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Burning Question: Why Does Bellefonte Have Two Fire Companies?

Fire companies

ADDRESS
Bellefonte, PA 16823

By Serge Bielanko

You ever wonder why Bellefonte has two fire companies? 

In a town with so much past, it's a question that deserves a little digging into every now and then. Why? Well, if for no other reason than to tip our collective cap at the ladies and gentlemen who have been trying to keep this place from going up in smoke for many moons now.

There's another reason though, too. It's often fascinating business uncovering the complicated stories of our own backyards. It's a challenge that gets me all kinds of excited. Which probably explains why it's exactly what I'm setting out to do right here, right now.

Our question then.

'Why does Bellefonte have two fire companies?'

At first thought, it would almost seem simple enough to answer it.

This town is known for its fires!

So it would make sense that Bellefonte has two fire companies, right? As is often the case when we start digging for answers in that huge pile of yesterdays we call history, there's a bit more to it than just that. Two fire companies in one town isn't the norm anywhere in small or semi-small town America, we might all know that. But at the same time, there IS a history of two fire companies in some places where you might not expect there to be.

Like here in Bellefonte.

The story of why and how Logan Fire Company and Undine Fire Company both rose up out of the ashes (sorry: too soon?) of yesteryear to help keep Bellefonte and her citizens safe is a long and lovely one. Truth is: it's a tale that probably deserves its own history book at some point. So I can't possibly cover all of it here today. What I can do though is revisit the question and try to let you in on how it possibly all came to be.

Because it's kind of remarkable, actually.

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In June of 1816, according to J.B. Linn's History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania, Bellefonte town council held a meeting where many of the landowners in town proposed buying the town's first fire engine. Lay a special tax on the people, they said, and let's buy ourselves something this town really needs: a fire engine. The only stipulation was that it couldn't cost more than $700.

Linn doesn't mention whether that ever worked out or not, but one thing is for certain. Up until then, Bellefonte residents were told to have a couple of leather buckets handy in their houses for the sake of putting out fires. It doesn't take a scholar to figure out that that probably didn't save much property in the end. But that was how things were done back then.

Once upon a time that bucket of water was all you had. Or maybe twenty or thirty of them if you got lucky and your neighbors showed up to help you fight the beast. A 2016 Smithsonian Magazine feature entitled, appropriately enough, In the Early 19th Century, Firefighters Fought Fires … and Each Other gives magnificent details.

As American towns grew into dense cities where a single fire could threaten the lives of thousands, the country lacked the types of institutions that fought fires....," writes author, Jackson Landers. "The first homeowners insurance company wasn't started until 1752 (by Benjamin Franklin) and didn't become common until the 1800's. By that time, Americans had developed their own tradition of fighting fires as a grassroots collective. The first response of those communities was what would later be called a “bucket brigade.” Neighbors from all around the fire would run to help or at least toss their buckets into the street for volunteers to fill with water and pass forward to be dumped on the fire.

It was thus out of the need for these so-called 'Bucket Brigades' that the first organized fire companies seemed to have risen. In big cities two, three, or sometimes four or five private brigades of fellows would rush to burning buildings pulling their own wagons (horses, anyone?) loaded down with tanks of water. Once arrived on the scene, they'd gaze up at the conflagration-often through those good old 19th century drunken eyes- before they'd commence to fist-fighting each other for the right to put the thing out.

There was money to be made: if you put out the fire (or just tried) you could charge a pretty penny for the services rendered. But in order to do that, you had to earn the right. Which meant you had to get busying throwing roundhouses while a piece of the city burnt down. Then, once everything was settled, the winning company would start passing buckets of water down the line of men towards the blaze.

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Luckily for Bellefonte, there doesn't seem to be too many bucket brigade punch-up stories. But 14 years after the idea of a fire engine tax was first brought up, it seems to have finally became a reality. As Linn recounts, in the late winter of 1830 the town reported an ordinance for the "...purchase of a fire-engine and the necessary hose and other materials and for protecting the houses of the borough from fire, and for laying a tax to pay the expenses thereof, and for building an engine-house."

In February of 1831 the Bellefonte Fire Company was voted into existence and the 'young men of the borough' were asked to consider joining up and forming themselves "into a company of firemen in the borough of Bellefonte and the vicinity."

A lot changed right then and there. This company was still by all intents and purposes a 'Bucket Brigade', but at the same time, they were an organized one raised specifically to answer the fire calls of residents in need. And that proved monumentally different from anything anyone around here had known before.

For one thing, the days of standing alone in front of your own burning home with a leather bucket full of creek water or whatever were history.

Now other people were willing to do it for you.

The age of the modern fireman was born.

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Our own history, by my own definition, is the shared experience and collective unity that binds us... however loosely or tightly you may choose to see it.

Each of us goes searching with an open mind, but what we discover, like it or not, is often dictated by what we were unconsciously hoping for all along. In other words, researching history is a lot like going to a Thanksgiving dinner with everyone in attendance. You arrive with certain ideas in mind, and before long you're being sucked into parallel dimensions of discussions with some and arguments with others, learning a little along the way, but probably never moving too far from the set of ideas you walked in the door with earlier.

The same goes for history, and for me telling the little story I'm trying to tell you here. I have to consider a bunch of reliable sources, all of these history books and public records and stuff before I can really round out a narrative I feel comfortable adding my name to. And yeah, the questions are so much easier than the answers when it comes to a lot of history. Still, we have to try, don't we? We have to set out to connect certain provable dots in the hopes that somebody, somewhere, will come across what we have found out and read it and digest it and maybe, just maybe, use it to make the world a slightly better place.

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In his 1883 colossus, History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania, Bellefonte resident J.B. Linn noted that from the early 19th Century right through the Civil War years (1861-65), all the firefighting done in the area was done by 'Bucket Brigades'. A massive fire on the west side of Allegheny Street in 1865 demolished everything in its path though as the Bucket Brigades proved unable to overcome it. It was the final straw for a lot of people. Many began to insist on better fire safety measures.

By 1868, their calls for change were heeded.

That was the year that Bellefonte Borough bought what was known as a 'hose-carriage' off of Philadelphia's Schuylkill Hose Company. And out of that purchase was born the Logan Hose Company, or as we know it today, Logan Fire Company No. 1.

I reached out to firefighter and current Logan Fire Co. President Paul Kline to see if he knew much about how we ended up with two entirely all-volunteer fire companies here in town, Logan No. 1 and Undine No. 2.

"In 1871, a rift or difference developed among the membership, causing a split," Kline recounts. "This is when the Undines formed, 1871. A funny story is that the split occurred due to differences between members who were catholic and members who were protestant."

Oh. Very interesting, I thought to myself.

But Kline was swift in making sure that I understood that he wasn't certain about any of this juicy fat legend.

"This is not a verified story!" he exclaims. "There are many stories out there."

Grrr. How can I find out the truth then?

For their part, Undine Fire Company's official website history, much like Logan's, doesn't really chase down this religious differences theory. Perhaps the years have allowed each of these companies to try and buff away the reasons behind their big split. That makes sense to me. Why harp on mindsets and prejudices that were once prominent in society, but now seem petty and ignorant. That was a different time, of course, and I'm pretty sure that the men and women of both these companies today, in 2020, each of them volunteering to put their lives on the line on a regular basis, they probably don't represent any of the same archaic philosophies that may or may not have contributed to the Great Fire Company Split. Believe me, I totally get that.

I have to admit something here. I'm still fascinated by this notion! I'm still riveted by this question! Did the official Bellefonte fire company known as Logan once become two separate companies because half the guys were Catholic and half of them were Protestant?

There's not much to go on though, at least not that I could find.

A video project done by Penn State College of Communications students in 2011 asks the very same question as us: Are two fire companies right for Bellefonte? It's a worthwhile watch; interviewed subjects include former Logan Station Deputy Chief Doug Shreffler who reflects on the ups and downs of two companies in town. Pointing out that any competition between the companies these days is "...good competition, looking to see who can get the rig out the door first," Shreffler also mentions the disadvantages of two companies as well. The costs of running two separate fire stations, he points out, means twice as much money must be raised each year in order to keep things going.

But still little is relayed about the reasons behind the initial split. Why did one group of firefighters ultimately decide to become two? Was it personal? Was it financial? Was it a little bit of both?

Or was it something else entirely?

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During the 1870's, a great rivalry existed between the Logans and Undines, another fire company which formed within Bellefonte in 1871. This rivalry generated quick responses, as each company would race to be the "first" on scene. Far too often, the companies would swiftly arrive at a fire only to find that the Bellefonte Borough water system could not provide adequate water until they started the steam pumps at the "Big Spring." As a result, both companies would race to a fire with a full complement of equipment, only to stand-by and watch buildings burn to the ground. - Logan Fire Co. No 1 website (2/18/20202)

During the 1870s, a great rivalry existed between the Logan Hose Co and the Undine Hose Co. This resulted in quick response, as each company would race to be 'first' on scene. Far too often, though, the companies would swiftly arrive at a fire only to find that the Borough water system could not provide adequate water until they started the steam pumps at the spring, and the water pressure built up to a point that sufficient water could be trained on the fire. As a result, both companies would race to a fire with a full complement of equipment, only to stand by and watch the building burn to the ground!  - Undine Fire Co. No 2 website (2/18/2020)

Not much difference between either one, is there? In fact, something tells me they might have even been written by the same person and then slightly altered by someone along the way. Which is fine. What matters here to me is that- no matter what might have happened in the past- both Bellefonte fire companies seem okay with moving forward with their differences intact, but under the banner of one collective history.

Neither company seems much inclined to dredge up the past, to pinpoint the accuracy of the rumors about the Catholic/Protestant rift that might have splintered the original company long ago.

These two groups of men and women, no matter what drove them apart once upon a time...they sure pulled themselves together, didn't they? For the sake of the community, for the betterment of the kids down the block whose homes caught fire in the middle of the night, Logan and Undine laid aside whatever might lie just beneath the surface in order to save buildings...and human lives.

And when you look at it all like that, well, I guess my question just sort of becomes a curiosity rather than a part of history we have to answer. Yes, they broke up. Yes, they went their separate ways. But yes, oh sweet sweet dose of truth!...they both kept on showing up: rolling up when the weather was cold and the town was asleep and the night was as uncertain as any that had ever come before. And all of it in the name of something bigger and better than the split itself.

Would I still like to answer my dang question? Oh, yeah, you know I would.

But even so, I like where the question took us.

I like that the story- this little dose of local history- it has a pretty happy ending so far.

----

So let me leave you here, with this.

Not long ago I put a question about why Bellefonte has two fire companies onto the You know you're from Bellefonte PA... Facebook page. Many people there are interested in local history and so it seemed like a sensible place for me to see what I could find out. The response was pretty good. Folks were interested, although no one really seemed to be able to point me towards the elusive answer. One or two had heard the religious differences theory, but that was about all in that department.

However, one comment stopped me in my tracks.

"I can remember," wrote Guy Sharkey, Sr., "when the Logan FD had to fight the fire at the Undine."

Say what? For real, I asked him? When was that?

"Late 60's early 70's," he responded. "I lived on Logan Street at the time and watched from behind the Catholic Church."

Whoa. This was too good to be true... if it WAS true.

Then Bruce Babcock, another member of the Facebook page chimed in.

"The story I heard was that when the Logan company got the call, they thought it was a prank at first," he wrote.

If this was all reality, if this had actually happened, then I had to know, because this was the best ending I could have ever hoped for this story. Truth stranger than fiction. History more wonderful than I even hoped for. The Undine's own website mentions the disaster, verifying the common knowledge that it's former fire hall burnt to the ground.

In 1964, the Undine Fire Company fell victim to its own tragedy. The existing fire hall at that time caught fire and was destroyed. Despite the efforts of the firefighters, they were unable to save the firehouse from complete destruction. The only item salvaged was the bell from the original bell tower which now resides in front of our current station.

But there is no mention of Logan coming to the rescue on the Undine website. Stranger still, there's nothing on the Logan website either. Hmm. Was that because they weren't there?

Somehow I doubt it. If there was a blazing inferno ripping through a building that happen to belong to their so-called 'rivals', wouldn't the folks at Logan race to the scene no matter who was on the burning end of the thing? Of course they would. They were mere blocks away, the closest company by far to respond. And they were dedicated volunteers committed to a noble cause. Nothing would have made them go back to bed or whatever.

Not religion.

Not politics.

Not old wounds.

Not anything.

A neighbor was in trouble and so surely anyone who could help WOULD help. And they did. And if things had been reversed, Undine would have gone to help Logan.

And with that: I think we may not have answered our original question. Hopefully someday I can verify it all one way or another. But we answered a bunch of other questions we weren't even asking to begin with. There are two fire companies in this town and they both have long legacies in protection so many. Long may they run.

So help them out if you can. Volunteers are much needed. Support their fundraisers. Give them a thumbs up when you are walking down the street and they rumble on by. Checkout their websites and learn what they're up to, what they need.

Without Logan Fire Company No. 1 and Undine Fire Company No. 2 this town would most likely be a tourist attraction for all the wrong reasons.

We owe them both a lot.

 

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PHOTOS:

Undines #2 (group shot) - 'Undine Fire Company, early 20th century.' Courtesy of Frank 'Bud' Halderman

Undine Hose (old engine) - 'Undine Fire Co. 'Emergency Truck'. Courtesy of Frank 'Bud' Halderman

Undines 2 (old firehouse) 'old Undine Engine House built in 1889'. Courtesy of Frank 'Bud' Halderman

Undines (courthouse)

Undine Burns (fire) '1964 Fire Burned Undine to the Ground' Courtesy of Guy Sharkey, Sr.

Logan 1 (courthouse) 'Logan Fire Company outside courthouse' Courtesy Logan Fire Co #1 website

Logan Action (action shot) 'Logan Firefighters in action' - Courtesy Logan Fire Co #1 website

 

This is part of Bellefonte History articles written with the support of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association.
Check out their website and Facebook page for information about Bellefonte and Centre County History, Architecture, and Culture.

 

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