When the early settlers came to the Shenandoah Valley there were no elaborate methods of announcing the eminent dangers of fire or similar emergencies. Whether it was day or night, the cry of "Fire!" was feared by all citizens. Since the founding of Harrisonburg in August 1779 until the present day, there have been perils of fire and many descriptions of how these devastating occurrences were handled. Exact history of the development of what we know as the Harrisonburg Fire Department is limited and recorded details are brief at best.
However, history does indicate that several large and consuming fires did occur in those early years during the development of Harrisonburg. One of those was named the "Great Christmas Fire" which occurred on December 25, 1868. Most of the buildings southwest of Court Square to Water Street were destroyed during this early morning fire. The community grappled with how to adequately handle future fires with leather fire bucket brigades and manual transport of water from town and private wells to actual working fires. At best these procedures were slow and almost always inadequate.
For more history on the Harrisonburg Fire Department please visit our Museum at 101 North Main Street, Third Floor Monday-Friday.
It was not until 1870 that the citizens of Harrisonburg finally realized that it was time to have better fire fighting equipment. Specifically, it was a fire on December 24, 1870, believed to be the largest fire in the history of Harrisonburg, that destroyed an entire city block, which prompted the formation of a committee to research the purchase of a better pumper to replace a local-made hand pumper. However, it was not until September 2, 1871 that a committee was actually formed to address the needs of better fire service to the community.
Their research turned up an ad in the Richmond paper which announced the sale of a city owned hand pumper named "Rescue." This piece of equipment could be manned by four men and could deliver 250 gallons of water per minute to any given fire situation. Mr. Thomas Bassford, the City's first fire chief was given the assignment by the committee to go to Richmond to peruse and witness a demonstration of the apparatus and make a report.
As result of his visit the pumper was purchased and delivered to the city by stage coach line. It was known to have done valorous work in assisting with the fighting of fires in Harrisonburg. It was most likely that during this period that the concept of mutual aid and public relations were first used. The towns of Dayton and Broadway suffered several major fires shortly after the purchase of this new piece of fire equipment by Harrisonburg. "Rescue" was deployed for their use and proved to be of great value to those towns before they too were better equipped. Good relations continued between the City of Harrisonburg and the Town of Dayton in their attempts to improve fire service for both towns.