The Pioneer Chemical Fire Company

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 21, 2012.

In 1873, the Exeter Fire Department, with great fanfare, purchased the giant Eagle Steam engine from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire. Capable of hurling 700 gallons of water per minute on a fire, this new monster changed the way fires were fought in town. The old hand pumped ‘engines’, which were dragged to a fire scene by fast-footed firefighters, and sometimes filled by bucket brigade, were rendered obsolete by the Eagle. But just before the purchase of the steam engine, the town had already taken steps to modernize the department by obtaining the latest technologically advanced piece of equipment: the waterless fire extinguisher.

Chemical fire extinguishers were invented in France in the mid-1860s, when it was demonstrated that mixing bicarbonate of soda and sulfuric acid would create carbon dioxide, which would suffocate a fire. The reaction of these two chemicals is similar to mixing baking soda and vinegar together – something most of us have tried while making a volcano in fourth grade science class. The resultant foam even self-propels itself through a rubber hose making any pumping mechanism unnecessary.

We’re comfortable with similar home extinguishers in use today, although they are mostly designed to use dry chemicals and are far safer and smaller than the ones used on the extinguisher trucks of the 19th century. Exeter purchased its Babcock Chemical apparatus from the New England Fire Extinguisher Company, a Massachusetts firm, for $800.00. The piece consisted of a hand-drawn wagon with two enormous tanks of chemicals and sufficient rubber hose. The practicality of the device, according to the sales pitch, was in its very small size. It had no complex machinery, no fire to stoke or steam to generate, it was cheaper to purchase and use, could be pulled quickly by a few firemen, produced no water damage and was always ready. What could be the downside to this quirky piece of fire equipment?

The Babcock was housed in the Spring Street engine house with a company of 12 men who specialized in its use. They called themselves the Pioneer Chemical Company – all were men who lived near the station. They wrote up the usual by-laws for a fire company and set the fines for those who didn’t turn up at a fire scene without a good excuse. The Pioneer Chemical Company met each month to test the equipment. As was typical of fire companies at this time, they met also to discuss town events and generally fraternize with one another. This was, after all, the era of clubs and fraternal organizations. Like other groups - such as the Masons, Odd Fellows and Red Men- fire companies nominated members and voted on whether to accept applicants. And every now and then they reported to an actual fire scene.

The Pioneer proved to work very well at extinguishing small fires in tight places. For downtown business owners, the chemical extinguisher company was a wonder. A small fire in a bakery kitchen could be put out quickly and would leave little damage. Pulled to the scene quickly by men, the Pioneer would arrive on scene and rapidly put out the fire, whereas the Eagle Steamer would have needed time to stoke a fire in the engine, hitch up the horses and find a water source. Then it would have thrown 700 gallons of water onto the fire, possibly destroying the kitchen in the process.

However, for large structure fires and brush fires, the Pioneer Chemical Company was not at its best. Most of these fires would find the company marginalized to tamping out embers – an important job, but not something that couldn’t also be handled by someone with a wet mop. The Pioneer log book more often than not lists fire calls where the engine “did not play” – a phrase used by firefighters to mean “did not get to spray the fire” and a deep disappointment to all involved.

In spite of its usefulness, within 10 years, the Fire Department began to question the value of the chemical company. For one thing, businesses began to purchase their own fire extinguishers as prices came down. And another problem was that with ever more frequency, the chemical equipment failed to work at all. Entries in the log in the 1890s alternate between “chemical did not play” and “chemical did not work.” At one point, in 1892, the State of New Hampshire Board of Engineers chastised the company for not keeping the tanks clean and neat. The town Fire Chief also had little love for the chemical company finding it generally unnecessary and an expense to the town. Finally, in 1894, much to the sorrow of the dedicated Pioneer Chemical Company members, the Fire Chief announced that, “the soda fountain has been condemned, so it is laid aside.” Members of the company lost their progressive status and were absorbed into the far less exciting hose companies that were scattered around town.


Thomas W Tufts said…
Great story Barbara. The members are also listed in the book, I believe. If family memebers want to see if their ancestor served, the old books are a great reference. I tried to put together a list of all firemen from this era but it is incomplete

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