In the Hose 5 Fire Museum on State Street in Bangor is a ticker-tape machine beneath two red-and-white Gamewell fire-alarm boxes. Anyone who grew up in Bangor even in the 1970s can remember seeing those, either in businesses or on street corners.
Bangor initially spent $3,537.39 in 1883 (about $82,000 in today’s dollars) to install several Gamewell boxes and the necessary city-wide wiring. When someone pulled the alarm, a mechanical device engaged, clicking out a location number and sending it over the wires to the firehouses. When the alarm bell rang, firefighters checked the ticker-tape output and knew where the alarm was pulled.
But in today’s world of computers, 9-1-1, and radio dispatching, such ancient technology is dead and gone, right? Guess again: That system is still in use in Bangor, with about 100 boxes wired to Bangor’s three active firehouses.
“This is antiquated technology, [but] it is still the fastest way to summon the fire department,” said Capt. Matt Costello of the Bangor Fire Department. “When that internal lever is pulled, within seconds it’s ringing in a station.”
A 9-1-1 call takes longer, and with the pull boxes, the result is minutes saved in potentially life-or-death situations. Perhaps not much has changed since 1883; in “Fire Service of Bangor” (1890), the author wrote about the new Gamewell system, “…as Chief Parker tersely expressed it, ‘It now takes seconds to give an alarm of fire where formerly minutes were required.’”
While this system is a piece of living history, most of the museum’s relics are from bygone times. The free-admission museum offers a fascinating look into the history of firefighting in the Greater Bangor area; visitors can see many historical artifacts, including old photos, station log books, brass fire poles, hand tools, a life net, vintage bunker gear, and antique breathing apparatuses.
There are plenty of wheels, such as the 1946 Jeep Willys, a popular World War II vehicle that veterans found ideal for firefighting; a 1939 Seagrave pumper; a 1930 McCann pumper, an early motorized fire engine that has never left Bangor, although it once pumped water to Brewer for several days when a water main broke; and a 1917 Garford pumper, Old Town’s first motorized fire engine, restored in the early 1990s, one of only two known to have survived (the other is in Australia).
New to the museum is a room dedicated to the Great Fire of 1911, which did $3.2 million in damage to downtown (nearly $75 million in today’s dollars) and left hundreds homeless. The room features many photos of the fire and its aftermath, artifacts from the time, and a detailed wall display created by Jean Schmick-Hopkins’ 2010 fourth-grade class at Fairmount School, with help from the Bangor Museum and History Center.
Visitors will see an original “Bangor ladder.” Originally manufactured by Gen. Joseph Smith’s Bangor Extension Ladder Co. at Salem Court, right behind the museum, this improved the existing pole ladder by attaching the poles. The Bangor ladder became wildly popular; by 1890, Boston and Chicago each had 50 Bangor ladders, and New York City had 150. It won the Centennial medal at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. The design is still in use worldwide today.
Some museum pieces need special care, such as the museum’s circa-1860 hose cart. Designed to be pulled by horse or by hand, the unit, having been stored in the museum’s basement for years, was in terrible shape. Last winter, Lt. John Gray and several Bangor firefighters carefully restored it, numbering pieces so they knew how to reassemble it.
“You have to be very careful taking it apart and make sure you use all the original parts — and make sure you don’t damage anything getting it apart,” Gray said. “That was a challenge.”
Like everything at Hose 5, the restoration was done entirely by volunteers.
“If we had a payroll here, we’d have to really raise a lot more money than we do,” Costello said. “The biggest expense that we have is upkeep.”
Legendary Bangor architect Wilfred E. Mansur designed the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built on the site of a previous wooden firehouse in 1897, the city closed it when the new Station #5 on Hogan Road opened in 1993. A group of Bangor firefighters petitioned the city to lease the old building to them, with a goal of preserving the firefighting history of the Bangor area. With the help of the Bangor Firefighters’ Relief Association, the Hose 5 Fire Museum opened in October 1994.
The museum welcomes visitors, but it also welcomes volunteers. “Like any museum or any volunteering, it’s a matter of [getting] more people involved,” Costello said. “If anybody has interest in the fire service… [and] they want to help us out, they can call us. We’re looking to take anybody.”
“If anybody’s got expertise in older trucks, we’re looking for mechanics to come in and help us out and assist us in keeping these pieces of history up and running,” Gray said.
In the past, pancake breakfasts have raised money, but the big fundraiser is the Bangor Firefighters calendar, published every two years, in which firefighters pose for the camera. Next year, they’ll begin shooting the 2014 calendar.
The Hose 5 Fire Museum is open May through October on Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon, with other visits and group tours available by appointment. If you’re interested in volunteering, stop by on a Saturday morning, or email email@example.com.
The museum welcomes donations sent to Hose 5, P.O. Box 25, Bangor, ME 04402.