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History of the Derry Volunteer Fire Company

Little did H. Johnson Neil Realize back in 1889 when he proposed the formation of a volunteer fire company to fellow members of the Derry Borough Council than an organization would evolve into the modern municipal fire service of today as represented by the Derry Volunteer Fire Department.

Neil then a 35 year old merchant and prominent community civic leader, upon being elected to town council, brought to the attention of the governing body the need for a need for a trained volunteer fire service. The borough, which had experienced a period of rapid growth, recorded a number of serious structure fires during those early years.

Derry’s development was accelerated by the location of a major servicing terminal here by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The influx of the railroad personal brought about the construction of many boarding houses and hotels, several of these of substantial size.

Neil’s suggestion met with favor and he was encouraged to head the efforts leading to the organization of the borough fire company. He gathered together six interested townsmen to lay the organizational groundwork. The founding group included Lawrence A. Fisher, D. Loy Shirley, George H. Henderson, James M. Leaf, Herman Horner and James F. Conley, their efforts lead to the formation of the Derry Volunteer Fire Company.

Neil not only provided the impetuous leading to the establishment of the Fire Company, he also gave financial backing. In recognition of his organizational efforts, he would become the town’s first fire chief. Neil held the position until 1900 and continued an active role for many years thereafter.

It is ironic that a large commercial building erected by Neil at the corner of East Second and North Chestnut Streets, later known as the Lattanzio building, would be destroyed by in 1967 in one of the largest fires in the borough’s history. It was only through the diligent firefighting efforts of the department he founded, with the assistance from neighboring fire units, the adjacent buildings were spared and loss of the greater proportions prevented.


Bucket Brigades Utilized

Prior to the formation of the municipal fire company, the community, first in the Derry Township Village of Derry Station and later incorporated borough, relied on the efforts of the general populace to do battle with fires. And all too often their efforts met with failure and total property loss.

Lacking a public water system in the town’s infancy, fire extinguishment was limited to bucket brigades with wells and streams providing the water source, with the completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad through Westmoreland County in 1852, acombination freight and passenger station was erected and the stop called Derry Station. This gave rise over the years to the most prominent railroad town in the county. By the 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 the many servicing and administrative structures.

Railroad officials and other workers provided the manpower to combat fires on railroad property, the town folk 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 remained the means of getting water on the fire.


Even in its infancy, Derry had a most effective signal. At the first cry of fire , a railroad worker would begin blasts on a the nearest locomotive whistle, as other railroaders picked up on the signal, soon locomotives working about the yards and at the engine house joined in a steady increasing blare heard for miles about.


Town Fire Whistle

Use of locomotive whistles to sound the alarm continued until 1909 when town council authorized the Fire Company to purchase a whistle to be used as the exclusive fire call. The whistle had its own distinct sound alternating between high and low pitches so as to be distinguished from locomotive whistle signals. Originally a steam whistle, it was later converted to air.

The introduction of a telephone system speeded up the process of alerting the Fire Company in pre-telephone days it was necessary to get word to the railroad engine house, the location of the whistle, to sound the alarm. This usually resulted in a delayed response by firemen. Later with the establishment of a central telephone exchange calls were taken by the operator, who in turn, would notify the engine house clerk’s office. Telephone operators continued to take fire calls until the introduction of the dial system in Derry in 1938. The central office ceased using operators and a fire alarm center was established at the railroad’s DR tower.

For some 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 by the neighboring borough and since then 911 emergency system of Westmoreland County has received fire calls with alarm activation by electronic tone signals.

The original fire whistle would be relocated in the early 1950’s form the engine house as the railroad closed down all servicing facilities in Derry to the Westinghouse Corporation plant it remained in service until giving away to an electronic siren in recent years. An electronic siren was added the fire alarm system in 1967 to augment the old reliable whistle.

With the completion of the town water system and the availability of hydrants. The railroad hand pumper passed from the scene, the date and its fate unknown. In its place, a large two-wheeled house cart was placed in use at the PRR engine house.

The cart, believed to have been assembled by local railroad personal, utilized wagon wheels of large diameter. The cart carried several hundred feet of two and half inch hose, a number of nozzles, ax and other basic fire equipment. A large heavy adder also of handmade workmanship complimented the cart.


PRR Fire Unit Formed

An informal railroad under the command of the Chief Ford organized which would later come into hostility with the borough fire contingent. Although primarily formed to combat railroad property fires, the engine house crew responded to town fires and for a time this created no problem with the newly formed borough volunteers, the PRR Company remained a contributor to Derry’s fire protection until 1919 when a simmering feud brought about town council action virtually restricting the railroaders to PRR property.

The railroaders were accused of delaying the sounding of the town fire call location at the engine house in order to give their company a head start to the fire seen to “claim” the nearest hydrant.

Council ordered the railroad company not to respond to town fires unless called to assist by the municipal company. The last know response was in 1924 for a blaze which destroyed the Baptist Church located on west Second Avenue near Hays St. The PRR fire cart can now be viewed in the fire Department Museum.

Under the leadership of the industrious Chief Neal, the newly organized Derry Company went about the business of building a substantial membership roster and acquiring firefighter equipment.

Much of this early company history is unknown. With the passage of time the founding members have long been deceased and most of the form the formative years became lost. However , form the few records preserved, history gained form recorded recollections of era fireman and newspaper articles, the birth and maturity of the borough volunteer fire service can be traced, although somewhat sketchy.

Somewhere along the century existence of the fire Company the founding year erroneously became established as 1892, three years later than the true date. This historical error was only borough to light in 1987 with the revelation of an article published June 91939, in the Latrobe bulletin pertaining to the 50 th Anniversary of the company. The article not only fixed the year as 1889,it also gave a first-hand insight into dedication and perseveration of Derry’s pioneer volunteer firefighters.


Early Days recalled

Reminiscesing on the company’s first 50 years in the newspaper article, the late Lawrence Fisher, one of the original founders and first secretary, said that it was decided to build up membership to 16 men residing on each side of the railroad. Within a short time 32 men were enrolled under the command of Chief Neal, making, the first full personnel of the Derry Fire company.

Physical stamina was the prime requirement for the volunteers of that by-gone era. The task of running at full speed with the heavy, bulky carts, particularly with the streets in town, and then to begin fire extinguishment once at the scene was a demanding one requiring great physical effort Fisher described the selection possess for company membership. Muscle and brawn were the prime necessities and members were selected with that in view.

While the recruitment of members met with rapid success, the acquiring of equipment was more difficult chore. Funds were not plentiful even for such a cause a cause. Town council, although lading moral support, provided little in the way of monetary help

Fisher described the infant organization’s financial plight. Nobody was interested in giving money to firemen. They had great difficulty in getting council to purchase 250 feet of hose. Even after becoming established, Fisher recalled the hard times raising funds needed to keep the company in operation.

But the determined firemen overcame the money obstacle. Along with a loan from Chief Neil, they successfully raised funds to purchase a hose cart, house and other needed tools and equipment. All variety of fund-raising projects were undertaken, including sponsorship of local appearances of traveling shows and entertainment troops. The annual firemen’s street festival would soon become the yearly major summer social event for the town.

The first station was located on South Chestnut Street near the present Dollar General. The Derry Fire Company was now operational with a century of community service to follow. A second hose cart was added shortly thereafter.

Even with the crude fire equipment of 1889, the firefighters took great pride in their efficiency. Fisher recalled one of the early alarms, a shed fire on South Ligonier Street. They made the two block run and had water on the fire only four and a half minutes after the sounding of the alarm. Even today that is considered a fast response.


First Uniforms Colorful

During the 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 colorful firemen’s uniform traditional in that time. The shirt consisted of red flannel with a large brass buttoned bib of yellow flannel on which were large letters “DFC” it was worn at company and community events. On his death in 1900 Samuel A. Wadsworth described as one of the most enthusiastic members, was buried in fireman’s uniform.

A change of 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 state convention parade in Altoona. Some 24 members accompanied by the local Fire And Drum Corps paraded, making the trip by train.

This was the first of many state convention parade a presences by the company in the ensuring years traveling as far as east York. The trips would be made by train and trolley car as the early mode of travel. Derry became a member of the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association in 1897. The company would later become a charter member of the Westmoreland Count Firemen’s Association formed in 1938.

For a period of time, the hand-pulled hose cart reels were augmented by large horse-drawn wagons. The first made its appearance around 1895 a hose wagon. This rig enabled firemen to carry large quantity of hose over the hand carts and also provided a more speedy response to distant fire location. The “modernization” movement continued when in 1897 the company added a ladder wagon handmade by Albert Shean, a blacksmith and company member.


Rig pride of Company

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. Drawn by two horses, the fire wagon carried two ladders, hose and several firemen.

A borough-owned building at West Second and North Chestnut Streets served as the newest fire house with the introduction of horse-drawn apparatus. The Kearney Livery Stable nearby quartered the fire horses. Company meeting took place in a second floor room. The old station was demolished when Westinghouse expanded the plant employee parking lot.

The late John C. Cullen, who joined the company in 1901, described the efficiency of the volunteers in responding to alarms during the horse era. Upon sounding of the fire alarm, the horses were trained to quickly back into the station and harnesses suspended from the ceiling drooped for hitching. In matter of minutes the rigs were ready to roll.

The horses were only used for pulling the fire wagons as they would prance and become excited upon hearing the fire alarm. For that reason, the animals could not be used for the usual wagon and buggy trade. Horses continued to be used unit about 1914.

The galloping horses puling the fire rigs in response to alarms can still be recalled by some town elders. It was one of the more dramatic eras of the company and at times it provided a dangerous one to the volunteers. The rigs had no brakes and on one or mere occasion overturned rounding corners. The horses provided difficult to control in their fire-run excitement.


1914 End of Era

Although the exact date of the demise of horse-drawn equipment unknown it would appear that around 1914 the Fire Company elected to solely 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 and the hose wagon remained with the company for occasional appearances until about 1950. Due to tits deteriorated condition the rig found its way to the scrap yard, the last remembrance of a by-gone era of firefighting in Derry passed away from the scene.

With the return to hose carts, company membership again was divided into a two-unit organization. Firemen form the north side of the tracks manned the reel location at the Second Street Location. 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 fired during the early years. Among those given mention in company records include destruction of the Shear Hotel in 1895. Keffer Flour mill and adjacent house on Second street in 1899 and 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 March 14 1916 causing damages in excess of $21,000 and damaged adjacent warehouse.


Motor Truck Purchase

Derry’s first interest in moving onto the era of motorized fire equipment came in may of 1912 when a committee was assigned to “find out priced and different kinds of automobile trucks.” Six years transpired before a committee of three members was appointed 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, the Fire Company purchased its first motor engine, a Howe Triple Combination built on a Model T Ford Chassis. Borough council contributed $1,000 toward the cost of $3,470.

With the growth of the company, the need to expand the membership resulted in opening of the roster to allow for membership of 75, 25 from each of the existing three wards. On September 23 1920, 32 new members were accepted, a record that still stands today.

Talk with the borough council began in 1913 as to the need for a new fire station. The town solons were approached in 1914 to lease a borough-owned lot on Second Avenue For 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 it one is purchased. With the arrival of the Howe pumper in October, 1921, a shanty-type frame building on the borough lot on East Second Avenue Served as engine quarters.


Municipal Building Reality

Continued fore company efforts leading toward new fire quarters finally moved into action and in 1929 the borough and 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 Second 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 added 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.

Firemen again became interested in purchasing a fire truck in 1927 a after experiencing problems with their Howe pumper. The 1921 engine with its hose load and when carrying manpower lacked power for Derry steeper hills at times the truck had to be operated in reverse to climb hilly streets.


Larger Pumper Purchased

At a meeting May 7, 1929, the company awarded a bid to American LaFrance for a type92 pumper with a 600-gallon-per-minnute capacity at a cost of $8,750 less $1,000 trade-in on the Howe truck. Delivery came in August.

That purchase proved to be a wise one. For 40 years the American LaFrance saw service and most of the time as the “first out” engine. It proved its dependability in 1952 pumping several hours’ consecutive hours at the Derry Township High School Fire.

The company’s third truck purchase came in 1939 with the addition of an international 500-gallon-per-minute pumper acquired at a cost of $6.822. the newest apparatus gave the company much needed house carrying capacity and eliminated the need of maintaining reels for supplying additional hose when required at fire scenes, in addition , the International carried a full complement of ladders up to 55-feet in length. With two pumpers in service, an S&S Ambulance of 1927 vintage followed in 1940 servicing an equipment and personal carrier.

During the war years of 1941 to 1945 the Fire Company provided the foundation for building an effective community civil defense program. With the membership depleted due to the war service of younger members, auxiliary firemen augmented the regular ranks. Air raid drills were routine as were other CD preparedness exercises. Aside from the routine fire protection duties, the company membership contributed much time and effort to the various home-front patriotic efforts ranging from furnishing street patrols during residential solicitations for national causes to assisting in scrap metal drives. Civil defense was not taken lightly locally with the Pittsburgh area and Latrobe being on the known enemy target list.


Bridge Crash Most Serious

The most serious accident in the company history occurred in April of 1942 on a false alarm response to the Derry Township Village of Peanut. The international pumper responding to the late night alarm encountered an ice patch on the old overhead bridge. It failed to make the sharp turn and, instead, crashed through the inner pedestrian guard rails and finally came to rest with the front end hanging over the bride edge and East Second Street some 20 feet below. Ten firemen on board escaped injury.

Organized initially to serve the residents of the borough, the Fire Company’s response are would expand greatly in time to benefit 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 debut of Derry’s first motorized fire apparatus in 1921. The coverage area enlarged to include areas of the township immediately surrounding the borough.

The response area increased to further points in the township with the arrival of the larger American La France pumper in 1929. Soon the Derry firefighters would provide the 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 in short order would out-number the borough responses many times over. For 30 years the Derry volunteers provided exclusive service to this nearly 70 square mile area until the organization of departments in Bradenville and Eastern Derry Township.

A second development which influenced the service territory was the introduction and later expansion of the public telephone system. The Derry exchange enabled those residing in the out-of-town areas to place fire calls.


Alarms Surpass 200-mark

As the service territory increased, so did the frequency of alarms. In its infancy, the company responded to an occasional alarm and as the town and response grew services of the volunteers became more in demand. By the 1960’s Derry fire personal were responding to in excess of 100 alarms annually. This trend has continued upward and the Company responses now surpass 200 mark yearly, the record high for a year stands at 327.

Chief Neil and his fellow founding members could have never given thought in 1889, even in the wildest stretch of imagination; their effort would culminate in a fire force responding to hundreds of emergency situations a year nor of distances, frequently traveled in performance of those duties.

Alarms runs of many miles within the local service territory are common place as is mutual aid assistance to neighboring fire departments. Derry fire personal over the years have been called to such varied locations as Latrobe, Ligonier, Blairsville, Greensburg and Bolivar in response to assistance requests from area fire departments. The Johnstown flood of 1977 placed Derry on Stand-by crew and truck on duty in Armagh, Indiana County, for several days.

The Derry Volunteer Fire Department of today is equipped with a most modern and extensive array of gear and apparatus to meet the varied emergency conditions tot which firefighters are now called upon to respond. Whether the call to duty be for a structure conflagration, forest wild fire, highway accident with occupant entrapment, hazardous chemical spill or any over incident posing danger to life property, the department stands ready.

Newest apparatus of the company is a 1985 Pierce Pumper with a 750-gallon water tank acquired at a cost of $170,000 as equipped.

Other emergency vehicles currently in service include 1968 and 1976 pumpers, a combination pumper and rescue engine purchased in 1963 and refurbishes in 1982 equipped with extrication tool and air bags and a 1986 squad truck, which carries additional rescue equipment and salvage gear. All four pumpers are capable of high pressure fog application and boast a total volume water capacity of 4,000 gallons per minute.


Million Dollar Valuation

Total replacement cost of apparatus and auxiliary equipment required in providing Derry with the modern fire service is in access of one million dollars. The company’s annual operating budget approximates $40,000, reflecting the ever-increasing expenditures required to maintain the level of emergency service rendered to the citizens of the Derry Community. The generous support given by area residents over the years has aided greatly in providing apparatus and equipment required to carry out the Fire Company’s dedicated roll of service to the community in time of emergency, an annual mail solicitation for funds and weekly bingo provide the major source of revenue along with a yearly appropriation from Derry Borough Council and various other fund-raising projects. In contrast to present day sums required to maintain the company, minutes of the August 2 ,1905, monthly meeting reveal financial resources on hand as a mere $50.61.

A subsidiary organization of the company, the Derry Volunteer Firemen’s Relief Association, was established 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 while doing public fire duty.”

The following January 12 th, the first association officers were elected:

Ralph H. Lynn, President, Charles Kemp, Vice President; Robert M. Doty, Secretary, Albert C. Kells, Treasure; and Trustees George Sweeney, S.F Schwerdt, James R. Butler, Millard E. Lunnen a Clyde Mack.

Upon formation of the Relief Association a Relief Fund established in 1912 to service as a depository for state foreign fire insurance grants was dissolved and proceeds transferred to the newly created organization.

Over the 100-year span of the Fire Company existence, hundreds of members have filled the ranks; some for short intervals of time others for extended periods. Many have given their adult life to the fire service. Notable among those most dedicated of the volunteer firemen is James F Conley with a record 35-year in office as a president from 1900 to 1935.

Charles H. Cullen carried out the responsibilities of secretary for 27 years and nine months and, with only slightly less tenure, Jerome K. Fisher held the office of treasure for 27 consecutive Years. Samuel B. Piper devoted 23 years and nine months as fire chief. Clarence C. Deeds commanded the company as chief for 28 years (1937 – 1964) he is the longest tenure for fire chief.

The Derry volunteer Fire Company now enters into its second century of service. As it was in the beginning in 1889 Derry volunteer firefighters stand ready to serve their fellow citizens in time of emergency. The dedication to duty impaired by H. Johnson Neil and the Firefighters who followed over the 125-year span continues as commitment of service by today’s Fire Company members. The volunteer fire service in Derry remains a vital force for the good of the communitylunteer Fire Company

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