The Beginning of the 'Town of Manchester Fire Department'
by Doug Welch,
Town of Manchester Fire Department Historian and Retired Firefighter

There were originally several small villages within Manchester's boundaries and their increasing growth created a need for, among other things, schools. The schools relied on district school taxes for their support. In 1751, "Five Miles" (the area we now know as Manchester) was divided up into five school districts which laid taxes, built school buildings, and hired teachers. As the population grew, more school districts were added. An 1849 map of Manchester shows eight school districts and by 1859 there were nine districts.

At the turn of the century, Manchester's early villages had been absorbed into essentially two separate towns, North Manchester (commonly known as Manchester) and South Manchester. The Hockanum River had drawn paper and textile manufacturers to Union Village and North Manchester while the Bigelow Brook and Hop Brook did the same for South Manchester. There was even an attempt in 1891 to have the State Legislature proclaim North Manchester a separate borough, but the move failed.

The Eighth School District encompassed most of North Manchester. Following two disastrous fires around "Depot Square" in 1889, a fire department was formed within this district. At the same time, the privately owned Manchester Water Company came into existence, promising to provide hydrants for fire protection in the Eighth School District. The Manchester Sanitary and Sewer District was set up in 1904 to provide sewers to North Manchester. In 1917, the 'Eighth School and Utilities District' was chartered by the legislature and took control of the fire department, the schools and the sewers. The water department remained privately owned.

In South Manchester, in 1889, Cheney Brothers organized the South Manchester Water Company and went about building the Porter and Howard reservoirs. Also in 1889, the South Manchester Sanitary and Sewer District was incorporated by ten members of the Cheney family. A fire department was organized in 1897 by a group of Main Street businessmen following their own disastrous fire. The boundaries of the new South Manchester Fire District were laid out to include a majority of the population. The Fire District included all of the large Ninth School District.

In 1932, Manchester's school districts were consolidated under the Town of Manchester. The assets of these districts were turned over to the town and the school districts ceased to exist. The Eighth School and Utilities District, however, retained control of the fire department and their sewer department, supported by their own taxing authority. (The word "School" was dropped from the Eighth Utilities District's name in 1963.) The South Manchester Fire District also continued to operate as a separate entity with the authority to levy a tax.

It is difficult to imagine that into the mid 1950's, Manchester had fire district boundaries. Persons living outside the boundaries of these fire districts were generally not provided with fire protection, for they paid no fire tax. The South Manchester Fire District and the Eighth Utilities District combined provided fire protection to only about 25% of the area of Manchester, although 90% of the property valuation was within these districts' boundaries. People living within the districts paid a separate tax to their respective districts for fire protection. These taxes provided the operating budget for the fire departments.

A first step toward any form of consolidation of the fire departments occurred on January 2, 1955. Hose and Ladder Company No. 1 of the South Manchester Fire Department had always benefited from their proximity to the vast Cheney Brothers' silk mill complex, but Cheney Brothers' had been sold to the J. P. Stevens Company in 1954 and was divesting itself of much of its surplus property. The fire company owned all their own equipment and operated out of a fire station on Pine Street leased by the Fire District from Cheney Brothers' Silk Mills. Cheney Brothers had historically advanced money to the Company to purchase their fire apparatus. The loans would then be repaid by the Hose and Ladder Company #1 Club through various fundraising events. Some of the SMFD fire fighters were even compensated by Cheney Brothers.

Under the agreement to consolidate Company #1 with the rest of Fire District, Cheney Brothers was reimbursed by the South Manchester Fire District for Company #1's obligations not yet paid off. The firm continued to be paid rent for the fire station (until the town eventually purchased the building), and Company #1 turned over all their holdings to the Fire District for the sum of one dollar.

The ultimate consolidation of Manchester's two district fire departments into one municipal fire department was an issue that was brought to the forefront by the League of Women Voters of Manchester. The National Board of Fire Underwriters issued a report in 1951 grading the South Manchester Fire District as "4th class for specifically rated property, and Grade B for minimum rates on dwelling house property." Following the release of this report, the League of Women Voters asked for the formation of a Fire Protection and Utilities Study Committee. The Committee was quickly formed and issued their report in 1951 with one of their recommendations being consolidation of the South Manchester Fire District and the Eighth School and Utilities District Fire Department.

An ordinance was introduced in 1953 which would permit the town to consolidate the two fire districts. However, even after enactment by the town Board of Directors, the ordinance could not go into effect until it was approved by the voters of both districts. The League of Women Voters of Manchester had requested the ordinance and strongly supported it. Their contention was that consolidation "would provide a fire department with a single administration and would permit the most efficient distribution and effective utilization of personnel and equipment." They argued consolidation "would enable the Board of Directors and the General Manager to make a unified approach to the problem of fire protection."

Some items of concern with the consolidation issue included the fate of pension benefits and years of service to fire fighters who were on the payroll of the South Manchester Fire Department, and whether or not the Eighth Utilities District would be compensated for their sewer assets. The Eighth Utilities District ultimately chose to be excluded from the consolidation plan, based mainly on the sewer issue. The South Manchester Fire District officers were also not in favor of the consolidation plan and, although they had the power to stop it, they stated they would not stand in the way of consolidation if it was approved by the voters.

The final vote on consolidation was taken in April, 1957. There were contingency plans in place anticipating that the Eighth Utilities District would vote not to consolidate. SMFD Fire Chief Clifford Mason was asked by Town Manager Richard Martin to come up with a plan for fire protection in areas of town outside the Eighth Utilities District boundaries to the north. The plan included an agreement with the Eighth Utilities District whereby they would be compensated for providing fire service in certain areas on the north side of town, so that the town fire department would not have to respond through the District to reach emergencies. When the Eighth Utilities District ultimately did opt out of the consolidation effort, the agreement was put into effect. The agreement was to continue until the Town Fire Department could build a fire station in closer proximity to these areas.

On June 30, 1957, the South Manchester Fire District and its Fire Department ended its 60 year existence. Its equipment and buildings were taken over by the Town of Manchester for the sum of one dollar. Although the actual name change was not implemented for almost 20 years, this was the beginning of the Town of Manchester Fire Department.

Information for this article was derived from:
1. "The History of Manchester Connecticut" by Mathias Spiess and Percy W. Bidwell, 1924.
2. "A New England Pattern; The History of Manchester Connecticut" by William E. Buckley, 1973.
3. Various articles from the "Manchester Evening Herald" newspaper.