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Cohasset’s First Fire Engines

David Wadsworth

Reprinted with permission from the Cohasset Historical Society, Cohasset, MA (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2005), pp. 113-115.

At the town meeting of March 1848, Cohasset voters decided to provide the town with its first fire engine and fire headquarters building. Up until that time there had been no way to prevent the total destruction of homes and structures by fire, and the rate of attrition among the town’s buildings had been unfortunately high.

During the early 1800s a citizen’s petition had circulated through Cohasset asking for the purchase of firefighting equipment, but the only result . . . was the equipping of a group of volunteer “fire wards,” or wardens, with fire hooks, buckets, and ladders. The efforts of the fire wards, though often courageous, usually were in vain, and numerous Cohasseters were rendered homeless when their houses and possessions fell victim to conflagrations.

Recognizing the need for improved firefighting capabilities, the 1848 town meeting appointed a committee comprised of Thomas Smith, Zaccheus Rich, and Samuel Nichols to obtain a fire engine and a building to house it. The result was the construction of a wood and brick building at Cohasset Center and the acquisition of a horse-drawn hand-tub pumper engine named Independence.

The new fire station took the name of its engine and still is known as the Independence Building. By 1850 the hand-tub pumper occupied the lower floor of the station . . . A large room in the second story, . . . called Engine Hall, . . . was the headquarters of the volunteer group known as the Independence Fire Company, the crew of the pumper. At that time the town’s fire company received no pay for their duty but instead received an annual abatement, amounting to a few dollars, of each man’s poll tax.

A trained team of horses to pull the engine was housed in a large building then existing at the corner of Ripley Road and Depot Court and called Tilden’s Stable. When the fire bell sounded, the horses, accompanied by one man, could be seen to leave the stable at full gallop, headed for the engine house a short distance away. Pausing just long enough for the Independence to be attached, the team with its engine and crew would depart at full speed in the direction of the blaze.

During its long career as the town’s fire engine, Independence served at the dangerous Lawrence Wharf fire on December 25, 1890, which threatened to destroy numerous buildings at Cohasset Harbor. Josiah O. Lawrence’s old fish-packing shed was consumed in that blaze, but nearby structures were saved, including today’s Old Salt House and the Historical Society’s Maritime Museum, at that time located across Border Street near the wharf. In the twilight of its active career, the old hand-tub was pressed into service again in December 1905 when Edward Everett Ellms’s barn caught fire at Cohasset Center. Supplementing the town’s new firefighting system of hydrants, Independence was stationed near the Hillside Inn (today’s Red Lion Inn) to quell the spreading conflagration, which for a time threatened to engulf the entire village.

But by the 1930s the era of hand-operated, horse-drawn fire engines had ended and the Independence honorably retired. Selectmen, searching for a suitable place to store the antique engine, finally had it placed in the old Town Home building on Pond Street, from which it subsequently passed into obscurity when that building was demolished in 1943.

A second horse-drawn hand-tub pumping engine, called Konohassett, appeared on the local scene, owned not by the town but by a group of firefighters called the Volunteer Veteran Firemen’s Association. Founded in 1911, the “Vol Vets” maintained their headquarters in the Guild Hall at the Cove (today’s Legion Hall). Konohassett, like its municipal counterpart Independence, was operated by a crew who worked the engine’s pump by pushing up and down a set of rails that ran along the sides of the carriage. Konohassett had been constructed in 1865 by the firm of Al Button & Sons of New York and dwarfed its companion Independence by measuring some seventeen feet in length.

Konohassett was used primarily for competition in firemen’s musters and drills but certainly stood ready to be pressed into emergencies if needed. The old pumper, its brasswork gleaming and resplendent with its bright red paint, was a familiar sight on the streets of Cohasset for many years. However, Konohassett eventually faded into obscurity and finally vanished from the scene, as did the Vol Vets, its owners.

For years the location of the two old hand-tubs was shrouded in mystery. Rumors said the relics of Independence and Konohassett still existed somewhere on the South Shore, but their whereabouts, if in fact they still survived, were uncertain to many. It was only a few years ago that that uncertainty became dispelled when an anonymous donor first contacted the Cohasset Historical Society with word that both engines did exist and could be returned to Cohasset if the townspeople wanted them.

Since then, Konohassett has returned, and Independence appears about to return. Still to be accomplished is the important task of restoring the old engines to their former glory.

From David Wadsworth, “A Historical Review of Cohasset’s Fire Engines,” Cohasset Mariner, January 5, 1984. Reprinted by permission of the author. For more information on Cohasset’s early fire engines, see Bigelow, Narrative History, pp. 524-525; Pratt, Narrative History, Vol. II, pp. 121-125; Dormitzer, Narrative History, Vol. III, pp. 82, 96, 266.