Friday, February 10, 2012

Lehigh Hook and Ladder Company

The Grand Opera House and the Union Hall on 4th Street burned to ground in the middle of the night of October 7. 1884. The cause of the fire was never determined. There was no Hook and Ladder apparatus available in South Bethlehem at the time of the fire. The residents of the South Side decided it was time to remedy this problem and organized the Lehigh Hook and Ladder Company on November 24, 1884. They were ready for fire emergencies by December 10, 1884, when they acquired a hand-drawn hook and ladder truck. Temporarily the fire equipment was stored at the stable of H.C. Bachmans First Ward Hotel and then it was moved briefly to Lewis Levy’s store, on Broadway. Finally Bethlehem Borough council built the fire company a permanent fire hall at 217 Broadway in 1885. They remained at that location until the city phased out the company in the early 1970s.

The good citizens who formed the Lehigh Hook and Ladder Company were R.H. Sayre, Jr., President; William H. Rudolph, Vice-president; Milton S. Grim, Secretary; W.A. Wilbur, Treasurer; Frank Wynkoop, Fire Recorder; Milton H. Miller, Frank O. Lear and George O. Weaver, Trustees; Morris H. Schaffer, Foreman; William F. Anderson, Assistant Foreman; Charles H. Groman and Tillermen; Clinton H. Weiss.

The equipment known as a hook was a steel crook at the end of a wooden handle, six to twenty feet long. It was used to rip down ceilings to reach fire areas and to pull down burning structures. Hooks were also used to pull down houses the flames had not yet reached in order to create a fire-break.

In August of 1886, the Company received a horse-drawn hook and ladder wagon. Twelve leather water buckets hung from the bottom of the wagon. On November 5, 1895 Council supplied a new horse-drawn 75-foot Hayes Aerial Extension Ladder Truck. This truck had an aerial ladder that could extend as much as 85 feet in height. Four to six men could fully raise the telescopic ladder in less than 40 seconds by turning a crank. The aerial was mounted on a turntable, so the ladder could be swung around to the desired direction. It seemed that whoever could supply the horses became the driver. L.J. Bachman was the first driver who furnished two horses then Lewis Felker became the driver as he provided three horses. Typically, when a horse drawn wagon or truck reached the fire, the firemen released the horses to get them out of harms way. It was the firehouse dog’s responsibility to guide the horses to a safe place to wait until the fire was out.

The South Bethlehem community showed their support in various ways for the brave men of the Lehigh Hook and Ladder Company. In 1887, the Bethlehem Iron Company presented the Company with a safe. Johnson A. Yerkes, a local artist and member of the Company donated his painting of the burning of the coke works to the firehouse, which he had painted in 1855. The 1854 destruction of the coke works may have been the first recorded fire in South Bethlehem. The painting was displayed in the fire hall until the Company was dissolved. The Kemerer Museum, at 427 N. New Street has the painting in their collection, along with a helmet, badges, and an elaborate 4-by-6-foot wooden frame that holds 54 photographs of members of the Lehigh Hook and Ladder Company in 1887.

In 1891 the borough installed a Gamewell Fire Alarm System. It utilized the South Bethlehem telegraph system to pinpoint the location of a fire alarm. Alarm stations were set up through out South Bethlehem, which could trigger a 2075-pound bell that was hung in the tower of the Liberty Company’s fire hall on Vine Street. The Borough also maintained a supplementary alarm of a large whistle located at the South Bethlehem Brewery. Gamewell still manufactures fire alarm systems today but with more sophisticated technology such as fiber-optic cable.

In 2004 the South Bethlehem Historic Commission approved plans presented by George Kline for the renovation of the old Lehigh Hook & Ladder Company’s 2-½ story building. Kline owned the old fire hall that his company, Bethlehem Sporting Goods, used as a warehouse. With this approval, Kline cleaned and repointed the bricks, restored the windows, replaced the roof and recreated the old fire hall doors. Kline received a $30,000 BEAR grant (Blight Elimination and Abatement Response) and a $60,000 facade loan from the city of Bethlehem to complete the work on the 8,000-square-foot building. Kline did such a fine job at restoring the old fire hall that as you pass the building you expect the bell to ring and the doors to swing open for a horse powered hook and ladder wagon to exit the building. You look for fire fighters with axes and bullhorn-like trumpets all wearing wool Civil War-style uniforms with red wool shirts, rubber slickers, leather helmets and knee-high leather boots. The building is now the site of The Firehouse, a bar and restaurant.


  1. I have read you blog, your blog is very attractive and much informative I think you are a great Artist...I have got so many tip about painting from your blog,you are doing a great job thanks for sharing.keep it up,
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  2. Karen, Once again, you have picked a point in our local past and breathed life into it. I loved your post and all the stories you write at the BP. You are a treasure to the LV.