HISTORY OF THE THREE RIVERS FIRE DEPARTMENT
A map of the Village of Three Rivers during the boom of the Industrial Revolution. One of the many mills in the town of Palmer.
On Sunday January 7th, 1912, at 3:00 in the morning, a fire devastated Main Street. Three large buildings were involved creating a devastating conflagration, involving the Hartnett Block which housed the Quaboag Hotel, the recently constructed Circle Canadian Hall and the Dunn Block. Several other buildings, including two tenement houses and barn in the vicinity of the business area of the village, were also damaged or destroyed by the fire. Zero degree weather and high winds made extinguishing the fire extremely difficult. Amazingly there were no reported injuries or loss of life. Reports given and recorded in the Palmer Journal indicated the fire started in the general store of one L. L. Dupuis, which was situated on the ground floor of the newly constructed Circle Canadian Block. Based upon accounts and an investigation, it was surmised that the fire was likely started by burglars.
After the largest fire in the village’s history, the residents assembled and held a meeting at Ruggles Hall to indicate their wish for fire protection by forming their own fire district the week of April 24th, so such devastation that occurred on January the 7th would not happen again. Ruggles Hall was constructed in 1901 on the site of Silas Ruggles Homestead. The approximate location is that of Main and Prospect Streets where the Polish Lyceum resides today. The village met the requirement to have a minimum of one thousand inhabitants to form a fire district. The Town of Palmer’s selectman would be willing to assist in creating a special town meeting regarding the subject. Two members of the village Charles Ruggles and Fred Camerlin Jr. were tasked with finalizing what would be necessary to officiate the new fire district. “They should receive the hearty support and co-operation of all the property owners in order to speed on this much needed improvement.” (Palmer Journal: April 24, 1912)
On May 17th, 1912 the selectman of the Town of Palmer posted a warrant informing the residents of Three Rivers that there would be a meeting held at Ruggles Hall on Wednesday May 22nd at 7:00 pm regarding a vote for the proposed fire district.
“The purpose of the meeting is to decide whether a fire district shall be formed and if favorable action is taken, to elect a clerk and committees and to transact such other business as may properly come before the meeting. At this meeting the question of a fire district will be definitely settled. If one is organized it will be in the power of a majority of the voters to make such arrangements for fire protection as they see fit at their own cost. The money appropriated by the district from time to time will be assessed against the property in the district collected by the tax collector, as in the fire district of Palmer. What arrangements may be made with the mill company to furnish water to the district if pipes are laid east of the river is not yet known. The mill company will have to pay a generous portion of the cost of maintaining the district as all its property in this town will be within the new district.” (Palmer Journal: May 17, 1912)
At the special meeting of Wednesday May 22nd, the voters of Three Rivers unanimously voted in favor of creating the district named the Three Rivers Fire District within the boundaries prescribed in the warrant and established their own fire department. The meeting was called to order by the town Clerk J. F. Foley and moderated by John Wilson. Alfred F. Camerlin was elected the district’s first clerk and sworn in at the meeting. The voters decided that the fire department would consist of chief engineer, three assistants and 15 fireman. A committee was formed to determine the cost of fire protection, as well as the means and methods as to how to raise the funds required. This committee consisted of Charles S. Ruggles, John Wilson and Alfred F. Camerlin. Another committee was formed and appointed with the task of creating a ballot of candidates for the first election of a three member oversight board called the Prudential Committee, a treasurer, a chief engineer and three assistants for the fire department. “ Names of candidates are to be laced on the ballot on petition of five voters. Both committees are to report at a future meeting to be called by the clerk. The 15 firemen will be appointed by the board of engineers.” (Palmer Journal: May 24th, 1912)
Once the district was formed, there were many loose ends to be resolved. Committees were working to determine what needed to be done prior to the election of officials. Much speculation was talked about throughout the town, as to how the district would establish what was necessary to sustain its own fire protection. The following is an article from the Palmer Journal, dated May 31, 1912, a week after the district vote.
“The question whether the fire district which is to be formed will request that a portion of the town’s present fire fighting apparatus be located in this village has been heard a number of times, and there is no little speculation as to the course to be pursued, and the officials to petition. The district will have a house for its own apparatus, and there has been a suggestion that a request be made for the steamer here. With this suggestion comes the query how this could be accomplished. As the present location of the apparatus was decided by vote of the town and the building be erected especially for it, it is probable that a vote of the town would also be necessary to locate it permanently in some other place.
But so far as can be learned, there is no intention on the part of those interested in the formation of a fire district in making any such request. It appears to be the intention of the inhabitants of the district to furnish their own fire protection without calling on the balance of the town for help. The plan is to lay a line of pipes to sections not now protected, and install hydrants. It is then expected that arrangements will be made with the Palmer Mill Company for water in case of fire. The company is well equipped to do this with, having powerful fire pumps located within its plant. With such an arrangement the need for the steamer or auto truck will be very much less than at present.”
On June 10th, a meeting was held for the residents of the district for a demonstration of hydrants by the Chapman Valve Company of Indian Orchard, Massachusetts. It was also announced at this meeting that the first district elections by ballot would be held on Thursday, June 20th at Ruggles Hall. Those who wished to have their names on the ballot were instructed to consult with a member of the ballot committee before the Monday before the election.
On June 24th, the Palmer Journal reported on the meeting of the Three Rivers Fire District as follows,
“The first election of the fire district held last evening, resulted in the election of the following officers: Chief engineer, Charles S. Ruggles; assistants T. P. Prendergast, J. A. Paulin, H. A. Chalifoux; prudential committee, Joseph, Belanger, Peter Senecal, M. J. Sullivan Jr.; treasurer, John Wison; auditor, Paul Rollett. These appropriations were made: New water mains, $3800: alarm system, $1400: hose, reels and miscellaneous, $850: salaries, $150; total $6200. Of this amount $1000 will be paid from the taxes of the present year: bonds will be issued for the balance, to be paid in yearly installments of $1000. It was voted to install hydrants.”
On Thrusday, August 22, 1912, the Three Rivers Fire Department lost their first member. One Joseph A Paulin was killed from a fall off of staging in Three Rivers. He was the second assistant engineer of the department. His funeral was held that Sunday August 25th, observed by all the members of the department, as well as a large showing from the Palmer and Ware Fire Departments.
The contract for installation of the water mains and hydrants was awarded to John Bowes & Company of Cohoes, New York. On the morning of Tuesday September 10th, work began on the installation of the mains. The alarm system will be installed and also would be connected to the existing fire alarm system in Palmer. There will be seven boxes installed in this initial phase within the district, along with an alarm whistle installed on the Palmer Mill. All alarms from either district will sound the alarm; the first by the company of that district where the fire is, while the second would send both companies. A building is being erected near Ruggles Hall to house the apparatus (hose reel) and fire fighting supplies. “The new district has 1500 feet of hose, with nozzles, connections and appliances of various kinds to use with it. Its water mains are expected to furnish all the water needed without the use of a steamer. An auto truck would be useful, but there is no thought of buying one at present.” (Palmer Journal: September 13, 1912)
The first test of the fire alarm box system occurred on the afternoon of Tuesday October 15. The original system was located in Palmer Fire Department’s engine house. Palmer’s municipal fire alarm system had already been installed and running for some time. As a means of cost savings and to expedite the process, Chief Summers of the Palmer Fire Department agreed to let three rivers tie into their existing system. Palmer’s box numbers would be numbers below 100, while the boxes in Three Rivers would be numbered above 100. If a box was pulled in either district, the alarm would sound in both. If a situation occurred in Palmer, Three Rivers would be notified but not requested to provide mutual aid unless the box was struck a second time. The same would apply to an event in Three Rivers. In the Palmer Journal, dated October 18, 1912, this is the first notification that a mutual aid agreement was reached between Palmer and Three Rivers Fire Districts to assist each other with manpower and equipment if necessary.
“The fire alarm boxes of the new district have been installed and are numbered and situated as follows: 112, Main and pleasant streets, near French church; 114, Bourne street, near residence of A.F. Camerlin; 213, intersection of Main and Bourne streets, opposite residence of C. S. Ruggles; 214 business section, opposite St Jean hall; 411, Bridge and High streets, near M. E. Church; 312, Belchertown road, opp. Residence of C. J. Sugrue; 417, North street, opposite Palmer Mill’s new houses; 14, district fireman’s call.” (Palmer Journal: October 25th, 1912)
In 1916, The Three Rivers Fire Department purchased their first auto truck; an American LaFrance complete with chemical tanks and ladders.
The original Three Rivers municipal schoolhouse was constructed in 1859 and enlarged and improved in 1882. This structure served as the grammar school until the existing brick structure was built in 1908. With the function of a grammar school being relocated to a new structure, the original wood building was purchased by the Palmer Mill, relocated at the corner of Springfield and Bridge streets and renamed Pickering Hall in 1909. This became the social center for the village offering hot showers, a bowling alley, pool room and library. By 1913, Ruggles Hall had all but been abandoned as the public went to the newer Pickering Hall. A two story firehouse was constructed as an addition to Pickering Hall in 1917. It was attached to the east side of the structure and served as an engine house for the apparatus and equipment, as well as a meeting room on the second floor. A fire consumed the structure on April 23, 1926.
The French church and convent of St. Annes Catholic Parish caught fire and was a total loss in 1922. This would be the first of many incidents the parish would have to endure. Construction of the new church began in the spring of 1947 and was completed in 1949. On December 28, 1980, looters entered the church and stole the precious vessels made of gold. To cover up the crime, the looters set fire to the church. The church was rebuilt again in 1982, and the is the structure that exists today along Main Street, between Pleasant and Chalres Streets.
On April 23, 1926 a fire consumed Pickering Hall and the two story fire house. The fire engine was removed in time along with some of the equipment before the firehouse was consumed. The 1882 addition of Pickering Hall was saved and subsequently sold to one Frank Chudy, who lowered the building to ground level and covered the façade with brick creating Chudy’s Hardware Store. The Three Rivers Fire Department did not have a firehouse again for many years after the fire.
In 1933, the department traded in its original 1916 auto truck for a new vehicle. The department purchased a 1933 Mack BG Type 50 pumper with the following options:
Warning Signals: electric siren horn and locomotive bell.
Tool Box: one with complete tool kit, also ample equipment locker space (under hose bed).
Booster Equipment: 100 gal booster tank mounted in hose body, 150 feet 3/4 inch four ;ply rubber hose with shut off nozzle and 2 tips mounted on hose reel.
Ladders: Extension, 20 foot solid side rapid hoist. Roof, 12 foot solid side with folding hooks.
Suction Hose: two lengths 10 feet - 6 inches in length
Crowbar: One 8 pound steel crowbar with holder
Hose Bed Capacity: 1000 feet of 2 1/2 inch hose
Pike Pole: Regulation 10 foot pike pole
Axe: One fire department standard.
Lantern: One electric.
Extinguishers: Two 3-gallon, with hose and shut-off nozzle, complete with holders, one soda acid and one foam type.
Miscellaneous: One hydrant connection, one metal strainer for suction hose, two-play pipe cones or screw bases, one 2 1/2inch double male connection, one 2 1/2 inch double female connection
Engine: 6 cylinder, 80 brake horsepower, 3 5/8” bore with 5” stroke.
Brakes: Four wheel brakes actuated through vacuum booster.
Pump: 500 GPM rotary Hale pump.
This piece of apparatus is still owened and operated by the Three Rivers Fire District
This was the second major hurricane to hit the village of Three Rivers in record. In 1936, a hurricane hit much of New England, however it was not as devastating as that of the one of 1938. The 1938 “Great New England Hurricane” or the “Long Island Express,” as it is often called, made landfall on Long Island on September 21st as a category 3 hurricane. It was recorded that 99 people perished from the hurricane in Massachusetts alone. The eye of the storm followed the Connecticut River north to then impact Vermont and New Hampshire. The Connecticut River rose between six to ten feet above flood stage. In combination with 4 inches of rain that had fallen days before, an additional 6 inches of rain was produced by the hurricane causing extensive flooding.
The Ware River rampaged through the Thorndike area. The 75 year old covered bridge at Forest Lake, long a landmark, floated down stream and leaned against a lower bridge. The Church Street Bridge went out. At noon on Wednesday the loo-foot chimney of the No. 1 Thorndike Mill pitched into the water, which was nibbling away the building piece by piece. In the Three Rivers village bridges and roads collapsed; the center of town was flood-swept; 34 families lost everything they owned. (New England Hurricane,1938)
The photo below is of the fire station that was located along the Quaboag River and the Central Vermont Railway. This building was demolished and the tract of land where it once resided was reduced by the Army Corps of Engineers after the 1955 flood.
On August 18, 1955 Hurricane Diane made landfall and tracked over much of the East Coast. It is reported that the highest rainfall related to the storm of all the impacted areas was in Westfield, Massachusetts, at a rate of 19.75 inches. Damage in Massachusetts was the second worst impacted of all the affected states. The devistation and flooding surpassed that of the 1938 New England hurricane. The ensuing flood damaged much of the downtown area of Three Rivers due to the close proximity of the confluence three rivers to it. A major flood control project was conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, creating the landscape now visable today.
The present fire station and headquarters building was opened. The site of 50 Springfield Street shares its use with the original Three Rivers Schoolhouse, which was relocated and added onto, to create Pickering Hall.
Members of the Three Rivers Fire Department celebrate its 100th Anniversary at Pulaski Park.
The leadership of the Three Rivers Fire Department has been in the command of 10 chiefs from 1912 to 2015:
Charles Ruggles, Homer Chalifoux, Robert Blair, George Rogers, Charles Frydryk, Thomas McLaughlin, Evariste Coache, William Drawec, Patrick O’Connor, and the current Chief Scott A. Turner.
Chief Rogers served in this capacity the longest of any of the Chiefs, past and present, from 1927 to 1968, a term of 41 years.
Jane Golas: 1990 “Chronicle of the village of Three Rivers, History of Three Rivers, Mass”