Post by Michael Ratcliffe
I am the author of a new book about the history of firefighting in Trenton. This work, appropriately titled Trenton Firefighting is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series. As proclaimed by Arcadia itself, the “Images of America” series uses archival photographs to “celebrate the history of neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country.” In line with this, Trenton Firefighting is filled with nearly 200 rarely-seen images, most of which were pulled from the archives of the Trenton Free Public Library’s Trentoniana Collection and the Meredith Havens Fire Museum of Trenton. Laura Poll, the Trentoniana Collection’s multi-talented archivist and all-around kind soul [*aw, shucks* – ed.], generously invited me to pen this blog post to talk about Trenton Firefighting and to share some of my experiences exploring the treasure trove of local historical holdings that is the Trentoniana Collection.
I am not a native of the Trenton area. I grew up in Middlesex County and came to Mercer County in 1991 to attend Rider College (in its pre-university days). As it turned out, I never left and have made my home in Lawrence Township ever since.
My father was a firefighter. For 40 years he was an active member of the Metuchen Volunteer Fire Department. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve the fire department in one way or another. I clearly remember the sounds of the Plectron my dad kept by his bedside and of many times being awoken in the middle of the night by that shoebox-sized pager-like device (considered the state-of-the-art way of alerting volunteers to a fire back in the 1970s), followed by various thuds as my dad dressed and ran out of the house. And, of course, I remember the picnics and firehouse visits. I recall being left to explore the apparatus – the jumpseats and hosebeds of twin 1970 Mack CF-600 pumpers serving as my own personal jungle gym – while my dad was in some meeting or other.
To this day there is still something about the smells of a firehouse engine room, those intermixed odors of smoke and diesel, that instantly transport me back to my childhood. My own firefighting journey began in 1992 when, during my freshman year at Rider, I joined Lawrence Road Volunteer Fire Company. I served Lawrence Township as an active volunteer for over 20 years before I was fortunate enough to be hired to join the township’s small staff of career firefighters.
Before I became a fulltime firefighter, I was employed as a news reporter and photographer. For nearly 15 years, I worked for the Trenton Times. Even back then it was a big deal that Trenton – with the Times and Trentonian – had two daily newspapers when cities much larger only had one. Not surprisingly, while at the Times I was assigned to the “police beat,” and in that role I went to, photographed and wrote about lots of fires and other emergencies handled by the Trenton Fire Department.
As a result of that “perfect storm” of having grown up the son of a firefighter, becoming one myself, and my job immersing me further into the firefighting world, I became fascinated with local fire service history and wanted to learn more, not only about my own fire company in Lawrence but also about that of the Trenton Fire Department.
During evenings on the paper’s night shift, after the first edition was “put to bed,” if I was not finishing up a story for one of the Times’ later editions, my role was to monitor our multiple police scanners. That involved me listening in to local police and fire radio transmissions just in case a major breaking news event – a homicide or a big fire, for example – occurred, about which I might be able to file a last-minute story that would at least give the next morning’s readers basic details about what had taken place. This happened on many occasions, enough so to justify me remaining on-duty until midnight each shift. Occasionally, when the story warranted it – such as on Dec. 31, 2001 when two brave Trenton police officers were nearly killed in a New Year’s Eve shootout with a gunman – the presses were held up and printing of the paper delayed until a more-detailed accounting could be written.
But during those particularly quiet nights, when absolutely nothing of a police beat nature was going on in Trenton or its environs, I would grab one of our hand-held police scanners and slip away into the paper’s “morgue,” as the archive of old newspaper clippings and other research materials at the rear of our newsroom at 500 Perry Street was called. There, while still monitoring police and fire radio traffic, I’d pass hours pouring through microfilm copies of the Times’ earliest years. Unlike today when digital archives with optical character recognition allow you to enter a few key words and search years of papers in a few seconds, back then a microfilm search meant laboriously glancing over screen after screen of full-page images until a headline, line of text or photo caught your eye. It was through this painstaking method of research that I first learned about significant Trenton fires of the 1880s – like when the State House was gutted by flames or when the old wooden Calhoun Street Bridge burned down – and of the larger-than-life firefighters who had fought them.
Along the way I’d share my discoveries with my night editor, Harry Blaze, a veteran newspaperman passionate about local history, particularly about railroad disasters like the Nellie Bly train wreck of 1901 in neighboring Hamilton Township. Harry was a mentor who encouraged my research and helped hone my writing skills. Whenever I’d come across an old story about a railroad mishap, I’d print it out for Harry. He would do the same for me with any fire-related articles he would find.
About 20 years ago, when the Trenton Fire Department was looking into hosting Mercer County’s annual fire prevention parade, retired Fire Chief Dennis Keenan (then in his capacity as the city’s fire director) approached me about working on a book about Trenton Fire Department history to go along with the parade. As things turned out, the parade was called off and the book project never completed. The research I had done up to that point was boxed up and ended up stored in my attic, where it sat out-of-sight but never entirely out-of-mind.
Over the years, Chief Keenan would occasionally reach out to me, trying to cajole me into taking up the project again and completing the book. Each time I would resist, telling him I just didn’t have the time. Undaunted, he continued to ask. Finally, in the fall of 2018, Chief Keenan invited me to join the board of trustees for the Meredith Havens Fire Museum. This time I took him up on his offer. After being shown all the old photos and other memorabilia still tucked away in the museum’s archive room, my interests in finally completing the book project I’d started all those years ago were rekindled.
And so, in the first weeks of 2019, I resumed my research and paid my first visit in nearly two decades to the Trentoniana Collection. It was then that I first met Laura. She introduced herself, then asked why I was there and how she could help. And help she did. For the next year-plus I made almost weekly trips to Trentoniana. During those visits, I digitally scanned every fire-related photo that Laura could find, as well as several years’ worth of fire department dispatch logs, fire chiefs’ annual reports and other documents she turned up. Laura energetically searched through Trentoniana’s stacks and produced all kinds of fire department ephemera, including obscure items like invitations to balls, banquets and picnics hosted by Trenton’s old volunteer fire companies.
I must say it was a powerful feeling holding in my own hands items – like the oldest surviving meeting minute books of the Union and Hand-In-Hand volunteer fire companies – that are over 200 years old. Turning those time-worn pages, bound in cracked leather, and looking over the faded ink written in old-school cursive was almost like traveling in time.
For about a year-and-a-half I researched and wrote Trenton Firefighting. I was fortunate that the bulk of my research had been completed before the COVID-19 pandemic locked things down and prevented furthers trips to the library and fire museum. I am proud to say that the book traces the evolution of the Trenton Fire Department from the organization of the city’s first volunteer fire company in 1747 up to the past year.
Among the historical changes documented are the arrival of steam fire engines during the volunteer era, the transition from volunteer fire companies to a department of full-time paid firefighters in 1892, the introduction of motorized apparatus to replace horse power, and the growth of the department in the early 20th century. Many major fires are detailed and illustrated, from the 1885 State House fire and the Roebling infernos of 1915 up through the conflagrations of later decades that destroyed St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Trenton Armory (Civic Center). The pages are also filled with stories, rare details and humorous anecdotes about old Trenton firefighters, firehouses, apparatus, fire horses and even firehouse pets. And, finally, the book honors and pays tribute to 34 Trenton firefighters, both volunteer and career, who have lost their lives in the line of duty since 1864.
I owe Laura a great debt of thanks for all her help. Without her and the Trentoniana Collection the book would not have been anywhere near as detailed as it turned out. Laura, together with Chief Keenan, also kindly helped with proofreading. The book received its general release on Jan. 25 and is widely available, both locally and online. Royalties from book sales are being donated to the Trentoniana Department and the Meredith Havens Fire Museum of Trenton.
If you have even the slightest interest in any aspect of Trenton history, I encourage you – once the pandemic is under control and restrictions have been lifted – to pay a visit to the Trenton Free Public Library and explore the Trentoniana Collection. The archive has so much to offer. I guarantee you will find something new each time you visit. Laura herself is still making discoveries, as she is still sorting through yet-to-be inventoried holdings, not to mention the fact that new donations are often received and new acquisitions made.
Oh, and don’t forget to check out the fire museum, too, once you are able!
Image: This “Lady’s Invitation” to Good Will Fire Company’s 8th Annual Ball – held December 26, 1859 in the “Upper Saloon” of Temperance Hall – is one of many similar pieces of memorabilia from Trenton’s old volunteer fire department preserved in the Trentoniana Collection.