Founding of Brighton Fire Department
By autumn, 1925, a group of civic minded citizens concluded that formation of a fire district to serve the community could not be delayed further without consequences. Reasons for this were twofold: Pride and economics. For many years the Town of Brighton had been relying on the Rochester Fire Department to answer calls within its territory. This it did for a fee of $50 a fire which, over a period of time, represented considerable expense. And so with petitions in hand, the group set forth to gain support among the local populace, informing them from the outset that expenses would be met by a lien on their property in the form of taxes.
The proposition passed with practically no opposition. Shortly thereafter, a bond issue for $90,000 was approved in order to build and equip not one but three firehouses. Brighton’s first pumper then arrived from Cincinnati and was temporarily housed in a barn of William S. Lozier on Clover Street. The mere purchasing of equipment, however, was not enough to convert the township into a Fire District.
Among the early challenges, a corporate name had to be chosen and approved in Albany. Application for a charter was made to the Secretary of State, but almost immediately an obstacle arose. It seemed that one in the name of “Brighton Fire Department” had already been issued to a unit on East Avenue and Winton Road. The latter, however, was more commonly known locally as “The Disbanded Actives of Brighton.” Much to the surprise of the fledgling outfit, the original charter was surrendered by the Disbanded Actives. In return for such courtesy, each member of the former unit was granted an honorary life membership in the new department.
Women, too, played a role in the formation of the Brighton Fire Department. Their willing presence during emergencies with hot coffee and sandwiches provided an extremely valuable service. Such interest led to the incorporation of a Ladies Auxiliary in June of 1929, and contributed to the further growth and development of the department.
Such was the beginning of a story, which in essence has no end . . . nor will it ever, as long as the threat of fire exists.
1925 --- BFD’s First Official Fire
A department’s first official fire is a momentous occasion filled with a particular sense of urgency and expectation. Brighton’s initial call turned out to be a false alarm on Klink Road the evening of December 16, 1925. The next call to action, however, proved to be quite real as Dr. Paine’s barn on Penfield Road burst into flames and did a reported $10,000 ($135,000 in 2016’s dollars) worth of damage.
1920's Construction of Firehouses
In the early months of 1926, plans were laid to purchase land for the building of Brighton’s first firehouse on the corner of Landing Road and East Avenue. Recognizing that it was to be located in a strictly residential area, architect Leon Stern was commissioned and requested to make the exterior of the building conform with its surroundings. The English Tudor style employed by Stern remains to this day characteristic of all structures owned and occupied by the Brighton Fire Department.
By summer, it was determined that more protection was needed and. due to the addition of pumpers, arrangements were made for a second fire company to be temporarily headquartered in the old Parsons Cider Mill on Monroe Avenue. This served the town’s needs for more than a year.
In 1927, the Brighton Fire District purchased a lot from the Buckland property facing Elmwood Avenue and siding on Winton Road. It is now referred to as Number 2 Firehouse.
Three years later men and equipment moved into Firehouse Number 3 at the corner of Blossom Road and Clover Street. Since the fall of 1926, Pumper 3 had been stored in the VanBortle garage at Landing Road and Rich’s Dugway. Alarms could be answered from the location, of course. But now a permanent structure north of the mainline New York Central Railroad tracks was needed, particularly since there was no overpass at Penfield Road. With the third station fully manned, there were at last firehouses protecting the entire fire district.
1930's Early Training
Now firmly organized, training methods had to be established and since Brighton had no such facilities, volunteers were sent to the old Rochester Training Towers on Genesee Street. The use of First Aid, ventilation and other fire fighting practices were employed, and the Fireman’s Golden Rule became drilled into the head of every recruit: “Extinguish the blaze with the least possible property damage. It’s your neighbor’s property . . . protect it as if it were your own.
“Just because he’s a volunteer doesn’t make him a trained firefighter.” Words such as these have been spoken ever since the first meeting of the Brighton Fire Department and at last something was being done about it. In the early days, traveling into Rochester for classes was expensive and time consuming. By forming its own training school behind Number 1 Firehouse in 1931, the department further sought to improve its proficiency. Brighton was one of the few volunteer fire departments in the nation to have such a program.
In time, floodlights were installed to enable drills after dark. According to the old Rochester Sunday American, subjects covered were: “Description and operation of booster tanks; use of equipment on trucks; instruction on use of special equipment; elementary First Aid; application and use of gas masks and the use of chemical fire extinguishers.” These, of course, were primarily outdoor activities. When the evening’s session was complete, the men went indoors for classes in fire prevention at home, additional First Aid training and the instruction of fire prevention techniques for dissemination to various civic groups.
The formative years were now well behind. The founders were heartened that total involvement and dedication were still increasing. As World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific, Americans increasingly turned their attention to events overseas. Protected by great oceans, friendly neighbors and insulated from the theatres of war, Americans of course had been spared the bombings and massive destruction experienced elsewhere.
Yet the War Years were difficult years for the Brighton Fire Department, and in many ways dangerous years for the community which like thousands of others had been decimated by total mobilization. Life, however, continued on the home front, as did the never-ending battle against fire. Regulars in the department called to war were soon replaced by substitutes who gave an impressive account of themselves. In support of the war effort, a “Victory Garden” was planted at Firehouse 1.
A major fire during those trying days destroyed the Norbert W. Haefner home on Edgewood Avenue and left 13 homeless. Two Battalion Chiefs, Howard Huscher and Harold Gramkee, then established an emergency Haefner headquarters at Firehouse 1 and the emergency relief squad, headed by Captain Oliver Barbeau, collected articles which more than a hundred persons had offered the destitute family.
BFD's Only Line of Duty Deaths --- The 1940's
Two firemen died in action during the Forties. The first, was Harry Johnston, Jr., who was killed when a garage collapsed during a fire in the Home Acres Tract on July 22, 1940. Then, on New Year’s Day, 1947, fireman Bernard McGuire, Jr. died of smoke inhalation while battling a fire that later destroyed the home of John Willis on Elmwood Avenue. Both deaths pointed out what it sometimes means to be a fire fighter.
Brighton Gas Explosions of 1951
The most spectacular and awesome crisis to he faced, however, was still to come and did the afternoon of September 21,1951 when all Brighton seemed to explode. Within a matter of hours a malfunction in the gas system had caused damage to 44 homes in the Twelve Corners area and fires had broken out everywhere. The Brighton Fire Department was on the job just moments after the first alarm sounded and did its utmost to reduce the toll of suffering, death and destruction which was causing havoc. Eventually, more than 35 fire companies joined in the battle. Trucks cruised the neighborhood warning residents to turn off their gas lines, open windows and leave their homes.
An emergency First Aid and food shelter was set up in Firehouse 2. There, an equipment pool was organized to provide participating companies with any additional items needed. According to then Brighton Police Chief Vincent Conklin, “One of the worst emergencies Monroe County ever saw” was estimated to have caused more than $1 million worth of damage. Three lives were claimed and dozens were injured. However, much more would have been lost had it not been for quick and decisive action at the scene.
By now others were hearing of the Brighton Fire Department. One was the National Board of Fire Underwriters, which in 1952 produced a film featuring the Brighton volunteers. The film covered all aspects of volunteer fire fighting from taking salvage covers off furniture to the actual fighting of a house fire. Shown to volunteer firemen throughout the country, its director, William Sether, said that the Brighton department had been chosen as subjects not only because of the quality of the team, but also “because of the excellent facilities offered by the town and the enthusiasm of the fire department and fire officials.”
During the mid-fifties radios were purchased for the purpose of alerting volunteers in their homes. And the department was tested anew by fires at the Fred Neisner residence on Clover Street and the pre-dawn blaze at the Enid Knapp Bottsford Dancing School in which three firemen were injured.
With every decade came greater effort, growth and challenge. On August 2, 1961 the department responded to a call at 1341 Westfall Road. Within minutes they were at the scene of what was already a huge fire in the main barn of Gonsenhauser’s dairy farm, the largest in Monroe County. The nearest hydrants were more than two miles away, and by the time hoses could be connected the barn was engulfed in flames. Despite such obstacles, spread of the blaze was limited, thus sparing the surrounding barns and homesite. It took five days of monitored hosing to completely extinguish the remains.
Not long after that, department members joined together to form a tournament team called the Hornets. Patterned after the 1948 team, its purpose was to sharpen the men’s abilities and remain fit. There were several such teams in the County, all comprised of members of volunteer fire departments. But the Hornets were recognized as a consistently fine team and went on to bring home many trophies from competitions held all over the State.
A spectacular fire early Thanksgiving morning 1966, razed Allendale School’s 40-year old main classroom and administrative building. However, “brilliant and courageous work by Brighton firemen,” news accounts said, prevented spread of the fire to the attached cafeteria and gymnasium. Also spared was a new science and library building. As many as 150 firemen worked through the night including those of neighboring companies, the latter providing a splendid example of the County Mutual Aid System established in 1941. As usual, the people of Brighton and others rallied to help get the school going again through the donation of materials, money and manpower.
On January 10, 1967, nearly 13 years to the day it opened in 1954, a flash fire rapidly spread out of control to demolish Don & Bob’s Monroe Avenue restaurant. More than 75 firemen, along with all Brighton fire fighting equipment helped fight the blaze and prevented it from spreading to nearby property. Nearly 1500 feet of hose was laid to pump water at the height of the operation. Several fire fighters received minor cuts and one was treated in hospital emergency facilities for a puncture wound.
1970's - Explorer Post 513 - Brighton’s Junior Firefighters
As a new decade broke in 1970, ten young men between the ages of 14 and 18 were welcomed by the Brighton Fire Department and together Explorer Post No.513 was formed. Recognizing the continuing need for “new blood” in the ranks, the Explorers had been recruited by highly motivated veterans and their interest in firemanship grew quickly.
A rigorous training schedule was begun to familiarize themselves with the skills necessary to become firemen. Sessions on the theory of firefighting, changing “air masks,” using hoses and ladders, and the responsibilities of a fireman were eagerly attended by the Explorers. Such intensive training qualified them to participate in both drills and fires with regulars of the department and to assist them with crowd control, setting hose lines, directing lighting and cleaning up afterwards.
Should you see a yellow helmeted boy or girl furiously pedaling his bicycle toward a fire you know he’s a Brighton Fire Department Explorer and proud of it. The youth leadership of the Explorers has proven itself effective as the group demonstrates time and again that the trust in them has been well placed. In four short years, two dozen Explorers have gone on to become volunteer firemen, proving how much of an asset they are to the department.
Despite the advances between BFD’s founding and the 1970’s, destructive fires often started undetected and grew into large conflagrations before the alarm could be sounded, unfortunately many more than can be recounted here except for a few of the most memorable.
Early in the 1970, firefighters were called to a fire in the basement of the Administration Building at St. John Fisher College. They responded quickly enough to restrict damage to the immediate area, but in doing so remained on the scene for more than eight hours.
The spring of ’72 saw two large barns burn on the farm of Max Groos on Westfall Road. Although damage was reported at $500,000, at least a million dollars more had been averted by isolating the blaze from surrounding structures, equipment and machinery.
A “second-time” fire was fought at the Maplewood Inn on July 1 1,1973, one having extensively damaged the famed local landmark 15 years earlier. On April 4, 1974, Max Gonsenhauser again found one of his barns ablaze and soon the department was battling this fire hampered by gale force winds.
Despite an almost immediate response, fire raged through the Twelve Corners shopping area, February 1, 1974, destroying Fox’s Delicatessen and four adjoining shops. It was the largest single fire since the gas explosions in 1951. Thousands of spectators watched as hundreds of firemen battled towering flames for more than three hours in 18-degree temperatures. Almost all of Monroe County’s fire departments east of the Genesee River were pressed into service or backed up other departments responding to the call.
The year, 1974, brought some new problems as well. One of them was arson. On four different occasions multiple working fires occurred at the same time, sometimes involving several buildings in an apartment complex. Added to this has been a growing rash of false alarms and bomb scares. Approximately ten per cent of the alarms answered during 1974 turned out to be false.
More to Come
As of this writing we have progressed but halfway through the Seventies. New episodes in the lives of brave men remain to be logged. For certain there is much hard and unpleasant work to be done. But it should be of some comfort to know that those chosen to do it have been well prepared.
Today, nearly 90 years later, the Department thrives utilizing the same key elements of upon which it was founded: a combination paid and volunteer staffing model, three fire stations, and the mantra “Neighbors helping neighbors”.