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How Colfax got its fire department

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  It seems a little odd that the Wisconsin Central Railroad train depot, the village’s first fire department and a photograph from 1898 should all be tied together — but they are.

It all started August 31, 1898, when the railroad depot burned down and nearly took the rest of Colfax with it.

After that, village residents decided that maybe they needed a way to get water along Main Street to fight fires, and they also formed the village’s first fire department.

So how does that 1898 photograph fit it?

The photograph first came to the Colfax Messenger office last winter from Jean Burling Alf.

Jean’s mother, Minda Burling, had been part of the Colfax Centennial planning committee, and Jean said she thought her mother had somehow acquired two old photographs of Colfax in the course of planning for the Centennial, one labeled 1894 and one labeled 1898.

It is difficult to positively date the 1894 photograph, but through the archives of the Colfax Messenger, the date of the 1898 photograph has been verified.

The September 2, 1898, Colfax Messenger reports that the depot burned Wednesday evening, which would have been August 31, 1898.

The circus posters in the photograph (which are now on display in the hallway of the Colfax Municipal Building) say that the event took place on Monday, August 29 — which means that the photograph must have been taken in 1898.

Since there are no leaves on the tree in the photograph, the picture could have been snapped in the spring or in the fall.

As it turns out, the photograph was taken in late fall.

And what about the men who are digging up the street by hand?

They are digging in a water line that will have a hydrant on each end of Main Street for fighting fires.


Here is the story as it is contained in the Colfax Messenger archives.

From the September 2, 1898, edition of the Colfax Messenger:

Fire! Fire!

The Wisconsin Central Depot Goes Up in the Flames

And The Whole Town Was In Peril.

Wednesday night [August 31] at about 10:30 night operator Brightengross discovered fire in the platform at the depot and before anything could be done, the fire was beyond control. The depot together with the house in which Agent Smith and family lived were a total loss. Mr. Smith’s loss being very heavy. The wind was blowing quite hard and everything was so dry that it was with great difficulty that the fire was confined to these buildings.

Large fire-brands blew to a great distance and several buildings were ignited, but by vigilant care were saved. It is thought that the fire started from a spark dropped by the engine of a train that had just passed. Had it not been for the prompt action of willing workers, it is doubtful whether much of our village would have escaped. The extreme necessity of some means of protection against fire was very apparent and it is to be hoped that this sad example will lead to an activity in that direction.

In the September 9, 1898, edition of the Messenger, this paragraph was included on the front page:

The Wisconsin Central R.R. Line (always on the alert to please the traveling public) will, it is hoped, rebuild the depot here (destroyed by fire last week) in the near future, as its loss is deeply felt.

From the September 16, 1898, edition of the Messenger:

At the meeting in the hall Wednesday evening quite a number of our citizens were gathered to consider the plan of constructing a system of waterworks for fire protection. The cheapest and most feasible plan under consideration was the laying of a five-inch pipe the whole length of Main Street seven feet below the surface, with two hydrants and five hundred feet of two and one-half inch hose, the approximate cost estimated at $700. A committee of three was appointed to make out an assessment according to valuation of property benefited. The meeting then adjourned until Friday evening Sept. 23 at eight o’clock.

From the September 23, 1898, Messenger:

Our village is at present confronted with difficult problems to decide upon viz. — the institution of a system of waterworks for fire protection, the expansion of the school accommodations and other things that are sure to fall in line soon. The only way out of the fire protection problem seems to our mind to be the incorporation of the village, which would certainly bring up the question of having saloons under the pretense of using license money to make necessary improvements, but losing sight of the fact that when saloons are put in we must have a police, a jail, etc. and tolerate the insolence of a lot of drunken sots, which is certainly not pleasant for one who cares to live in a clean respectable way. Let us decide rationally and unanimously on these vital problems.

September 30, 1898: Some of the material for the new Wisconsin Central Depot has arrived and the prospect is that we will soon have a new depot.

October 7, 1898: At the meeting held last Friday evening to determine as to fire protection, it was decided to accept the offer of Fairbanks Morse & Co. pump, piping, hydrants, hose, etc. and to accept the offer of B.P. Conry for laying the pipe so that very soon we expect to see the work commenced. This is a good move and well on its way.

October 14, 1898: Owing to some misunderstanding a part of the frame work for the new depot had to be torn down to make it conform to the desire of higher authority; but the work is progressing finely now and we will soon have a new depot ready for occupancy.

October 21, 1898: The new depot is nearing completion and will soon be ready for occupancy and will be much better than the old one.

Another meeting was held Monday evening to consider the matter of fire protection, and a committee consisting of O.G. Kinney, A.C. Chase, and Peter Peterson were appointed to secure the subscriptions which they did Tuesday forenoon. The piping, hose, pump etc. have been ordered and the work of putting it in working order will soon be begun.

November 4, 1898: The finishing touches are being put on the new depot this week and we expect to see it occupied some time next week.

Work on the water main for our fire protection was begun Tuesday morning and will no doubt be pushed to completion.

November 11, 1898: Work on the water main is progressing finely and in a short time we expect to see it in operation.

The new Wisconsin Central Depot here is completed and is a neat structure. It will no doubt be occupied in a few days.

November 18, 1898: Our new water main for fire protection is nearly completed and will soon be ready for use.

The new Wisconsin Central Depot here is now in use and is in keeping with our Village, neat and commodious. [This is the two-story building that is now located at 416 Main Street directly south of the railroad tracks.]

November 25, 1898: Now that the water main is completed, as soon as the pump and hose arrive and the pump is placed in position, will be ready for action, which we expect will be very soon.

Ten degrees below zero Wednesday and 15 below yesterday morning. Pretty cold for the first blast of winter.

December 23, 1898: Everything connected with our new system of water works for fire protection being in order, it was tested last Saturday and found to be all O.K. throwing a large stream of water with great force. Under this arrangement, Colfax has as good protection against fire as any town of its size anywhere. Those who have had the matter in charge were well pleased with the result and a faithful promise of a reduction in insurance rates is one of the first results of the enterprise to those who come under the protection.

February 24, 1899: On Tuesday the water main and both hydrants were tested and found to be in fine shape. A large and steady stream of water was thrown which is a great encouragement to those who have stock in the company. A regular organized fire company will soon be made up which will be able to do very effectual work.

(The February of 1899 Messengers reported morning temperatures of 30 degrees below zero and 40 degrees below zero.)

March 24, 1899: At the recent meetings of the stockholders of the new Fire Protection Co. a regular fire company was organized with O.G. Kinney as chief and expected to be in shape to do effectual work soon.

April 14, 1899: The fire company tested the water works again Wednesday evening and found it to be all in fine shape. In just four minutes after the alarm was given a strong and steady stream of water was started. The company is now well organized and equipped and will be ready for effective action a moment’s warning. It is a great satisfaction to the minds of the property owners of the Village to know that such an effective system of water works for protection in case of fire is at their service.

August 11, 1899: All members of the fire department are requested to be present at a meeting next Monday evening at Dr. Larson’s reception room over the Kinney Mercantile’s new store [the current location of Colfax Health Mart], as important business is to be transacted. By order of the Chief.

From the August 18, 1899 edition: At a regular meeting of the Colfax Fire Co., held Monday evening, financial matters were reviewed and N.A. Lee elected as Secretary and K.A. Swenson as Treasurer for the ensuing term. On account of a vacancy in the office of the assistant manager of the hose division. A.C. Chase was changed to that position and J. Beebe appointed to the position thus left vacant in the hook and ladder division. Their next regular business meeting is to be Sept. 15, 1899.

January 19, 1900: At the meeting of the fire company Monday evening it was decided to purchase a bell for use as an alarm, and have a social on Jan. 27th to pay for same.

February 2, 1900:

Was A Success

Social Last Saturday Evening For Fire Company Was A Success

Notwithstanding the stormy weather, a fine crowd assembled last Saturday evening for the purpose of raising money to get a bell to be used as a fire-alarm. A fine oyster and general supper was served, the receipts of which were $23.11, which after paying expenses, leaves a balance of $16.46, which with the amount the company now have in their treasury will nearly pay for the bell.

This item also was included in the Messenger:

Good News

Colfax to have Four Regular Passenger Trains after Feb. 1, 1900

On Monday Agent Smith received notice that after Feb. 1, 1900, passenger trains No. 3 and 4 would make regular stops at Colfax, so that now we have the accommodation of four regular passenger trains each day, which gives us an excellent passenger service.

From the April 13, 1900, Colfax Messenger:

Ding! Ding! Ding!!!

And out went the fire company to try the hydrants, hose, etc. last Friday evening, which was found to be all in good working order, as a heavy, steady stream was in operation in a very short time after the alarm was sounded. The new bell was tested for the first time that evening. Dr. Larson says it was heard four miles away where he happened to be at the time. We now have as good a fire protection as any small town could ask for, and with a little improvement in sidewalks and a general cleaning up of allies, we could justly boast of a clean healthful environment.