Guilford’s One-Man Fire Department
Francis Ingals, Chaffinch Island, Guilford - Guilford Free Library, Historical Room
In the early decades of the 20th century, the town of Guilford had a fire department stationed on Chaffinch Island. Credited by the Chief of the New Haven Fire Department with having some of the best equipment found between New Haven and New London, the Chaffinch Island department ignored town borders to help extinguish fires all along Connecticut’s southern coast. What made these efforts so unique was that the entire Chaffinch Island Fire Department consisted of just one man, Francis E. Ingals, who fought fires out his home as a hobby.
Ingals was a mechanical and electrical engineer who studied his craft at the University of Wisconsin. After going to work for an electric automobile plant in Chicago, Ingals bought a summer home on a lake in Wisconsin. One night while on the lake, a nearby hotel owned by one of his friends caught fire, and Ingals rushed to assist in saving the building. From then on, he knew he wanted to fight fires.
Francis Ingals Sets Up Fire House in His Chaffinch Island Home
In the 1920s Ingals moved to Guilford with his mother and purchased a home on 8 acres of land on Chaffinch Island. After fixing up the house and constructing some outbuildings, Ingals realized that living in such an isolated location left his home susceptible to loss by fire. He began acquiring firefighting equipment.
Detail of Chaffinch Island from Guilford Quadrangle 1954 – USGS Topographic map – University of Connecticut Libraries, Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC)
His first fire engine was a Ford Roadster that he modified with a place in the back for storing a reel of rubber hose and apparatus for pumping water or fire-suppressing chemicals. Once his neighbors learned about his fire truck, they asked if he might assist them in case their properties ever caught fire. Before long, Ingals found himself providing services to the entire town of Guilford and beyond.
His fire station was his home. Alarms came via calls from local telephone operators. As the years passed, Ingals regularly expanded his garage space to house larger and larger trucks. By 1931, Ingals had a Maxim pumper truck he outfitted with a special front seat to allow his dog Duke to ride along on calls.
When not fighting fires, Ingals was a boat operator for Chaffinch Island and also worked as a handyman, repairing motors or fixing up boats for his neighbors. He used this money to help defray the personal expenses he acquired because of his firefighting hobby.
In 1941, Ingals allegedly submitted a bill for $200 to the Guilford Board of Selectman for repairs to his equipment. When the town voted down his request for reimbursement, Ingals sold his truck and firefighting equipment to the town of Meriden, effectively ending his days as a one-man fire department.
Guilford Fire Department:
A Brief History
From Guilford Long Ago, Vol. II, by J.E. Helander, 1969
Although the traditional date for the formation of the present fire department is usually given as “1852,” there is evidence in the records of an earlier fire company.
At the May 1822 session of the Connecticut Legislature, the warden and burgesses of the Borough of Guilford were authorized “to form, continue & regulate one fire company in addition to the one already there.” The Borough government levied taxes and provided services in the village center of Guilford and co-existed with Town of Guilford government. Needless to say, this earliest Borough fire company only responded to fires within the territorial limits of the Borough! The New Haven Palladium newspaper reports on the “well-directed efforts of the firemen and others” in November 1839 in fighting a large fire on Broad Street. It was during this period of time that numerous fire wells were dug on the Green for a water supply––many of which still remain.
Twenty-five able-bodied Guilford men petitioned the State Legislature in April 1842 to adopt bylaws (or charter) for this Borough Fire Company, to be called “Fire Company No. 2”, evidently as a successor to an earlier fire company. The draft charter required “firemen” in the company to contribute to the purchase of an engine as a condition of their membership.
The minutes of Guilford Borough in March 1852 refer to the existing “Guilford Fire Engine Company,” their “engine”, and their “engine house.” At this time, Borough officials voted to purchase a fire engine i.e. Fire Engine no. 7 offered for sale by New Haven Fire Department and also to purchase the old engine of the existing fire company. By March 1853, the Borough government established two fire companies, each to have a foreman, assistant foreman, and one of the two engines.
The original hand-drawn pumper purchased from New Haven earned its name, “Washington Engine” from the district in New Haven where the recycled engine had served. It has been restored several times and is a cherished artifact from Guilford’s earliest Borough Fire Department. The town’s fire department historian, the late Shelton W. Dudley, Sr., described the pump action of the old Washington Engine, which required water in leather buckets to be poured into the end sections of its box body. Firemen would stand on each side of this apparatus and pull back and forth on ropes attached to levers that operated the pump. Later, a suction hose was added, which could be dropped into a well or brook for supplying water supply. As late as 1908, the old Washington hand engine performed valiant service at the Cunningham House fire at 241 Water Street. Another cherished artifact of the Guilford Fire Department is the hand-pumping engine that belonged to the Borough Fire Department pre-dating the Washington Engine. This engine is owned and maintained by the Eagle Hose Company and, like the Washington Engine, often appears in parades.
Some of the disastrous fires that stand out in Guilford’s long fire history are the dwelling houses torched by British invaders at Sachem’s Head (1777) and Leete’s Island (1781), Sachem’s Head Hotel (1865), Button Shop (1884), Guilford Point House (1897), E.C. Seward’s Gablehurst mansion (1923), Our Lady of Grace Monastery (1955); Frione House in North Guilford (1971), and Faulkner’s Island Lighthouse (1976). But the most disastrous fire in terms of scope––not in lives lost––was the fire on the west side of the Green in February 1872 when three dwelling houses in the 25–33 block of Whitfield Street were destroyed. It was only through the skill and valor of the firemen that Amos Seward’s house at 21 Whitfield Street was saved.
A disastrous fire in 1887 became the catalyst for improvements in the languishing Borough Fire Department. It was an exceedingly cold night in March and a long row of old wooden buildings owned by Darwin Benton on the site of 11/15/17 Water Street started to burn. Despite gallant efforts by the two fire companies, the buildings were leveled to the ground. The old Washington engine had become unserviceable by this time and, although it was pulled to the scene of the fire, it sat abandoned in the gutter of the street. Old-timers stated that this fire resembled the fire of 1872, mainly because the buildings were in such close proximity to others, including the large Sherman’s Hotel on the corner. A successful lobby was waged to repair the old engine as a result of the anxiety caused by this costly fire, including replacement of the old leather hose with cotton hose. During this same period, 1887–1892, the re-organization of the Borough Fire Department gave rise to the origins of three volunteer fire companies still operating as Eagle Hose Company at 120 Whitfield Street, Washington Engine Company at 10 Graves Avenue, and F.C. Spencer Hook & Ladder Company at 51 Water Street. The North Guilford Fire Company was organized in 1946 and received its first engine in 1947, which was an Army surplus model nicknamed “Old Ironsides.”
Modernization of the fire department in Guilford has been continual, beginning with the introduction of water mains by the Guilford Water Company in 1900. By 1902, fifty fire hydrants were leased from the Company by the Borough of Guilford (today, there are approximately 400 hydrants in town). During the first quarter of the last century, compromises in water supply and water pressure were a greater disadvantage than the lack of motorized fire apparatus. After a house on Upper Church Street was destroyed by fire in 1899, the Shore Line Times reported that the fire engines were prepared to direct streams of water on the fire, but not a drop of water was available because every well in the vicinity was dry. The newspaper quipped that “both engines were as useless as baby wagons...” In 1913, The National Board of Fire Underwriters still cited inadequate protection from fire due to pressures recorded as low as 40–50 pounds at the hydrants. As a result, the 500,000 gallon water tank or stand pipe was built on Clapboard Hill in 1914.
Subsequently, the time honored practice of ringing church bells to give alarm of fire was also reformed. A December 1915 edition of the Shore Line Times reports that the fire bell alarm on the Methodist Church awakened only one fireman at 5:00 a.m. in the morning. One month later, the newspaper again criticizes the Borough of Guilford for an inadequate alarm system, citing the destruction of a barn on Boston Street, together with seven horses, hay, and tools because only a few firemen heard the bell alarm at 2:30 a.m. The large bell in the belfry tower of the First Congregational Church was also rung to give alarms of fire. As a remedy to the antiquated alarm system, the Shore Line Times advocated a “compressed air screecher.” By 1918, the Borough contracted Clarence Norton’s automotive garage at 78 Boston Street to build one, which was a three chime steamboat whistle mounted on the roof of the garage. It was activated by a lever in the local telephone exchange, where emergency calls were received, and served from this location until 1936. The air-powered fire horn was mounted on the Washington Engine Fire Company across the street until 1954. Afterwards, an omni-direction air horn mount on the east gable of Town Hall has served as the official fire whistle. It remains there to this day, truly a relic of yester-year, but still serviceable.
The year 1923 heralded the arrival of motorized fire apparatus for the two Guilford fire companies. Instead of pulling hose carts and pumping engines through rutted or muddy roads by hand or by horses, the men were now able to respond to alarms of fire outside of the Borough limits. Washington Engine Company acquired a Peter Pirsch hose truck on a Model T Ford chassis; Eagle Hose Company acquired a Pope–Hartford touring car that was outfitted with a 500 gallon per minute Silsby pump; F.C. Spencer Hook & Ladder Company acquired a Model T Ford Smith Form-A-Truck. Updated fire trucks were variously added over the years. Two-way radios were installed in all the fire apparatus in 1951.
During the 1950s, the fire department organized two emergency squads, one for downtown and one for uptown, which were composed of members from the four companies. In 1979, the two emergency squads were consolidated as one separate Rescue Squad Company known as Company No. 5 of the department. The standard training for pre-hospital care of the sick and injured remained as American Red Cross first aid courses until Yale-New Haven Hospital sponsored Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) training courses in 1971. Under a sponsor hospital program (Yale & St. Raphael’s) inaugurated for Guilford in 1992, the town’s first Paramedics were trained and certified, receiving advanced orders through hospital-based medical control. Soon after, the fire department assumed control of the Town Ambulance Service and also the central 911 dispatch center known as the Communications Department.
A new, state-of-the art central fire headquarters at 390 Church Street was dedicated in 2003, where the offices of the fire marshal are also located. Thirty-two paid firefighters work in four shifts and are augmented by approximately sixty volunteers. The department is commanded by Chief Charles E. Herrschaft, Jr., who has served in this capacity since 1984. Other officers in the department include two assistant chiefs, four deputy chiefs, six captains, and eleven lieutenants. The fleet of modern apparatus includes five engines or pumpers, two tankers, an aerial ladder truck, two brush trucks, two rescue trucks, four ambulances, a hazardous material command trailer, two utility trucks, three all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), a lighting truck, and two boats.
The Guilford Fire Department sponsors a Cadet Program for young people (aged 14–18 years). Cadet members are given training by members of the department and may, at age eighteen, join the fire company of their choice. Six of the department’s present officers received their initial training as members of this Cadet or Explorer Post.