Not unlike the conditions of say...a textile mill. The threat of fire was a constant hazard in textile mills. You can imagine all the ingredients- the machinery and air thick with cotton dust, lint and other fiber, machine oil soaked into wooden floors, explosive chemicals used as dyes and sometimes finishing agents. Before electricity, workers might rely on lanterns and candlelight for lighting. Later many mills ran on the power of coal steam boilers, introducing yet another fire hazard to the mix.
|Beacon fire department with hose in New Bedford, MA.
In pre-industrial America, when most people lived on rural farms, there was less likelihood that a fire on your neighbor's farm would spread to your home. There were miles between you. So fire departments and fire fighting equipment was deemed as expensive and unnecessary. But as villages grew into cities often built around an industry, the fire hazard grew. In a textile mill village, all the houses and shops that supported the workers would be within walking proximity. A fire in any one building could easily spread to the next, potentially wiping out whole neighborhoods. After devastating fires in mills and mill villages in the 19th century, residents and mill owners began to take fire safety into their own hands. In communitites all across the east, volunteer fire departments sprang up. In Swannanoa, Beacon Manufacturing organized the Beacon Fire Brigade to protect the mill and the houses nearby. In 1959, after several decades, the Swannanoa Fire Department was chartered as a separate entity.
|Beacon's fire department in Swannanoa.
According to an interview with Swannanoa Fire Department Chief Anthony Penland "Beacon manufacturing had a substantial fire protection system. They had five hundred thousands gallons of water sitting in water tanks. They had lakes that were under the plant that supplied their sprinkler system." Penland's father was in charge of maintaining Beacon's fire protection system. After the mill closed, however, the sprinkler system was shut down and was not operational when the mill was set on fire.
May this tribute to Beacon's fire department remind us of all the firefighters who are out there today, protecting these mountains.