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A Look Back at 100 Years of the University City Fire Department

Historical Society chronicles fire department’s first century of service

The Historical Society of University City invited the community to the library on Tuesday night to commemorate 100 years of service of the University City Fire Department.

The Historical Society’s archivist Sue Rehkopf was the speaker. University City  Fire Chief Don Miner, as well as several firefighters were in attendance.

In the early days of University City, if a fire broke out in the city or surrounding areas, any able bodied man with a bucket and water would try to put the fire out. Rehkopf added that if the St. Louis Fire Department was able to respond, they would. “Lack of available water was always a problem,” she said.

While referencing a picture of Delmar and Skinker from 1901, Rehkopf said that the dirt roads that were prevalent in St. Louis County would slow down crews from the city, who utilized horse drawn steam wagons.

University City incorporated in 1906. “The first thing they did was to establish a police force,” Rehkopf said. The department was created to address the crime that University City was experiencing at the turn of the century.

“One of their jobs was to serve as the fire department.” Rehkopf noted that the department only had deputies of the University City Police Department and volunteers to tend to any fires that might break out.

In 1909, there was a major fire in the University Heights Number 1 subdivision, on Amherst. An overheating furnace in one house caught fire, and it spread to two other homes.

“This fire may have been the final impetus for E.G. Lewis to establish a fire department,” Rehkopf said.

The University City Fire Department was established in May of 1910, with Oscar Kortkamp as its first chief. Kortkamp had previously been with the City of St. Louis’ Fire Department, and was also on the fire squad for the World’s Fair. The fire chief’s salary in 1910 was $100 a month.

The department’s first major purchase was a 1910 Robinson Pumper for $8,395 dollars. Rehkopf said that University City was the first fire department in St. Louis County and possibly the metropolitan area with a motorized fire truck. The truck was able to shoot water 58 feet higher than the magazine building (now City Hall), which is 135 feet.

In 1910,  firefighting equipment cost; $0.75 for gloves, $5 dollars for boots, a leather helmet cost about $15, and a rubber coat, at a city authorized cost of $4.

In contrast, today’s UCFD turnout equipment is $220 for a helmet, $304 boots, and gloves are $75.

The hour-long presentation, which culminated in a social afterwards, chronicled the department’s history in decades from its founding to the present day, and the new chief Don Miner, who joined the department in January of 1980. 

Once the presentation hit the 1970s era Miner said he recognized a lot of the people and equipment. “A lot of the trucks I worked on. It was good to see.”

When asked about the where the department is going at the beginning of its second century, Miner talked about the department remaining progressive in a time where the responsibilities of fire departments are ever-increasing.

“We don’t just put out fires anymore. We’re now responsible for emergency medical services.” He noted  other changes including the equipment, and new hazards, like extrication from electric vehicles which are now becoming common on roads. The biggest change, Miner said, was in training from when he started.

Pictures of the early days of the University City Fire Department are available from the U City Public Library’s Digital Collections at http://history.ucpl.lib.mo.us/

Marilyn March 24, 2011 at 02:27 PM
These are our LOCAL heroes! When you are out walking in the Loop, you might get a chance to thank a Local hero...The Walk of Fame is great...But look up once in awhile, too.

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