About Your Marcellus Fire Department
Following the incorporation of the Village of Marcellus in 1853, a total of 21 separate ordinances were passed by the first Board of Trustees. These laws dealt with matters that parallel, in many ways, the concerns of today’s village residents including a major concern with fire protection, “lighted candles or lamps or cigars in a livery or barn, keeping ashes secure, chimney, boiler and furnace construction.” The final ordinance, #21, also called for the election, in 1854, of three Fire Wardens, whose responsibility it would be to enforce the fire laws.
This was the first reference in Marcellus Village history to providing fire protection and in the March election of 1854, Myron S. Mills, Sanford Dalliba and Edmund Aiken were elected Fire Wardens. The electorate was also asked to appropriate money for the purchase of hooks and ladders and the building of reservoirs, but these requests were denied by the voters, and a vote that many would later regret. The Board of Trustees in 1859 again asked the voters “that a tax of $1,000 be levied on taxable property to purchase an engine to extinguish fires in said village and that there be raised in like manner $300 for building reservoirs in said village.” (Village Board Minutes, 1859). Again these measures failed to pass the voters. It would be more than twenty years, and only after a series of disastrous fires, that the voters of the Village agreed to invest in firefighting expenses.
A disastrous fire in December, 1866 destroyed the Episcopal Church on the corner of Main and North Streets. “The fire began in the rear of an adjacent grocery store and in the absence of adequate firefighting facilities; the church was a total loss.” (History of Marcellus, 1794-1939, p. 17) In 1877, the Methodist Church, only twenty one years old, burned. and “on July 3, 1879, the worst fire in the history of the village consumed St. John’s Episcopal Church on the corner of North and Main Street, a three story building to the north of the church, and a small store to the west of it.” (Heffernan, p. 56). On July 1, 1884, another disastrous fire in the village was narrowly avoided. However, it caused some village residents to petition the Board of Trustees to call for a special election to raise money for fire protection.
Organization of the Marcellus Fire Department
With the overwhelming approval of village residents, the Board of Trustees began to organize a Fire Department, purchase fire equipment and build reservoirs. On September 10, 1884, the Union Fire Department of Marcellus, N.Y. was officially organized. A Fire Chief, Dr. Henry W. Post, was appointed by the Board of Trustees, along with Myron Whiting as the Assistant Chief. Today, The Marcellus Fire Chief has expanded to include three assistant chiefs. In addition, a list of names, as members of the Fire Company, was submitted to the Village Board for approval, just as they are today. The Village Board also awarded the contract for building of fire reservoirs in the Village to Mark Dorchester. These underground reservoirs, or cisterns, were to be built in the Village in locations thought to be appropriate – primarily near the Churches in the Village Center.
As recently as 1997, one of these reservoirs was uncovered while work has been done on Main Street reconstruction. In the Village of Marcellus today, fire hydrants have replaced the need for cisterns, but in certain areas of the Town of Marcellus, serviced by the Marcellus Fire Department, there is a need for what are called “dry hydrants”, water reservoirs similar to those used over 100 years ago in the Village. The Village Board, similar to today’s practice, also received recommendations from the Fire Department for equipment purchases, approving or disallowing such appropriations.
By 1886, the number of elected Fire Wardens would be reduced from three to two, and after 1887, Fire Wardens would no longer be elected. With the creation of the Marcellus Volunteer Fire Department, and the appointing of a Fire Chief and Assistant Chief, the need for the position of Fire Wardens was eliminated. The Village Board in 1887 also authorized the Marcellus Fire Department to go to the assistance of those who might need help in Marcellus Falls. This was the first expansion of Fire Department responsibilities beyond the Village limits. President of the Village, William H. Gallup, would also begin the appointment of a trustee to oversee the various departments, including the Fire Department, within Village government, a process that is still in use today.
An Engine House
By 1888, the Village Board and residents would also decide to raise taxes and build an Engine House for the fire equipment. A special vote on September 25, 1888 endorsed the resolutions. The new building would not only serve the Fire Department, but would also house the Village Offices, just as it does today. This fire station, on Slocombe Avenue, was a two story frame building with a tower for drying hose. The doors opened by pulling a large ring attached to a rope in the center of the double doors. As the ring was pulled, both doors would swing outward and using a horse-drawn engine with a hose cart and hose, the volunteers responded to the fire alarm.
An Alarm System
The first alarm system was a large triangle, about four feet high, with a large bar that was used to hit around the three sides. The next system used was a church bell, rung to alert the volunteer citizens to the dangers of fire in the village. The owner of the first team of horses to reach the fire received $5, and the second team owner $3, plus $1 an hour for working the pump. After a time a siren was installed in the top of the hose tower and still later a line was installed to the telephone switchboard of the Finger Lakes Telephone Company and the operator on duty would receive a call and then set the siren off by closing a switch. After several years, the Fire Department purchased the Gamewell System, which consisted of an air horn connected to control boxes, which were supposed to be placed in various parts of the village. However, the only one installed was on the front of the fire barn (now the village offices) and the telephone operator continued to operate the siren manually .
In 1892, the Board of Trustees agreed to allow the Marcellus Fire Department to incorporate, and the Marcellus Union Fire Department became known as the Marcellus Volunteer Fire Department, Inc.. Administration of the Department, as well as ownership and maintenance of fire equipment would still be the responsibility of the Village Board of Trustees, but the volunteers were now a separate corporation, with all attendant rights and responsibilities.
By the turn of the century, the Marcellus Fire Department numbered over 30 volunteers, all sworn in before the Board of Trustees and recognized as members. New uniforms were procured and Inspection Day in 1901 was recorded in a July edition of The Marcellus Observer. Providing fire protection for the Village and the Falls did not mean that danger was averted. Sherman’s Paper Mill suffered a loss due to fire in November of 1902 and another fire at Marcellus Falls in December, burned a boarding house to the ground. By 1903, with the arrival of telephone service, the Village was granted a continuous right of way to support and carry fire alarm fixtures upon any of the various poles erected in the village.
An Expanded Department
As the Town of Marcellus expanded in the early years of the century, the Village Board was faced with the question of how the Village Fire Department should respond to fires outside the Village and the Falls. A 1905 decision by the Board of Trustees, left that to the discretion of the Fire Chief. Today, the Marcellus Fire Department responds not only to emergencies inside and outside the village but is also on call for mutual aid to fire departments in surrounding communities.
In 1907, the Fire Department, represented by Chief Patrick J. Kelly, “appeared before the Board as a representative of the Fire Department, in advocacy of a chemical engine for the village. It was moved and carried that the Clerk write and get prices of such engines.” In 1911, Frank W. Knapp of the Marcellus Telephone Exchange, offered the use of the telephone lines in notifying the Central Station in case of fire. The offer was accepted by the Board of Trustees and the Board also offered ” . . . the sum of $1.00 to the operator of the Exchange for receiving the alarm causing the fire bell to be rung and notifying the firemen of the location of the fire. The said sum to be paid by the owner of the property on fire.” In August of 1919, the Board of Trustees agreed to have the alarm signal on the fire barn coded for directions – 2 blasts for south, 3 for west, 5 for the village – signaling the volunteers where they should go to fight the fire. Today, the horn still sounds, but not for direction. Today, one blast is an ambulance call and 5 blasts signal fire and rescue. In addition, each of the firemen in the Marcellus Fire Department today is supplied with an individual pager, alerting the volunteer to the need of fire and/or rescue.
Reservoir and Hydrants
By 1912, a municipal water system had been built in the Village of Marcellus and the waters of Rockwell Springs would be instrumental in putting out fires. A number of fire hydrants would be installed and maintained by the Village and the threat of fire was greatly diminished for Village residents. However, this new water system did not prevent a large fire from damaging the Lawless Paper Mill in the Falls, in 1914.
The coming of the automobile at the turn of the century also brought changes in fire fighting equipment. In 1925, the voters of the Village agreed to a $3000.00 bond for a chemical engine and in the early 1930’s, the Fire Department added a Brockway Torpedo as its first piece of motorized equipment. Described as a “fire extinguisher on wheels,” it was credited with helping to save the Howlett Hill Church when fire broke out there.
Town of Marcellus Fire District
Until the 1930’s, the Fire Department was supported by village residents and the fund raising activities of the firemen. Since those living outside the village lacked the protection and aid of the fire department, a petition calling for this service was circulated and at a Village Board meeting on September 13, 1937, ” . . . a contract with the Town of Marcellus, . . . providing for fire protection within the Town for a period of five years, for the annual sum of $900.00 was duly approved. . . “by the Board of Trustees. As a result of this agreement, the Town of Marcellus then became the fire district and the Department would respond to emergency situations in what was now the Fire Protection District. The Fire Department could not, however, ” . . respond to calls outside the Town of Marcellus without the permission of the Mayor, or in his absence, a Trustee, and then only when assistance has been asked for by a responsible official of a neighboring community.” It would be a number of years before the concept of mutual aid would be discussed and adopted.
It was also during the late 1930’s that the position of Fire Inspector would be created by the Board of Trustees. On October 22, 1939, the Trustees approved the appointment of ” . . . a Board of Fire Inspectors for the Village of Marcellus, which Board shall be composed of two (2) inspectors appointed by the Board of Trustees . . . and which shall hold office during the pleasure of the Board of Trustees of said Village. . . inspectors may at all reasonable hours enter any public buildings for the purpose of making any inspection which, under this ordinance, he or they deem necessary to be made . . . .”
Membership and Mutual Aid
As the need for membership in the Department increased, on February 23, 1940, the Fire Department was ” . . . authorized to accept into membership, persons residing within the Town Fire District, but outside of the Village limits, such authorization to be retroactive. The forty-five members of the Department present were then sworn in.” This increased membership would enable the volunteers in neighboring communities to help one another in time of emergency. However, the Fire Department was not authorized to take any fire apparatus outside the limits of the Town of Marcellus to answer any fire calls. Because of such restrictions, and because fire knows no boundary, the Mutual Aid Plan started to be developed in 1942. William Kilcoyne was appointed to represent the Village of Marcellus on a Mutual Aid Plan which was being developed for different Zones in Onondaga County. Today, the 911 system is in place and dispatches fire companies, ambulances and the volunteers on an as-needed basis.
Fire Contracts, Reincorporation, Equipment.
In 1942, another five year contract with the Town of Marcellus was approved, ” . . . to furnish fire protection for the Town Fire District, for a term of five years, at an annual charge of $600.00, . . . ” and on January 13, 1947, the Fire Department was ” . . . authorized to incorporate under the laws of the State of New York.” This was a reincorporation of the Department, following that which had been approved fifty years earlier, in 1892. In 1948, the Board of Trustees authorized ” . . . the purchase of the Sanford-Ford pumper at a cost of approximately $11,000, the Gamewell fire alarm system at a cost of $2,627.50, . . .” In that same year, there was approved an ” . . . agreement . . . between the Town Board of the Town of Marcellus . . . and the Village Board of the Village of Marcellus . . . to furnish fire protection . . . for the sum of Four Thousand Dollars ($4,000.00) per year, payable on or before the first day of March of each year. . . . the sale of the old Sanford truck.”
This agreement shall continue for a period of five years from the fifth day of November, 1948, and shall terminate on the fourth (4th) day of November, 1953.” On August 22, 1953, the Trustees approved a resolution ” . . . that the Village purchase a new fire truck, with a Ford Chassis to be purchased from Marcellus Motors, per their bid, and the truck body with equipment, from the Sanford Fire Equipment Company, per their specifications and bid, for a net amount of $10,000.00, including the $2500.00 received from the sale of the old Sanford truck.”
On January 28, 1963 ” . . . Mr. Richard Paul, Chief of the Marcellus Fire Department, appeared before the Board to discuss the possibility of the Fire Department having a small fire house at the junction of South Street Road and Cherry Valley road, to give more prompt service to calls from that area, and also using the 1948 Fire Truck at that Fire House.” No decision was made at that time and a year later, on November 23, 1964 ” . . . representatives from the Fire Department appeared before the Board to discuss future plans for the location and construction of a new fire house. It was agreed by both the Board and the Firemen present that the property owned by the Fire Department on the Lee Mulroy Road, would be an excellent site for the building.” On April 26, 1965, the Trustees approved a ” . . . resolution authorizing the acquisition of certain real property located outside the territorial limits but close thereto of the Village of Marcellus, Onondaga County, New York, and the construction and equipment thereon of a Village Fire House for the purpose of furnishing fire protection primarily to the Village of Marcellus, at a maximum estimated cost of $118,000, and authorizing the use of $6,000, current funds of the Village, and the issuance of not exceeding $112,000 Serial Bonds of said Village to pay the cost thereof. In 1966, a new fire station on Platt Road was built and the old fire house on Slocombe Avenue in the Village was converted into village offices. The tower on the old engine house was removed and the front of the building was converted to a garage for housing village police cars. The second floor of the old engine house today houses the Marcellus Historical Society Museum.
Fire Department Auxiliary
In 1968, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Marcellus Fire Department was organized with eleven members. Operating with about 25 members today, and no longer referred to as a ladies auxiliary, it is a very efficient and reliable ancillary service that has proven to be invaluable to the volunteer fire fighters.
On Labor Day, 1971, ambulance service was added to the Marcellus Fire Department. Offering medical, rescue and emergency medical technical services, its assistance is invaluable today. Together with its advanced life support services, the volunteers respond to all kinds of emergencies, one of the most frequent being to the scene of an accident on the highway.
1966 Fire House
Fire Department Fund Raisers As the community grew, the need for more and larger, as well as more up to date equipment mounted. Through the years, the firemen raised money through their annual field days, pancake breakfasts and door to door solicitations to supplement appropriations by the village and town taxpayers.
The Fire Department also became the recipient of memorial and appreciation donations from individuals and businesses. On February 23, 1976, ” . . . several firemen . . . presented a proposal for numerous alterations to the Marcellus Fire Station. They stated that there would be no charge for this work to the Village or Town. The cost would be taken out of Fire Department Corporation Funds (money that they had raised through Pancake Breakfasts, Field Days, etc.).” On January 24, 1977, ” . . . authorization was given to deed the property across from the Fire Department on Slate Hill Road to the Fire Department from the Village of Marcellus.” This land would be used by the Fire Department Corporation to erect a self-service gasoline station, the profits from which would be used to further promote the interests and ideals of the volunteer fire fighting service.
Women as Fire Fighters
In 1985, the Marcellus Volunteer Fire Department would make history when the New York State Human Rights Commission ruled that women could not be denied membership in the organization. Since that ruling, a number of women have served as members of the Marcellus Fire Department, including both the fire and ambulance services.
Annual Field Days
For a number of years, the Marcellus Fire Department would sponsor an annual field days celebration in an attempt to raise funds for a number of deserving projects undertaken by the volunteers. By the mid 1980’s, the admirable intentions of the event had become overshadowed by a very great concern over insurance and liability issues. Therefore, in May 1986, ” . . . the Board of Trustees passed a Resolution stating the Marcellus Fire Department agrees to save and hold harmless the Village of Marcellus from any and all claims arising out of their sale of beer at the annual Field Days, June 4, 5, 6, & 7, 1986. . . . be it further resolved that each vendor participating in the annual Field Days file a certificate of insurance with the Village Clerk’s Office prior to the commencement of any activities.” As a result, the Marcellus Field Days became relegated to the dustbin of history, and have been replaced in recent years by a more family oriented celebration called Olde Home Days. This festival is actually a revival of a similar event staged for a number of years by the Fire Department in the 19th century. Today, the volunteers are as involved in this celebration as in the past, and continuing to raise funds for its many worthy endeavors.
Expanded Ambulance Service
With the demand for more trained personnel and more expensive medical equipment, the 1990’s would witness a considerable expansion of the ambulance services provided by the Marcellus Fire Department. On July 23, 1990, the Trustees ” . . . passed a resolution . . . to add one additional EMT to the Fire department for a total of five, so that the evening schedule may be filled out.” and on January 27, 1992, the ” . . . Board passed a resolution establishing a night custodial position for the Fire Department.” The night custodian at the Fire Station would also be a professional EMT, thus enabling the Department to provide expanded ambulance coverage for the residents of the Fire District.
New Fire Station
On June 28, 1993, there was passed a ” . . .resolution authorizing the issuance of $1,400,000.00 serial bonds of the Village of Marcellus, . . . to pay the cost of the construction of an addition to and the necessary reconstruction of the Firehouse of and for said Village.” In October of 1993, construction began on the new fire station. The 15,000 foot addition, completed in June of 1994, includes four drive-through bays for fire trucks and three bays for emergency medical vehicles. It also includes a bay for decontaminating vehicles, clothing, equipment and personnel, as well as office space for the chief and line officers, a new kitchen, meeting room, an exercise room, an emergency 911 dispatch center and locker rooms. The new fire station provides one of the most up to date facilities in New York State.
3rd Party Billing
By the mid 1990’s, there was much concern about the fact that ambulance service was costing so much and that private ambulance companies might drive the cost of such service even higher. It was decided that a separate ambulance corporation, called MAVES (Marcellus Ambulance Volunteer Emergency Services), would be created as part of the Marcellus Volunteer Fire Department. In addition, the practice of billing a patient’s insurance company for ambulance service would be also adopted, bringing in not only revenue to pay for this service but also helping to reduce the tax burden on those in the fire district. On February 27, 1995, ” . . . there was a request to establish a separate corporation for the Ambulance Corporation . . . contacted by a lawyer for the Fire Department as to whether the Board was in agreement with the establishment of a separate corporation and third party billing (for ambulance services). The only stipulation the Board would ask is that if this corporation is established, that the Board would ask for an accounting of all the funds of the corporation. . . . resolution establishing a separate Ambulance Corporation with third party billing . . . only a step to proceed forward, not a step to start the billing or the corporation.” With 3rd party billing, the Marcellus Fire Department and MAVES are able to provide 24 hour protection for those in need and keep the cost of such service at a rate which is much more affordable than that of private companies.
Response in the 20th Century
Throughout the 20th century, the Marcellus Volunteer Fire Department has responded to a number of fire and other emergencies that has tested the skill and labor of those who serve. Some of the largest fires have included the Lawless Paper Mill in 1914 and another at the M. & O.L. Roundhouse on July 6, 1926.
Another occurred in the winter at the Masonic Temple on Main Street on February 11, 1929. However, one of the most famous fires occurred on February 9, 1934 at the Kenyon Chicken Farm Hatchery. What made this fire well known was that it took place on one of the coldest days of all time, as far as local history is concerned – it was 40 degrees below zero when the volunteers fought this blaze. A fire at the Alvord House in April of 1939 also challenged the volunteers and another at Nightingale Mills on May 11, 1944 proved to be very costly in terms of damage to another local business.
Another fire at the R. J. Murphy & Sons barn on September 14, 1959 caused an estimated loss of approximately $30,000. The largest fire that the Village ever experienced was believed to be the coal trestle and oil tanks which were owned by the American Oil Company, on Limerick Street, just across the creek from the Upper Crown Woolen Mills.
Started by children playing with matches, this fire burned for several hours out of control. One of the most famous fires in Marcellus history, to which the department responded was on November 18, 1973, when the 158 year old Alvord House, a landmark in the village, was totally destroyed. A tourist bus rollover on Route 20 near Route 174 in early January, 1987 killed one person and sent many others to the hospital. The rescue operation requiring eleven ambulances and a school bus to transport those who were injured to Syracuse and Auburn hospitals.
One of the most time consuming and costly responses by the volunteers was to the Paul Street Apartment fire on North Street on November 12, 1986. The fire not only left over 40 people homeless but totally destroyed the apartment complex. During the annual Marcellus Central School homecoming parade, in the Fall of 1991, a hay wagon over turned, injuring some 35 students, and a hazardous chemical spill in 1995 involved six fire departments, and over 140 fire fighters and EMS personnel. In September, 1998, there occurred what has since been called the Labor Day storm and Marcellus volunteers worked over 1600 person hours during this emergency. The Fire Station was used as a command center for disaster relief in the area, housing power company emergency crews, distributing several tons of dry ice and feeding any and all emergency personnel.
Present membership in the Marcellus Volunteer Fire Department includes active members, as well as a number of life and honorary members. A Fire Chief and eight line officers guide the activities of these volunteers. The members of the department are a dedicated, courteous and well trained group of men and women who continue to provide a constant vigilance over lives and property in the Marcellus community. They are true to a calling that began over 120 years ago, and it is still a very valued calling to this day.
Written By John P. Curtin December, 1999