It makes sense that the Tacoma Fire Department dates back to the early days of the city, but it isn’t readily known that some of the fire stations built in those pioneering boomtown days still house firefighters.
The department has 11 fire stations and other emergency response facilities on the city’s Register of Historic Places. They were all added in a group nomination in 1987. Half of the turn-of-the-last-century stations still serve as active firehouses.
Their stories tell the tale of Tacoma.
The Tacoma Fire Department, which formed in 1881, is three years older than the city it serves. The department was typical for the era in that the stations were filled with volunteer firefighters who often found themselves spending their own money to feed the horses that were used to pull the hand-pumped water tanks. That hodge-podge nature of emergency response, however, changed almost overnight.
Change came after the threat of an oil lamp setting blazes to blocks of wood-framed houses in the city became all too real with the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Tacomans didn’t want a local repeat of that tragedy. The city formed a professional department and ordered state-of-art equipment. The city was young, however, and it couldn’t always cover the resulting paychecks, but firefighters never left their posts. Although things got tense in 1896 with threats of a strike that could have caused a panic in the rough and tumble city.
It was a decade after the strike that Tacoma’s most well-known fire station took shape. What is now the pub Engine House No. 9 opened in 1907 to protect the growing North End. It has the distinction of being the last station to replace its horse-drawn water carriage to a motorized model. That day came in 1919, when Nip, Dick and Joe pulled a steam-driven pumper from the stable during a ceremonial last call. The station itself would respond to its last call in 1965, when firefighters moved to a larger station on nearby Sixth Avenue. The station sat vacant for seven years before Win Anderson and Bob Lane purchased and restored the brick-and-mortar building into the signature tavern it remains today.
The sirens and rumbling motors of the fire engines at Engine House No. 9 inspired Ralph Decker to have a life-long appreciation of firefighters. He grew up in the neighborhood and still volunteers with Tacoma Fire Buff Battalion.
“As soon as you heard that Mack start up, you knew they were going on a run,” he said. “They had a 1948 Mack, which we still have, by the way.”
Decker spent much of his youth at the fire stations he had along his paper route in the late 1950s and early ‘60s and even hoped to become a firefighter one day. It was not to be. He couldn’t meet the department’s minimum height of 5’8”.
“I was too short, so I became a fire buff,” he said, noting that he coauthored “100 Years of Firefighting in the City of Tacoma” with Clyde Talbot.
Station 2 holds the distinction of being the oldest station still in active service. Dating back 111 years, the art deco design from architect Paul Bergfeld shows through the renovations the department made in 1935 and shows little sign of becoming obsolete anytime soon.
The future isn’t so certain for former station 15 on the tideflats, however. The 90-year-old facility, which was renamed station 5 earlier this, had been mothballed since 2007 during the budget-crunching times of the Great Recession. The department had first hoped to renovate and reopen it as part of a fire response agreement between the city and Puget Sound Energy, which is building a liquefied natural gas facility across the street. The station, however, is too small for modern equipment and would have to undergo costly upgrades to meet current building requirements for emergency response buildings. Talks are now focusing on a location for a new station. That would leave the historic station free to find another use. The one-story stucco station isn’t particularly remarkable architecturally speaking, although it was built in a Mediterranean style with a cross-gabled roof and arched arcade. Its historical significance, however, dates back to the establishment of the St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Co. in 1888 as well as through World War II, when it provided emergency responses to the ship-building operations that once churned out crafts by the hundreds.
Stations 11 and 13 are not only both historically designated and still in use as fire station, but available for tours for groups.
Station 11, at 3802 McKinley Avenue, hails from the days when the department still used horse-drawn wagons. Built in 1909 by C. A. Opperman, the one-and-a-half story, bungalow-style fire station even has a bell tower and weathervane.
Station 13, at 3835 N 25th Street, opened in 1911 and was designed by George Vail. Although it was remodeled in 1993 to allow for the changes to equipment and requirements, the station’s exterior looks pretty much as it did when its firefighters responded to their first call 107 years ago.