The Early Years (1835-1929)
Prior to the formation of the fire department in 1894, volunteers were summoned to the scene of fires using whatever methods seemed practical for the times and situation. The first fire protection in Willoughby was provided in 1835-by a bucket brigade. When there was a fire, the bucket brigade carried water from the town pump and threw it where it would do the most good.
Before the fire department was organized, Willoughby had more disastrous fires than almost any other community of its size in America. At one time or another, all of the Willoughby business section was burned except the Bond Hall.
One of the earliest fires recorded in the village of Willoughby occurred in 1856. Fire consumed a female seminary located on Erie Street, at the intersection of what are now River Road, Euclid Avenue and Erie Street. Then, in 1860, a wooden hotel and three other buildings located where the Bond Block now stands on Erie St. were destroyed by fire.
In 1871 The Zebra Stage House that was located just north of the railroad tracks on Erie St. burned. The barn was saved and served as a livery stable for many years.
On November 9th, 1883, a fire started on Clark Avenue which eventually destroyed several residences on Clark, all of the stores on the west side of Erie Street, the large livery stables behind the stores, barns and small houses on Second Street, and the warehouses of S.V. Wilson on Third Street. It was almost by super-human exertions that the dwellings on the south side of Erie St. were saved. At one time their destruction seemed inevitable; but men, women, and children-in the absence of any fire department-worked like heroes.
Two years later, there was another costly fire on the East Side of Erie Street, which burned all of the wooden stores between West Spaulding and Glenn Avenue. This included eight businesses and one residence.
In 1888, Sheriff James Moloney was on late night patrol when he noticed the entire first floor of the Knieling Meat Market Building on Erie Street in flames. To arouse the community, he fired the entire load of his revolver in rapid succession. He then broke into the old college (later, known as Willoughby Union High School) and rang the school bell. As the local citizenry was awakened, volunteers were loaned a hand pump belonging to S.V. Wilson to help extinguish the flames. Water was pumped onto the fire from neighboring wells and cisterns. The fire was not extinguished until it consumed much of the block. The buildings that were destroyed were replaced with brick structures that still stand at the comer of Erie and Third Streets.
Subsequent to the installation of a water works in 1892, the village procured a hose reel cart and a fire department was formally organized in 1894. The fledgling fire department was comprised of two companies of volunteers totaling 38 members. The department was headed by Chief Larry Ryan.
In 1906, the village purchased an American LaFrance hose wagon that was pulled to fires by a team of horses. A pumping station (equipped with steam boilers to run the pumps) provided water pressure for the hose wagon. Water was pumped directly into the water mains during times of fire instead of into the reservoir, providing greater pressure in the system than that provided by gravity feed from the reservoir.
The first Willoughby Fire Station was located on River Street and stood between the Town Hall and Methodist Church. Built in 1894, it housed the hose reel. Later, the fire station was located on Second Street and housed the hose wagon and horses. The fire station was then moved to a third location on Glenn Avenue and housed the hose wagon, horses, and for about a year, the first motorized fire truck purchased by the village. In 1922 the Department moved into the Station on Second Street. This station was in service until the mid 1970’s.
In the early days of the fire department, a shrieking whistle on the old powerhouse (now a popular restaurant) sounded fire alarms. In 1914, a bell from the old Union Grade School was placed on the Township Hall. The bell was replaced by a siren installed on the Second Street fire station in 1925.
The village received the first motorized fire apparatus in 1921. This truck was an American LaFrance equipped with a 750-gpm rotary gear pump and a 100-gallon on-board water supply. The purchase price for this apparatus was $12,800 and it is still cared for by department personnel.
The first fire fatality in Willoughby was officially recorded in 1918 as a result of a fire that occurred at the Kingsley Inn where plumbers were using a torch to solder pipe. No water pressure was available to fight the fire due to repairs being made to the pumps at the Willoughby Municipal Water Department.
Fire Chiefs of the era included :
- Chief “Larry” Ryan (1894 – 1920)
- Chief Charles Waterman (1920 -1929)
The Middle Years (1930-1970)
Fire Station #2 was opened on Lost Nation Road near Lakeshore Boulevard in 1940. Fire Station #3, on Euclid Avenue, was dedicated in 1967 to cope with increasing development in the west end of the community.
Along with the new fire stations, additional apparatus was purchased during this time period. Purchases included a 1941 American LaFrance pumper, a 1948 American LaFrance ladder truck (quad), a 1956 American LaFrance pumper, a 1968 American LaFrance pumper, and a 1968 American LaFrance 100′ aerial ladder truck.
In 1944, the fire department was transformed from an all-volunteer organization to a “part-paid” organization. In 1947, Station #1 on Second Street was manned by two firefighters during the evening and night hours. In 1948, firefighters began manning Station #1 on a 24-hour basis and in 1965, both stations were manned on a 24-hour basis by part-paid firefighters.
The major fires of the era included a 1935 fire on Erie Street, which destroyed two wooden buildings that formerly stood where the Simon block and the Standard Drug Company building are located. Three disastrous fires occurred at different times at the J.H.R. Products Company on Pelton Road. The last of these fires occurred in 1949 and destroyed the manufacturing facilities.
On February 25, 1950, a disastrous $380,000 fire destroyed the buildings and stores of the Marshall Drug Company and F. W. Woolworth Company on the East Side of Erie Street. The fire spread rapidly to the Woolworth Company by way of the roof to the Marshall Drug Co. Fire Departments from neighboring towns and cities including Painesville, Eastlake, and Wickliffe rushed to the scene and aided in getting the fire under control.
In 1952, large fires occurred in Willoughby twice within two weeks. A fire in the building at Erie and Third Streets destroyed Kleifeld’s Restaurant, Gear’s barbershop, and several other stores. A second fire destroyed Howard Simon’s Clothing, the Waldorf Bar, Sturm’s Market and other stores. In April of 1955, a fire caused $100,000 damage to Daniel’s Brothers Fuel; and in February of 1958, a $500,000 fire destroyed the Barium Chemical Company (formerly J.H.R. Products) on Stevens Boulevard.
Fire chiefs of the era included :
- Chief Norman Cottrell (1929 – 1937)
- Chief Reed Fairly (1937 -1971).
The Later Years (1971 – Present)
The Willoughby Fire Department experienced significant changes during the “later years (1971 – Present). These changes were driven by technology and the community’s demand for expanded services. The most significant changes affected staffing, facilities and services.
In 1973, a fatal house fire prompted the city fathers to staff the fire department with full-time paid firefighters. Since 1973 the department has gradually shifted from a part-time force to a full-time force supplemented by part-time personnel in order to manage the demand for services. In 2002 the Department consisted of 82 personnel (46 full-time and 36 part-time); with a minimum of twelve personnel on duty around- the-clock to respond to the community’s requests for service.
A new fire station (Station #1) was constructed on Lost Nation Road in 1977, replacing the old Station (Station #2) near Lake Shore Boulevard. Shortly thereafter, the old Station #1 on Second Street was decommissioned. The City temporarily operated a station (1978-1980) at the intersection of Kirtland Road and Mentor Avenue while the high level bridge across the Chagrin River was replaced.
Since 1971 Fire Department services expanded into non-fire suppression areas, the most prominent of those services being EMS (emergency medical services). The responsibility for treating and transporting sick and injured patients to area hospitals became those of the Fire Department in 1973. In the late 1970’s the Willoughby Fire Department was one of the first departments in the Country to offer paramedic-level emergency medical treatment and transport services.
In addition to emergency medical services the Department initiated hazardous materials incident mitigation services, specialized technical rescue (confined space, high angle rope, and water/ice rescue) services, and a variety of non-emergency services such as fire prevention, fire investigation, and fire and life-safety education programs.
The new responsibilities have played an integral part in determining staffing levels and equipment needs and will continue to do so in the future years of the department. During this era the community experienced a number of significant emergency incidents. Several major fires during the era tested the limits of the department, In 1970, a residential fire claimed the lives of a mother and her four children. In August of 1975, fire caused an estimated 1.5 million dollars in damage to the Kirtland Country Club, injuring several firefighters attempting to extinguish the fire. In March of 1978, the J.L. Molnar Company was destroyed by fire resulting in damage exceeding one million dollars.
The explosions and fire at Propane Industrial on Stevens Boulevard in June of 1980 resulted in a large-scale evacuation and the hospitalization of two firefighters. During this incident approximately 1,064 propane cylinders exploded. In July of 1984, an explosion and fire at Burdox Gas Incorporated on Pelton Road resulted in one fatality and $250,000 in damages.
A fatal fire occurred on Eaglewood Road in September of 1986 killing three family members. The fire cause was determined as arson and the arsonist was convicted on three counts of murder. In September of 1991, an arson fire at a craft store at the intersection of Euclid Avenue and S. R. 91 caused one million dollars in damage. In 1992 a fire caused by careless smoking at the Lost Nation Mini- Storage caused $665,000 in damage. In 1994 a fire at the former Ohio Rubber Company on Ben Hur Avenue destroyed the main office building, resulting in an estimated $2,000,000 in damage. In October of 1996 the GE Quartz Plant suffered a hydrogen explosion causing an estimated $3,000,000 in damage. The following month, two young children lost their lives in a house fire on Skiff St.
On February 16, 2000 a major fire occurred at Willoughby Iron and Waste on Church St., resulting in $400,000 in damage.
Another potentially disastrous propane fire occurred at the AmeriGas facility located on Stevens Boulevard on July 19, 2000. Scores of 20 and 100 pound propane cylinders catastrophically failed and were launched several hundred yards through the air. Some landed as far away as State Route 2. Several bulk tanks vented due to flame impingement and were saved only by the courageous actions of the firefighters on scene. The fire necessitated evacuation of the surrounding area and resulted in $5,000,000 damage.
Fire chiefs of the era included :
- Chief Kenneth Stafford (1971 – 1990)
- Chief William Crosier (1990 – 1993)
- Chief Mel House (1993 – 2005)
- Chief Alan Zwegat (2005 to present)
The Future Years
Over the past few years, as a nation, we have experienced terrorist attacks, a major blackout and severe weather conditions and at a local level severe flooding and a major fire at a propane distribution facility within the city. These types of emergencies require the coordinated response of Willoughby’s Fire, Police and City Service Departments. Additionally, larger scale incidents may also require a response from agencies outside the city that may include other municipal fire and police agencies as well as County, State and Federal agencies.
The Willoughby Fire Department will continue to prepare for major events through training and exercises in order to effectively respond should the need arise. We will strive to keep our awareness levels high, our skills, knowledge and our abilities keen and our work environment safe so that we can effectively mitigate any possible situation.
No one can predict the future, but two things are certain; 1) The community’s emergency service needs will continue to increase and; 2) The continued success of the Willoughby Fire Department is contingent on our dedicated and professional personnel who deliver Fire, Emergency Medical and Life Safety Services.