SWEETWATER COUNTY– The origin of what later became the Rock Springs Fire Department dates from 1890, the same year that Wyoming became a state, but the organization back then was known as the “Clark Hose Company”.
The name came from D.O. Clark, then general manager of the local coal company. Clark donated 500 feet of hose and a hand-drawn horse reel to the fire department in 1891, according to both Wamsley and a 1976 article titled “The History of the Rock Springs Fire Department” by Mary Washam. The article is available in the reference section of the Rock Springs Library.
When started, the Clark Hose Company was an all-volunteer firefighting force, Washam’s article said. A whistle at the No.1 mine was used to sound the alarm when there was a fire.
Fire boxes came into use in 1892 to alert firefighters regarding the approximate location of a fire so that they would know in what direction to ride their bicycles and direct the horse-drawn engines.
Fire Department Moves to City Hall
In 1897 the future RSFD became known as the “W.K. Lee Company”, Washam’s article said. At that time, W.K. Lee was the mayor of Rock Springs.
With the then brand-new city hall available, in place of its previously rented facility, the fire department moved into the city hall and stabled their two horses, “Dutch” and Mac” there.
The city hall was completed in 1894 through the work of Salt Lake City architect Martin Didrieus Kern, with the style designated as Richardsonian Romanesque. Electric lights, a novelty back then, were a part of the new city hall right from the start.
In the firefighting section of the 1894 city hall, now the Rock Springs Museum, where the fire equipment was once stored, there are still traces of grooves in the hard floor.
“You have to look; they’ve tried to cement them over, but they’re still there,” Wamsley said. “The grooves were to give the horses quicker traction as they were leaving the station.”
Old Equipment Was Not Entirely Safe for the Firefighters
During this period, beginning in 1891, Rock Springs firefighters used not only water to put out fires, but also a chemical engine along with their four-wheeled horse carts. By 1893, firemen were using a double tank chemical engine.
This equipment wasn’t entirely safe for the firemen, Wamsley explained. Chemical suppressants included soda acid.
Fire extinguishers resembled glass balls that were referred to as “glass grenades”, containing chemicals that are now regulated or are no longer used.
“Carbon tetrachloride has been outlawed for a number of years. It caused a lot of health problems for firefighters,” Wamsley said.
First Notable Fire Took Place in 1892
According to Washam, the first fire of note that the start-up Rock Springs firefighters had to deal with was a conflagration at the No. 4 mine in 1892. In addition to the miners, firefighters rescued 39 mules by block and tackle.
The first really big fire occurred in 1894 at a building owned by a “Mrs. Musgrove”. The cause of the fire was never determined, but the uninsured building was a total loss. Damages were estimated at $1,500, which at that time was a small fortune.
RSFD Comes into Existence in 1902
The “Rock Springs Fire Department”, as such, finally came into existence in 1902, when the city of Rock Springs designated the organization as a partially paid department. Uniforms came along in 1905.
That first mechanized fire truck in 1916 put the horses that pulled the two previous engines out to pasture.
One of the key benefits of that first fire truck, the American LaFrance, was that it could haul much longer ladders than the old horse-drawn carts, Wamsley said.
Among the fires down through the years which Washam listed was one from 1926, when the No. 2 fire station caught fire. No information was recorded regarding the cause or damage estimate.
The outcome of this episode, though, was that from then on all fires had to be recorded and copies of the records sent to the state.
Tragedy, then Change
Tragedy struck for the Rock Springs Fire Department in 1962, when Chief “Ike” Roberts became the only recorded firefighter in the history of the department to die in the line of duty.
Roberts served as RS Fire Chief for only a few months in 1962 before dying of a heart attack while battling a garage blaze, according to Wamsley. Roberts was the only firefighting casualty referenced by any of the local fire chiefs.
Soon after, changes occurred with the advent of modern technology to make firefighting more efficient and safer, if not safe. The last of the fireboxes were removed in May 1970, after nearly 80 years of service for the mechanisms.
“Believe it or not, as late as the early 1970s, not everyone had a telephone,” Wamsley said. “The box number on the firebox told firefighters where the fire was located. But the advent of the 911 system changed most of that.
“In 1967, the advent of the National Emergency Number Association, with the 911 system, put the nail in the coffin of call boxes. As the city grew it was not efficient to keep building out that system.”
Be that as it may, some places such as Boston, Massachusetts still use fire boxes, Wamsley added.
In 1971, “coded” fire hydrants came into being, further assisting firemen to get to blazes more quickly.
Famous Fires in the Rock Springs Area
Famous fires in more recent years included the Point of Rocks service station fire in 1970, the Park Hotel annex blaze also in the 1970s, and the Western Wyoming Community College fire in 2001.
“That (WWCC) fire was a maintenance fire that shut that end of the college down for a whole year,” Wamsley said.
In the 1980s, firefighters finally gained the use of oxygen masks and tanks for interior work.
“Prior to the 1980s, firemen stayed inside as long as they could until they just couldn’t take it any longer,” Wamsley explained.
The Current RSFD
The current Rock Springs Fire Department headquarters at 600 College Drive was built in 1978. There are also fire stations at 2117 Hillcrest and 145 Industrial Drive.
In addition to Wamsley, there are 33 firefighting personnel in Rock Springs who work in shifts.
Rock Springs Fire Chiefs Down Through the Years
- John Fordran, 1897-1906
- Jack Kemp 1906-1907
- Dan Potter, 1907-1908
- John Fordran (second time) 1908-1946
- Pete Tronquet 1946-1962
- “Ike” Roberts 1962 (died in line of duty)
- Robert M. Stuart 1962-1969
- Richard Canestrini 1969-1978
- Larry Domson 1978-1980
- Herb Brown 1980-1981
- Harvey Cozad 1981-1995
- Brad Sarf 1995-2008
- Lyle Armstrong 2008-2014
- Jim Wamsley 2015-present
This is Part 2 of a four-part series on the history and evolution of local firefighting, with lots of historic photos courtesy of Rock Springs Historical Museum. Keep your eye out for the next installments. Check out part 1 of The Story of Local Firefighting.