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Early On: The 1800's
After a disastrous fire in March of 1860 destroyed both sides of the 300 block of Pekin's downtown, the Pekin Fire Department was founded with three volunteer fire companies in the summer of 1860. The three Companies were: Independent Hook and Ladder Company #1, Rescue Company No.1, and Defiance Hose Company.
On May 5, 1860, the City of Pekin let a contract for $1,225 for construction of the first firehouse in the city in the 300 block of Ann Eliza. Two-hand operated engines were purchased for $1,479, and a ladder wagon was purchased from Chicago for $292. In July of 1861 the City of Pekin passed an ordinance giving each fire company $75 per year as a retainer. On October 6, 1862 the City of Pekin passed an ordinance paying the first fire company to arrive at the scene of a fire a $10 bonus. In 1866 a building on 2nd St. was purchased and rebuilt into a fire station.
In 1867 a Silsby "Steamer" pumping engine was purchased and the Steamer was assigned to one company. Defiance Fire Company also changed its name to "Young America", in honor of their new steam pumper, and one of the city's hand operated pumpers was sold to Canton, IL. In 1880, two additional companies were formed: "Wide Awake", and "Protection." All the members of these companies were volunteers. In December 1875, new fire station was completed at 7th and Broadway St., for a cost of $1,464.
In 1884, an Ahrends steam pumper was purchased for $5,000, and all the independent fire companies were consolidated into one company the "Wide Awake Hose and Engine Company" with W.D. Oswald as its first Chief. He was followed by Wm. Braeden. In 1889, Julius F. Jaeckel a member since 1881 - was appointed Chief, a position he was to hold for the next 50 years, retiring in 1939.
By 1894, the department (Wide Awake) was partially paid. It consisted of a Chief, an Assistant Chief, and 15 officers and men. The Chief was paid $300 per year, and the other men each received $40 per year. It's equipment was an 1884 model Steamer, a hose wagon with ,400 feet of hose, two chemical extinguishers, ladders, hooks and other small equipment. The City had by this time installed a Gamewell Street Box Fire Alarm system. In 1906, the men's salary was raised to $100 per year. An injured firefighter received an indemnity of $2.00 per day.
Since Pekin was located in the corn belt with good transportation links (rail and river), it had a number of distilleries. As a result, it also had a number of explosions and fires in these plants over the years. On October 10, 1884 at the Enterprise Distillery, two cookers exploded and burned, with three employees killed and five injured. There were additional fires in May 1886, and another in December 1892 which left the plant a total loss. In March 1885, Westerman's Crown Distillery burned. In December 1889, a fire at the Star Distillery left a watchman dead of smoke inhalation. The last distillery fire of this period was January 25, 1891 when the Hamburg Distillery burned.
Other major fires of the 1890's were December 2, 1890 when the old wooden high school burned, September 11, 1893 when six ice houses of the Pekin Lake Ice Company burned; and finally February 24, 1894 when the Pekin Times Printing Office burned. In the late years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century a number of serious fires occurred in Pekin. These fires were the T.H. Wagon Works, P. Herget Malt House, Turner - Hudnut Grain Elevator, Schipper and Block Department Store (twice), the German Methodist Church (Now Grace Methodist), Lincoln School, Quaker Oats Warehouse, Velde Lumber Company, and the American Feed House.
The New Century: The 1900's
In 1907, the department became a full-time paid Fire Department with a Chief Julius Jaeckel and four men. There were also five additional paid relief men.
By 1916, the department was advancing into the 20th Century. It had purchased a gasoline-powered Segreaves 500-gallon-per-minute fire engine, but they still retained the horse-drawn hose and ladder wagon (the horses' names were Ira and Bill). In 1917 the department purchased a motorized hose wagon. Even though the department's first line equipment was motorized, the horse-drawn equipment was retained until after 1926.
Built in 1884, the Fire Department was located in the old City Hall, which stood at the corner of Margaret and S. 4th St. It remained there until 1951 when the new City Hall was constructed around it, and the fire station moved to that building.
On January 3, 1924, a day on which temperatures reached 24 degrees below zero, a corn starch dust explosion occurred at the Corn Products Starch plant on South 2nd street, killing 42 employees and injuring over 100. A number of those killed were never correctly identified. On November 11, 1924, The Hummer Saddlerly Works burned. The fire was most likely caused by sparks from a railroad engine landing on leaves on the roof of the building.
From 1907 until the mid 1930s, the men were always on duty with days off covered by relief men. In the mid 1930's the department went to the platoon system, working 24 hours on and having 24 hours off, before returning to duty.
In 1928, an American LaFrance 1,000-gallon-per-minute "Metropolitan " pumper was purchased. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1941, an American LaFrance 750 GPM pumper was purchased.
In 1939, Julius Jaeckel retired as Fire Chief, having served 58 years with the Fire Department. He served 50 of those years as Chief, a record equaled by few men.
In 1950, an American LaFrance Quint, combination 750 GPM pumper/75 foot aerial ladder was purchased, and in 1952 an American LaFrance 1,000GPM pumper was purchased.
On August 3-4, 1954, a disastrous fire and explosion occurred at the American Distillery Three rack houses exploded and burned, three plant workers were killed and a number of plant workers and firefighters were injured . This fire destroyed whiskey storage rack houses and 42,000 barrels of aging whiskey, but 220,000 barrels of alcohol in nearby rack houses and warehouses were saved.
Another 1,000GPM American LaFrance pumper was purchased in 1956. On January 1, 1958, firefighters went from the 24 hours on/24 hours off duty schedule, to the 24 hours on/48 hours off, duty schedule. That schedule is currently in use. By late 1959, manpower had grown to Chief Fred Nolte, with 21 officers and firefighters.
In 1961, the Fire Department grew with the addition of Station 2 "Northside" at 1000 N.14th St., and Station 3 "Southside" at 272 Derby St. A 1961 1,250 GPM Pumper and a 75' Aerial Ladder were purchased from American LaFrance, and 18 new firefighters were hired. In 1966, the department purchased a 1,250GPM pumper from American La France, which was upgraded to 1,500GPM in 1970 when a new diesel engine was installed.
In 1977 Station 4, (The Bluff) was opened, 12 new firefighters were hired, and three pieces of apparatus were purchased: Engine 4, a 1977 FMC Pumper since retired and sold; Truck 4, a 1977 American LaFrance Snorkel retired and sold in 1997; and Brush 4, a 1977 Alexis Brush Fire truck, refurbished in 1998. At that time, the department consisted of Chief Charles Hudson and Assistant Chief Larry Gouilard, along with a fire inspector, fire captain mechanic, three assistant chiefs, 12 captains, 21 engineers and 18 firefighters, for a total of 58 personnel. The fire station remained in City Hall until 1987 when - due to manpower cuts, and an increase in apparatus size -the station was closed. In 1979, the Pekin Fire Department returned to American Distilling for a major multi-day fire in the bottling and mixing buildings.
Due to budget cuts caused by the local economy in 1983, the department was reduced to 54, and then 51 personnel. In 1987, due to personnel cuts and the growing size of fire apparatus, Central Station in City Hall was closed and the number of stations was reduced from four to three. Until 1997, the department had three stations, No. 2, 3, and 4 with Chief John Hamann and Deputy Chief Steve Tibbs, an engineer maintenance supervisor, 12 captains, 16 engineers and 20 firefighters, for a total of 51 personnel. The department had three shifts 1st (Gold), 2nd (Black) and 3rd (Red), each shift worked 24 hours on duty and had the following 48 hours off duty.
In the summer and fall of 1997, a number of changes occurred. Company numbers were reassigned, and Station 4 was renumbered as Station 1. Station 1's Engine 1 was manned by four personnel with Truck 1 in reserve, Brush 1 & 2 and HazMat 1. Station 2 had Engine 2 with two to three personnel and Rescue 2 with two personnel. Station 3 had Truck 3, Engine 3 in reserve, Utility 1 and Rescue Boat 1 with four to six personnel.
The New Millennium: 2000 to Present
A fast spreading fire destroyed the Leath Furniture Store on upper Court St. The fire was called in at 11:30 on Sunday morning by patrons of a nearby restaurant. Station 1 across the street responded. By the time the truck was out the door, the fire was already through the roof of the store. This was followed very shortly by a collapse of the roof. All 12 firefighters on duty responded with one Engine, one Telesquirt, one Quint and a Rescue. Command staff and 11 off-duty firefighters were called in to fight the fire or stand by at Pekin's stations. Mutual aid was provided by the Peoria, East Peoria, and Morton Fire Departments.