Remembering The Chattanooga Fire Department

  • Monday, November 1, 2004
  • Harmon Jolley
Fire Hall #1 at Carter Street was completed in 1902. Click to enlarge.
Fire Hall #1 at Carter Street was completed in 1902. Click to enlarge.

Fire safety has long been taught in schools, particularly at this time of year. Readers who grew up in the area may recall the visits by fire department personnel, and the plastic fire helmets and junior fire marshal badges given out to students. At St. Elmo Elementary School, my first grade class walked a few blocks up St. Elmo Avenue to visit Fire Hall #14. The event had special significance for me, as my father, Harmon Jolley, Sr., was a member of the crew there. This week’s article describes some of the events during my father’s career in the Chattanooga Fire Department, and the history of some of the fire stations where he and many others worked day and night to keep our city safe.


FIRE HALL #10 – 207 WEST FORTY-FIFTH STREET, ALTON PARK

Following service with the U.S. Navy during World War II, my father returned to Chattanooga and joined the fire department in 1946. He was stationed for several years at #10 Fire Hall at 207 West Forty-Fifth Street in Alton Park, and was a crew member under Capt. John Bird. My father and “Cap” Bird became life-long friends, often getting together just to share memories of the old days in the fire department.


FIRE HALL #14 – ST. ELMO AVENUE AT FORTY-FIFTH STREET

In 1955, my father was promoted to Lieutenant, and transferred to #14 Fire Hall in St. Elmo, the community where he had grown up.

The old #14 Fire Hall still stands on St. Elmo Avenue. It was built in 1930, and has a design that was used at other neighborhood fire stations in the city. The bungalow-style blended with surrounding homes of the same look. A new type of electrically-controlled overhead door allowed the unit’s 1,000-gallon fire truck to enter or exit the building.

Typical of most fire units, the men slept upstairs. Their sleep was often interrupted by the sound of the alarm, which meant a quick slide down the brass pole to the awaiting fire engine. The lower level had a dining room and kitchen. On many cold mornings, my father invited a young newspaper carrier to come in out of the elements, and to have breakfast with the firemen. The young man grew up to become my mother’s former pastor, Rev. George Dunbar, who shared that memory of kindness with us a few years ago.


FIRE HALL #6 –WEST SIXTH STREET AT PROSPECT

In 1961, my father was promoted to Captain, and moved to #6 Engine Company. By then, the #6 crew was stationed at Fire Hall #1. However, readers who lived on Cameron Hill or the West Side prior to 1949 may recall the #6 Fire Hall. When it was built in 1908, the Chattanooga Star described it as “the finest building of its kind in the whole south.” Chief William Toomey noted that “Chattanooga is growing fast and the Fire Department must keep pace with other things.”

The three-story #6 Fire Hall stood at the crest of Cameron Hill on West Sixth Street. At that time, it was Sixth Street, not Ninth Street that crossed the hill to the Tennessee River. The brick fire station included a tower in which the fire hoses would be dried after the crew returned from fighting a blaze. Horse-drawn fire equipment was used when #6 Fire Hall opened in 1908, and the structure included bins for corn, oats, and bran, as well as a hay loft. The driveway from the fire hall took advantage of the slope of Cameron Hill to provide a quick start for the horses whenever #6 was called into service.

In 1949, #6 Fire Hall was closed as a cost-saving move, and the unit was relocated to #1 Fire Hall on Carter Street. The old fire hall was converted to the Ron Mar Apartments, and later torn down as part of the West Side urban renewal.


#1 FIRE HALL – 1033 CARTER STREET

When my father joined #6 Engine Company in 1961, #1 Fire Hall was in its last days on Carter Street.

The old #1 Fire Hall was surely one of those buildings of which it is said, “If these walls could talk.” Entering the 1900’s, Chattanooga had determined that it needed a new fire hall to meet future needs. Reuben Harrison Hunt was contracted as its architect. Stone arches and a five-story tower (like #6, this was for drying the hoses) were striking features of the building. Another striking feature was an 1100-pound bell in the tower. Construction of the new #1 ran behind schedule, leaving the city in the position of having to pay rent for a while on the old fire hall at West Ninth and Poplar.

The #1 Fire Hall was completed in 1902. At the time, the city directory listed the staff as being the Lookout #1 (a steamer, eight men, and four horses), the Chemical Engine (4 men and two horses), and Truck Company #1 (four men and two horses). Everything was directed by Capt. John C. Calhoun Garner, who lived a short distance away at East Terrace on the city’s West Side. The crew of Fire Hall #1 responded to calls from 54 public alarm boxes which were connected through a telegraph system. The city directory offered instructions to the public on how to use the alarm boxes. In 1911, #1 Fire Hall received the city’s first automobile-based fire engine.

Over its sixty-year history, the men of Fire Hall #1 were on the scene at each of the city’s major fires:
(1910) Hamilton County Courthouse
(1911) Loomis and Hart Furniture
(1916) City Auditorium
(1928) Tennessee Paper Mills
(1936) Grand Hotel
(1943) Bijou Theater

#1 FIRE HALL – WEST NINTH STREET IN THE GOLDEN GATEWAY
In 1962, it was announced that a new #1 fire station would be built at the top of West Ninth Street, which was being extended to the river by means of a cut in Boynton Hill. The crews of #1 and #6 Engine Companies left the old, dank quarters of Carter Street for the new facility in December, 1963. For a while, the new #1 Fire Hall was one of the few buildings in the city’s Golden Gateway urban renewal area. Cameron Hill was still being excavated and graded. The new #1 would soon gain neighbors, however, with the construction of the Zayre’s Department Store, First Baptist Church, and Jaycee Towers.

By 1963, I was old enough to know that a firefighter and his family often have schedules interrupted and anxieties caused by a late night phone call. My father and his crew worked a 24-hour on, 24-hour off shift. However, firemen were expected to be able to respond to emergencies “24 by 7.” I recall that we dared not turn on the light while he was sleeping at home, as he was accustomed to the light at the fire hall coming on at the same time that the alarm sounded. I forgot and did that one time, and saw him literally jump out of bed.

My father kept a scrapbook of all of the newspaper accounts of area fires, as well as general news about the fire department. The scrapbook is filled with the yellowed pages of photos and descriptions of major fires. After his transfer to #1 Fire Hall, he experienced several injuries as a result of going up against raging blazes. There was the 1963 fire in the 900 block between Georgia Avenue and Market Street, where the Quickie restaurant and Alabama Furniture were located. The smoke of that afternoon fire was so voluminous that employees of the Volunteer State Life Insurance and First Federal had to be evacuated. Another fire in 1963 at the New Zion Baptist Church on East Ninth Street resulted in a natural gas explosion that knocked my father out of the building. There was the 1965 blaze at the Atlantic Cold Storage facility, where a metal heating duct fell on him.

There was great camaraderie among the firefighters, and I learned the names of his crew through stories that my father would share at home. One of the crew members who worked with my father was Jerry Evans. He had also been injured by the falling ductwork at Atlantic. I recently contacted retired Chief Evans to discuss his memories of #1 Fire Hall.

Jerry Evans joined the fire department in 1965 and was sent to #1 Fire Hall. He served there through 1972. He recalled that #1 Fire Hall was a busy place, as it not only housed the fire crew, but also a division of the police department and weapons range.

Of the crew, he said, “We were all awfully young. Captain Jolley made sure that we received the best training, and this helped me a lot as I rose through the ranks. He expected that we know the layout of all buildings in our coverage area, and know how many people were inside them and what the fastest escape routes were.”

Chief Evans remembered how that my father always was in bed by 8:30pm, except for Wednesday nights when “The Virginian” was on TV. The crew knew that their captain didn’t like to be disturbed after he went to bed, which was upstairs. One night, the young men were being a bit rowdy, and a yelp from one of them woke up my father. The next day, after the guilty party did not step forward, my father dealt with the matter by having the entire crew work the next Saturday.


My father retired from the Chattanooga Fire Department in 1971, and passed away in 1983. Chief Evans said, “I would have given anything if he could have been there when I was promoted to Chief in 1986.”

In 2001, three stations, including #1 Fire Hall, were combined into a new, larger facility at 218 E. Main Street. The men and women of the Chattanooga Fire Department continue to protect the city 24 by 7, carrying on the work begun in 1871 when the department was organized.

If you have memories of any of the fire halls or people mentioned in this article, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@signaldata.net.

Harmon Jolley, Sr. was a Captain of the Chattanooga Fire Department and served at several fire stations around the city. Click to enlarge.
Harmon Jolley, Sr. was a Captain of the Chattanooga Fire Department and served at several fire stations around the city. Click to enlarge.
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