exhibit at every station so when we have a tour the kids will see it, and Carl Derwig is the reason we have those items. He saw that things were saved, and he did an awful lot of research.”
Artifacts on view
Along with photographic images and several paintings, some of the artifacts on display include an early 20th century safety net, two mid-century fire extinguishers, the department’s first gas-powered pumper and an early breathing device.
One interpretive panel will address the impact made by Schenectady’s George Westinghouse Sr., whose farm implement business produced some of the best firefighting equipment in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Westinghouse’s son, George Jr., became one of the world’s most well-known inventors.
“Westinghouse Sr. played a huge role in the production of early firefighting apparatus, and the exhibit will also tell us about the local influence of ALCO [American Locomotive Company],” said SCHS curator Ryan Mahoney. “A number of the early engines were built on ALCO chassis. We will also address the horses that served the fire department, and some of the great fires we had in Schenectady.”
Mahoney mentioned the Great Fire of 1819 and the Schenectady Circus Fire of 1910 up by Rugby Road. O’Connor, meanwhile, said there were two more noteworthy fires in the 1960s that also gained national attention.
“There was a tanker that crashed into the post office on the corner of Van Vranken and Hattie, and it was such a dramatic fire it made a national magazine,” he said.
“The other fire I hear stories about is the 1968 fire up on Broadway. It was 15 below, one of the coldest winters on record, and there’s a picture of one of our trucks just covered with ice that made news all over the world.”
Ten men have lost their lives while battling fires. The most recent was in 1996 when Donald Collins suffered a heart attack while fighting a Cutler Street fire. In 1930, Edward Broland became the first Schenectady firefighter to die in the line of duty.
The safety net, a last resort that was used so that people could jump out of buildings, is the largest artifact on display, taking up one entire wall in the society’s Vrooman Gallery.
“I’m not really sure when they stopped using it, but it folds up into four different sections and was usually placed right on the trucks,” said O’Connor. “These days we pretty much can throw ladders up and carry people down, or we have our newer trucks with buckets where you can go right up and take the people out of the window.”
For all of the 19th century and before, Schenectady’s firefighting crew was an all-volunteer outfit.
“The city was broken up into areas, and it was all volunteers,” said O’Connor. “Chief Henry Yates was the one who organized everything. He created the original six stations in the city.”