On September 18, 1891, the fire company would get a real test of its services at the scene of the Bulett Carriage Factory fire. The Bulett Carriage Factory, the largest manufacturing enterprise in Harford County, was destroyed by fire shortly after three o’clock in the morning. The factory was a large frame structure, fifty feet front by two hundred deep, and four stories high, with an annex of the same dimensions one story high. The factory was the largest south of Wilmington, and was one of the best-constructed and arranged factories to be found anywhere. The fire was discovered at approximately three o’clock in the morning by Mr. Daniel Carroll, who lived opposite the factory on Thomas Street. Mr. Carroll had been awakened by the crying of one of his children and heard a crackling noise. Looking out his front window he saw flames bursting out of the roof of the factory, about half way between the comb and the eaves and directly over the paint shop. Mr. Carroll ran out and alarmed the nearest neighbors. Mr. Edmund Lee, who was one of the first to arrive at the factory opened the doors of the showroom and began to remove the finished vehicles. He was soon aided by others and all of the contents of the showroom, about fifteen carriages and buggies were saved. Messrs. Frank Bateman, foreman of Hose Company No.1 and Hugh Friel dragged a hose carriage from the jail to the fire and a stream was soon playing upon the buildings. Mr. Frank M. Cline, Chief of the Fire Department, who lives near the railroad, being awakened by a woman, put a bridle and collar on his horse and running the rope of hose carriage No. 2 though the collar on the horse, rushed with the apparatus to the fire, the tongue of the carriage being steadied by Mr. Wm. Willey and Augustus Dunnigan. It was soon discovered that no amount of water would save the factory and the attention of the firemen was then turned to protecting the nearby dwellings and buildings. Mr. Carroll’s house was in most imminent danger. The contents were speedily carried out by people on the scene and a stream of water turned on the building. The heat was intense. To enable the firemen to work on Mr. Carroll’s house a door covered with blankets which were kept wet was set up between the fire and the pipemen. Messrs. W.T.L. Taliaferro and J.F. Apsey, who gallantly held their ground in defiance of the terrible heat, and succeeded in preventing the building from catching fire. The next nearest house was occupied by Mrs. Saladay and her sister. When the front door was opened the heat inside was intense and the legs of the piano were blistered. By unrelenting exertions this house and the adjoining ones, occupied by George Lingan and Mr. Wm. Lang were also saved.
The wind was blowing moderately from the southwest but the draft was so great that large coals of fire and pieces of slate from the factory roof were carried beyond the Harford County Court House and it was necessary to keep the roofs of all the buildings in that vicinity wet with water to prevent their being set on fire. When the alarm was given the water was not turned on at the reservoir, three miles from Bel Air, the supply being taken directly from the spring. Messrs. Aquilla B. and Octavian M. Whitaker hitched a horse to a buggy and driving to the reservoir turned on the water. Sixteen minutes after they started they had the water turned on. The fire is supposed to have begun in the paint shop, on the second floor. But what caused it will probably never be known. The theory is that it was the result of spontaneous combustion of rags saturated with linseed oil. Mr. Frank Bateman had his left hand scalded besides being overcome by the great heat and had to be carried home. Mrs. Saladay, who ran out to beg the firemen to save her house, had her right arm severely burned. Mr. Apsey was also badly burned on the left hand. These were the most serious accidents to persons. The carriage factory was filled with material complete for the manufacture of perhaps 1,500 vehicles and about 1,000 of these were in various stages of construction. The fire had gained so much headway when it was discovered that the building was doomed and the fire could not be stopped. The intense heat was shown by the fact that the boardwalk and fence posts on the side of the street opposite the factory were burned, the grass on adjoining lots for a considerable distance around was scorched to the roots and a canvass-covered playpipe 100 yards from the building was burned. The fire having occurred in the second story, the building was gradually but rapidly consumed without the walls falling, and in about an hour and a half after the fire was discovered there was nothing left.
A heavy fog prevailed during the fire, which prevented the flames from being seen at any great distance. The factory was the largest in the State and was supplied with labor saving machinery of the latest invention. It had facilities for turning out 3,000 vehicles a year.
In the years between 1890 and 1918 the fire company would undergo reorganizations of its officers and members as members dropped out and new members joined the company. It would also see the expansion of its apparatus fleet, installation of a fire alarms system for the town and the construction of the first actual fire house for the company. The first Chief of the company was Frank M. Cline, who would serve until November of 1893. Henry B. Bruns would be elected Chief in November of 1893 and serve until February of 1898 when Frank Bateman would be elected Chief. T. Frank MacLean would be elected Chief in 1904 and serve as Chief until December of 1922. The first President of the company was John Thomas Chew Hopkins, Sr., who would serve until November of 1893. Frank Bateman would be elected as President in November of 1893 and serve until 1898. Henry B. Bruns would follow Mr. Bateman as President and serve from 1898 until 1917.
After many years of committees looking into the purchase of additional fire apparatus, finally in January of 1898 at a town meeting in the Harford County Courthouse, the town taxpayers directed the town commissioners to purchase any additional apparatus and necessary equipment the fire company needed. On March 4, 1898, the town commissioners authorized that a hook and ladder carriage be purchased for use by the fire company. On March 18, 1898, the order was placed with Rumsey and Co. of Seneca Falls, New York, at a cost of two hundred and sixty nine dollars. On April 25, 1898, the hook and ladder apparatus arrived in Bel Air amid much fanfare. The carriage was stored at Shannahan and Smith’s livery stable on Main Street and it remained there until it was moved, along with Hose Carriage #1 and Hose Carriage #2 to the fire company’s first fire house on Courtland Street in 1907. The hook and ladder carriage served the fire company and the Town of Bel Air with much needed fire protection until October of 1919 when the fire companies first piece of motorized apparatus was purchased.
Also during these years, despite continued efforts, the School Board would never give permission to construct a hose carriage house on its Gordon Street property. Hose Carriage Number 1 remained on Ellendale Street until 1897 when it was relocated to Henry B. Bruns property on Gordon Street. It would remain there until 1907 when it was relocated to the new Courtland Street firehouse.
Since 1890, the subject of a fire alarm system had been discussed year in and year out. There had been numerous attempts to raise the money for a fire alarm system from the Town of Bel Air and private subscriptions, but the attempts failed. Finally in January 1903 a committee was formed. The committee was headed by Mr. Walter Finney and consisting of M. A. Reckord and James Reynolds. In April of 1903 the committee went to the Town Commissioners of Bel Air and reported good progress in acquiring the necessary funds. The Town Commissioners agreed to seek help from the County Commissioners for the funding of the fire alarm system. Finally, all monies were available and after many years of requesting the town provide a fire alarm system, the Bel Air Fire and Salvage Company ordered a bell from the McShane Bell Foundry Company of Baltimore. On July 29, 1903, the bell arrived in Bel Air and arrangements were immediately made to hang it in the cupola of the Harford County Courthouse. The bell, weighing 1,826 pounds, could be heard for miles across the cornfields and pastures that then surrounded the County Seat. Early in 1904 the bell was given a name – “BIG WALTER”. It is believed that this name came from the first name of the committee head that acquired the bell, Mr. Walter Finney. The bell was rung six times for out of town fires and twelve times for in-town fires. The bell was rung by the telephone operators from the exchange, which was located on Dallam Place, now Hickory Avenue and Courtland Street. The bell summoned firemen for years until the advent of modern electronics, two way radio communications and high powered sirens eventually made the bell obsolete. It continued to hang in the age-weakened old Courthouse cupola until 1967 when it was taken down and placed on a concrete pedestal in front of the courthouse. A time capsule was placed under the bell to stay for 200 years; sixteen years later, in 1983, the bell was moved to be refurbished and was eventually put back in the cupola. At that time the capsule was opened. Among its contents was a report from the McShane Bell Foundry Company on the age and estimated 1967 value of the bell ($3,000), a small color photo of a teenager (John Scotten, Jr.) and a poem by Charles V. Spalding detailing the saga of the bell.
Until 1907 the fire company had no “official” station. The two hose carriages were being housed in small hose carriage houses behind the Harford County Jail and Henry Bruns property on Gordon Street after spending years located at his stable on Ellendale Street. The Hook and Ladder Carriage were being housed at the stables of Shannahan and Smith’s located on Main Street. In March of 1898 the fire company rented two rooms in the Ferry Building on Courtland Street between Main and Bond streets for its use. The cost to rent the two rooms was fifty dollars a year.
In November of 1906 a committee was appointed to seek suitable housing for the fire apparatus. The committee attempted to raise funds for a fire house but met with little success. In December of 1906 the Town Commissioners held a public meeting to determine the best method of inducing the taxpayers of the town to contribute. They adopted a resolution that a letter be sent to each taxpayer urging them to contribute to a voluntary tax of forty cents on the hundred to help build a permanent fire house for the fire apparatus. The issue came to a head on January of 1907 when the Town Commissioners received notice that the Hook and Ladder carriage would have to be moved from the Main Street stable of Shannahan and Smith. Things moved rather quickly at this time and by the middle of January the Town Commissioners had ordered a committee to purchase a lot located on Courtland Street from Clarence Purcell for one hundred and fifty dollars. The first payment of 10 dollars was made on the lot on February 1, 1907. In June of 1907 construction started on the Courtland Street Station. The building would be a 20 x 40 foot structure with a small loft and double inward swinging doors. It is unknown when the station actually was completed and opened, but it became the first firehouse in the company’s history. It housed both the hose carriages and the hook and ladder carriage until 1919, when it would be remodeled to house the company’s first piece of motorized fire apparatus. The Courtland Street Station was finally sold in March of 1924 when the company bought a building on Main Street and remodeled it into a firehouse.
Bel Air’s first piece of motorized apparatus was a 1918 Ford / American LaFrance Type “E” Double Tank Combination Chemical and Hose Car. It was purchased in June of 1919 for approximately two thousand dollars. This unit would replace both the hose carriage reels and the hook and ladder carriage. While it had no fire pump, it was equipped with two 25 gallon chemical tanks mounted behind the driver over the hose body. The tanks were kept full with a bicarbonate soda and water mixture. When it was needed, sulfuric acid was poured in the tanks and the reaction caused a pressure buildup, forcing the mixture through a three quarter inch by two hundred and fifty foot hose. The hose was stored in a square basket to the rear of the chemical tanks.
The engine also had a hose bed with a capacity for one thousand feet of 2 ½ inch hose. When needed, the hose was deployed from the bed and connected to one of the hydrants located throughout the Town of Bel Air. The unit carried a twenty foot extension ladder and a twelve foot roof ladder as well as, lanterns, axes, pike poles and two chemical fire extinguishers.
The engine was delivered to Bel Air in October of 1919 via the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad. It was unloaded at the Bel Air Train Station located on Rock Spring Avenue. Chief T. Frank MacLean supervised the unloading of the engine and Wesley Thomas drove the engine back to the Courtland Street firehouse, which had just been recently renovated to be able to house the new unit.
The engine was originally painted “fire engine” red, but was repainted a cream/ivory color in 1924 to match the newly purchased 1924 Seagrave Pumper.
After the purchase of the 1918 Ford American LaFrance engine, the fire company started to respond to many calls for assistance outside of the town limits. In fact, the engine was responding to most of Harford County when requested. The engine also responded into Cecil County on several occasions. Due to the wear and tear on the apparatus, in January of 1921, the Town Commissioners of Bel Air passed an order that the engine would not respond to fires more than two miles distance from Bel Air. Their reasoning was that the engine had been purchased from contributions and town funds. When the purchase process was going on, subscriptions were solicited in the outlying districts of the county, but the offer was declined as people living in these areas felt it would be of no particular service to them. This order remained in place as least until October 14, 1921, when the large stable and shed on the Loker Property in Fallston was ablaze. Fear of the fire spreading to other buildings and reaching serious proportions prompted frantic calls to Bel Air for assistance from the Bel Air engine. Although the order was not to respond; respond they did, but arrived after the fire had subsided and was practically out.
On April 27, 1922, in the early morning hours a large fire broke out in Fallston. It destroyed the barn of Mr. Andrew Kelly and the barn and residence of Mr. Dennis Shanahan. The fire began in the hay mow of the Kelly barn and fanned by strong winds; sparks swept across the road and ignited the Shanahan barn. Soon the Shanahan residence was aflame. The fire company responded but could do little except check the flames when it got to the woods and started towards neighboring buildings. This fire and the large loss of property conclusively proved that the need for some type of apparatus be available for county responses. The fire company apparatus had responded but could do little good as it had no means to draft and pump a hose. Many of the company members believed that even a small stream of water from an adjacent well or stream would have made it possible for them to save the Shanahan residence.