Aberdeen Fire Department, Inc.

ABERDEEN FIRE DEPARTMENT INC.

During the very early years when the small settlements of Halls Crossroads and Aberdeen, and later Mechanicsville were forming, fire protection was truly a community effort. There was no fire department. On the sounding of a church bell and the loud shouts of “Fire”, the community would run to the location with buckets to form a bucket brigade to extinguish the fire. Persons with ladders or other useful tools would bring them to the scene. Water was used from every possible source (Barrels, wells, small streams, cisterns, etc.) as there was no water system.

Firefighting in Aberdeen remained a disorganized effort until 1889 when J.A. Swingley and William B. Richardson organized a group of men to serve as volunteer firemen. The “Aberdeen Fire Department, Inc.” was the organization’s title and Mr. Richardson served as the first fire chief.

Little is known about the early years of the fire department for all of the early records of the department were destroyed in a fire in 1936. However, a search of the minutes of the town commissioners a few years after the fire department’s formation shows the following entries:

  • June 24, 1895 - Conrad Krouse and J. F. Wells were appointed as a committee to have a fire bell placed in the tower of the town hall.
  • November 11, 1895 - Bids were read for erection of a public building for the use of the fire dept. and town commission.
  • November 11, 1895 - J. A. Swingley was elected as Fire Marshal. He is to have full control of the fire dept.
  • November 11, 1895 - $11.00 expense money was approved for the commissioners to travel to Philadelphia to purchase fire apparatus.
  • November 28, 1895 - Bill of $184.54 was approved for fire apparatus. George E. Pritchard applied for job of Keeper of Fire Apparatus.

Exactly what type of fire apparatus was purchased in November 1895 is not explained in the commissioner’s minutes, nor are the duties of the Fire Marshal explained. An excellent example of the type of fire apparatus used by small villages during this point in history can be seen in the lobby of Aberdeen’s No. 1 firehouse. It was built as a combination hand pump and ladder wagon by the Whitelock Manufacturing Company of Baltimore, Maryland, and would have cost considerably more than the apparatus approved on November 28, 1895. The wagon was stored in the barn of a physician (Dr. Kirk) near Darlington, Maryland where T. Neville Cunningham (Later to become Chief of the Aberdeen Fire Department) played on the wagon during visits to the doctor’s office. Around 1948, Chief Cunningham and two other members of the department who remembered the wagon from their boyhood, visited Darlington to see if the wagon was still there. It was! In talks with the family it was agreed upon that the wagon would be turned over to the Aberdeen Fire Department if they would restore it and put it on public display. The old ladder wagon was brought to Aberdeen and stored at several different locations until about two years before Aberdeen’s new No. 1 firehouse was built in 1972—73. There was much work to be done. Years of neglect had taken its toll. The driver’s seat and the running boards were rotten and had to be replaced. The old paint had to be removed and new coats applied. The old brass fixtures were removed from the broken running boards, polished and carefully installed on their replacements. Many missing items had to be located, restored, and placed on the old rig to bring back the glory of its former self. Two soda and acid three gallon extinguishers, six red and white kerosene lanterns, seven old leather buckets, a dozen old Cairns and Brothers aluminum Senator helmets, two axes, two pickmatics, two pry bars, and rope for the reels on the front axle were found. An old Civil Defense 24 foot wooden extension ladder was found for the lower ladder rack. One of Aberdeen’s old wooden 14 foot roof ladders was placed on the upper ladder wagon w built to hold two six foot and two ten foot pike poles which were missing. To top off the assortment of ladders, an old 14 foot wooden pompier ladder was placed on top of the ladder rack. Down below, in front of the magnificent wrought iron filegree work which makes up the sides of the storage basket, was an open space with three heavy rollers. It had been designed to support a portable pump, but none was present. After a diligent search, an old civil defense portable single piston two stroke pump with air dome was found which fit the location perfectly. It was designed and built by the Goulds Manufacturing Company of Seneca Falls, New York. Called the Challenger 16, it was patented on September 5, 1876 and was probably similar in most respects to the portable pump which could have been supplied with the ladder wagon when it was new. The wheels received much attention, with each spoke being scraped, sanded, and then coated with seven coats of spar varnish. When finished, the wheels were kept moist for six weeks to allow the wheels to soak up the water and expand in order to ensure that the steel rims would stay on the wheels as the wagon was rolled to its new quarters. This procedure must be followed each time the piece is to roll along a parade route on its own wheels, thus its appearances are extremely rare. Its last parade where it appeared as a parade vehicle was in June, 1983 when Charles W. Riley of the Abingdon Volunteer Fire Company, Harford County, Maryland was installed as the President of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association during the association’s convention in Ocean City, Maryland. Its last participation as a display on a float was on December 7, 1991. It was one of the pieces of fire equipment from the Aberdeen Fire Department to appear in the Christmas Street Parade in Aberdeen.

The entries from the minutes of the town commissioners continued:

  • February 27, 1896 - J. F. Wells and George Walker were appointed to building committee on engine house for the fire dept. Bids to supply lumber were read.
  • May 11, 1896 - J. A. Swingley appointed Fire Marshal for two years. It was decided to charge $40.00 for rent of engine house per annum.
  • May 28, 1896 - On motion it was decided that the fire dept. occupy the fire dept bldg free of rent but had to pay their own fuel and light and that it be under the control of the Commissioners of Aberdeen. (Commissioners started meeting in engine house May 28, 1896).

From the minutes of the Town Commission we now know that the first fire house was built at 103 W Bel Air Ave. between March 1st and May 28th, 1896. It was a white, two story wood frame building and was just large enough to house two early motorized apparatus in it’s later years. Folding doors sealed off the dirt apparatus floor from the dirt street outside. A meeting room was housed on the second floor and was reached by a covered outside stairwell East side of the building. A bell tower sat astride the peak of the roof at the front and the bell was rung to summon the firefighters and announce an alarm-of-fire to the village.

In later years, a large steel split hoop was hung from a wooden post in front of the building, and when struck with a steel bar which was attached to the post by a long chain, it produced a distinctive percussive ring which could be heard throughout most of the village. Charles Spang, a 53 year member of the fire department, can remember as a small boy hearing many alarms sounded on the hoop, which was used until the town purchased an electric motor driven siren to summon the volunteers.

The Aberdeen Water Works constructed the first water and hydrant system in Aberdeen in 1897. It included a 100,000 gallon standpipe which greatly aided the fire department.

The Aberdeen Fire Department has always tried to improve its professionalism. The department became a member of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association on May 8, 1900 and members annually attend the association’s convention to vote on matters to improve the standards for the volunteer firefighters of the state.

It would be at least 45 years before Aberdeen’s second fire house was built in 1941 on Chesapeake Road (Now named East Bel Air Avenue) near Aberdeen Ave. The construction of homes in Swan Meadows to house Aberdeen Proving Ground construction workers at the start of WWII had doubled the population on the East side of town in just one year. To protect this expanding population the No.2 firehouse was built. It is a single stall, brick and concrete block structure with a gabled roof. The building has one overhead door on the front of the building for the apparatus, and a smaller door on the West side providing access to a small storage area. To the rear of the building atop a telephone pole is one of four civil defense sirens in the town of Aberdeen which are used as a secondary means of alerting the volunteer firefighters of an emergency call.

At the same time fire house No.2 was being built the old No.1 fire house was in need of replacement. Building supplies were restricted for the war effort by then, so replacement had to be postponed until after WWII. Finally after over 50 years of service, old fire house No.1 was replaced by the town with a new concrete block and red brick one story structure in 1948 on the N.W. corner of West Bel Air and North Parke St. Two single stall apparatus doors opened on to W. Bel Air Ave. for use by two engines, and on the Park St. side two apparatus doors near the rear of the station provided exits for an ambulance, a reserve engine, a brush truck, and Harford County’s only Civil Defense Heavy Rescue Truck. A hose tower was constructed in the N.W. corner of the building. On top of the hose tower was placed the largest of the town’s civil defense sirens which can be heard in most areas of the town depending on the direction of the wind.

Both the old and new were built on Bel Air Ave. because it was the only road to pass completely through the East and West sides of town. Bel Air Ave served as Maryland Route 22 and was the main route for fire apparatus response. Unfortunately, railroad grade crossings East of downtown at the Pennsylvania Railroad and West of downtown at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad effectively divided the town into thirds. When passenger trains stopped at their depots, Aberdeen lost it’s fire protection East and West of downtown until the trains departed. This serious problem was remedied for the East side of town when the No.2 firehouse was constructed by the town government in 1941. There was no solution for the West side of town until 1957 when the No.3 firehouse was constructed at the West end of a three block long section of the Aberdeen Thruway then known as the Northern Thruway. To the West beyond a chain link fence was Stancil’s gravel pit. To the East of Paradise Road the trees were cleared and grading partially done. The thruway, however, would not be completed for another six years. When finished, it provided rapid access to all areas of town and to Aberdeen Proving Ground for apparatus stationed at the No.3 firehouse, and quick response to calls West of town.
The No.3 firehouse is a two bay one story concrete block and red brick building with a flat roof. Two single overhead doors provide access for apparatus to the parking apron between the front of the building and the West bound lane of the thruway. A break in the median provides immediate access to the eastbound lane of the thruway for apparatus responding from the station. Near the front of the building on the West side and on top of two telephone poles rests the third civil defense siren which covers the north west area of the town.

By 1970 it had become very clear to all members of the department that their No.1 firehouse on W. Bel Air Ave was very inadequate. President L. Keith Ford appointed a committee to determine what should be included in a new main station and where the station should be located. Many good choices were made.

The Town of Aberdeen built the new No.1 Firehouse on N. Rogers St. near Franklin St.. Construction started in 1972 and was completed in April 1973. The building was dedicated in May 1973 with Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel present for the ceremony. Music was provided by the Aberdeen Fire Department Band. The building had ample parking for responding firefighters, and room to park the apparatus on aprons to the front and rear of the apparatus room. The apparatus floor had room for eight pieces of equipment which exited through two l2ft x 2Oft. overhead apparatus doors on both the front and rear of the station. A fifth door opened on to the North parking lot. A maintenance bay where light equipment maintenance could be performed is at the rear of the building.

The center section of the concrete block and brick building is two stories high with gabled roof. On the ground floor were the communications room, a supply room, a men’s rest room, chief/assistant chief’s office, a lobby with display cabinets and Aberdeen’s original pump and ladder wagon, a long covered porch for the protection of guests during inclement weather, and men’s and women’s rest rooms. Upstairs was a men’s bunk room with attached rest room and shower, a men’s rest room, a small kitchen, board of directors room, a large classroom, and a large recreation room.

To the South of the two story section was another one story section housing the banquet hall and a complete restaurant type stainless steel kitchen, a pantry, a china closet, a kitchen rest room, and a bar with ice machines. This was a well planned building and it would serve the town and it’s fire department for many years to come.

In 1979, several members of the fire department, who lived in the Perryman—Bush River area, asked the Board of Directors of the department if there were any plans to build a substation in the Perryman area. The board knew that the Harford County Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Association (HCVF&AA) had not planned for construction of a station in that area anytime in the next five years.
Yet, new housing was being built at an increasing rate in the area and there were plans for increased industrial activity. With that in mind, the Aberdeen Fire Department (with HCVF&AA approval) proceeded on its own in 1980 and at its own expense, to construct a four bay firehouse on Perryman Road near Spesutia Road. Land for the facility was donated for use by the fire department for 99 years by the Lock Joint Pipe Company of Perryman, MD., know known as Price Brothers.

The new firehouse was finished in November 1980 and was immediately placed in service, with an open house held on Sunday, March 1, 1981. The new facility was designated Firehouse No.4 of the Aberdeen Fire Department. The station was designed to blend in with the residential area by having the quarters portion of the building facing Perryman Rd. The apparatus room was perpendicular to the residential portion so that the apparatus would exit the building parallel with Perryman Road.