The history of the City of New Bern Fire-Rescue, as it is known today, is both rich and unique. Originally it was comprised of three companies: 1) the Atlantic Fire & Hook & Ladder Company, 2) the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1, and 3) the New Bern Fire Company No. 1. The first chartered fire-fighting organization was the Atlantic Fire & Hook & Ladder Company formed on May 14, 1845; however, this company became inactive due to the members volunteering for military service at the break of the war between the states.
During the occupation of New Bern, the New Bern Fire and Steam Engine Company, No. 1 was organized on January 1, 1865 by Union soldiers, who later remained after the war. During this time, the Union troops received a hand pump from the North. This contraption reached its maximum output when eight men exerted their weight on each end of the pump’s cross-beam lever. A 16-man crew pulled the vehicle to the scene of the blaze. The pump drew water from one of New Bern’s strategically located wells at Middle and Pollock Streets, Broad and Middle Streets, South Front Street , Bern Street (in Five Points), and North Craven Street at Pelletier’s Knitting Mill. If the fire was near the Neuse or Trent Rivers, water was pumped from these. After pulling and pumping the Yankee apparatus for about three years, the firemen persuaded the Town Council to purchase them a steam fire engine. When the new steam fire engine arrived in 1868, it too, had to be pulled by hand, but was later converted for horse pulling.
In 1879, the Atlantic Fire & Hook & Ladder Company received a new Silsby steam fire engine, and in 1884, the city traded the New Berne Steam Fire Engine Company, No. 1's steam fire engine for a new “Button Steam Fire Engine.” Shortly thereafter, the nickname “Button Company” came to be. Rivalry between the two companies played an important part in their advancements, and with the arrival of this new steam fire engine it gained momentum. Which fire company reached the blaze first became more important to New Bernians than the damage done or whose house was on fire. The rivalry continued until 1927, when the city housed both companies in a central fire station on Broad Street. Even then, however, the two companies still held separate meetings.
Although these fire companies were the “leaders,” they were not the only fire fighting organizations. There were several others, both white and black, in addition to a junior fire company. The junior fire company was made up of young men between the ages of 16 and 18, and was called the “Excelsior Bucket and Axe Company.” Upon reaching manhood, these junior firefighters were “absorbed” by the Atlantic and Button Companies. Other fire companies that came about were: the Mechanics, the Fourth Ward, the Riverdale, the Holden Company (named for Governor Holden), the Axe, the Rough and Ready Fire Company, and the Independent Colored Fire Company.
The New Bern Fire Department kept abreast of the city’s growth. With the arrival of the steam fire engines, the city’s streets were paved with oyster shells. The driver’s seat of the engines were equipped with leather straps to keep him from being thrown off when an engine struck a hole in the street. Later plans included paving the streets with bricks; however, this was delayed until a water system could be installed. The project was finally completed just prior to 1900. As a result of these improvements, the fire departments were in a better position to fight several destructive fires that came a few years later.
The old Button and Atlantic fire engines were eventually replaced by motorized trucks. Purchased for $1,500 (versus today’s price of $250,000) in 1914 and delivered in 1915, both trucks were American LaFrance. The Atlantic Company truck was white; the Button Company was red. The first motorized ladder truck was purchased in 1927 by Atlantic Company for $27,000 (versus today’s price of $750,000).
New Bern Fire Department
New Bern Fire-Rescue