In 1833 the growth of the village seemed to indicate that the condition of things might be improved by incorporation as a borough. A petition to the legislature was accordingly presented, which contained the signatures of the business men of the place. It was sent to the legislature at their session at Hartford, in May, 1833. Stephen Hosmer was one of the representatives of the town, and through his efforts, together with those of other citizens, a charter was obtained, organizing Willimantic into a borough. Mr. Hosmer was authorized to call a meeting of the legal voters residing within the corporate limits for the purpose of completing the organization by the election of officers provided for in the charter. The meeting was held on the first day of July in the same year, and the following officers were elected: Loren Carpenter, warden; Doctor Newton Fitch, clerk and treasurer; Wightman Williams, Asa Jillson, Samuel Barrows, Jr., William C. Boon, ‘ Doctor William Witter, Royal Jennings, burgesses; Stephen Dexter, bailiff. A tax was levied and Thomas W. Cunningham was chosen tax collector.
Under the charter a disinterested committee of three persons was to be appointed once in five years, by the county court of Windham, to setoff to the borough their fair proportion of roads in the town to keep in order during the following five years. This arrangement after a time became a source of dissatisfaction, as many of the roads to be repaired were outside the corporate limits. By a subsequent amendment to the charter this matter was remedied by assigning only the highways within its limits to the borough. The regular election of officers occurs on the second Tuesday in November annually. The borough officers in 1888 , were: John M. Alpaugh, warden; William H. Latham, George Tiffany, James A. McAvoy, D. W. C. Hill, Charles R. Utley, James. M. Smith, burgesses; Charles N. Daniels, clerk and treasurer; Frederick L. Clark, bailiff; Charles B. Jordan, collector; Albert R. Morrison, Samuel C. Smith, Jerome B. Baldwin, water commissioners; Homer E. Remington, treasurer of water fund.
The history of the fire companies of Willimantic begins with the history of the first company at Windham Green. Upon the petition of Samuel Gray and others the legislature in May, 1814, granted to the ” Center District,” the name applied to Windham Green, certain corporate privileges which were improved in measures for protection against fire. Some obstruction in the conditions or powers of the people under this and subsequent acts prevented the accomplishment of the purpose desired in that way, and a voluntary effort was made by the people, by which a fire engine was obtained. In June, 1821, the corporate fire district purchased of the private company their engine for $180, and July 2d, George W. Webb, Henry Webb and Eliphalet Ripley were chosen fire wardens for the district, with instructions to enlist a fire company. A company of twenty-four was promptly formed. In addition, cisterns, wells, buckets and other apparatus for working at fires were provided and an engine house built, which stood in the vacant lot just back of the present Congregational church at Windham. The original hand engine is still preserved as a curious historic relic. In shape it is like a miniature rectangular coal barge, in dimensions six by two and a half feet at the top, and five by one and a half feet at the bottom, and a foot or more in depth. The body is mounted on a pair of low wheels. The two pump levers move horizontally across the top of the body, the handles running across them being long enough to allow two men at each lever to work them. The body is mounted by a cylindrical water dome, through which water was forced by two pistons connected with the levers. Water was brought in buckets and poured into the body at one end, whence it was drawn by the pump and discharged through a hose which at first was only four feet long, with a. nozzle at the end. Twenty feet of hose was afterward purchased. The engine was provided with thills by which a horse could be used, but it was generally drawn by hand. By vigorous working it could be made to throw a half-inch stream fifty or sixty feet into the air. The original company disbanded in 1850, and then the engine was sold to the late Justin Swift, in whose family it still remains.
As the growth of Willimantic increased the dangers from fire, some organized means of protection seemed necessary. As early as 1830 movements were made in that direction, but nothing was accomplished until after the incorporation of the borough. In October, 1833, fire wardens were elected, whose duty it was to direct the people who should volunteer to work at fires. Apparatus was also provided for, such as ladders, buckets, etc. An engine, similar to the Windham engine, was also procured. – A company appears to have been formed at some time between 1830 and 1833, but its organization and members are matters of uncertainty, as no records appear to exist in relation to it. The number of fire wardens varied at different times, being three, four, five and at one time as great as thirteen. In 1837 the number of members in the company was allowed to be increased by ten. Certain privileges were allowed members of the fire company so that the ranks were easily filled when vacancies occurred. The need of some more effective means was felt, and by the logic of events in several disastrous fires it was shown that the old engine was not equal to the times, and the company seems to have become disorganized about the year 1850. The old engine was stored for a while, but in 18.58 it was sold, together with the engine house and equipments. The engine house stood for many years on the ” Jesse Spafford lot,” now covered by the Hamlin block, and its exact location was on the northeast corner now occupied by W. N. Potter’s drug store.
From the dates last mentioned up to 1868 there was no engine company or engine for extinguishing fires in the borough. The need of some means of protection was strongly urged, both by prudent minds and disastrous events. Efforts had been made in that direction the previous year, but nothing decisive had been accomplished. In the latter part of the year 1867 a committee was appointed to inquire into the cost of fire apparatus. The committee was instructed March 5th, 1868, to buy a secondhand engine which it had been ascertained was for sale at Greenville, Conn., for three hundred dollars. – This was done. The engine was mounted on four wheels, and was operated by levers at which about twenty men could work at once. It was provided with suction pipe, and would draw water from a cistern or well and discharge it through a line of hose. Various schemes for further improvement were agitated, but no definite plan was settled upon until November, 1872, when the borough ordered two chemical fire extinguishers of the New. England Fire Extinguisher Company, at an expense of $1,600. Meanwhile the Excelsior Hook and Ladder Company was formed, with Joel W. Webb as foreman, and the borough purchased them a truck provided with single and extension ladders, and other proper equipments. Two companies were formed to operate the chemical fire extinguishers. The first was called Fountain Fire Extinguisher No. 1, and the second, Fountain Fire Extinguisher No. 2. John Crawford was foreman of the first, and Samuel Hughes of the second. The original limit given to the membership of the hook and ladder company was thirty, and that of each – of the extinguisher companies was twenty. The limits of the former have since been increased to forty, and each of the latter to thirty.
The fire department of Willimantic thus being organized, the election of a chief took place July 15th, 1873. Dwight E. Potter was chosen to that position. C. Seth Billings was made first assistant, Alex. L. Fuller, second assistant, and John B. Carpenter, third assistant. These officers were constituted the board of engineers, taking the place of the former fire wardens in the management of the fire department. Mr. Potter served with marked efficiency until the fall of 1880, when he was succeeded by C. Seth Billings, who served until the fall of 1884. He was then succeeded by Charles N. Daniels, the present effective chief engineer. Successive members of the board of engineers since the first board have been-George H. Purinton, Alex. L. Fuller, Joel W. Webb, George H. Millerd, H. L. Edgarton, M. E. Lincoln, Charles N. Daniels, Charles E. Leonard, Thomas Burke, Luke Flynn, Jr., and James Tighe.
In 1880 the Board of Fire Police was started, with -six members, viz., M. E. Lincoln, Cyril Whittaker, Luke Flynn, Jr., C. M. Palmer, C. B. Pomeroy and Roland White. Their duties are to protect property exposed at fires, and to keep the crowd from interfering with-the firemen, and they are empowered the same as regular policemen.
The chemical extinguishers did not prove satisfactory in their practical working, and were sold at auction in 1874. Their places were supplied by new hose carriages which were received in November, 1875, their cost being 5550 each. The companies now changed their names. No. 1 became Alert Hose Company, and No. 2 adopted the name Montgomery Hose Company. John Tew was the first foreman of the Alerts and Jerry O’Sullivan of the Montgomerys. The supply of water from an elevated reservoir made the use of the engines for throwing water unnecessary for the greater part of the village at least. A Bucket Company was organized December 17th, 1877, as an independent company. It was supplied with a truck, ladders and buckets, the expense of which was borne by voluntary contributions from members or individual citizens of the borough. John Leonard ‘ was its first foreman. It entered the field with much enthusiasm and did good work, but after about five years its energies began to flag, and the borough not taking them under its control or patronage the company was disbanded in the spring of 1884. About a year later they sold their apparatus to the people of Windham Centre. Successive foremen of this company were Alex. Fuller, Howard R. Alford and James Johnson, after the first already named.
Within the last two or three years the borough has built and fitted up truck houses for the accommodation of its fire department, of which the citizens may justly be proud. Three commodious and substantial buildings have been provided. The house for Excelsior Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, stands on Bank street, nearly opposite the rear of the Hooker House. The truck house of the Alert Hose Company No. 1, is at No. 193 Main street, and the truck house of Montgomery Hose Company No. 2, is on Jackson street nearly opposite from the Roman Catholic church. In 1875 the borough was divided into four fire districts, which number has since been increased to seven. A code of alarm signals was at the same time established for making known the location of a fire. The alarm was at first struck by the Baptist and Methodist church bells only. In 1879 an electric alarm system, with alarm boxes in suitable places was established in connection with a gong on the Brainerd House, designed both to notify citizens of the. district in which a fire may be and to signal for the starting of the mill pumps.
It is estimated that Willimantic has lost during the last quarter century about $110,000 by fires occurring in the borough. We have not space here to recount all the fires which have occurred in the history of this village, but brief reference to two or three important ones may not be out of place. A sad casualty of the kind was the burning of the old Potter tavern on the night of January 8th, 1842. This house stood on the site of the old National House, later the Revere House, and was managed by Niles Potter. The flames, which it is supposed caught behind a door from a broom that had been used to sweep up the fireplace-stoves were scarcely known then-were well under way before discovered, but the fire company and the villagers generally responded promptly to the alarm, and went to work with a will. The old engine was brought into requisition, a double line of men and women was quickly formed across lots down to the Willimantic river, or to “the cove ” which used to set in there, and water was passed in pails and poured into the engine. In the building there stood an old fashioned brick chimney, which leaned, but had been supported by the woodwork. The latter burned away, and as Nathan Benchley, a well-known resident, was carrying out an armful of things by the back door, the chimney fell upon him with a terrible crash, crushing his life out instantly. And still another tragedy was to be revealed. A little ten-year-old girl by the name of Hutchins, who lived with Mr. -and Mrs. Potter as an adopted child, had been sleeping with Mrs. Potter’s sister Elizabeth. in an upper room. When they were awakened by the alarm and smoke, the lady took the child, by the hand and started for the stairs, let go of her hand at the narrow staircase, told the little one to follow and rushed out, only to find that the little girl, frightened or suffocated by smoke, had probably turned back, and it was then too late to save her. Her charred remains were afterward found in the ruins. Heroic efforts saved the adjoining property.
One of the most destructive fires that ever visited Willimantic occurred on the night of March 4th, 1868. It started in what was known as Robert Hooper’s twin building, two small, one-story structures joined together and standing on the lot next west of the present Franklin Hall building. A deep snow lay
on the ground at the time, but the citizens responded promptly to the alarm. No organized fire department then existed in the village, and no apparatus was at command save what had been provided by the individual enterprise of the cotton mill owners. A three-inch water pipe had been laid from the Smithville Company’s works down Main street to the post office, through which power pumps at the mill could force water. The pumps were started, but through some defect in the pipes the water could not be brought to bear on the fire until the latter was well under way. The flames rapidly communicated to the large wooden dwelling house of the late George C. Elliott, which stood next west of the twins, and also to the three-story wooden Franklin Hall building, owned by Messrs. Alpaugh & Hooper, which stood next east. The old Presbyterian church on the west, and the David Tucker house-now Chester Tilden’s-on the east were only saved by vigorous efforts and surprising good fortune. The Tucker house was joined to the Franklin Hall building by a one-story apartment occupied by J. Rand Robertson as a- jewelry store. Courageous persons on the roof of the Tucker house kept it wet down as best as they could, and the stream from the hydrant was turned alternately upon the jewelry store and the west side of the Tucker house. The tin roof over the Robertson shop was a great help, but it seemed as if nothing could save the Tucker house. Suddenly Dwight E. Potter and William B. Swift, then popular young men here, with reckless daring mounted the tin roof of the half burned jewelry shop, and there, surrounded and almost licked by flame, they stood and told the firemen where to turn their stream. ” Young Potter ” was especially daring and helpful to the hosemen, closely watching the flames and promptly directing e water upon each spot where they got a hold. This bravery proved the salvation of the Tucker house, and it came out of the struggle with only a badly scorched side. Even part of the jewelry shop was saved, and some of the present shelves on the east side were there then.
February 27th, 1876, occurred the most disastrous fire in the history of Willimantic, of about the same extent as that of the Franklin Hall and other buildings in 1868, but more deplorable in its results. Three large buildings were burned, one of wood, including Starkweather’s grist mill and a flock mill (where the fire started), the next of brick, including the Atwood Machine and the Conant Silk companies, the third a storehouse. They stood on Valley street, in order from west to east as named, and the present Bank street crosses about where the Atwood Machine Company’s building stood. There was no insurance on the flock mill’s or the machine company’s stock. The buildings were insured. Mr. Starkweather never rebuilt here, and both the Atwood Machine and the Conant Silk companies removed elsewhere, to the regret of our citizens, as they employed many hands. There was some delay in getting water at this fire, but the chief difficulty, and the main cause of such a heavy disaster, was the lack of sufficient hose to reach the fire effectively.
Another destructive fire occurred here February 26th, 1885. This was one of the largest fires that had ever visited the borough. The Cranston block, in the heart of the village, was burned and other adjoining buildings badly damaged. The losses on buildings were estimated as follows: Cranston building, $3,500; George E. Elliott’s building, $10,000; Kellogg’s building, $2,000; McEvoy’s building, $1,000. Losses on contents were estimated at $7,600 in the aggregate.
The Willimantic Water Works are a development which may be said to have begun with the efforts of the mill owners to protect themselves and their surroundings from fire in the early years of their enterprise. The first water pipe system outside of such private enterprises was a three-inch pipe laid along Main .street from the Smithville Company’s mills down to the post office and up High street to the house of Robert Hooper, near Valley street, about the year 1853. The expense was borne by the company and the property owners along the line, and the company contracted to work the pumps whenever the alarm of fire was given. The system proved efficient, and as large a stream could be sent out as can be obtained from any hydrant now in the borough. It is still kept in working order for use in case of emergencies.
After many years spent in discussing and proposing various schemes for supplying the village with water for the extinguishing of fires, a contract was finally made with the mill companies along the river to furnish power for pumping water through a system of pipes to be laid through the principal streets, with hydrants at convenient points. The mill owners were to be allowed for such service a rebate of one-half their taxes to the borough. Much opposition to the plan prevailed for a time, but it was finally put into execution with the decided support of the people of the borough. September 13th, 1873, the borough voted to allow the warden and burgesses to borrow money to lay the pipes. The work soon after ‘began and was continued, though opposition appeared at every step and it was impeded somewhat by perplexing litigation, which, however, did not succeed in preventing the execution of the plan. The system completed, was connected with the force pumps of the Smithville, Windham, and Linen companies, and the pressure attainable as 150 pounds to the square inch. This system seemed to be all that was required for protection against fires, but with the growth of the village a want soon became apparent for a system of supplying water for household purposes. In 1880 Messrs. Whiting, James E. and Willard T. Hayden applied to the general assembly for corporate privileges as a water company, with the necessary rights of entering upon property for the specified purposes, with the design of meeting this growing want. Through the influences brought to bear by the people of the borough, who were not in favor of water being supplied to the village by a private company, the incorporation was not effected.
In July, 1882, steps were taken to consider the practical questions regarding the establishment of public water works, and the idea became so popular that the borough, at a meeting November 13th, decided to ask the burgesses to petition the assembly for an amendment to their charter which would allow them to undertake such an enterprise. In accordance with such petition the amendment was granted at the May session of 1883. August 18th, 1883, the borough accepted the water charter by a ballot of 194 to 16. January 8th, 1884, George W. Burnham was elected water commissioner for one year, E. B. Sumner for two years-,-and Henry N. Wales for three years. The regular year begins January 1st. By a vote taken at a borough meeting held July 9th, 1884, it was decided, by a vote of 277 against 42, that public water works should be constructed to supply the village from the Natchaug river. The commissioners were at the same time authorized to issue bonds to the amount of $200,000 to carry out the plan. The bonds were in due time issued, and bore date October -1st, 1884, being in four equal classes, to run respectively fifteen, twenty, twenty-five and thirty years, bearing interest at four per cent. per annum. The work was then pushed forward. A dam and pumping station, and engineer’s house were erected at Conantville, about one and a half miles north of the village, on the Natchaug, and a reservoir was built on Hosmer mountain, south of the village. This reservoir has a capacity of five million gallons. More than twelve miles of iron pipes have been laid through the streets. The pumping capacity is two thousand gallons per minute. Water from the clear Natchaug stream is thus driven to the reservoir, which is elevated several hundred feet above the village, and thence it is led by pipes to the village, having pressure sufficient to cover any building in the place with a stream from a “line of hose. “The pressure is so great that in dealing with fires no engines are necessary.
Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889