Department History

"236 Years of Fire Service History"

Written By: The Winston-Salem Fire and Rescue Historical Society

Fire Wagon Pulled by Horses

Salem Rough & Ready Company #1

Circa 1880s

The Winston-Salem Fire Department possesses a dynamic history stretching as far back as 1785, predating most other fire departments in the United States. The history of our department is one of two cites, Winston and Salem, that after 128 years of service joined efforts in 1913 to become what is now known as the "Winston-Salem Fire Department." Throughout its history, our department has made many great historic and technological strides — from having one of the first colonial water systems to having the first paid African-American firefighters in the south. The goal since its inception has been to provide the citizens of Winston-Salem with the best protection against disaster. Our early pioneers would be proud to know that after 236 years we are still mustering into the future working hard to be "One of Excellence."

water wheelFirst Colonial Water System

The town of Salem installed the first colonial water systems on December 16, 1778. The system was powered by a water wheel, as shown above, and it fed off Salem Creek. The water system consisted of 5478 feet of pipe and was in use for 50 years.

Early Mentions of Fire Protection

November 12, 1778: (Salem) “The chimney in the Brother’s House caught fire this morning, and although no damage was done, it led the Aufseher Collegium to reorganize the committee for fire inspection, which shall inspect all chimneys each month.”

Salem TavernThe Salem Tavern Fire

On January 31, 1784, at 3 a.m. a fire broke out at the Salem Tavern. The fire was most likely started when the oven in the kitchen was not properly extinguished. The entire town showed up and fruitlessly threw buckets of water on the blaze, for unfortunately despite their efforts, the structure was reduced to ashes. The blaze prompted town officials to better organize their efforts and better equip themselves in the event that a fire should happen again.

Well with bucketsThe First Fire Engine in North Carolina

On May 25, 1785, the fire engine ordered nearly a year earlier arrived, and after extensive training the engine was put into service. On June 16, 1785, Brother Stotz was named Fire Master, and August as second. These early acts organized the first fire company in the town of Salem and the state.

click here to Learn more about early fire equipment

The Salem Vigilant Fire Company Forms

On July 12, 1843, the "Salem Vigilant Fire Company" is incorporated with the State of North Carolina, making it one of the first Fire Companies to Incorporate with the State, only second to Raleigh.

The Market Fire House is Built

On June 1, 1804, the "Market Fire House" was built in the Salem Town Square. This small structure has been restored but is still the oldest standing fire house in the state.

The Town of Winston is Formed

The community of Winston was formed in 1849, north of the town of Salem, to serve as the county seat of the newly-formed county of Forsyth. The town started at this point but the only mention of a fire department was found in the 1860s.

Salem Rough & Ready Company is Formed

In February 1859, the fire engine is moved to Main Street and later in 1868 the Rough and Ready Fire Company is organized. F. C. Meinung is the Captain of this company and later becomes the first "Chief" of the Salem Fire Department. Around the same time, due to the new growth of the cites, the " Eagle Hose Company" was formed in the western areas of the city. Later in the 1860s, reports of an African-American Fire company show it was formed in the eastern parts of Salem and Winston.

African-American Fire Company

Steam Fire Engines

As technology in the fire service advanced, the steam fire engine become available. The steam fire engine was an improvement to the hand-pumped units. Originally it took as many as eight men to effectively operate a hand-powered pump; a steam-powered pump only required a few men. Both the towns of Salem and Winston operated steam fire engines. The first engines came to the town of Winston in 1882 and shortly thereafter, the town of Salem purchased one in 1886. At its height, the two towns operated five steam engines operating out of five stations pulled by ten fire horses.

Fire Horses in Service

In the early 1900s, most of the fire companies were horse drawn. The horses were local heroes known for their speed. Some of their names where Jim, Henry, King, and Prince. Old Henry's speed cost him his life while responding to a alarm; he slipped on a wet cobblestone street and the steamer he was pulling ran him over.

Washington Park Area Grows

On March 3, 1905, as a result of the growing area east of Salem, the old steam fire engine was transferred froJoe Whitlowm the main station to the Eagle Hose Company. The name of the old company was changed to the "West Side Steamer Company."

First Fallen

Early on the morning of March 17, 1911, a fire broke out in the "Old Farmers Warehouse" in the area of 7th and Liberty streets. While crews were battling the fire, a wall fell, striking young firefighter Joe Whitlow with Winston Hook and Ladder 2.

R.L. HooperTowns & Departments Merge

In 1913 the towns of Salem and Winston merge, after which R.L. Hooper is appointed the first chief of the newly-merged departments.

Firefighters with Type 12 Triple combination motor carsFirst Motorized Fire Apparatus

August 5, 1912, a the department received the first motorized fire apparatus - a Type 12 Triple combination motor car from American LaFrance Company.

2nd Fallen Brother

On July 14, 1915, David Kiser came into contact with live phone wires and was killed instantly.

3rd Fallen Brother

On July 14, 1920, while responding to a alarm, a steamer slides on a wet cobblestone street, throwing D.L. Reavis and killing him instantly.

Chief NissenChief Nissen Killed

On November 28th, 1932 Chief Nissen is stuck down by a Greyhound bus while responding to an alarm at the intersection of Cherry and Six streets.

Chief Nissen was the 4th out of the nine Firefighters to lose their life in the line of duty

First paid African American Firefighters

On March 1, 1951, the city hired and trained its first integrated fire company. During the training of these new additions, white as well as African-American firefighters worked, slept, and trained together. The first to be hired were Rapheal Black, Willie Carter, Lester Ervin, John Henry Ford, Robert Greer, John Meredith, George Penn and John Thomas.

Fire-Police Program

In 1957 with the opening of Engine Company Eight, an additional 14 were hired - six of whom were dedicated firefighters and the others were both police officers and firefighters. The Police-Firefighters were dual role that worked on beats until an alarm came in. This program was suspended in the fall of 1987.

Sandra WaldronFirst Paid Woman Firefighter

In 1973 Sandra Waldron was hired as a Public Safety Officer, making her the first paid woman firefighter. Upon her retirement in 2001 she had achieved the rank of Battalion Chief. Later research revealed that she was the first paid woman firefighter in the United States - over a Judith Livers who was hired in 1974 in Arlington County, Virginia.

Chief Bullard Dies

On July 6, 1980, Chief Arnold Bullard collapsed while training at the public safety center. Chief Bullard was considered very progressive by implementing medical training for firefighters. In his honor, Central Station located at 651 N Marshall Street carries his name.Lester E. Erivin

First African American Fire Chief in North Carolina

July 21, 1980, Lester E. Erivin was promoted, making him the first African-American Fire Chief in North Carolina.

RSmoke from Old RJR Reynolds Plant 256 FireJR 256 Fire

August 27, 1998, a fire ignited in the Old RJR Reynolds Plant 256, which was built in 1925. It took 125 paid Firefighters and 50 Volunteers to suppress the fire. Only 3 city fire stations remained open during the fire.

The Recent YearsOld RJR Reynolds Plant 256

Over the past 10 years, the department has hired nearly 150 firefighters and opened two more stations. In addition to the staffing and companies, the department has implemented dedicated Ladder Companies and a Rescue Company.

This article was written with the corporation of members of the Winston Salem Fire and Rescue Historical Society.

Learn more about the Winston-Salem Fire and Rescue Historical Society.