This year my local fire department reaches a pretty impressive milestone. 125 years of service to Derry Borough and the surrounding areas. With the economy tanking and everything costing more, being able to operate a fire department and keep it above water is a paramount task in itself. There are a number of departments in Western Pennsylvania with a rich, long history, but not all have been around for 125 years.
The following is the history of the Derry Volunteer Fire Company history. If you see one of the guys, tell them thank you for their service. Now, read on and see from which the humble beginnings the fire company began.
In the Beginning
In 1889 a 35-year-old local merchant and Borough Council member, H. Johnston Neal, stood before the Governing Body and stressed the need for a trained volunteer fire service in town. Derry Borough was experiencing rapid growth and had experienced several major structure fires as well. At that time Mr. Neal would never imagine the organization he proposed would grow into the modern municipal firefighting service of today as represented by the Derry Volunteer Fire Department.
Derry’s development was accelerated by the location of a major service terminal here by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The influx of railroad personnel brought about the construction of several boarding houses and hotels, many of these very substantial in size.
Neal’s suggestion was met with favor and he was encouraged to head the efforts leading to the formation of the borough fire company. He gathered 6 interested townsmen to lay the organizational groundwork. The founding group consisted of; Lawrence A. Fisher, D. Loy Shirley, George H. Henderson, James M. Leaf, Herman Horner and James F. Conley. Their efforts and hard work lead to the formation of the Derry Volunteer Fire Company.
Under the leadership of the industrious Chief Neal, the newly organized Derry Fire Company went about the business of building a substantial membership roster and firefighting gear.
The late Lawrence Fisher, a founding member and the first secretary, said that it was decided to build the membership up to 16 men residing on each side of the railroad. Within a short time 32 men were enrolled under Chief Neal, making the first full personnel of the Derry Fire Company.
Physical stamina was the prime requirement for volunteers at that time. The task of running full speed with the heavy, bulky carts, particularly with the streets in town, and then to fight a fire once on the scene was physically demanding. Fisher described the selection process for Company membership. Muscle and brawn were the prime necessities and members were selected with that in mind. Even with the crude fire equipment of 1889 the firefighters took great pride in their efficiency. Fisher recalled an alarm in the early years of the Company. There was a shed fire on South Ligonier Street and after making the two-block run they had water on the fire only 4 ½ minutes after the alarm sounded. Even today that is considered a fast response.
While the recruitment of new members met with huge success, the acquiring of equipment was a different story altogether. Borough Counsel, while lending moral support, provided very little in the way of monetary support. Fisher recalled that no one was interested in giving money to firemen. They had great difficulty in getting counsel to even purchase 250 feet of hose. Even after becoming established, the volunteers still had a difficult time raising money needed to keep the company in operation.
The determination of the Company was too great to meet with defeat and the volunteers overcame the money obstacle. Along with a loan from Chief Neal, the Company raised the funds needed to purchase a hose cart, hose and other needed tools and equipment. All varieties of fund-raising were undertaken, including sponsoring local appearances by traveling shows and entertainment troops. The annual Firemen’s Street Festival would soon become the major summer social event for the town.
Much of the early company history is unknown. With the passage of time the founding members have long been deceased and most of the information from the formative years became lost. However, from the few records that have been preserved, history gained from recorded recollections of era firemen and newspaper articles, the birth and maturity of the Borough Company, although sketchy, can be traced. Somewhere along the century existence of the Fire Company the founding year erroneously became established as 1892, three years later than the true date. The historical error only came to light in 1987 with the revelation of an article from the Latrobe Bulletin in 1939 pertaining to the Fire Company’s 50th anniversary. The article not only fixed the year as 1889, it also gave first-hand insight into the dedication and preservation of Derry’s pioneer volunteer firefighters.
Neal not only provided the much-needed leadership for the organization of the fire company, he also provided financial backing. In recognition of his tireless efforts, he would become the Company’s first fire chief. He held the position until 1900 but continued an active role for many years thereafter. Ironically, a large commercial building constructed by Neal at the corner of East Second Avenue and North Chestnut Street, later known as the Lattanzio Building, would be destroyed by fire in 1967 in one of the largest fires in the Borough’s history. Only through the diligent firefighting efforts by the department Neal founded, and assistance from neighboring fire units, the adjacent buildings were spared and greater losses prevented.
Prior to the formation of the Borough’s Fire Company, the community, first in the Derry Township Village of Derry Station and later incorporated borough, relied on the efforts of the populace to fight fires. All too often their efforts were met with failure and total property loss. Lacking a public water system in the Borough’s infancy, firefighting was limited to bucket brigades with streams and private wells providing a water source. With the completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad through Westmoreland County in 1852, a combination freight and passenger station was erected and the stop called Derry Station. This gave rise to the most prominent railroad town in the country. By the mid to late 1880’s, Derry had become a major railroad terminal and divisional headquarters.
A progressive step in fire protection came about when the railroad located a hand-operated pumper in town to protect many of the servicing and administrative structures. Railroad officials and other workers provided the manpower to fight fires on railroad property and townsfolk joined in for blazes elsewhere in the community. The PRR apparatus carried no hose, its purpose, to draw water from wells and other sources. Bucket Brigades still remained the primary source for getting water on the fires.
With the completion of the town’s water system and the availability of hydrants, the railroad hand pumper passed from use, the date and the carts fate remain unknown, and was replaced by a large two-wheeled hose cart housed at the PRR Engine house.
The cart, believed to have been assembled by local railroad personnel, utilized large diameter wagon wheels. The cart carried several hundred feet of 2 ½ inch hose, a number of nozzles, axes and other basic fire equipment and also a large, heavy ladder.
The Town Fire Whistle
Alerting Firefighters to an alarm has always been a priority. Even in its infancy, Derry had the most effective signal. At the first cry of fire, a railroad worker would begin blasts on the nearest locomotive whistle. As other railroaders picked up on the signal, locomotives working about the yard and engine house joined in a steady increasing blare heard for miles around.
Use of locomotive whistles to alert the fire company continued until 1909 when Borough Council authorized the Fire Company to purchase a whistle to be used as the town’s exclusive fire call. The whistle had its own distinctive sound, alternating between high and low pitches so it could be distinguished from locomotive whistles. Originally a steam whistle, it was later converted to air.
The introduction of a telephone system sped up the process of alerting the Fire Company. Before the phone system it was necessary to get word to the railroad engine house, the location of the whistle, to sound the alarm. This created a delay in in firefighter response. With the phone system in place, the operator would take a call for help and contact the engine house clerk’s office. The phone exchange operators continued to take calls until 1938 when the phone dial system was introduced in Derry. The central office ceased using operators and a fire alarm system was established at the railroad’s DR tower.
For nearly 40 years, DR Tower operators activated the fire call signal. Upon the tower closing, fire calls were handled by Latrobe Borough Police dispatchers. They too would be eliminated and since then, the 911 system of Westmoreland County has received calls and activated the Company’s whistle through the use of electronic tones.
With the closing of the Railroad service terminal, the original whistle would be relocated from the PRR engine house to the Westinghouse plant. The old reliable whistle remained in service until the implementation of an electronic siren in 1967.
Pennsylvania Rail Road Fire Unit
An informal railroad department under the command of Chief Ford was organized and would later come into conflict with the Borough fire contingent. Although primarily formed to fight fire on PRR property, the PRR crew would respond to town fires and for a time, this created no problems with the borough Fire Company. The PRR crew remained a major contributor to the borough’s fire protection until 1919 when a simmering feud brought about Borough Council action virtually restricting the PRR crew to railroad property. The PRR crew was accused of delaying the sounding of the borough fire whistle to give themselves a head start to the fire scene to “claim” the nearest hydrant.
Counsel ordered the railroad company not to respond to fires in town unless called to assist by the Municipal Company. The last known response was in 1924 for a blaze which destroyed the Baptist Church located on West 2nd Avenue near Hays St. The PRR hose cart is now on display in the Derry Fire Department Museum.
Uniforms; A Symbol of Pride
During the Company’s early years, the bulk of the membership was drawn from merchants and other tradesmen because of their availability during the day. Many were prominent citizens of the town.
Pride of membership in the newly organized Fire Company was exhibited by the adoption of a colorful fireman’s uniform, traditional in that time. The shirt consisted of red flannel with a large brass-buttoned bib of yellow flannel on which were the letters “DFC”. It was worn at company and community events. On his death in 1900, Samuel Wadsworth, described as one of the most enthusiastic members, was buried in his fireman’s uniform.
A change in uniform came in 1910 with the adoption of black, standard fire department attire of the 1900’s. Having joined the Pennsylvania firemen’s association in that year, the company showed off its new uniforms by participating in the 1910 Firemen’s Convention Parade in Altoona. Some 24 members, accompanied by local Fire Department’s Drum and Bugle Corps participated.
Firemen’s Convention Parade – Altoona – 1910
This was the first of many state parades for the Company in the ensuing years, traveling as far as east York. The trips were made by train and trolley car as the early mode of transportation. Derry became a member of the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s association in 1897. The Company would later become a charter member in Westmoreland County Firemen’s Association formed in 1938.
The Ladder Wagon and the Horse Era
Already using hose carts, the modernization of the Derry Fire Company continued. The hand-pulled hose carts were augmented my large, horse-drawn hose wagons. The first made its appearance around 1895. The hose wagon enabled firefighters to carry large quantities of hose over the hand carts and also provided a quicker response to distant locations. In 1897, the Company added a ladder wagon. The apparatus was handmade by Albert Shean, a blacksmith and Fire Company member. The ladder wagon, known as the hook and ladder, became not only the pride of the Company, but the community as well. Old timers recalled it was the finest rig in the area at the time. Pulled by two horses, the ladder wagon carried hose, two ladders and several firemen.
A borough-owned building at the corner of West 2nd and North Chestnut Streets served as the Company’s newest fire house with the introduction of horse-drawn apparatus. The Kearney Livery Stable nearby quartered the fire horses. Company meetings took place on the second floor of the new station. When the Westinghouse Corporation expanded its employee parking lot, the fire station was torn down.
The late John C. Cullen, who joined the company in 1901, described the efficiency of volunteers responding to alarms during the horse-drawn era. Upon the sounding of the alarm, the horses were trained to quickly back into the station and harnesses suspended from the ceiling dropped for hitching. In a matter of minutes the rigs were ready to respond. The horses could only be used for pulling the fire apparatus because they would become excited and prance and the sound of the alarm.
The galloping horses can still be recalled by some town elders. It was one of the more dramatic eras for the Company and one of the more dangerous as well. The rigs had no breaks and on more than one occasion, overturned rounding corners. The horses were difficult to control in their fire-run excitement.
The End of an Era
Although the exact date of the demise of horse-drawn rigs is unknown, it would appear that around 1914 the Fire Company elected to return to hand-pulled hose reels. In that year Borough Council authorized the purchase of fully equipped hand carts and also the first smoke protectors.
The final fate of the prized hook and ladder is not known but the hose wagon remained with the Company for occasional appearances until around 1950. Due to its deteriorated condition, the rig found its way to a scrap yard, the last remembrance of a by-gone era of firefighting in Derry.
With the return of hose carts, the Company membership was again divided into a two-unit organization. Firemen from the north side of the tracks manned the reel location at the second street house. Those living on the south side were assigned to the second reel, housed in a building on the present Municipal Building lot.
Derry’s volunteer firefighters battled a number of major fires during the early years. Among those given mention in company records include a fire at the Shear Hotel that destroyed the building in 1895, Keffer Flour Mill and an adjacent house in 1899 and the Pennsylvania Sand Company crusher building at the southern edge of town in the early 1900’s. Fire struck the Italian Grocery Company in Second Ward on March 14, 1916, causing damages exceeding $21,000 and damaged an adjacent warehouse.
Onward and Upward
Derry’s first steps with moving into the era of motorized fire apparatus came in May of 1912 when a committee was assigned to find out prices of different types of motorized trucks. Six years passed before a committee of 3 members was formed to purchase a new truck. In June 1920, Latrobe Fire Department brought a fire truck to Derry for a demonstration. Finally on June 15, 1921, Derry Fire Company purchased its first motorized engine; a Howe Triple Combination built on a Model T chassis. Borough Counsel contributed $1000 towards the $3,470 price tag.
1921 Howe/Model T Pumper
Organized initially to serve the residents of Derry Borough, the Fire Company’s response area would expand greatly to benefit the citizens of a large portion of Derry Township. Use of hand-pulled carts in the early days made it a physical impossibility to respond to alarms of any great distance from the fire station. That changed with the purchase of the 1921 Howe Pumper. The coverage area increased to include areas of Derry Township immediately surrounding the Borough.
With the company moving forward, the need to expand the membership resulted in the opening of the roster to allow for membership of 75, 25 from each of the existing 3 wards. On September 23, 1920, 32 members were accepted, a record that still stands today.
Talk with the Borough Counsel began in 1913 as to the need for a new station. The Counsel was approached in 1914 to lease a borough-owned lot on 2nd Avenue for the erection of a fire station. Progress continued at a slow pace but Council informed the firemen in 1917 they would build a suitable building for a fire truck if one is purchased. With the arrival of the Howe pumper in October of 1921, a shanty-type frame building on the Borough lot on East 2nd Avenue served as engine quarters.
Continued Fire Company efforts leading to new fire quarters finally moved into action and in 1929 the Borough and the Fire Company signed an agreement calling for the erection of a municipal building at a cost of $30,000; each would contribute $15,000.
The town’s municipal building was completed in August of 1930. Considered an outstanding municipal building facility in its time, the building provided the Borough government with council chambers, mayor’s office and town lockup along with a community meeting room. The firemen’s long-sought goal was realized after a 17 year wait.
The municipal building-fire station on East 2nd Avenue has undergone extensive renovations over the years to meet the ever-increasing array of equipment of the Fire Company, including a large rear addition in 1956.
The Fire Company changed its name in 1923. Originally organized as the Derry Volunteer Fire Company, its designation became the Derry Volunteer Fire Company with incorporation as a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation that year.
Better Engines Purchased
Firefighters again became interested in purchasing another fire truck in 1927 after experiencing problems with their Howe Pumper. The 1921 engine, when carrying its hose load and manpower lacked power for the steeper hills in Derry and at times had to be operated in reverse to climb the hilly streets.
At a meeting May 7, 1929, the company awarded a bid to American LaFrance for a type 92 pumper with a 600 gallon-per-minute capacity at a cost of $8,750, minus a $1,000 trade in value of the Howe Pumper. The Engine was delivered in August of 1929.
1929 American Lafrance Engine
The purchase proved to be a wise one. For 40 years the American LaFrance Engine saw service and most of the time was the “First Out” piece of the department. It proved it’s dependability in 1952 pumping several hours consecutively at the Derry Township High School fire. The response area increased to further points in the Township with the arrival of the larger American LaFrance Engine in 1929. Soon the Derry firefighters would provide sole fire protection for an area of Derry Township extending from the crest of the Chestnut Ridge to what became Keystone State Park and from eastern Bradenville to the Hillside-Gray Station area. Calls to the township would soon outnumber Borough calls many times over. For 30 years the Derry Volunteers provided exclusive service to this nearly 70 square mile area until the organization of the Bradenville Volunteer Fire Department.
The Company’s 3rd truck purchase came in 1939 with the addition of an International, 500 gallon-per-minute Engine, bought for a price tag of $6,822. The newest apparatus gave the Company the much-needed hose carrying capability and eliminated the need of maintaining the reel carts for supplying additional hose when required at fire scenes. In addition, the International Engine carried a full complement of ladders up to 55 feet in length.
1939 International Engine
With 2 pumpers in service a 1927 S&S Ambulance followed in 1940 seeing service as both an equipment and personnel carrier.
The most serious accident in the Company history occurred in April of 1942 on a false alarm in the village of Peanut. The International Engine was responding to the late night alarm when they encountered an icy patch on the old overhead bridge. The Engine failed to make the sharp turn and crashed through the inner pedestrian guard rails and finally came to rest with the front end hanging over the bridge edge and East 2nd Street 20 feet below. Ten firefighters on board escaped injury.
Increasing Alarms and Duties
In the beginning, the Derry Volunteer Fire Department responded to the occasional alarm. As the town grew and the service territory increased so did the alarm responses and the duties of the volunteers.
During the war years of 1941-1945 the Fire Company provided the foundation for building an effective community Civil Defense program. With the Fire Company membership depleted due to the war, younger members, auxiliary firemen, augmented the regular ranks. Air raid drills were as routine as other Civil Defense preparedness exercises. Aside from regular fire protection duties, the Company membership also contributed much time and effort to the various home-front patriotic efforts ranging from street patrols during residential solicitations for national causes to assisting in scrap metal drives. Civil Defense was not taken lightly locally since both Pittsburgh and Latrobe were on the known enemy target list.
1953 Federal Engine – Refurbished by the Federal Civil Defense Agency
By the 1960’s, Derry’s fire personnel were responding to an excess of 100 alarms annually. This trend continued to climb higher and higher and the company responses are well over 200 alarms a year. The record high for one year stands at 327.
Alarm runs of many miles within the service territory are common as is mutual aid to neighboring departments. Derry firefighters have been called to different locations such as Latrobe, Ligonier, Blairsville, Greensburg, and Bolivar. The Johnstown flood of 1977 placed Derry on standby, with a crew and an Engine, for several days in Armagh, Indiana County.
Chief Neal and his fellow founding members could never have thought way back 1889, even in their wildest dreams, their effort would culminate into a Fire Company responding to hundreds of emergency situations each year or travel distances, frequently traveled in response of their duties.
Moving Ever Forward
The Derry Volunteer Fire Department today is equipped with the most modern and extensive array of gear and apparatus to meet the various emergency situations to which firefighter are now called upon to respond to. No matter if the call is for a structure fire, traffic accident with entrapment, brush fire, chemical spill or any other type of incident posing a threat to life or property, the Derry Volunteer Fire Department stands ready to respond any time, day or night.
The total replacement cost of all apparatus and ancillary equipment of the Fire Company stands in excess of 2 million dollars. The operating budget of the Fire Company grows every year reflecting the ever-increasing expenditures required to maintain the level of fire protection given to the citizens of the Derry community. Through generous support of the area residents over the years they have greatly aided the Department’s efforts to purchase new apparatus and equipment required to carry out the role of dedicated service to the community in time of emergency. An annual fund drive mailing along with other fund-raisers, along with a yearly appropriation from Borough Council are the main sources of revenue for the Fire Company. A huge contrast to present day sums required to maintain the company, minutes from the August monthly meeting in 1905 showed financial resources on hand as $50.61.
A subsidy organization of the Company; the Derry Volunteer Firemen’s Relief association , was established on December 28, 1925 with the purpose “to provide for and maintain a fund from legacies, bequests and other sources for the relief of its members who may be injured in the line of duty. On January 12, 1926, the first Relief Association officers were elected. They included: Ralph H. Lynn-President, Charles Kemp-Vice President, Robert M. Doty-Secretary and Albert C. Kelis-Treasurer. Trustees-George Sweeney, S.F. Schwerdt, James R. Butler, Millard E. Lunnen and Clyde Mack.
With the formation of the Relief Association, a relief fund established in 1912 to serve as a depository for State Foreign Fire Service grants was dissolved and proceeds transferred to the newly created organization.
Over the 125 years of service of the Derry Volunteer Fire Department, hundreds of members have filled their ranks; some for just a short time, others for lengthy periods of time. Many have given the majority of their adult lives to the Fire service. James F. Conley was president of the Company for 35 years from 1900 to 1935. Others to hold positions for record lengths of time include; Charles H. Cullen, Secretary, 27 years 9 months, Jerome K. Fisher, Treasurer, 27 years, Samuel B. Piper, Chief, 23 years 9 months, Clarence C. Deeds, Chief, 28 years (1937-1964).
The Derry Volunteer Fire Department is now well into its second century of service. As it was in the beginning back in 1889, the Derry Volunteer Firefighters stand ready to serve their fellow citizens in time of emergency. The dedication to duty inspired by H. Johnston Neal and the Firefighters who followed over the 125 year span continues its commitment of service by todays Fire Company members and remains a vital force for the good of the community.
Please also enjoy the Video History of the Derry Volunteer Fire Company