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History of the Vigilant Hose Company

As many in the greater Emmitsburg community already know, our local all-volunteer fire department, the Vigilant Hose Company (VHC) has been proudly celebrating its 125th Anniversary Year. A number of public events since the beginning of the 2009 have recognized this milestone - something certainly worthy of celebrating. The Emmitsburg News-Journal along with all its predecessor newspapers over the decades have featured coverage of nearly all aspects of the community's fire department. Those stories included tragic consequences of fire, vehicle accidents, severe storms, dramatic rescues, and the like along with achievements of fire personnel, the Auxiliary, Fire-Police and youth programs, too.

With the theme of "community service and volunteerism," open to the public, the VHC will conduct station tours both before and following an official 125th anniversary celebration program and facilities expansion / renovation dedication ceremony. The organization's history is a proud story of the many people, both men and women, who have devoted untold years of blood, sweat and tears - literally - toward keeping the community and its environs safe from fires, emergencies of all kinds and even major disasters, too.

Click on photo for large version - Date of photo - Approximately 1929

Front Row left to right: John Hoke, M.F. Shuff, Jimmy Martin, Sam Ohler, Jerry Rowe, Dave Frailey, Joe Motter, Juleit Rowe, Helen Frailey, Charles Edward Rowe, F.S.K. Mathews, Charles Hoke, Clarence Frailey, Tom Fitez

Back Row left to right: Ward Kerrigan, George Wilhide, Vince Topper, Hub White,
John Mentzer, Roy Bollinger, Chic Rowe, Frank Shuff, Charlie Bushman, Dr. Martin,
George A. Ohler, Roy Wagerman, Irvin Brown, Earl Eyler, Jim Wagerman,
George Ashbaugh, Doher Eyler, Lewis Kugler, Frank Rowe, Lowis Rosensteel,
John Hollinger, Ed Myers, Jesse Troxell, Raymond Eyler, Bob Eyler, Arch Eyler,
Tommy Hoke, Thomas Eyler, John Topper, Marris Gillahan, Walter Eyler, Jonce Eyler

Little known to most in this region is that a predecessor organization, the Emmitsburg Fire Company (EFC), melded into today's VHC following the formation of the Emmitsburg Water Company in 1883. The Water Company was formed to provide water mains throughout the town with much needed fire hydrants and with the earlier EFC having been overseen directly by Town government. On September 26, 1884, the Vigilant Hose Company (VHC) was established as an independent all-volunteer fire department which it proudly maintains to do to this day.

Also not well known, is that the original "Engine House" was located at 115 North Seton Avenue (2 doors north of the current American Legion Post Home). VHC moved to its present quarters on West Main Street in the early 1920's. VHC's current fire house was previously Home to The Chronicle Newspaper and even earlier, the Emmitsburg School.

The histories of the EFC and the VHC are linked with the earliest form of fire fighting here actually evolving from the late 1700's when all homes were expected to have leather fire buckets evolving over the years to the first purchase of fire equipment in 1840. Those early years are referred to as "The Bucket Brigade Period." When the alarm sounded, everyone grabbed a bucket and ran to form a line from the Well in Town Square to the fire. Men would pass filled buckets while women and children would return the empty ones.

Every able-bodied person was expected to fight fires, and shirking of this duty brought notices like this one dated May 25, 1829 -

"(Name), you are hereby requested to present yourself at the Engine House in Emmitsburg, on the 4th Saturday of May, June, July and August, precisely at two o'clock p.m. with buckets and other requisites for company training."

Along with a suction pump in 1840, a Town Ordinance was passed that required all men to join the fire company. There was a fine levied for non-compliance. Such subscription produced 141 members. A hand-pulled hose cart, built locally in 1851 at a cost of $13, is on display in the fire station museum and features leather fire hose from this period. Made of riveted leather, the hose is an example of the first type of fire hose used in the United States.

The big problem of this period was water supply. The town and surrounding area saw many fires due to a lack of water, wooden construction plus an increasing population and housing density. In 1845, the Otter Hotel, located on the southwest corner of the square, burned. In 1848, the Elder and Taney Warehouse, then located where a portion of the Lutheran Parish House now stands, burned.

This latter fire nearly destroyed the church itself, which is the oldest non-residence building in the community. And, on June 15, 1863, fifty buildings northeast of the square were consumed in what James Helman called, "The Great Fire." He writes in his history: "Oh, the desolation a fire makes; most of the people lost their all, and never recovered. Money was sent from the cities to aid the poor." Following this fire, 70% of the men had to leave the community to find work.

It had become clear that a new weapon for fighting fires was needed and that new defense arrived in 1884, when water from a newly built reservoir in the hills west of town was piped along the streets and fire hydrants were installed. Again, due to construction and the means of heating used in building fires continued to plague the area - one major fire was the loss of the Presbyterian Church on August 28, 1902.

Another particularly large fire of note occurred in winter of 1885 at the then St. Joseph's College (today's National Fire Academy/NETC). Frederick City fire companies were summoned to help as were firefighters from the Cities of Hagerstown and Baltimore, too.

All during its history, as is still true in this modern era, VHC personnel have gone about their work without much fanfare - working quietly to hone their skills to be better prepared and equipped for future demands. The detailed history of the department is replete with examples of dedication, commitment and ever improving equipment - and lots and lots of fund-raising efforts on a never ending basis to allow for increased capabilities. The attendance at thousands emergencies over the many decades not to forget many other forms of community service, too, invariably lead to hundreds of wonderful stories being told over the years.

The War Years of both World Wars saw most men in the community off to War during which several teenagers helped out with a number of them staying active with the department for decades afterward. There were several large fires during this period and with meager resources the fire company continued to add to its arsenal of equipment and vehicles.

Two of the largest fires occurred in 1958 at the Stouter Oil "Bulk Plant" west of town and then the Bowling alley fire on West Main Street in 1965. It was also during this time that a number of horrific vehicle accidents occurred to include one particular intersection at the then crossroads of Route 15 and Route 140 (then Rt. 97) an at-grade intersection and along many other areas roads, too. Unfortunately, it took one especially bad event causing the Governor of the State to visit the site then leading to today's overpass there.