From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.


Firemen Here Were Required To Wear Red Shirts on Duty

by Harry Seckler

Leavenworth Times, Sunday Morning, June 26, 1949

The city of Leavenworth had every reason to be fire-conscious and dreaded any conflagration, from a chimney fire to a large structure.

On July 5, 1858, came a great blaze that swept through the business district from Third and Delaware and third and Shawnee to Main, destroying practically four solid business blocks.

It was doubtless with this in mind that the city fathers passed many ordinances relating to fires in the period from January 18, 1863, to March 30, 1864. There were a total of seven, the last one even prohibiting the construction of sidewalks of wood in the fire limits.

That old riddle, "Why does a fireman wear red suspenders?" known to every youngster and overworked by early day vaudeville performers in their angling for laughs, was not applicable here because an old fire ordinance, No. 44, specified that firemen should wear belts.

Ordinance No. 44, passed in January, 1863, and amended in June, 1864, specified that the members of each company of firemen should wear a black fireman's hat, a red flannel shirt and black pants, and a leather belt; and that the number of the fire company to which a man belonged should be painted upon the hat and the name of the company on his belt.

Section No. 3 of the original ordinance No. 44, made members of the city council ex officio fire wardens for their wards and made it incumbent upon them to report to the chief engineer at a fire in their ward and to be subject to his directions.

No one was given the title of "chief" in those days, that position being assigned to one titled "chief engineer." One section gave him permission to enter any house, building, lot, yard or premises between the hours from sunrise to sunset to examine fire places, hearths, chimneys, stoves, pipes, ovens, boilers or any other apparatus likely to cause a fire.

He could require blacksmiths to rebuild chimneys and plaster the ceiling and sides of such places.

Back in those days with so many frame buildings in the business district there were plenty of firemen, several companies of them. Each consisting of 40 Members, and these were divided into companies of enginemen, hook and ladder men and hosemen.

The ordinance called for a general review of the fire department, engines and other fire apparatus semi-annually by the mayor and city councilmen; the chief engineer was to appoint the day and place for such a review; give notice to the mayor and council and also to run a public notice in one or more newspapers.

Another section gave the right of any officer in command of a fire company to require the aid of any drayman with his horse and dray, driver of a licensed wagon with team and wagon, or any citizen or bystander in drawing the fire engine and other fire apparatus to any fire and aid in fighting a conflagration.

Refusal called for a fine in any sum of from $1 to $5.

The city's fire limits were laid out as follows: Beginning at the Missouri river's bank and northern boundary of Leavenworth, west along now what is Metropolitan Avenue (then known as Sioux Street) west to Tenth Street; thence south along this street to Elm; thence east to the river's bank; thence north to the place of beginning.

No person was permitted to use any lighted candle or lamp in any stable or building where hay, straw or other combustible material was kept unless the same was well secured in a lantern.

The chief engineer, in a later ordinance, was required to wear a leather hat when on duty with the name "chief engineer" painted on the "bill" or visor. The first and second assistant chiefs were also to have "engineer No. 1 or Engineer No. 2" also painted on their hats.

All these officers were required to carry a speaking trumpet.

The person who rang the fire alarms, appointed by the mayor and council, was required to ring the bell for a space of ten minutes, but there was to be no fire alarm for chimneys "burning out."

Any spectator at a fire could be impressed into service as helper by the officer in charge at the blaze or suffer a fine of not exceeding $50 if he refused.

The hook and ladder men could, by order of the chief engineer or his assistants, or under the direction of three councilmen, cut down any building, erection or fence for the purpose of checking the fire.

Each member of a fire, hook and ladder, hose or ax company was to be exempted from the performance of military duty in time of peace, from serving as juror, the payment of poll tax, from payment of taxes in personal property to the amount of $500.

Any person who had been a member of any of the fire fighting companies and faithfully discharged his duties as such for a period of five years was to be accorded the privileges above referred to.

It was unlawful then, as now, to build "wooden" structures within the fire limits, outlined as: beginning at the intersection of the center of Seneca Street and the Missouri River at low water mark; thence west along Seneca to Sixth; south on sixth to Shawnee; west on Shawnee to Seventh; south on Seventh to Cherokee; east to Fifth; south on Fifth to Choctaw, and east on Choctaw to he west bank of the Missouri River "at low water mark."

They were so fearful in those days, that ordinance No. 48 was passed in 1864 requiring outer walls of buildings in the fire limits to be not of wood or any combustible material and no wooden sills, caps or post were to be placed in the front wall of any such building, except doors and windows and the casings of each, and wooden awnings over the sidewalks.

In 1864 ordinance No. 50 was passed, stipulating that there should be no more wooden sidewalks in the fire limits and the construction of any such was to cost the builder up to $100.


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