Many a Charleston milestone has resulted from fire. Major conflagrations erupting in 1740, 1778, 1838, and 1861 wiped out whole neighborhoods and changed the face and history of the city. For centuries, when fires raged, help came from volunteer squads: blacks and whites, rich and poor, manned bucket brigades and pulled hand engines—and eventually steam engines—through narrow streets to battle catastrophes that may have been brought on by one misplaced spark and a strong wind. The men sometimes destroyed homes and businesses simply as a means of stopping the blaze, and residents in the fire’s path dragged their possessions out into the streets, relying upon whomever was nearby to help carry them to safety. As a result, citizens like Thomas Bee—whose home at 94 Church survived the fire of 1778—posted newspaper ads for weeks seeking to recover “lost” items.
But on January 1, 1882, Mayor William A. Courtenay took a vital step toward protecting the Holy City from raging flames by creating the Charleston Fire Department, comprised of six engine and two truck companies, 101 men, and 29 horses. Today, our pro firefighters protect more than 120,000 citizens and 109 square miles. Happy 135th birthday to the institution that so heroically serves our city.