The Meridian Fire Department 1882-Present

For the first quarter of the 20th century, the wailing scream of the “Bear Cat” told Meridianites that another fire was in progress somewhere in the city. Eventually, the fire whistle, housed at the waterworks pump house, was used only in case of a general alarm. Today it is no longer heard.

That is but one of the many changes Meridian’s firefighting system has undergone since the days when the bucket brigades were the only sources of water available to extinguish a burning building in the city.

For the first 22 years of its history, Meridian had no organized firefighting equipment. The cisterns located throughout the community were the primary sources of water. But this water had to be literally manhandled to the scene of the blaze. Such a method ensured that most fires of any magnitude resulted in total losses.

A community plagued by numerous fires, Meridian sought to remedy the situation by organizing volunteer fire brigades. In 1882 the city’s central district was protected by the Mechanics Steam Fire Company Number One.

Other groups soon followed, but records are sketchy as to the exact dates. West End organized the Finch Steam Fire Company Number Three in 1886. Then there were the Gem Steam Fire Company Number Five serving East End, the Excelsior Number Four Hose Truck Company, and the Phoenix Hose Truck and Hand Engine Company.

It was a matter of pride to boast of having the best volunteer company. Each group held parades and challenged the others to contests to determine which could get to the scene of the fire the quickest. They were proud of their firefighting ability.

The first apparatus used by these volunteer groups was primitive. They first employed hand-drawn, two-wheeled hose carts, accompanied by four-wheeled hand pumps. As many as 16 men were needed to pump the water from the cisterns to put a forceful stream on the flames.

Firefighting made giant improvements with the steam engine drawn by a team of horses. Meridian’s first was named Tom Taylor. History says this new device directed its first stream of water at a real fire at the Tom McKenzie building on Hale Street (22nd Avenue) in August 1882.

By 1894 Meridian could boast of having one paid fire company housed in the old city hall. In addition, there were four volunteer companies. The equipment consisted of three horse-drawn steam fire engines, five hose reels, and one hook-and-ladder truck. There was also an electric fire alarm system.

The city had in place 138 fireplugs, claiming an ample water supply from its waterworks with pressure available to any part of the city, even without the use of engines. Its yearly budget for fire protection totaled $2,344.

Frank Zehler’s name heads the list when one reviews the history of Meridian’s firefighters. Zehler served during both the days of the volunteers and the transition era to a city-paid department. He fell from his seat driving a steamer at the corner of Sixth Street and 21st Avenue and was run over by the wagon wheels. Even though he later returned to duty, Zehler never fully recovered, dying a year after the accident. In 2016 a fire truck traffic accident took the life of senior firefighter Eric Gustafson.

C. C. Massey succeeded Zehler as Chief in 1903. To Massey goes the credit for beginning the organization of the City Fire Department as it is today. Beginning with three paid companies, he added two more before his death in 1908.

J. J. Powell followed Massey but resigned after two years. W. F. C. Partin then became Chief, holding the position for 36 years, the longest tenure of any chief’s. Under Partin, the department became completely motorized. The first fire truck, an air-cooled Seagrave, was purchased in 1912 for Station Number One. A second Seagrave was added in 1914. It also went to Station Number One, the older truck going to Station Number Three at 39th Avenue and Eighth Street.

By 1924 the department was completely motorized, having retired the last horse-drawn fire wagon at South Side Station, Number Two, at Grand Avenue and St. Charles Street.

During the days of the fire wagons, the horses were stalled near the station’s entrance. Upon the ringing of the bell, their stalls were opened. Without prompting, the fire horses went immediately to a position beneath their harnesses, which were suspended above. They already had their bridles on; the harnesses were dropped, the lines hooked, collars snapped, and they were ready to go.

The fire horses, chosen for their speed and spirit, most often met an end that wasn’t in keeping with the adventure and excitement of racing at full speed to help save a burning building downtown. As a general rule, when time reaped its toll, the fire horse was transferred to the City Street Department. It spent its remaining years of service slowly traversing the streets of Meridian, pulling a wagon filled with the community’s garbage.

Even though the Meridian Fire Department could boast of being mechanized by the early 1920s, the early trucks provided few comforts compared with today’s “red limousines.” For example, they were never bothered by flat tires. Theirs were made of solid, hard-riding rubber. There also was no need to turn on the windshield wipers during heavy rain, for there were no windshields. Early firemen wore felt hats which they pulled down to ward off the elements, but the hats also interfered with vision.

Most of the streets were unpaved. The others were rough brick or wooden blocks that became extremely slick when wet.

In 1912 Grady Worthen became the department’s first Master Mechanic charged with upkeep on the rolling stock. Lewis James, I. C. Johnson, and Oscar Beyer were early members of Worthen’s crew. Beyer liked to describe how the men built some of the early fire trucks. They would begin with a chassis and add fenders, running boards, and other special features needed to complete the job.

In 1904, 35 boxes were installed throughout the city to provide a fire alarm system. The Cumberland Telephone Company installed a direct line to permit the department to receive fire calls.

The life of the early Meridian fireman was filled with many hazards no longer found in a day’s work. A wealth of local pine forests provided a plentiful supply of lumber employed in the community’s early buildings. This rich pine gave off a thick, choking, black smoke. Also, carbon tetrachloride was employed as an early substance for extinguishing difficult blazes. Although effective, this liquid gave off deadly fumes. Those dangers had to be faced without the gas masks in use today.

Until 1919 firemen were on duty 24 hours daily, with an hour for each meal. This left a gap in the fire protection. Also, those were the days of the traditional two-story station. Firemen slept on the second floor, boots beside their beds. At the sound of an alarm, they were up, pulling on their trousers, held up by suspenders. Into their boots they went and down the brass pole they slid, grabbing coats and hats, which were beside the truck. Until the construction in 2000 of the new Central Fire Station at 2500 14th Street with two brass sliding poles, the Old Number One on 25th Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets was the last station with the brass sliding pole.

In 1919 the two-platoon system went into effect. Under that arrangement, the men were on duty from the time they went on in the morning until they were relieved. Before that time, old-timers used to say that the first firemen were permitted to go home only now and then to see if their families were still there. Today’s firefighters are part of a three-shift system. Each man works 24 hours; then he is off 48.

In 1944 P. M. Pigford succeeded Chief Partin. Other Meridian fire chiefs include W. G. Bishop, 1956-1962; J. W. Reynolds, 1962-1980; and H. D. Webb, 1980-1987. Webb held the position until his retirement in 1987; Fire Captain Joe Taylor replaced him in 1987, and Chief Taylor held the position until his retirement in 1995. Chief Taylor was replaced by Deputy Fire Chief H. C. “Bunky” Partridge in 1995, and Chief Partridge was replaced when he retired in 2003 by Battalion Chief T. G. Miller. Miller was Chief until 2005, when he retired. Fire Marshal Jeff Homan replaced Miller in 2005. Homan was replaced on September 30, 2009, by Anthony Clayton, who remained Chief until his retirement in June 2018. Deputy Fire Chief Ricky Leister replaced Clayton and served until his retirement in April of 2021. Deputy Fire Chief Jason Collier was then appointed Fire Chief in August of 2021 and currently remains the Chief of the department.

Fire prevention became an integral part of the Meridian Fire Department during the tenure of Chief Partin. He made a special study of fire and its causes. Special classes were organized among the Boy Scouts and the general school population.

In 1967 Assistant Chief T. N. Walker headed up a new fire prevention bureau as a regular part of the department’s activities. He was joined in 1969 by Captain G. B. Shaw, who became Fire Prevention Supervisor upon Walker’s retirement. Captain David Henson replaced Shaw upon Shaw’s retirement in 1984.

After the bureau’s organization, the city experienced a large reduction in fire losses from accidental causes. Studies have revealed that most of today’s major fires are caused by arson. To aid in arson investigation, Fire Marshal Henson was joined by Fire Investigation Specialist Vince Vincent and Schroeder, an accelerant-detecting dog trained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, in 2000. David Henson was Fire Marshal from 1984 until his retirement in 2001. Battalion Chief J. L. Homan replaced him in 2001, and Homan was Fire Marshal until being promoted to Fire Chief in 2005. Fire Captain J. G. “Gower” Webb replaced Homan and served from 2006 until his retirement in 2013. Former Fire Captain Jason Collier held the position of Fire Marshal through November 2018, then was promoted to Deputy Chief. Collier was replaced by Captain and former Investigator Fire Marshall Vince Vincent, who is still Fire Marshal at the present time.

Disasters 1864-1950

Fires and more fires swept through Meridian during its first 40 years as the new community struggled to become a respectable city. If fires weren’t enough to discourage its growth, then pestilence in the form of yellow fever added to its miseries.

Wrote W. G. Croom in 1882 in his history of Meridian: “The more it was burned down, the faster it would grow. The fire burning down a shanty was in many instances but the forerunner of an edifice on the spot of more stately proportions. The energy and vim of the people could not be subdued, nor their confidence in the future of the town be weakened by this devouring element.”

William Tecumseh Sherman started the burning, so to speak, when he raided Meridian in 1864 during the Civil War. He even boasted that his torch was so hot “Meridian…no longer exists.”

Sherman could not have been more wrong. Building began anew before his troops arrived back in Vicksburg. Even the railroads in and out of the town were running again in only 26 working days.

No sooner had the town begun to rebuild after Sherman’s visit than it was hit by another devastating fire. The great fire of 1867 swept away an entire block, including the principal houses along Lee Street (26th Avenue south of Seventh Street).

It was in this same area that the Phoenix Hotel was built. This, the city’s most imposing structure of its time, was a large, three-story, brick, metal-roofed building. The ground floor was occupied by a saloon and barbershop, and there were rooms for guests on the second and third floors. On the night of February 1, 1876, it was destroyed by fire. C. H. Williams, president of the Meridian Savings Institution, was tried for arson, the charge being that he hired one Jack Mayatt to set the fire. Williams was acquitted.

The Meridian Riot of 1871 stemmed from fires set by would-be rioters. They burned the entire block after setting fire to Theordore Sturges’ store at the corner of Front and Lee (26th Avenue) streets. Those responsible were, ironically, cronies of carpetbagger Mayor Billy Sturges, brother of one of the victims.

March 1872 saw the establishment of a fire district. It began where Hale Street (22nd Avenue) joined the railroad tracks and extended thence along the tracks to Washington (27th Avenue) Street, up Washington to High (Sixth Street), up High to Johnson (25th Avenue), down Johnson to Sidney (Fifth) Street, up Sidney to Lauderdale (20th Avenue), and down Lauderdale to the railroad tracks to the point of beginning.

Within that new district it was thereafter unlawful to erect wooden buildings. The rich pine lumber used in early construction made the buildings virtual tinderboxes.

The Meridian Cotton Mill, the first of its kind in this area, was destroyed by fire soon after its construction in 1873.

By far overshadowing the destruction and misery of the fires was the great yellow fever epidemic of 1878. Medical science had not yet identified the mosquito as the fever carrier. From September 4, the date of the first case of the fever, to November 7, the date of the last, there was panic throughout the community. It wasn’t without reason, for out of the 382 cases, 86 died. Father Louis Vally of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church earned the undying love of the city for his labors among the ill.

Meridian began to develop as a leading cotton processing and shipping point in the 1870s. The city’s first compress, built by John Ball, was operated by J. H. Gary and L. P. Brown. It, too, was lost to fire in the spring of 1882.

The First Presbyterian Church once occupied the site that is now the Meridian Museum of Art. Built in 1867, this house of worship was swept away in January 1883 by a fire that destroyed most of an entire block. This is the block occupied by the present-day City Hall. One of two buildings to escape was the Jones House, Seventh Street and 24th Avenue. This was another twist of fate. The Jones House had also survived the fire of Sherman’s raid 19 years before. The other remaining structure was the Masonic Lodge.

Realizing that steps had to be taken to combat the fires, the city fathers organized volunteer fire departments. Records indicate that in 1882 the city fire protection consisted of Mechanics Steam Fire Company Number One.

The Meridian Mercury reported on April 8, 1885: “The prevalence of fires in our city demands that something be done to increase the effectiveness of the fire department, and the best way to do this is to organize a hook and ladder company. Every town in the state near the size of Meridian has one, and why should not we. The benefit to be derived from a hook and ladder company will soon pay for the expenditures necessary.”

By the time the last decade of the 19th century had arrived, Meridian had taken some positive steps in the area of protection from fires. During the 1890s the city organized its hook-and-ladder company. In fact, by 1894 the fire department had one paid and four volunteer companies. They were equipped with three horse-drawn engines and five hoses and reels in addition to the hook and ladder. There was an ample water supply from 138 fireplugs and a decided reduction in loss of property by fire. The city fathers boasted that “all parts of the city are well protected at a cost of $2,344 annually.”

Fire dominated the disaster scene in Meridian for its first 40 years. From 1900 to 1950 fire had to share center stage with killer tornadoes.

In fact, the first major disaster after the turn of the century was the great tornado of 1906 that demolished Front Street. On Friday, March 2, about 6:30 p.m. the big wind approached the city from the southwest, moving directly over the Meridian Fertilizer Factory. Six buildings were unroofed as the twister continued to the northeast, hitting the Meridian Planing Mill, then the Meridian Light and Railway Plant at 27th Avenue, cutting off the city’s electric power supply.

Moving to the east it destroyed the New Orleans and Northeastern freight depot. Shortly after, all its tremendous power hit Front Street, demolishing every building between 24th and 22nd avenues. Then the tornado began skipping about in a totally erratic manner. It jumped over the newly constructed Meridian Hotel, at the corner of 22nd Avenue and Front Street.

For the next five blocks it proceeded to destroy all the small houses in its path. Along that route it also skipped over the new Union Depot. The old Elmire Hotel at 19th Avenue was a complete loss; 17 people were killed in its dining room.

The lateness of the hour meant that Front Street was empty of most of its population. Even so, 23 people were killed and another 30 injured. According to the records of the Meridian Fire Department, the city’s first major 20th-century fire was the burning of the Doughtie Furniture Company. This imposing three-story building, owned by W. M. Wagner, went up in flames in 1912.

Three years later the Great West End Fire of 1915 destroyed an entire block between 34th and 35th avenues and the Southern Railway tracks. Oscar Beyer, for many years a member of the Meridian Fire Department, described the flames as “jumping from roof to roof,” all of which were covered with wooden shingles. Before the flames died, 52 houses were gone. Even so, the total loss was estimated at only $50,000.

Records of the Meridian Fire Department noted only one casualty in fighting the blaze. As one of the trucks left the station, Fireman Jim Terry had one big toe crushed as he attempted to mount the moving vehicle.

On April 20, 1920, another big wind in the form of a cyclone came up Valley Road, cut across Echo Park (Lakemont), and passed through Bonita, dissipating between Bonita and Russell. Fifteen were killed and 81 injured before it spent itself. Legal documents, photos, and papers blown all the way from Bay Springs, a distance of 50 miles, turned up in Echo Lake. Also reclaimed from that body of water was a 150-pound drill press, which came from a building 200 feet from the lake.

Before the days of air-conditioning the Princess Theater was a favorite with Meridianites during the hot summertime. After the sun went down its top rolled back, allowing the moviegoers to capture the breezes in the cool of the evening. On one such evening in 1927 the sky lighted with flames on Fifth Street between 21st and 22nd avenues. Before long, Meridian had lost its Princess. The theater was a complete loss.

Meridian’s first “skyscraper” was the six-story Miazza Woods building. Built on a triangular block, bounded by 22nd Avenue and Sixth and Eighth streets, it was also called the Flatiron Building. It enjoys the distinction of surviving two major fires during the 1930s. The first one cost it the three top floors; the second, floors two and three. An amusing story relates to the second fire. The building’s real estate agent, R. P. “Bob” Hall, had just recently adopted as his slogan “Watch My Smoke.” For years afterward, members of the City Fire Department dubbed Mr. Hall “Ol’ Watch My Smoke.”

The building that was the former Fire Department Number One was itself a victim of fire in February 1947. But at that time it was Abraham’s Food Center and Restaurant and was in the midst of a complete renovation.

Long a downtown landmark, the Strand Theater — now the site of Trustmark Bank — became the last major disaster of the first 50 years of the 20th century. The year 1949 saw fire destroy what had at one time during the Great Depression been Meridian’s only movie theater. The Strand building was also for many years the home of WCOC when it was the city’s only radio station.

— Information provided by Meridian: The Queen with a Past, Volume 2, by Jack Shank

Two Platoon System Fire Department

By W. F. C. Partin, Chief, Meridian Fire Department (1921)

The two platoon system is unquestionably the most up-to-date, human renovation that has ever occurred to bless and perfectly harmonize a fireman’s hitherto monotonous existence.

Meridian adopted this exceptional philanthropic system just two years ago, September 5, 1919, jumped at one bound, you might say, from the bottomless depths of obsolete eternally on duty system to the immeasurable heights of the two-shift plan that is rapidly spreading over our beloved country. Under the old conditions of a system that must undoubtedly have survived the Middle Ages, firemen were on duty twenty-four hours, with three hours for meals, one hour each for breakfast, dinner, and supper, with a day off occasionally. Men with families rarely had a chance to be with them; their little ones so seldom saw their father that they were almost like strangers to them.

Did you ever hear how the old antiquated out-of-date bugaboo of an eternally on duty nightmare originated? A long time ago, before the Revolutionary War in this country, the first fire department was inaugurated in the North by posting soldiers at fire stations who were inadvertently forgotten to be relieved. Therefore, they had to stay on duty indefinitely by having their meals sent to them at the station and bunking at night; all slept except one watchman, and they alternately relieved each other for this duty.

This is the way this system was started, the most unjust, inhuman, bigoted, haphazard, nondescript plan that was ever conceived on this mundane sphere. Double platoon or two-shift plan doesn’t cost a mint of money to install. Just divide your present force into two shifts, with possibly an addition of a few more firemen and officers. Place one shift on duty nights and the other days, with a change of shifts once or twice a month or week, for that matter, with proviso that off shift respond to all big fires or conflagrations; adopt a set of rules and regulations pertaining thereto, and there you are, nothing complicated about this.

I was ordered by the Honorable City Council on the third day of September, 1919, to inaugurate and put into effect the two platoon plan on the fifth of said month, said year, at 8 o’clock in the forenoon, and at that specific time the two platoon system was installed and has been working in perfect accord and harmony ever since.

Under the old continuous duty system I had an awful time finding men and keeping the personnel of the department up to standard. No one wished to work for the city and rarely be with their families hardly at all, but since we have adopted the present double shift plan, and gotten salaries up in proportion to their fair-paying jobs, I have absolutely no trouble in employing and keeping the very best class of firemen, God bless them, obtainable.

Meridian has 32 firemen, exclusive of the chief, officers and men, 16 on each shift, with grand total, in case of a large fire or emergency call, men who are well trained and love their work, perfectly happy, and men who show no quarter to their old enemy, fire.

I certainly, unqualifiedly, endorse this fair and businesslike administration of firemanic affairs, two platoon system, for the fire departments, large or small.