They say it takes a village, but here in Key West it took one especially dogged firefighter 20-some years, half a million dollars in funding and a community of supporters to open the Key West Firehouse Museum.
Decommissioned in 1998 after almost a century of active service, the historic stone building that for decades served as Key West’s Fire Station No. 3 was slated for demolition and redevelopment before retired firefighter Alex Vega stepped in. A historian and writer himself, Vega brought a unique vision to the property, adamant of its potential to be more than a future spot for condominiums or parking spaces.
Having survived hurricanes, picket lines, alterations to its form and the transition from horse-drawn carriage to motorized truck, the building — a pale stone fortress fronted by two enormous, steamer-sized Palladian doors — also contained what Vega believed to be one of the last three remaining firehouse coal pits in the nation, evidence of a bygone era during which, in perfect irony, the successful operation of a steam engine-powered firetruck required the very thing that it was built to extinguish.
After a successful campaign to preserve Fire Station No. 3 as a relic and museum, friends and fans began sending Vega all manner of artifacts they felt might find a permanent home at the new Firehouse Museum. Some were small, such as old hose nozzles, helmets and bits of memorabilia. Some were rare, such as the collection of Cuban firefighter memorabilia now believed to be unique across the nation, or the piece of a fallen World Trade Center tower that New York firefighters brought with them during a visit in 2012. Perhaps the most obvious — and beloved by both children and historians — is the genuine 1929 firetruck that now serves as the centerpiece for the museum’s collection.
It wasn’t until 1736 that American Founding Father and chronic overachiever Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia. (Fortuitous, given his later penchant for flying kites during lightning storms.) At the time, firefighting, though valued as heroic, was performed on a volunteer basis only. Funds collected from fire insurance payouts were used to maintain the various volunteer corps, whose members enjoyed elite social status amongst the general public.
Different insurance companies gave funding to whichever preferred fire brigade they favored, a system that, over time, led to dysfunction and corruption. The system was set up so that families could pay fire insurance companies in advance for protection, and displayed proof of such by mounting above the entrance to their home a specialized fire insurance “mark,” which consisted of a metal plate emblazoned with the insignia of their particular insurance firm.
If, when firefighters arrived to a home ablaze, they were unable to determine whether the property was protected by an insurance company, the home was left to burn, or worse; indeed, sometimes arriving firemen would loot the home of any valuables while the property burned, with the knowledge that no money for their brigade would be earned from the fire otherwise. Some insurance companies went so far as to offer bonus payouts to whichever truck arrived at the scene first.
This competition developed into an atmosphere of violence and sabotage amongst the various volunteer corps, and firemen began to arm themselves with guns and knives before responding to a fire, anticipating a street fight with any competitive brigade arriving at the same time. The problem was exacerbated when local criminal gangs began to take sides; a single confrontation between opposing Baltimore fire brigades in 1856 resulted in the deaths of seven firemen.
It wasn’t until the mid-1850s that the first city-paid fire departments began to emerge, and with them, an entirely new way of fighting fires within a community; the idea that a firefighter brigade could, thanks to being funded by a city versus any individual insurance company, be impartial, set into motion a new wave of civil, professional firefighting. Equal treatment became (for the most part) available to residents of a town regardless of their ability to pay for fire insurance, and the rise of what we recognize as the modern-day firehouse — and intrepid firefighter — truly began to take root. Firefighters became, once again, highly regarded heroes inside their communities, and evidence of looting and other unsavory practices became more and more uncommon.
By the 20th century, specialized training programs were developed to ensure firefighters were prepared to face a diverse series of environments, as well as additional responsibilities regarding lifesaving. The expansion of the latter programming resulted in the establishment of paramedicine, which today encompasses the entire emergency medical services branch of health care.
When it opened in 1875, the Key West Fire Department boasted a paid staff of 12 men and a volunteer corps of 200 (not including the many horses necessary to pull the department’s steam engines around town). It would be another 42 years until Key West’s fire stations would become completely motorized, save one steamer kept in reserve at Fire Station No. 3. When lack of city funding caused the majority of the department to go on strike in 1931, only Station No. 3 remained open and in service. Though its firemen were paid in woefully undervalued WPA scripts rather than money, the brigade remained open and dedicated to protecting the citizens of Key West throughout the entirety of the Great Depression.
Today, the Key West Fire Department is renowned as one of the best in the state. It is currently one of only 178 fire departments nationwide to receive a Class 1 rating, a designation awarded by the Insurance Services Office to those fire departments whose suppression division is able to provide residents of a community with the lowest possible fire insurance costs (no fire marks needed).
The Key West Firehouse Museum exists alongside its modern counterpart to offer visitors a glimpse into the past, with a variety of fascinating exhibits on early firefighting apparatuses, alarm systems, replicas of its original living quarters and horse stalls, and a particularly unusual galvanized steel fireman’s pole. The museum also exhibits a record of each Key West Fire Department chief dating back to the 1800s, including the infamous Joseph “Bum” Farto, whose mysterious disappearance in 1976 remains unsolved today.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with admission set at $10 and children under 12 free (with discounts to locals and firefighters, of course). Tucked away in a sleepy residential neighborhood, it is the perfect place to spend a quiet afternoon exploring one of Key West’s most historic and fascinating buildings.
To learn more, visit www.keywestfirehousemuseum.com. ¦