The town of Huntsville was incorporated on Dec. 9, 1811, originally as part of the Mississippi Territory. As the territory of Alabama was formed, Huntsville became the center of the region. In a vacant cabinet shop at the corner of Franklin Street and Gates Avenue, the Alabama Constitution was drafted and signed on Aug. 2, 1819.
Huntsville reportedly had several fires from 1811 to 1819, which led to the creation of the Huntsville Fire Bucket Brigade on Dec. 10, 1819. The Bucket Brigade was formed in part because Huntsville did not have the funds to purchase a fire pumper.
On Aug. 5, 1821, the building that housed that Constitutional Convention caught fire. After that fire, funding grew rapidly and Huntsville was soon able to purchase a hand pump. The Huntsville Fire Engine Company was officially chartered in December of 1822.
During the early period, fires were one of the most feared threats, as controlling the flames was dependent on having enough water, equipment to pump the water, and adequate manpower to extinguish the flames. Staffing was entirely voluntary at the time, though it was considered a challenge and an honor to serve in the Huntsville Fire Engine Company.
In 1823, a water reservoir of 7,500 gallons was built on the square to help combat fires in the downtown Huntsville area. On Feb. 3, 1829, a fire broke out on the west side of the square, destroying six of the buildings. An editorial column in The Democrat (Huntsville) from Feb. 6, 1829, blamed high winds and a lack of adequate water supply for the destruction of the buildings. The column commended the firefighters, who took a serious risk in cutting away the roofs of the buildings on fire, but were credited with saving the entire square from being destroyed by fire. The editorial called for the City to prepare for future emergencies by purchasing a larger fire engine and getting an adequate water supply to the more rural areas of the town.
Later in 1829, the City Council directed the Town Treasurer to take $1,200 to Philadelphia and purchase a “Pat Lyon Philadelphia Model Fire Engine.” This engine, which could be either drawn by horses or the firefighters who manned it, was the most modern and widely-used fire engine of its time.
In 1841, a building was constructed on the corner of Washington Street and Clinton Avenue to house the Market House, Calaboose, Police Offices, and the Fire Engine. This building is documented as the first fire house in the City of Huntsville.
In 1873, the City of Huntsville purchased its first steam-operated fire engine, named R. W. Coalter after the previous mayor of Huntsville. The steam-operated fire engine was initially transported to fire scenes and pulled by firefighters and later by horses.
With the decision to purchase the new steamer engine in 1873, the City also decided to hire two men to be on duty full-time. Mr. Abe Wise was appointed Acting Chief, becoming the first Fire Chief in Huntsville, with John Spence serving as his assistant and engineer. The two men were on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They lived full-time in the firehouse, which had moved to the old Twickenham Hotel. The City Council authorized each volunteer Firefighter to be paid $3.00 for responding to a fire and $2.00 for participating parades.
On Oct. 23, 1875, Council passed a resolution naming James Pollard the first Fire Marshal for the City of Huntsville.
In 1885, the City purchased a larger, more modern steamer engine and fire hose that would attach to the pump. The price of the engine was $2,250 with the fire hose costing $0.65 per foot.
Although Abe Wise is known as the first Acting Chief, the position of Chief of the Huntsville Fire Department was not created until 1909. In 1918, under the direction of Chief D.M. Worden, the Huntsville Fire Department received its first motorized fire engine, a 1918 American LaFrance pumper. The pumper was placed into service in early 1919 and was considered the most state-of-the-art piece of equipment in its day, with a pump capacity of 750 gallons of water per minute.
In the 1900s, the fire department used a “one platoon” concept, which means one man had to staff the fire house 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and was only allowed to leave for meals. In the 1940s, Huntsville Fire added a second shift, so the firefighters worked 24 hours on and had 24 hours off. At that time, Huntsville Fire’s equipment and personnel include three fire engines, a Chief’s car, and 11 full-time firefighters.
Huntsville’s major economic industry from the early 1900s until the 1950s included several large cotton mills. The neighborhoods around the cotton mills were treated like small cities, owned by the cotton mills for the benefit of their employees. Each cotton mill provided its own fire protection. In the 1950s, the major cotton mills in Huntsville began closing. Around that time, Dr. Wernher Von Braun and his team of scientists were transferred from Fort Bliss to Huntsville, leading to Huntsville’s transformation to the Rocket City. The Huntsville Fire Department began to see exponential growth due to the growing space program and having to cover more territory, some of which had previously been maintained by fire protection operations at the various cotton mills.
In 1952, the Huntsville Fire Department built Station 2, which was located near the closed Dallas Mill. Huntsville Fire Department expanded further and built Station 3 at the corner of Jordan Lane and Bob Wallace Avenue in 1957. The original Station 3 building is still manned with personnel today.
As Huntsville’s population grew, retail spaces, apartment-style buildings, and lodging continued to spring up along University Drive. Monte Sano Mountain became a popular place to build new residences. Accordingly, in 1959, Huntsville Fire Department built Station 4 on top of Monte Sano Mountain and Station 5 on University Drive. The original Station 5 building is still staffed and in operation today as well.
The 1960s brought a continued growth in population for the City of Huntsville, largely due to the development of Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center. Residential and commercial building expanded north, south, east, and west from downtown.
In the 60s, Huntsville Fire Department built Station 6 on Airport Road, Station 7 on Memorial Parkway South, Station 8 on Memorial Parkway North near Alabama A&M University, Station 9 on Hickory Hill Lane in the Bailey Cove area, and Station 10 on Pulaski Pike near Winchester Road. Of these, stations 8, 9, and 10 are still operational in their original buildings.
Personnel also grew exponentially during the 1960s due to the rapid expansion and construction of new stations. A third shift of firefighters was soon added, transitioning personnel to a rotation of 24 hours on and 48 hours off, still the staffing schedule in use today.
In 1967, the Huntsville Airport Authority opened Huntsville International Airport, 10 miles southwest of downtown Huntsville, with runways equipped to handle larger aircraft for international travel and cargo planes. Fire protection for the new airport was a necessity. In 1968, Huntsville Fire Department built and staffed Station 11, which was located between the two runways at the airport. Since then, the airport now staffs its own fire and police protection, but due to the amount of residential construction built around the airport, Huntsville Fire Department subsequently built Station 11 off Martin Road in southwest Huntsville.
The 1970s brought expansion to west Huntsville, which prompted the addition of Fire Station 12 on Wynn Drive. In the 1980s, Huntsville Fire Department needed to staff two new stations to keep up with residential construction growth. In response, Station 14 was built in south Huntsville on Mountain Gap Road and Station 15 was built in northwest Huntsville on Sparkman Drive.
Huntsville Fire Department staffed two more stations in the 1990s: Station 16 in west Huntsville on Jeff Road and Station 17 in southeast Huntsville on Old Highway 431.
One of the most recent additions to Huntsville Fire & Rescue was Station 18 on Greenbrier Road, which was its first station in Limestone County. In 2015, Station 19 opened in Hampton Cove to serve the growing residential population in southeast Huntsville.