Department History

Every boy, at one time or another, grows up wanting to be a fireman.

In this day and age even young girls can dream of becoming a firefighter without the fear of being discriminated against.

Perhaps the spark for such a dream was the sight of an awesome fire truck parked in its bay at the station at the time of a class outing and later seen racing down the street with siren blaring.  Maybe it was because of a fire truck and firemen coming to the school for fire safety week.  It could well have been being read to from a favorite book by a parent.

It was only natural that one would want a toy fire truck for Christmas so to foster playful thoughts as to what it must really be like.  If one was a good boy one might get such a truck; and only good boys grew up to be firemen.

One of this writer’s favorite memories of firemen is recalled and relived each year on the Fourth of July.  There is something so very special when one sees the line of sparkling fire engines leading the parade down Main Street and out to Riverside Park, right behind the VFW.  Instead of racing to a fire the vehicles appear to be in slow motion, giving one time to marvel at their size, complexity, sense of potential power in fighting any devouring flames and a vision of the waving firemen coming to the rescue of those unable to escape them.

Sirens blare and horns honk as emergency lights flash.  It is almost like mobile and street-level display of the fireworks later that same day at Riverside Park.

But there is an added feature which, although simple in nature, creates an added dimension to such memories.  It is the American flag attached to the vehicle.  The combination of patriotism and public service on the part of the firefighters may not be consciously noted in one’s youth but it is immediately obvious years later and now most poignant since the horrific day of 9-11 and as to how our lives where changed when so many firemen lost theirs.

When a lad or lassie dreams of becoming a firefighter it is almost all about the excitement of racing off to the scene of the fire.  And, at one time, that was about all the firemen did.  They were all volunteers and when an alarm was sounded they scrambled from their jobs or homes and raced to the shed where the pumper was stored and pulled it to the scene of the fire, hoping that a source of water would be found nearby.

Watertown firefighters are no longer volunteers simply putting out fires but now are highly trained to deal with the complexities and risks of all kinds of hazards, fire-related and otherwise, to implement the doctrine that the best way to fight fires is to prevent them, to attempt every possible rescue under every conceivable scenario and to administer aid and treatment as emergency medical personnel, be it at the scene of an incident or a medical emergency in one’s home.

How did the Fire Department evolve from a group of well-intentioned volunteers with limited resources and responsibilities to a highly trained and organized department of dedicated professionals on call for any and all emergencies that might arise?

This history will attempt to document this transition over time of the Watertown Fire Department.  Particular emphasis is placed on the early years and on those whose dreams of becoming a fireman became reality.

The writing of this history was significantly assisted by my very good friends, Ben Feld and Bill Jannke.  I was able to freely draw upon their collections of notes, clippings and images gathered over the years as well as their personal recollections relating to the Watertown Fire Department.  They were most generous to share that which is rightfully theirs.

Ken Riedl

 

1863 First Settlement

In 1836, when Andrew Jackson was serving his second term as the seventh president of the United States, Yankee pioneer Timothy Johnson embarked upon explorations in the Midwest that would eventually lead him to Watertown.  He had come to Racine from the East in 1835, then left there in January of 1836 to begin his explorations.  He traveled to the area just south of Janesville to check out a new community there.  From there he went south to the Rockford area, and then traveled north back up the Rock River to modern-day Jefferson County.

He explored extensively in the Jefferson, Lake Mills, and Johnson Creek areas and built a cabin near Jefferson.  When he came to the Watertown site he found abundant natural water power and decided it was the most desirable of all the places he had explored and immediately made a claim to 1,000 acres.  The site of the settlement was known as Johnson’s Rapids, the precursor to the village and then city of Watertown.

In the beginning the first settlers built crude huts and shanties; they could hardly be called cabins and certainly not homes.  The Native Americans had to accept the imposition along with the will and way of the intruding white man.

First Engine House

J. P. Holland, in his 1907 article on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the department (The Watertown Fire Department – A Sketch) states that “the first engine house was located in a building which stood on the north side of Main Street bridge known later as the Miller building, removed by the flood of 1881.”

Although no confirmation of this could be found it is assumed to be the case that what we will call the first engine house was located on the Main Street bridge, above the river, about as close to a source of water as one can get.  Most likely, this first “fire station” was no more than a temporary parking space within an existing commercial building on the bridge, at which time such structures were located on both the north and south sides of the bridge.

Beginning in March of following year, 1858, one starts to see in the Accounts Payable portion of the Minutes of the Common Council monthly payments approved in the amount of $7.00 and made to Jacob Jussen for “rent on an engine house.”

We will see later, in the 1863 section of this history, that documentation shows the first fire bell was brought to the city from the battlefields of the Civil War and installed at the top of the building at West Main Street owned by Thomas Brooks.  Brooks was located at 220 West Main and one assumes that this building housed the pumper at that time.

By 1865 the fire department would have a building of their very own, built by the city, on South First Street.

Proceedings of the Common Council

By Aldermen O’Byrne: Resolved, That the Aldermen of each ward be and they are hereby authorized to receive the names of volunteers between the age of 15 and 50 years, to be organized into a Fire Engine Company, for one week after notice given in the public papers, and report the same to the Common Council, and that the Council select from such list the names of 70 persons, to be organized into Fire Engine Company, No. 1.

Adopted.                                                              Watertown Democrat, 12 31 1857

For more information please visit www.watertownhistory.org

Riedl, Ken with Feld, Ben and Jannke, William. Watertown Fire Department 1857-2007. Watertown, WI: Hometown Series of Publications, 2007. Print.