The Harlan Fire Department has gone through many changes typical of a fire department over 88 years old. Unfortunately, when Harlan City Hall and the fire station burned in 1978, many records were lost or destroyed. It has been a slow process, but by scrutinizing old newspapers and articles, and speaking to older, retired firefighters, the history of the department is beginning to pull together. We hope you enjoy what we have found thus far, and check back often for additional information and pictures as we continue our search into our past.
The City of Harlan, formerly known as the town of Mount Pleasant, was established in 1912. Its business district of wood plank buildings was located near the confluence of the Martin’s Fork and Clover Fork of the Cumberland River. In 1913, a terrible fire swept through town destroying many of the buildings. The only fire suppression available was carried out by townspeople with buckets filled from the courthouse well.
The Harlan Fire Department began its existence during the 1920’s with the appointments of fire chiefs and staff, the upgrade of the fire alarm notification system, the acquisition of trucks and equipment, and the beginning of a fire prevention program. On February 10, 1922, the Harlan City Council appointed W.E. Baker, of Baker’s Electric Bakery, as Harlan’s Fire Chief. The council also approved the purchase of a $570 electric warning siren and a central dispatch system to stop the custom of townspeople to shoot guns into the air to warn of a fire. Sometime during 1923 the fire department obtained a Diamond T fire truck and later a second pumper, of unknown make, was added to the department. In 1924, L.R. Fisher was Harlan’s Fire Chief and he started a fire prevention program at the Harlan City School. He was also responsible for acquiring new, more modern firefighting equipment which helped lower the city’s insurance rates. On April 6, 1925, the Harlan City Council established an Ordinance for the Creation and Regulation of a full time paid fire department and appointed Will Baker as Fire Chief. Chief Baker guided the Harlan Fire Department in the development of modern firefighting tactics. Despite all of the improvements to the fire department, large fires continued to be a problem. In 1923 a fire on Central Street in Harlan claimed many businesses and homes, and another fire in the String Town area on Clover Street also challenged the fire department. The Harlan Fire Department also assisted the towns of Evarts and Wallins when fires destroyed large portions of their downtown areas.
During the 1930’s, the Harlan Fire Department worked to improve its service to the City of Harlan. The department’s performance and equipment were tested and rated by the State Actuary Board. In 1931, the City of Harlan joined the cities of Barbourville, Corbin, London, Pineville, and Loyall in a Mutual Aid Agreement of Fire Departments in Southeastern Kentucky. The agreement was developed to prevent the possibility of a fire getting out of control in any of the represented cities by allowing a second alarm call to a neighboring town for fire assistance. January 5, 1932, the Harlan City Council replaced Fire Chief Walter Johnson with Howard Christian, who had served on the fire department for several years. Two years later, Estill Giles was Fire Chief. Chief Giles approached the Harlan City Council about purchasing a new fire truck to replace old and outdated equipment. The request was denied, but Chief Giles was able to purchase a new truck later in 1934 from the Ahrens Fox Fire Engine Company for $12,000. In 1936, renovations to the city court room resulted in a partition wall and a pole for the fire station. Because of its improvements over the years, the Harlan Fire Department was ranked one of the best of its size in the state in 1937. The department added 1,200 feet of fire hose and two “gas” masks to its inventory of equipment and later that year purchased a new fire truck from the American Fire Apparatus Company in Battle Creek, Michigan. The year 1939 closed out with the fire department receiving additional equipment to aid in nighttime firefighting and the beginning of a building inspection campaign to help property and business owners correct faults in their buildings that were contributing to the spread of fire in the city. Some notable fires that Harlan Fire Department responded to during the 1930’s included an explosion as Skidmore Floral Shop, fires at the Creech Drug Store Building, the Cawood Building, the Lewis Hotel, the Bennett Apartment building on Central Street, and an explosion at Metcalf’s Food Shop. The fire department also responded to fires and emergencies outside the city at Tway Coal Company, the Loyall School, Mary Helen Coal Company, Highsplint Coal Company, and Crummies Creek Coal Company.
1940’s coming soon.