Much of the history of Asheville's fire department lies in the minds and experiences of the men and women who served in the past. They saw the first volunteer Fire Company put into service, they were some of the 54 men that started a paid Asheville Fire Department and they served under Chiefs like A.L. Duckett, who did amazing things for our fire department.
And then there were the fires. These men and women worked jobs like the Harness Shop fire when it was 14 below zero. They fought hard at the Emporium fire on Pack Square, in the middle of the day with hundreds of civilians watching them. They tried to contain a very large fire at Highlands Hospital that claimed the life of the wife of a famous writer. And they witnessed Asheville’s line of duty deaths at the Susquehanna Antique Shop and West Asheville Baptist Church.
Our department, like any other in the world, started as citizen bucket brigades passing water from hand to hand in an attempt to extinguish a fire. In February 1882, a fire broke out in a residence late at night. As the bucket brigades formed and began to fight, one of the members noticed a woman on the third floor. She had become trapped in smoke and flames. The brigade had no ladders tall enough to assist in her rescue. After this woman’s death, several citizens approached the city alderman and demanded that the city better equip its all-volunteer brigades. A hand drawn wagon carrying a 35-foot ladder was purchased and Ladder Company #1 was organized that same February.
Ladder Company #1 was a welcome addition for the citizens of Asheville, but a larger problem existed. No water works existed in the city at this time so most fires were still fought from wells, rivers, streams and creeks using buckets. In West Asheville, the same spring that Ladder #1 was formed, the Sulphur Springs Hotel burned. This hotel was a tourist attraction and a proud landmark to the people in West Asheville. It was the first hotel in the South to have an electric passenger elevator. Since there was no water supply, the structure burned without any attempt to extinguish it. A renewed effort to establish a water works was begun shortly after this fire. We know that this project was completed sometime between 1882 and 1884 when the Sulphur Springs Hotel burned a second time in late 1884. Fire Company #1 was formed shortly after the second Sulphur Springs fire. This company was equipped with a hand drawn wagon carrying hoses and nozzles. After the water works were complete, the pressure in Asheville’s system was so great that pumping at a fire was not needed. Volunteer Chief Clarence Sawyer led both companies during these times.
By 1890 Asheville had already begun to grow very rapidly. Downtown was developing into a thriving business district. Whether out of a sense of civic duty or preservation of their own interests, several Asheville business people became volunteer firefighters. In 1894, Asheville built a new city hall on east Pack Square which housed the police department, fire department, court rooms and all city staff.
At the same time our fire department made a very dramatic shift in how it transported men and equipment to fires. All hand drawn equipment were replaced with horses. Since it took the abilities of large numbers of men at each working fire, the addition of horses allowed those efforts, which had been concentrated on pulling all hand drawn wagons, to be focused on fighting the fire. A more efficient fire department was beginning to emerge.
Along with the new city hall building, the aldermen approved expenditures for new hose wagons, ladder wagons and several new horses to assist in city fire protection. Firefighters looked at the horses as their equals when it came to their jobs. They spent several hours a day training and caring for these animals. It showed when the alarm rang. As the gong sounded each horse was trained to move from its stall to the front of its apparatus. The men would lower the harnesses and fasten them to each horse. The bay doors would open and each apparatus would race through the streets.
The volunteers in the early 1900s were just as amazing. They dedicated long hours to training, fire fighting and equipment upkeep, not to mention the livelihoods and families they needed to support as well. They were very dedicated to the fire service. One man showed strong commitment and desire in the year 1905. John Brooks became the first African American member and driver in our department’s history. In that year Mr. Brooks was appointed driver of Hose Company #1.
In 1909 another change in how Asheville firemen did their job was in the making. A major event that assisted in this change was the Kenilworth Inn fire on April 15, 1909. At around 2:15 a.m. an alarm was sounded for a small fire at the Inn. The fire had started from loose embers from the Inn’s chimney igniting birds' nests near the eaves of the structure. That night the Inn was playing host to 30 guests, most all of whom were undoubtedly asleep for the night. When the firemen arrived they found a four story structure heavily involved in fire. The volunteers worked hard to rescue the guests and contain fire spread. Not one guest or employee was lost in this fire. However, many of the citizens who watched this fire from a nearby hill were influential business people of Asheville. Many complained that the fire was very small when the fire department was called and that the large amount of time it took for the first arriving units to get on scene led to much greater destruction. Many went to the city aldermen and requested that the department’s horses be replaced with motorized equipment. Many cities around America had already left horses behind and purchased motorized wagons. Asheville was soon to follow.
In 1913, much to the chagrin of the volunteer firefighters, the city purchased their first motorized apparatus. Many of the long-time volunteers left the city’s fire service after this change came about. The horses had been like the men to the volunteers. The worked side by side and spent many long hours together fighting some of the city’s worst fires to date. It had become a very emotional time in our department’s history.
As with many events in history, the catalyst for such changes can often be pinpointed to single events. Two major fires stand out as these catalysts for a change that was to take Asheville from volunteers to a paid, career department.
On the morning November 16, 1917, an alarm came in for a structure fire at an address near South Charlotte Street and Max Street, then the Catholic Hill School. It was a school day and the firemen knew there would be several teachers and children in the building; in fact there were more than 300 at the time of the fire. The building was constructed out of brick and was three stories tall. The fire was believed to have broken out in the furnace room. Wooden floors and large, open stairwells running from basement to the top floor assisted the fire spread. The volunteers worked hard that day and saved several young lives. However a few of the children panicked when the school began to fill with smoke. Six children ran together to the top floor into room 3-B in an attempt to flee the smoke and flames and became trapped. Later, as firemen started overhaul, they found the bodies of those six children in room 3-B. Another child’s body was found outside the room near the stairwell along with two nuns at the entrance to the third floor. This became one of the worst civilian casualties the department had experienced to date. After this fire, the Stephens-Lee School was built.
John H. Cathey was Asheville’s mayor in the early 1920s. He is credited with overseeing the design and construction of the Asheville City Hall. This was a very progressive and costly project at the time. The firemen at the time also knew that with such progressive leadership it wouldn’t be long until our fire department went to a fully paid staff. The event that pushed this concept to reality happened on a summer day in July 1923. The Emporium was a large retail store on south Pack Square. This fire was very spectacular because the smoke could be seen for miles around and it occurred in the middle of the day. As the volunteers fought this fire several hundred Asheville citizens looked on. The damage to the building was estimated at over $100,000. Less than one year after this incident, on April 2, 1924, the Asheville City Fire Department became a fully paid, career department.
The Asheville Citizen newspaper reported on March 30, 1924, that 54 men would start the paid department and that the current volunteers would not disband, but form a club. It is unclear what function this volunteer club would serve.
Chief A.L. Duckett became Chief on January 23, 1920, after 23 years on the line. He fought at most of the fires that defined the department at the time. He was Chief when Headquarters moved from Pack Square to the Municipal Building in 1925 and was a strong advocate of fire prevention. He was instrumental in starting the North Carolina Fire School, and the department received four major awards from the NFPA for fire prevention. He also saw the opening of Stations 4 and 5.
On December 9, 1938, Chief Duckett retired with 43 years of service to the city of Asheville. He died less than a year later at the age of 62. He received
full honors as the bell atop City Hall tolled once for every year of his age. J.C. Fitzgerald was promoted to Chief on December 9, 1938. Like Chief Duckett, Chief Fitzgerald had been a member of the department for 22 years prior to his promotion. He had fought the hard fires and seen many dramatic changes the department experienced. He was well seasoned and an excellent fireman.
One fire that was particularly hard on Chief Fitzgerald happened in the early morning on March 10, 1948. Highland Hospital located on Zillicoa Street was originally named “Dr. Carroll’s Sanatorium” and was used to treat patients with mental and nervous disorders. All of the windows had bars on them and all the doors had steel slabs. When the crews arrived shortly after 1 a.m. they found that the four story building was already heavily involved. Crews went to work immediately pulling lines and attempting to forcibly enter the structure to rescue patients and staff. Due to the bars on the windows, firefighters at the scene reported later that they had to watch patients die in front of them while they tried in vain to remove the bars to gain access. Nine patients died in this fire. Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of classic author F. Scott Fitzgerald, was one of those casualties.
Chief Fitzgerald retired from the Asheville Fire Department on December 31, 1962, after 47 years of service. At the time of his retirement party he warned the men to be careful of some of the older buildings downtown. The old Chief didn’t know it at the time, but he was foreshadowing Asheville’s first Line of Duty death less than one year later.
Chief D.B. Dover was appointed Chief on January 1, 1963, after the retirement of J.C. Fitzgerald. At the time of his appointment, Dover was 64 years old and had served the department for 39 years. Chief Dover had the misfortune to be in command during Asheville’s first line of duty death.
On December 9, 1963, at 4:30 p.m. the department dispatcher received a call for the smell of smoke in a building. The address was 23 Biltmore Avenue, the Susquehanna Antique Shop. Engine 1 was dispatched under the command of Lt. George House. Upon arrival Lt. House reported heavy smoke showing coming from the basement stairwell. The call for a regular alarm was transmitted by House. Chief Dover soon arrived on the fire scene and noticed that by now the entire basement area was on fire. A second alarm was called in by Chief Dover. Gus Wharhan was called into service and advised by dispatch to go to Station 7 and pick up the reserve engine. He then asked the dispatcher if he could go directly to the fire instead of stand by. His request was granted.
Lines had already been laid from the hydrant in front of the Plaza Theater. Wharhan, Lt. Mitchell and George Honeycutt took control of the nozzle on these lines and advanced them into the antique shop. Crews continued to operate well into early evening. As night approached, firemen on the scene reported hearing what sounded like an explosion. After this sound, Capt. Joe Diggs began going from crew to crew and taking a count. He explained that the front of the building had collapsed and they wanted to make certain everyone was accounted for. It was determined that Gus Wharhan had been missing and that it took firemen on the scene two hours to pull him from the collapse. Wharhan was rushed to the hospital, but later died from his injuries. This death weighed very heavily on Chief Dover and he retired shortly after this fire.
Asheville’s next Chief would rise through the ranks as they had done for decades. Powell Ball was appointed on September 1, 1970. He had already served the city of Asheville for 20 years before earning his promotion to Chief of the department. Under Chief Ball’s tenure no new fire stations were built. However, stations 2, 3 and 5 were relocated to their current locations. In addition, our department moved from two shifts to its current three platoon system.
In the early 1980s the fire department underwent an intensive study by the Management Improvement Corporation of America, a private consulting firm. The results of this study provided the path for much of the department structure we have today. Firefighters were provided with a career ladder, division chiefs were put into place to manage three new department divisions; Administration, Fire Suppression and Fire Prevention. Equipment was to be brought up to OSHA standards, education of the members became more of a priority as money would allow, and he established a first responder program with many members becoming EMT certified.
Powell Ball also experienced Asheville’s second line of duty death. On May 26, 1982, a fire started at the West Asheville Baptist Church after lighting struck the steeple setting the attic ablaze. A full alarm was struck and Engine Company 6 was one of the first due at 926 Haywood Road. Shortly after firefighters entered and began fighting the blaze, the steeple, weakened by the lighting strike and fire, collapsed, trapping and killing Raymond J. Flowers. Flowers had been a member of the department for a little over one year. He was given full honors at his funeral. The entire membership of the department, along with several hundred others, followed the procession on foot from headquarters to Riverside Cemetery.
After serving 16 years as Chief of the Asheville Fire Department, Powell Ball retired on July 1, 1986. Chief Ball was a very progressive chief and instituted many changes that are still in place today.
After Powell Ball’s retirement, Asheville City Manager Doug Bean conducted a search for a new fire chief. After all the testing and assessment was completed, another first in the Asheville Fire Department occurred. John David Rukavina from St. Paul, Minnesota, was appointed chief on November 10, 1986. This was the first time that a chief was chosen from outside the fire department.
Assistant Chief Robert Griffin stepped in as interim Chief from May 2000 until the end of October 2000. On November 1, 2000, Greg Grayson from the Burlington Fire Department was appointed as the new Fire Chief for Asheville Fire and Rescue. Scott Burnette joined the Asheville Fire Department in 1995. He was promoted to assistant Fire Chief in 2006 and then to Fire Chief in 2009 and currently serves as the Asheville Fire Department Fire Chief.
In history, “firsts” are a good point on which to build an understanding of where one comes from or where the tradition of an organization begins. In the fire service, history and tradition are an important part of how and why we do our job. It fosters an appreciation for the seemingly mundane tools and procedures we use everyday. It also instills a high degree of respect for people like Gus Wharhan and Raymond Flowers who have gone before us and paid the ultimate price. Many fires have been fought and many more still lie ahead. A very solid foundation has been laid for us by our past brothers and sisters of the Asheville Fire Department. We will continue to build on this foundation and pioneer new “firsts” in our future.