Walk in to the Dr. Lester L. Williams Fire Museum located in the Colorado Springs Fire Department headquarters and the first thing you notice are four splendid firefighting vehicles: an 1896 hose and chemical wagon, an 1898 Metropolitan Steamer, and two pumpers, an 1890 Ahrens Fox and a 1945 Lafrance. Gawk at their splendor; admire their design and craftsmanship; think about their age and their function, however, and you realize how remarkable it is that they remain intact for us to see and appreciate. But owing to this small but likeable and absorbing museum’s efforts, they are now preserved–the hose and chemical wagon is 100% restored–and housed away from the destructive outside elements.
I doubt that most people have thought much about the modern science of firefighting, and I think even fewer have thought about the history of their local fire department. But, if you have considered either and want to learn more, you will find yourself pleasantly surprised how the exhibits walk you through how the CSFD came to be, and they will also enlighten you about how modern firefighting evolved.
The story of the CSFD begins in 1872 just two years after the founding of the City of Colorado Springs. The city leaders passed Ordnance number 4, thus forming the Colorado Springs Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. Improvements in the city’s infrastructure such as a citywide water pipeline connected to hydrants followed, and in 1894, following a conflict between volunteer departments during the 1893 Pikes Peak Mill Building fire, a paid fire department was established.
After the devastating Antlers Hotel Fire in 1898, the city purchased the 7000 pound Metropolitan Steamer for $4500. Capable of pumping 700 gallons of water per minute and drawn by three horses, it’s the same one that you see on display today.
In 1946, after service in WWII as an Army Air Force flight surgeon, Dr. Lester L. Williams moved to Colorado Springs to start a private medical practice. Despite being a staff member at two hospitals and the president of two local professional medical societies, he found the time to take an intense special interest in the Colorado Springs Fire Department. In 1952 the City Council appointed Dr. Williams to the position of fire department physician.
Today much of Dr. Williams collection of firefighting related items and memorabilia surround the iconic fire pumps, wagon, and steamer. A display of early dry chemical extinguishers ranging from the early 1900s tin tubes to the first stored, pressured, dry, multipurpose extinguisher developed in 1953 stand alongside a collection of fireman’s hats made from materials as varied as leather, plastic, fiberglass, and aluminum.
In another display case across the room is a collection of masks that firefighters have used since before the turn of the last century. The Vajen-Bader smoke protector, something I’m sure any collector would love to get his or her hands on, resembles a diving bell more than it does some sort of firefighting apparatus. In another is a collection of firemarks, cast iron and brightly painted plates that hung on the side of insured homes. Fire brigades until about the 1870s were formed and funded by insurance companies, so no firemark, no fire firefighters. In others are collections of hose nozzles, leather fire buckets, first aid kits, and fire sprinklers.
Hanging on the wall above it all is a Browder life net, a circular ring that at least ten men would hold while a trapped victim would jump from the upper floors of a burning building into a canvas, spring-assisted trampoline. On the floor beneath it is a huge bell that once hung from the tower of the Town Hall. The 2000-pound bell was used as a fire alarm until 1918. According to the descriptive placard, when the bell rang it could be heard over 400 miles away in Roswell, NM. I don’t believe that. In fact, I’m skeptical that it could be heard much past the city limits, but it did its job until it was replaced by the more piercing-sounding, and I am sure more annoying, whistle.
There’s more to see in this small but well-stocked museum. It’s another one of those collector’s dreams. From items related to law enforcement to the military and from auto racing to baseball, people collect all sorts of specific relics. That’s why I have no doubt that many people collect firefighting related artifacts too, and any one of those types would love to see this collection and compare it to his or her own. Regardless of your motivations, this is a museum worth taking a few hours out of your day to see and appreciate.