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Cartwright, Carol Lohry; Shaffer, Scott; Waller, Randal / City on the Rock River : chapters in Janesville's history
(1998)

7. Government,   pp. 129-146


Page 140

Fire Department
One of the most important city government services is fire protection, but the development of an
adequate and professional fire department in Janesville was a long and arduous process. Prior to
1850, the only fire-fighting forces in the city of Janesville were volunteer bucket brigades. But
these bucket brigades were helpless against large fires. As the city of Janesville filled with
substantial industrial and commercial buildings, it became apparent that a more advanced fire-
fighting force was needed in the city. (Sheridan 1989:1-3)
A makeshift fire company, the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, organized by some
businessmen in 1850, was the first formal fire fighting organization in the city. But with a
homemade engine, they were about as effective as the old bucket brigades. In 1853, the need for
a vastly improved fire-fighting system was made clear when the makeshift hook and ladder
company and the bucket brigades proved ineffective against a hotel fire: they could do little
more than watch the building bum down. (Sheridan 1989:1-3)
After the formation of city government in Janesville in 1853, the city became involved in the
formation and equipping of volunteer fire companies. In 1855, the city organized two fire
companies, the Rock River Engine Company No. 1, located on the west side of the river, and the
Water Witch Company No. 2, on the east side of the river (locations not extant). In the
nineteenth century, fire companies were prestigious and colorful, with interesting names,
unusual uniforms, and the atmosphere of a social club. Fires were a spectator sport, with the
fire companies providing part of the entertainment. (Sheridan 1989:3-7)
To control crowds at fires, and to expand the opportunity to be a part of the fire department, the
Sack Company No. 1 of fire police was organized in 1855. Many members of the fire police were
prominent businessmen, and the group held dances, banquets, and raised money for charity.
Another fire company organized in 1856, the Eagle Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. It was
housed in an outbuilding of the Hyatt House Hotel (not extant). Despite this progress in fire
fighting ability, the Rock County Courthouse was destroyed when it caught fire in 1859.
(Sheridan 1989:7-8)
At the beginning of the Civil War, Janesville lost some of its best fire fighters when these men
formed the Janesville Fire Zouaves and went off to war. This resignation left the already
inadequate fire department even weaker. The shortcomings of the fire department and its
equipment were evident during the Hyatt House Hotel fire in 1867. The fire destroyed the
landmark building, killing an occupant and razing one of the most significant buildings in the
community. As a result, the city decided to purchase a steam fire engine in 1868. After testing
two engines, the city decided to purchase them both, one for each fire company. (Sheridan
1989:11-16)
The Hyatt House fire, 1867. Engraved view.
Government
140


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