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Swimming Under the Fire Hall

“Jerry Kelland started on his contract at the fire hall this week,” says the Langdon Courier Democrat of 18 January 1894. “He will put in a brick cistern of 1,000 barrels capacity. Dynamite was used in breaking up the frozen earth.”

Langdon was getting with the times by constructing a community fire hall, complete with a cistern, a reservoir excavated under the building for water to fight fires. The source of water must have been uncertain, because in 1898 the mayor donated his salary of $100 to drill a well and install a windmill next to the fire hall to fill the cistern.

How was the water to be deployed? A steam engine and pump were installed in the fire hall to pump into hoses run out to the scene of a fire--literally, run out by athletic young men pulling hose wagons into place and trailing lines of hose. We read in 1904 they responded to a fire at the livery barn too late to save the building (although the thirty-five horses housed therein were extricated safely).

Engineer Plummer at the fire hall, says the newspaper, “was not long in getting up steam and within ten minutes of the first tap of the bell the department had three streams of water playing on the flames.” The writer commended “the gallant stand” of hose handlers in preventing spread of the blaze.

Seven years later the alarm sounded when the bakery caught fire, and the firemen “were early on the scene with two lines of hose laid” and also a chemical engine. Once again the building was lost, but the fire prevented from spreading. Afterward, the Great Northern Railroad agent kindly allowed the city to refill the cistern from the railroad’s water tank.

This general arrangement of a cistern dug beneath the fire hall, hoses unwound from it (perhaps for the better part of a mile) to any point in town, and organized companies of volunteer firemen bringing them into play seems to have prevailed in towns across the prairies. Newspapers record that there was a cistern under the fire hall in Devils Lake in the 1890s.

Bottineau in 1903 boasted a new two-story fire hall with offices on the second floor, fire equipment on the first, and a 3000-barrel cistern underneath. Hope in the early 1900s also had a cistern under the fire hall, as well as another back of the lumber yard. News reports in 1905 credited McHenry for purchasing a gasoline engine and 1500 feet of hose to pump from cisterns, putting the city “in shape to fight the fire fiends right.” By 1908 Hope was bragging that it also had installed a gasoline engine. By 1909 Langdon, too, had converted to gasoline. This seems prudent, in order to avoid the delay in getting up steam. Some cisterns were of brick, but at least one early one, that in Pembina, was of cement.

As was the one in Ashley, where I first became aware of this sort of arrangement. In fact, I led a research party to Ashley last week to document its historic brick fire hall, constructed in 1912--and also the cistern (called by local citizens the “reservoir”) underneath it. Our hope is to nominate the hall to the National Register of Historic Places, and so we have to be able to explain how this reservoir business functioned.

The entire basement under the fire hall constituted the reservoir, its walls plastered with a concrete plaster containing some sort of sealant. Oral tradition recounts that volunteer firemen were initiated by making them descend into the reservoir and swim its length. The Ashley fire hall reservoir was utilized for fire fighting until the 1940s, when city water lines were installed. After that it was a storm shelter and--judging by the canned goods still sealed therein--a fallout shelter. As we form up the rest of the narrative, I’ll be back with the full story of this historic landmark of McIntosh County.

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