Since 1897, the fire protection services for Hamilton and the surrounding area have been provided by the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department and the volunteer firefighters that have donated countless hours to the organization.
The first few years of the department were a struggle. An early attempt to create a volunteer fire-fighting force in 1893 ended unsuccessfully, and it was not until 1897 that an active fire department became a reality. A Western News article from 1896 stated the first attempt included folks who “exhibited a spirit of negligence in their work” and who were “suspected of a lack of interest”. The new company formed with D.D. Bishop as the Fire Chief, F.M. Lockwood as the Assistant Chief, H.M. Smith, George Butler and W.P. O’Brien as fire Captains. There were 25 members of the original department, very similar to the members of today’s 30 volunteer department. Regular training nights were scheduled for every Friday evening and fines were imposed on those who did not make the meetings or fire calls. The minutes from 1898, indicated one firefighter was fined 50 cents for not making it to a fire. The department had an “apparatus” and fire hose, but the news article asked for donations of lumber to build an “incline” on which to dry the hose after use. It was in 1898 that the department voted to organize and hold a Firemen’s Ball on Thanksgiving Eve as a fund raiser, and that tradition continued for 98 years. The fire department requested and occasionally battled with the early day city council for funding according to news articles of the times. The department budget for 1917 was $450 from the City of Hamilton.
The influenza epidemic of 1918 hit the fire department as it did everyone else. The secretary’s minutes from that year state the no meetings were held in November and December “on account of the flu”. The Depression was also a difficult time for the fire department. A 1934 treasurer’s entry showed a department balance of $5.30 at that time. After the Valley Mercantile fire in 1936, the department secretary, Ed Marx, recorded that written claims had to be submitted by firemen whose clothing and shoes were damaged fighting the mercantile fire. Marx served the department for 47 years, retiring in 1960. During World War Two and the Korean War the department continued to carry the members who served in the armed forces on the department roster, acknowledging the greater service to their country as a good reason for missing department meetings and fires. The department continues this practice in the present day.
Over the decades, the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department has been called upon many times for significant large fires such as the Hamilton Flour Mill fire in 1917, the Ravalli Hotel fire of 1919, the Talbot and Sullivan Mill fire in 1940, the Anaconda Company Mill in 1946, and the disastrous Valley Mercantile fire on March 5th, 1936. The Valley Mercantile fire in 1936 was the second time the mercantile had burned; another serious fire in the Valley Mercantile happened in 1910. The 1936 fire gutted half a city block on Hamilton’s Main Street and caused $80,000 worth of damage. The Valley Mercantile was on the southwest corner of Main and 2nd Street. Volunteer fireman Ed Marx, who was a mercantile employee in 1936, reported the fire started in the boiler room. “We had to work very hard to keep the fire from spreading to the Haigh Building and the Liberty Theater”. Marx recalls “the cement wall facing the alley was the only thing that saved Joe Haigh’s building”. Over the years the department and firefighters have dealt with massive property damage and death. The most costly fire in terms of human lives happened in 1965 when a four year old boy that was playing with a candle caused a fire that led to the death of his parents and two sisters.
By the mid-sixties the fire department was expanding its life-saving equipment and training, working on vehicle extrication as well as standing by at vehicle accident scenes. A 1966 report tells of the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department using its new rescue saw to free four teenagers from a one-car accident where their vehicle crashed into a tree on the outskirts of Corvallis. Three of those young people unfortunately did not survive.
The Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department has had its lighter moments as well. A 1960 news article chronicles the birth of five kittens to a female cat in a storage compartment of a fire truck as it was on its way to a fire. The report stated the kittens and mother cat were given a comfortable non-mobile-home in the fire hall after the fire was extinguished.
The largest fires in recent history are the historic Downing Building fire in February of 1985 and the Riverbend Athletic Club fire in June of 2003. The Downing Building was a two story structure that caught fire about 10:00 PM and the members of the fire department battled through the night to save the 100 block of Main Street from total destruction. Every valley fire department mobilized that night in a well-planned mutual aid deployment to aid the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department in battling the blaze. The Riverbend Athletic club caught fire on June 16th, 2003 completely burning the business to the ground resulting in a 2 million dollar loss. The Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department battled this blaze into the early morning hours of the 17th, again receiving mutual aid assistance from other valley fire departments.
With community support, constant training, improved equipment and dedicated volunteers, the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department is ready to serve and meet the needs of Hamilton and the surrounding community into the 21st century.