PORTLAND, Maine — Not long before Portland’s Great Fire of 1866, the city’s part-time fire chief visited Boston. While there, he inspected Beantown’s newfangled system of telegraph-wired fire alarm call boxes.
He thought they were nifty but didn’t suppose Portland needed them.
After the Great Fire on July 4 — which destroyed city hall, the customs house, the post office, all the city’s banks, most of its churches and 1,200 private residences, leaving 10,000 people without homes — he changed his mind.
By March 1867, Portland installed its initial 25 fire alarm call boxes at a cost of $8,000. That is nearly $150,000 in today’s dollars.
The first bell sounded just a few weeks later when someone pulled a lever at box 31 on Fore Street.
After that, like the city itself, the system grew until it peaked at over 500 boxes in the early 20th Century. Those were the days before everyone had a telephone in their home.
Nowadays, with the 911 system and cell phones, the street-corner boxes are no longer vital firefighting tools.
Clockwise from left: A vintage fire alarm call box stands at the corner of Washburn and St. John Streets in Portland. The first street boxes — as firefighters call them — were installed after the city’s Great Fire of 1866; Crazed and crackled paint shine on the base of a vintage fire alarm call box on at the corner of Woodfords Street and Stevens Avenue in Portland; Rusty metal surrounds a keyhole on one of Portland’s vintage fire alarm call boxes. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
But they’re still out there, scattered around Portland. Some have seen better days but those still working remain standing in vigilant defense against the next Great Fire.
It’s hard to say just how many street boxes — as firefighters call them — are left, according to city fire officials. More than 100 are still operational but many more than that dot the peninsula and surrounding neighborhoods.
Nobody reached at the Portland Fire Department this week could remember the last time a call came in through one of the city’s boxes. But a quick internet search brings up news stories from 2018 when Boston fire crews were dispatched using one when the regular phone lines were down.
Many of Portland’s old-fashioned, lever-operated boxes don’t need phone lines to work, either. When the “hook” (in firefighter lingo) is pulled, a spring-loaded gear starts spinning. It sends a series of electro-magnetic pulses over what are still, basically, telegraph wires.
In the old days, the pulses would ring a specific number of bells at the local fire department. The bells would tell firefighters which call box was ringing. Then, a chart on the firehouse wall told them where the box was located.
Peaks Island alarm boxes gave off two separate bell pulses. One let firefighters know it was coming from the island and the second sounded with the box number. Schools, hospitals and major businesses had mechanical pull alarms, as well.
Firefighters then rolled to the location and looked for fire and sniffed for smoke.
Clockwise from left: A Portland fire alarm call box is attached to a utility pols at the the corner of Walton Street and Stevens Avenue; Portland fire alarm call box number 925 still stands at Morrill’s Corner; A 1980s vintage, phone-based public safety call box stands at the corner of Devonshire Street and Brighton Avenue in Portland. A few such boxes in are still operational in the city; Portland’s fire alarm call box number 931 still stands at the corner of Woodfords Street and Stevens Avenue.
The system was a great improvement over the old method of shouting “fire” and ringing church bells to get firefighters on the scene.
A city report from 1868 sang the new system’s praises: “With the present facilities, the steamers [horse-drawn, steam-powered pumpers] are ready to work from 10 to 15 minutes from the time the alarm is given and in some cases less,” it read.
It went on to say that the horses were often hitched within two minutes of the bell sounding in the firehouse.
In these modern times, when a box lever is pulled, it goes straight to the regional dispatch center. At least one city firehouse still has its manual bell system.
In the 1950s, the city employed three or four full-time alarm box electricians, according to the Portland Fire Museum on Spring Street. Their job was to continually test and repair the system. One even died on the job, falling from a ladder. Today, he is numbered among the Fire Department’s 20 firefighters killed in the line of duty.
In the 1980s, newer, telephone-style boxes went up across Portland. They allowed for two-way communication with a dispatcher. Someone needing help could relate details of an incident, instead of just the call box location.
From left: A fire alarm call box is lashed to a utility pole with electrical tape on outer Congress Street in Portland; A vintage public safety call box at Woodfords Corner in Portland shows is age in layers of paint; A non-functioning public safety call box is screwed shut at Woodfords Corner. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Many of these boxes still exist in the city, too, though most are screwed shut and not working.
City fire officials said all fire call boxes will be phased out, eventually.
But until they vanish completely, the familiar red boxes will stand as mini reminders of the Great Fire of 1866 and the efforts of those still trying to prevent another such conflagration.
Fore more on the city’s fire alarm box system, visit the Portland Fire Museum where they have preserved much of the old equipment and even keep it in working order.