James Rada Jr., Columnist
In November 1914, the call went out from 163 Madison St. that a fire was burning in the house and help was needed. The Cumberland Fire Department was quick to respond as the four firefighters assigned to Central Station No. 1 located at City Hall Square climbed aboard the fire engine and it sped out into the street.
The fire horses charged forward in their harnesses pulling and racing through town. However, all of that speediness was wasted when a flagman at the Pear Street railroad crossing stopped the engine and refused to let it pass.
The Cumberland Evening Times reported that Cumberland Police and Fire Commissioner Theodore Hummelshine told the mayor and rest of the council, “The fire chief advised me that the flagman could have held up the train just as easily as the fire company, and could thereby have given the latter the right of way.”
The engine was held up for five minutes at the crossing and had the fire been larger, the building might have been a total loss. The frustration that the firefighters felt at not being able to get to the fire in a timely manner spurred Hummelshine to action.
Hummelshine told the council that something needed to be done and he wanted firemen to have the right of way in Cumberland when they were responding to fire calls.
“I am confident that the railroad companies do not want their employees to hold up our firemen on their way to fires, where it is possible to act otherwise,” Hummelshine said, according to the Cumberland Evening Times.
Cumberland’s Fire Department was still relatively new with improvements happening regularly with fire engines. The fire department had been organized Aug. 4, 1902, and it went into service March 26, 1906, with John Slemmer as the fire chief.
During its early years, the department was tested with some major fires. One of the most-noted fires happened next door to the Central Station on March 14, 1910, when Cumberland City Hall and the Academy of Music, Masonic Hall, city offices and Market House were completely destroyed by fire despite Cumberland firefighters’ best efforts to get it under control.
Besides Central Station No. 1, two stations served Cumberland at this time. South End No. 2 station was on Browning Street and staffed by three firefighters. West Side No. 3 Station was in Spruce Alley and staffed by three firefighters. A fourth station on Frederick Street would not open until 1925.
The limited staffing of the paid fire department meant that engines needed to be able to move quickly since they had a lot of area to cover in vehicles that weren’t as swift as the ones used today, particularly since the department used fire horses to pull the engines until the early 1920s.
The Cumberland Fire De-partment had eight horses to pull its engines, according to Herman Miller in “Cumberland, Maryland through the eyes of Herman J. Miller.” The horses pulled three double 35-gallon combination hose-and-chemical wagons. The department also had a 65-foot Seagrave aerial truck and a steamer to pump water.
The council recognized the importance of getting firefighters to fires as quickly as possible and approved Hummelshine’s request.