Engine Number Eight
Engine # 8 on Chicago Street
The boarded up, red-brick, old building at 176 Chicago Street, in Buffalo’s old First Ward, looked forlorn and crumbling. I stood outside its entrance, thinking about the times and events that had been centered here. It had once been a very active Fire House, the home of Engine number eight. My dad had worked here for many years as a Buffalo Fireman.
A century or more ago, the horse-drawn fire apparatus had clanged in alarm, from the narrow confines of this venerable brick structure, on its way to dousing flames in the nearby market area or from one of the many wooden homes on the crowded streets surrounding it.
Most of the men who had once worked here have now passed on, my dad included. Still, the memories remain of determined men, clad in heavy protective gear, rushing to help save those around them. I remember seeing a pair of old rubber fireman’s boots and the iconic metal hat of a fireman in my Mother’s basement. They had hung there long after dad’s passing, a reminder to us of the worthy man dad had been. The top cuff on each boot was rolled down, revealing the brown canvass lining inside. The rest of the boots were made of shiny black rubber, with twin yellow lines circling the calf area and a yellow stripe where the hard rubber sole met the upper shoe of the boot. I remember seeing those boots, and that hat, in dad's locker at the Engine #8 Firehouse on Chicago Street, in Buffalo's Old First Ward. Dad had been born on nearby Fulton Street. Generations of our people had walked the same streets. Now Dad was helping protect them 100 years later. The "First Ward" was always a special place to us.
Whenever Dad brought us to the firehouse, on a rare day off, we were agog with the many new and unfamiliar sights. From an old safe in the back, we were offered candy bars and given the run of the place. Dad and the others were stationed there in 14-hour shifts. Between calls, they tended to the equipment and performed routine chores around the firehouse. One of the men was usually fixing some food in the kitchen area. If a call came during dinner, the food would be left on the table as the men scrambled into their rubber boots and long rubber jackets, often sliding down the shiny brass fire pole, from the floor above, to jump onto the waiting Hook and Ladder truck. On an alarm run, dad sat at the end of the truck, steering the rear wheels around corners.
On the truck, the metal fireman’s helmet gave the men a distinctive look, with its peaked crown and elongated rear brim. Many a firefighter owed his life to the protection of these sturdy helmets. At the fire, the men wielded an axe and hoses with a sense of desperate urgency. Lives often depended upon their courage and quick thinking. After the fire was put out, the grime covered and weary men would roll up their hoses and return to the firehouse, to await the adrenalin rush of the next alarm. It was all in a day's work for these gallant Knights of the hook and ladder.
During the downtime, between fires, the men would polish to a glossy finish, the cherry red surface of the very long hook and ladder truck. The men lovingly burnished the abundant chrome work on the rig and treated it with the care and devotion reserved for a machine whose proper functioning might make the difference in whether or not they lived or died. Firefighting is a dangerous job. Each of the men knew that any fire could be his final call.
Dad never talked about the dangers of the job to us. Once in a very great while, he would mention the fate of some poor soul who had been caught in a fire. He was saddened at their loss. When one of their own men died in the line of duty, the fire community gave their fallen comrade a ceremonial farewell worthy of a president and did what they could to help the fallen man's family. There is a tight knit sense of fraternity among these men and women, a brotherhood of shared danger in harm's way.
Most people don't realize how difficult and dangerous a fireman's job is, because the firefighters make light of the dangers and every day heroism. They treat injury and death with the casual nonchalance of those who risk their lives daily in service to others.
"Lots of people wanted to be a fireman, “ dad used to say, "until you were up on a ladder, in zero degree temperatures and a forty mile an hour wind." “Then,” he said, "Not too many people wanted the job."
On another visit, we really got the treat of our young lives. Dad took several of us on a tour of his old station, the fireboat "Edward M. Cotter." It is berthed near a spit of land, at the foot of Michigan Avenue, where it meets Lake Erie. Dad's Great Grandmother, Catherine Tevington, had once lived here where the boat is now moored.
The sturdy vessel, "Edward M. Cotter,” is painted all in red with black trim. It looks like a double-decked harbor tug. The swivel mounted water cannon, on the foredeck, shoots forth a continuous jet of water in a sweeping watery arc that delighted all of the watching children. The engine room glistens with polished brass fittings and shiny steel engine parts. The steady hum of the marine diesels is thrilling and mysterious. It was a wonderful tour of the boat that we all remembered for years afterward.
We have a great picture of Dad, as he and a few firefighters stood on the top deck of the fireboat, watching the many dignitaries that attended the ship's re-christening in the 1950’s. It seems odd to see dad there, a handsome young man in his thirties, wearing the dark blue firefighters dress uniform, with badged cap. Dad had the dark curly hair and startlingly blue, turquoise eyes that we attributed to the "black Irish" in our line. Legend has it that the older Irish families in Buffalo, who had lived on nearby Times Beach, inter-married with the Spanish and Portuguese Great Lakes sailors living there. The resulting progeny had dark curly hair and bright blue eyes. It is an attractive combination of both ethnic groups.
Engine Eight, on Chicago Street with all of its memories, stands here still, a reminder of the long tradition of heroism and service to the community of the Buffalo Fire Brigade. Bless them every one.
Joseph Xavier Martin