Chesterton Tribune

One hundred years ago Chesterton burned and fire department was born

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100 Years of service: The Chesterton Volunteer Fire Department is celebrating 100 years of service this year. As part of the ongoing observance of the anniversary, the slogan “Serving the Community Since 1902” has been painted on the side of Engine 512, a pumper truck. Here Assistant Fire Chief Mike Orlich and Fire Chief Skip Highwood show off the new stenciling. (Tribune photo by Margaret L. Willis)



On April 6, 1902 a desperate J. B. Lundberg, Chesterton Town Board president, sent the following telegram at 10:21 p.m. to Michigan City, LaPorte and Valparaiso:

“Send us help, a fire engine and plenty of hose or our town is doomed.”

A fire had started that night in the downtown and spread to 11 business houses on Calumet Road. The downtown was threatened by fire several times before, its wooden buildings a ready source of fuel, but the 1902 fire was the last straw.

Men, women and children fought the April 6 fire with buckets for three hours. By the time LaPorte and Michigan City firemen arrived, what was described as a miraculous shift in the wind at the critical moment had saved the main portion of the town from complete extermination.

The week after the fire, Chesterton prohibited the use of wood for downtown construction; officials also mandated fireproof roofs and decided to drill a system of wells around town to provide an emergency supply of water.

Two months later, a volunteer fire department was organized under its first chairman, John Graessle, and the Town Board purchased the new volunteers a hand pump fire engine. The price: $980.

One hundred years later, the Chesterton Fire Department’s 12 full-time firefighters and 21 volunteers celebrate a centennial anniversary. Recently, more than 60 members and guests of the Duneland Historical Society heard Eva Hopkins trace the department’s rich history and honor the men who paved the way for today’s modern fire service.

After her talk, seven-year Chesterton firefighter David Laidlaw praised Hopkins’ research and presentation, which was accompanied by numerous historical photographs. “She did an excellent job. That’s a lot of work. The stuff prior to the ‘90’s was all new to me. It was worthwhile and needs to be shared; it’s valuable information.”

Fire Chief Skip Highwood, in his 40th year with the department and 12th as chief, said a committee is working on other events and observances to commemorate the department’s anniversary.

According to Hopkins, fighting fires in the early 1900’s certainly wasn’t easy.

It was three months before the new Fire Department could test its mettle at an actual fire when Campbell’s blacksmith shop and Myron Smith’s barn burned to the ground. But the community was satisfied that another “disastrous conflagration” didn’t occur, even though the fire company was held back for about 10 minutes by a freight train, according to Hopkins.

In early 1903, a brick Chesterton town hall was built by general contractor Joseph Ameling on the east side of Calumet just north of the Broadway intersection and the ground floor was to be used exclusively for the fire engine.

Hopkins said a Waugh family genealogy recounts that the fire department’s horses grazed behind the fire station along Coffee Creek and when the fire alarm sounded, the horses would come up the bank and back into the fire wagon. “The firemen would be busy stoking the boiler so the horses were trained to take off at a gallop as soon as the harness dropped over them.”

Early firemen or “fireos” as they were called had to pull their equipment to fires before horses were used, said Hopkins. The men were out of breath before they even began to work the handles on each side of the pump to generate enough pressure. Water wasn’t always available so the nearest well, catch basin or family cistern was pressed into service. The proximity of Coffee Creek was credited for saving several structures.

William Mabin was fire chief in 1907 when 25 fire hydrants and a 90-foot tall water tank with a capacity of 100,000 gallons were completed.

The new fire department continued to upgrade its equipment. Twelve fire pails were ordered in 1909. By 1912 there were 15 volunteers, two wagons and 1,000 feet of hose to serve Chesterton’s 2,100 residents.

Hopkins said the department entered the motorized era in 1918 when it bought a two-ton Howe fire truck for $1,600 because horses couldn’t always be obtained for the wagons. In 1922, bells were rung in firemen’s homes through a telephone bell in the engine house to notify them of a fire; an electric siren became necessary in 1937.

Another large fire, this one Nov. 11, 1924 destroying the brick Chesterton school, Bird & Goff Furniture and J.A. Johnson’s barn for a $150,000 loss, prompted the Town Board to buy a new pumper because the fire department’s engine was inoperable and beyond repair. Six months later a 3 1/2-ton Dodge Graham truck arrived; its 400 gallons-per-minute pump is one-fifth the gpm capacity of fire trucks in cities today.

The new 1925 pumper, which reportedly could throw water over any building in Chesterton, traveled up to 50 mph, but Hopkins said that same year an account laments that the public is also racing to fires in automobiles: “The public is requested to stay at home when the fire bell rings, at least until the department reaches the scene of the fire. Arrests will follow if this request is ignored.”

Three decades later, Hopkins said accounts reported that “traffic congestion created by fire fans” delayed the Porter Fire Department’s tanker when George Andershock’s farm on Indian Boundary Road burned down in 1956.

Through the ‘20’s fewer than 10 volunteers were on the Chesterton department, but they handled a number of major fires, including the original Hillstrom Organ factory destroyed in 1927.

In 1940, said Hopkins, Jerry Marquart retired after serving 20 years as Chesterton fire chief; he stayed as a fireman until 1955 and was succeeded by Elmer Beck. The department purchased a new American LaFrance fire truck in 1941, permission for which had to be obtained from the U.S. government because the manufacturer would use scarce steel during wartime.

Sadly, in 1943 Gary Hineline, a 33-year Chesterton fireman, died while on duty at the town hall. In January, 1982 Russell “Casey” Wilding would die at the fire station after a fire run, said Hopkins.

In April, 1949 Wilbar burned on Park Avenue, and in February, 1952 Raymond Price & Associates of Brown Avenue was destroyed, a $1 million loss putting 200 people out of work. Seven fire departments helped fight the blaze, said Hopkins, which could be seen from U.S. 20.

A new state law in 1952 required that motorists yield to firemen with blue lights on their vehicles responding to a fire. The next year Chesterton firemen themselves purchased and equipped a 700-gallon tanker truck used when Col. Robert Murray’s large dairy barn at Sunset Hill Farm in Liberty Township burned down in 1954.

In 1960, Fire Chief John C. Dille’s department moved to its current location at 8th Street and Broadway with three equipment bays later expanded in 1977. Ralph Brooks succeeded Dille as chief serving from 1963-82.

Hopkins said Porter County’s first modern ambulance service -- NOPAC -- began with two ambulances in the Chesterton Fire Department.

Firefighters responded to 37 fire calls in 1940; 148 emergency calls in 1975; 325 in 1991; 571 in 1997 and 702 in 2001, the latter including 290 emergency-medical assists.

In 1956, Chesterton’s department hosted 88 guests at the Indiana Volunteer Firemen’s Assn. district meeting. Today, town firefighters welcome more than 750 firefighters annually for training at the Duneland Fire School, one of the largest in the state.

Nine-year Chesterton firefighter Dale Reisetter, who attended Hopkins’ presentation, credited Highwood with bringing the department into the modern era. “Skip began in the old days. I can see what they had to work with then; it’s tremendous advancements now. In my short time I feel really honored to know something in detail about the department, to know how it began.”

As for today, Reisetter said the department’s accomplishments are made possible because “Chesterton is like a team -- the Town Council, the fire chief and community support.”


Posted 4/5/2002