Early Fire Fighting In Georgiaville

Originally published in The Smithfield Times magazine – March, 2022 

Early Fire Fighting In Georgiaville

By Jim Ignasher


Georgiaville Fire Dept.
Circa 1942

     A large two-story building known as Columbus Hall once stood at the corner of Stillwater Road and St. Michael’s Way in Georgiaville. Besides being a place of music, dancing, and theatrical entertainment, it also housed a barber shop and drug store. Shortly after midnight on July 29, 1897, flames were discovered coming from the building, and shouts of “Fire!” echoed throughout the village rousing residents from their slumber. A bucket brigade was formed, but the flames had gained too much headway, and before long the Georgiaville train station next to the hall was also ablaze. Despite the brigade’s efforts, it became obvious that both buildings would be lost, so efforts were focused on saving nearby structures.

     Falling embers ignited the Georgiaville Schoolhouse and the home of Richard Tobin, but these structures were saved.

     In 1897, organized fire protection in Georgiaville was non-existent, and it was fires such as this that prompted some to suggest that a village fire company should be established, but for reasons lost to history, establishing such a company wouldn’t happen for another seventeen years.

     As a point of fact, the only organized fire company in Smithfield at the time was in Greenville, but Greenville’s horse-drawn fire apparatus was considered obsolete for the time, yet it was better than nothing.

     It wasn’t until April of 1915, when two ice houses along Georgiaville Pond burned to the ground that a fire company was finally organized at a special meeting held at Bernon Hall. The name of the organization was chartered as “The Smithfield Fire Company”.

     Money to purchase fire apparatus and equipment was raised through subscriptions, and it was hoped to that enough would be raised to buy a motorized Ford fire tuck, but this did not materialize. Instead, the fledgling fire company began with two obsolete horse-drawn apparatus, a hook-and ladder, and a chemical wagon, both of which were housed at the Bernon Mill in a makeshift fire station. Although the apparatus were designed to be horse-drawn, there’s no evidence that the fire company owned any horses, and thereby had to rely on mussel power.

     In the autumn of 1923 the fire company purchased a brand new motorized Chandler fire truck, and then a used 1912 Packard ladder truck, and a 1912 Cadillac forest fire truck. Motorized vehicles now allowed the fire company to respond to fires beyond the locality of the village.

     On May 27, 1924, a special meeting was held where it was voted to re-incorporate The Smithfield Fire Company as the “Smithfield Volunteer Fire Company, District Number 2”. The reason for the change is unknown, but minutes of the meeting state in part that it was “…voted that this company become a permanent organization.”

     It was also in 1924 that the former Georgiaville Schoolhouse was turned over to the fire company for use as a permanent fire station. Three-thousand dollars was raised through social fundraisers to build an addition off the back to accommodate the fire trucks.

     In 1938 the fire company ordered a modern Seagraves fire engine with a 500 gallon-per-minute pump that was considered top-of-the-line for its day. It was also in that year that plans were accepted for a new fire station to be build next to the Town Hall, for the old Georgiaville School, built in the previous century, had outlived its usefulness. The fire company moved into its new quarters on October 25, 1942. The new building was adorned with bronze letters that read “Georgiaville Fire Company”.

     As a side note, although the fire company had been incorporated under two other names, it had been referred to as the “Georgiaville Fire Company” in newspapers as early as August of 1915. It didn’t officially become the Georgiaville Fire Company until 1950.

     In 1946 the fire company purchased a second-hand Packard Ambulance, which was the first fire department ambulance in Smithfield. (One anecdote told to this writer was that prior to this purchase, a local grocery store delivery wagon would sometimes be pressed into service as an ambulance.)

     Firefighting is inherently dangerous, and during its years of existence the Georgiaville Fire Company lost two members in the line of duty. The first was Lieutenant Robert W. Brown, (22), who suffered fatal injuries when he fell from a moving fire truck as it raced to a brush fire on April 2, 1960. The other was Lieutenant Eugene E. Dorgan, (38), who fell from a moving fire truck while responding to a bran fire off Colwell Road. The fire was later determined to be arson, and the perpetrator was subsequently charged.

     The Georgiaville Fire Company eventually became part of the Smithfield Fire Department as we know it today, and while the bronze letters have been removed from the fire station on Farnum Pike, the building still stands.



Smithfield, R. I., Schools

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