William H. Burke had taken over ownership of a general store on Spruce Street from his father. He was also a
charter member of the South Manchester Fire Department, as were many of the local business owners at the time.
He had been the general foreman of Company No. 5 on Charter Oak Street at the time of the merger with Company
No. 4 in 1905. He eventually worked his way up to become general foreman of Company No. 4.
An annual meeting of the South Manchester Fire District was held at District headquarters on School Street on Thursday night, August 15, 1918. The "surprise of the evening consisted in the unexpected election of William H. Burke as Chief of the South Manchester Fire Department." He defeated Orion J. Atwood who had been chief of the department since 1900 by a vote of 41 to 14, and it was truly a feather in Company No. 4's cap.
Chief Atwood had been a charter member of Company No. 1 and there was considerable rivalry between the four fire companies in these days. This was especially prevalent where Company No. 1 was involved owing to their ties with the Cheney Silk Mills and the Cheney family. Their hose house was in the center of the Cheney Mill complex and it was the envy of all the other fire companies. Company No. 1 and the Cheneys maintained a mutually beneficial relationship for many years.
The Fire Chief was given the use of an automobile for business use to do with the duties of his office. A heated garage had been built to the rear of Company No. 1's fire house on Pine Street to house the car used by Chief Atwood, but one of the first things newly elected Chief Burke did was to build an addition off the rear of Station #4 to allow the chief's car room to fit into the building. This area later served as a fire fighters' lounge and, without this extra space, the 1951 ladder truck would not have been able to fit into the building years later.
Chief Burke's tenure was short-lived, however. At the annual meeting of the Fire District the following year, on August 21, 1919 (held at town hall, presumably because of the size of the crowd), Chief Atwood regained control of the office of Chief by a vote of 200 to 134. He continued as chief of the department until 1925 when he was succeeded by his First Assistant Chief Albert Foy.