Department History

Department History

The first Fire Alarm Telegraph System installed in the State of Minnesota was in the City of Saint Paul in 1873 and put in service on April 4 of that year. Records indicate it consisted of 15 fire alarm boxes (and associated equipment) at a cost $6,500.Because Saint Paul had a volunteer fire department during this time, the requirement for public announcement of an alarm of fire was necessary to alert the volunteers. This was accomplished by mounting a bell-striking machine in the bell tower at City Hall located at 5th and Washington. During testing, it was noted that this bell proved very satisfactory and could be heard striking throughout the entire city.

Once the acceptance test of the Fire Alarm Telegraph system was completed to everyone’s satisfaction, it was accepted by the City and placed in service that same day. Keys to the fire alarm boxes would be carried by the Fire Department and patrolmen of the Police Department and distributed to selected businesses and persons living within vicinity of a fire alarm box. Notices were published in both the Saint Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press newspapers listing the location of the boxes and keys. The signal office was established in a private room in the office of the Chief of Police at Police Headquarters in City Hall. E.B. Birge, Engineer of Trout Brook steamer (No. 4 Engine House), was appointed superintendent of the fire alarm telegraph in 1873 and served in that position until 1883. During his tenure, several additional fire alarm boxes were added to the system. The listing of box locations published in the Saint Paul Dispatch on April 5, 1873 is as follows:

Box # Location:

  • 5 Front of No. 3 Engine House, corner of Ramsey & Fort Streets
  • 6 Corner of Summit Avenue, Third Street, near the junction of Dayton Avenue
  • 7 Corner of Third and Fort Streets, Seven Corners
  • 12 Corner of Third and Washington Streets
  • 13 Front of No. 1 Engine House, St. Peter Street near Seventh
  • 14 Corner of summit Avenue and St. Peter Street
  • 15 Corner of Wabasha and Exchange Streets
  • 16 Corner of Wabasha and Third Streets
  • 21 Corner of Robert and Eighth Streets
  • 23 Corner of Robert and Twelfth Streets
  • 24 Corner of Jackson and Third Streets
  • 25 Front of No. 2 Engine House, Seventh Street near Wacouta
  • 31 Front of No. 4 Engine House, Broadway near Tenth Street
  • 32 Corner of Mississippi and Nash Streets
  • 34 Lafayette Street, near junction of Westminster
  • 35 Corner of Willius and Seventh Streets (Ordered, but not yet put up.)

The system was divided into two circuits and arranged so that contiguous boxes were not on the same circuit. By this arrangement if a person gives an alarm and finds that the gong inside the box does not sound after pulling the hook down, all he has to do is go to the next nearest box to give the alarm. The system was tested each day by seven strokes sounded at 7 A.M., and twelve strokes sounded at 12 P.M.

The Fire Department itself was divided into two districts. District No. 1 was that part of the city west of Wabasha Street and included all alarm boxes numbered 21 to 35. District No. 2 was that part of the city east of Wabasha Street and included alarm boxes numbered 5 to 16. When an alarm was sounded, only the firemen and engines in the district from which the alarm was given would respond. Those in the other district would standby and if a second alarm was sounded then they would respond to the location of the fire as indicated by the box number struck on the house gongs and City Hall tower bell.

In researching the newspapers, it appears the first alarm of fire using the new Fire Alarm Telegraph occurred at about 11 P.M. on Wednesday, May 7, 1873. It was described as being turned in "quite imperfectly" according to a ‘mentioned-in-passing, ho-hum, buried in the local gossip column’ article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on May 8. The St. Paul Dispatch, on the other hand, had a somewhat detailed account of what transpired which, when considering the aforementioned response instructions for the fire department, would explain the nature of the comment in the Pioneer Press. 

It seems Officer Putzier of the police force discovered smoke coming from the basement at 308 Third Street, directly under the Goodman & Lyon clothing store. Unable to gain entrance through the front door due to intense smoke, he gave the "alarm" and forced entrance through a rear door where he saw a number of empty boxes on fire. The alarm on the telegraph system was given from Box 12, and then a general alarm. Within a few minutes, the entire department had arrived. The fire had been kept in check by a hose brought over from the Metropolitan Hotel next door by a Mr. Dutcher and the hotel engineer. The danger soon ended as copious streams poured in from the engines leaving about two feet of water in the basement. The loss was only a few dollars damage.