Looking back, with an eye toward the future
‘Fire House Photos’
display shares history, aims to spur interest
BY GLORIA STRAVELLI
He still has the dog-eared copy of the commemorative book whose photographs tell the proud history of the Red Bank Volunteer Fire Department.
"As a 12-year-old kid I thumbed through the ‘Red Bank Fire Department Centennial’ and read it and reread it," said Douglas Haviland, a volunteer firefighter with the department’s Liberty Hose Company on White Street. "I still look through it."
A copy of the pictorial history issued for the 100th anniversary of the Red Bank Fire Department on Aug. 26, 1972, is part of "Fire House Photos," an exhibit put together by Haviland and on display at the Red Bank Public Library through Jan. 29.
A Red Bank native and longtime volunteer firefighter, Haviland has assembled an exhibit of historical photos dating as far back as 1905 that document the history of the Red Bank Fire Department and its volunteers.
His source for the seldom-seen photos? Firehouse walls.
"The public has rarely seen most of these photographs," explained Haviland, an emergency medical technician when he isn’t responding to fire alarms. "The pictures weren’t sequestered in a musty vault. They’ve been hanging in the firehouses."
The pictures — from vintage to modern day — document the evolution of the department’s fire-fighting equipment, vehicles and uniforms from the early days of bucket brigades to today’s modern firefighting and rescue force.
But the images offer more than a historical tableau of the department. Hidden in the photos are glimpses of everyday life in Red Bank revealed in background details like storefronts, onlookers’ attire, customs, ceremonies and celebrations.
Haviland got a close-up look at some of the photos when he took them off firehouse walls for the exhibit and found more than he expected.
"As I looked more closely at each image, I was surprised by the details hidden in them," he explained. "The thing I love about this exhibit is looking at the story in the background."
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a large black and white photograph of state-of-the-art firefighting equipment circa 1908. Liberty Hose Company’s Pope Toledo motorized pumper was an automobile customized for firefighting use at a garage on Front Street.
"The Pope Toledo was the first piece of motorized equipment in Monmouth," said Haviland. "You can imagine the controversy that must have taken place at the time about switching to a motorized piece of equipment. To have a motorized piece down here at that time was probably an extraordinary thing."
Able to accommodate only five firefighters, two seated up front (one being the fire chief) and three standing on the rear, the Pope Toledo gave rise to a firehouse custom.
"The first four volunteers to get to the firehouse got to ride to the fire; the others had to get there on their own," Haviland said. "To establish who was first to the firehouse, they used numbered paddles. The first four volunteers grabbed the paddles and got to ride."
An undated photo predates the Pope Toledo image.
The large black and white image shows a pair of sturdy horses hitched up to a wagon in front of a wood-frame firehouse on White Street shared by Liberty Hose Company & Independent Hose Company No. 2. That detail places the photo in time at between 1898, when Independent Fire Company No. 2 moved to White Street, and 1910 when the company moved to a newly built firehouse on Mechanic Street.
Details in the photo speak of a festive day and reveal that White Street at the time was an unpaved, residential street. A banner hanging above the street reads "Welcome Fellow Members," the fire wagon is decorated with flowers, and firefighters pose in dress uniform. The photo also affords a view of Broad Street and shows that the firehouse location at the time was likely where English Plaza is today, Haviland noted.
A library display case is filled with images including three photos of Emma Vernell, who became a member of West Hose Company and Red Bank’s first female firefighter in 1926. Vernell is one of the spectators in a 1949 photo that, according to Haviland, is likely the "mortgage burning" for West Side Hose Company, one of three borough firehouses owned by its fire company.
A momentous day in the life of the Red Bank Fire Department was recorded in another of the photos included in the exhibit. The entire fire department assembled on Memorial Day 1926 for the dedication of the Firefighters Memorial in front of the police station on Monmouth Street.
"All the money for the monument was raised by the fire companies," Haviland noted. "It was a gala event and included a parade."
A volunteer firefighter since 1981, Haviland studied photography while a student at Red Bank Regional High School. About 10 years ago, he started carrying a camera along to fires and his work has been published in trade magazines and newspapers.
Unfortunately, except for a few photographs by Haviland, all but one of the firehouse photos fail to reveal the name of the photographer.
The oldest photographs in the exhibit document the Red Bank Opera House fire in 1905. The pair of photos of the fire that destroyed the opera house, located on West Front Street, are the only vintage images with a photographer’s credit, that of C.R.D. Farrell, a Red Bank photographer of the period.
According to Haviland, who is president of the fire department’s executive council, all of Red Bank’s six fire companies are represented in the exhibit.
Ensuring the future of these companies was a major motivation for mounting "Fire House Photos," Haviland acknowledged.
He is hoping the exhibit will generate interest in serving the community by volunteering as a member of the Red Bank Fire Department. Volunteers can continue the history and traditions of the department by becoming firefighters, fire police or, for younger members, fire cadets. More information on volunteering is available at (732) 530-2797.
"I think Red Bank’s all-volunteer fire department is unique, and I’m worried it’s not going to last because of the housing market in town," Haviland explained. "New people coming here may not have that tradition. It really does concern me. Maybe not today or next week, but five or 10 years down the road.
"That’s one of the reasons for the exhibit. Maybe we have some undiscovered volunteers out there. We always need to make people aware of what we’re doing, what we are."