Wanted: a good fire engine

On Tuesday nights our local history department is overrun with genealogists – don’t worry though, it’s a good thing. Volunteers from the West Michigan Genealogical Society work tirelessly on projects that help genealogists (and other researchers) find things. Their databases provide access to a wealth of information.

Since the genealogists are a smart bunch, they don’t ask me a lot of questions, but every so often they bring me a tough one. Recently, one of the volunteers found a reference to someone’s ancestor in the History of Grand Rapids and its Industries by Dwight Goss, published in 1906. According to the book, this person signed a petition related to the fire department in 1849.

Early fire fighting

In the 1840′s, fire fighting methods in the village of Grand Rapids (we weren’t even a city yet) were not great. The most advanced technology we had was a hand fire engine. This was a wooden cart equipped with a hose. The cart (or tub) was filled with water and then that water was pumped through a hose onto the fire. The problem was that the hand fire engine had to be refilled using a bucket brigade – a line of men passing buckets of water. Not such a great way to fight a blazing fire.

The Old Hand Engine, from Albert Baxter's History of the City of Grand Rapids (1891)

In 1849 a house at the northwest corner of Fulton Street and Lafayette burned. Apparently, this house fire was the last straw and citizens of Grand Rapids drew up and signed a petition asking the Board of Trustees for a “good fire engine.” Goss lists all of the men who signed the petition, and says that the “original… is in the historical room of the Ryerson Library.”

1849 petition to the village of Grand Rapids (Collection 303, Grand Rapids Public Library, FF.VIII.E)

Yikes

So, a book that was published 106 years ago says that our library has a document that is 163 years old. And I have someone standing in front of me who wants to see it.

I have to admit, this made me pretty nervous. We take good care of the historical items entrusted to us, but did the librarians 106 years ago put this document in a place where I’ll think to look for it today? I needn’t have worried, because I found it pretty quickly (safely stored in our archives) and was able to bring the document out for the person to look at. Several of us gathered around the table, studying this piece of Grand Rapids history. We found the signature of the person the genealogist was looking for, and she was able to pass on a very neat piece of history to that person’s descendant.

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