Portraits of the SLC Fire Department

RISING FROM THE ASHES

Salt Lake City’s first professional fire department was born in October 1883 out of the ashes of a devastating fire that occurred in the heart of the city during the summer that same year. Prior to 1883, the city had relied on volunteer fire fighting services that were organized into local brigades around the city. The first voluntary fire protection service for the city was organized in 1853 with the passage of a city ordinance that allowed for the creation of a volunteer city fire brigade. Four years later, in 1856, the Salt Lake City Volunteer Fire Department was organized and placed under the direction of Chief Engineer Jesse C. Little. This volunteer service served the city’s needs for over two decades until June 21, 1883 when a massive fire broke out at the H.B. Clawson Wagon Depot on the city block immediately south of Temple Square.

Unidentified Boy in Fire Fighter Uniform (series 23526).
Unidentified Boy in Fire Fighter Uniform (series 23526).

As the June 1883 fire raged, the resources of the city’s volunteer fire department proved unequal to the task of effectively managing it. The situation was compounded by the fact that Clawson had illegally stored a cache of gunpowder on his property. When the fire reached this powder it exploded, simultaneously spreading the fire, and breaking much of the glass in buildings surrounding the downtown area. Once the fire was effectively contained, the losses were catastrophic. Clawson’s property was a total loss, as were the neighboring Savage Art Bazaar, the Council House, and several businesses in the vicinity of Temple Square.

In response to the devastation of the June fire, the Salt Lake City Council voted and approved an ordinance in October, 1883 that established the city’s first full-time, paid fire department. George Ottinger, who had served as the Volunteer Fire Department chief since 1876, was named the first chief of the Salt Lake City Fire Department, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1890.

OTTINGER HALL

With his retirement as chief of the Salt Lake City Fire Department in 1890, George Ottinger stayed active in the local fire fighting community by moving quickly to establish the Veteran’s Volunteer Fireman Association (VVFA). This fraternal organization provided a means for veterans of the city’s former volunteer brigades to remain in contact, and fraternize with members of the city’s new professional fire department.

Portrait of Ed J. Thompson (series 23526).
Portrait of Ed J. Thompson (series 23526).

In 1904 the VVFA met for the first time in Ottinger Hall, located at 233 Canyon Road in Memory Grove, which was built for the express purpose of serving as a meeting place for the VVFA and the fire department’s Ladies Auxiliary. In addition to serving as a social space for fire fighters, the building contained one of the city’s first non-academic libraries. Over time it would also become the place where many of the artifacts and records documenting the Salt Lake City Fire Department’s history would find a home.

PRESERVING AN IMPORTANT HISTORY

Upon its completion, Ottinger Hall was donated to the Salt Lake City Corporation, and leased back to the the VVFA (and later the Fireman’s Relief Association) at the cost of $1.00 per year. As the artifacts and records documenting the Salt Lake City Fire Department’s history began accumulating in the building, important questions arose of who owned these collections, and who was responsible for ensuring their long-term preservation. Was this a role for the Fireman’s Relief Association, or state government?

In 1999, Salt Lake City took control of Ottinger Hall, and began the process of renovating the space for commercial use. At that time, prominent Utahn, Larry H. Miller (a descendant of the first volunteer fire chief, Jesse C. Little) was approached about the possibility of donating funds to construct a replica of Ottinger Hall at This Is the Place Heritage Park. The purpose of this new building was to house the historic artifacts and collections that had gathered in the original Ottinger Hall over time, effectively making the Utah Division of State Parks the permanent custodian of this history?

Because many of the collections that had found a home in Ottinger Hall were created as a function of government activity, the Utah State Archives was asked to conduct an inventory of the historic record collections in the building. This inventory led to the transfer of several record series into State Archives custody. These records include record books, reports, bulletins, and photographs that document some of the earliest activities of the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

Portrait of  W.S. Higham (series 23526).
Portrait of W.S. Higham (series 23526).

PORTRAITS OF A NEW PROFESSION

Among the record series transferred to the Utah State Archives during the renovation of Ottinger Hall, is a collection of photographs that provide a rich visual history of the Salt Lake Fire Department from its inception in 1883 up to 1975. This collection includes portrait photographs from the late 19th century taken by the Shipler Commercial Photography Studio that capture the images of some of the first professional fire fighters in the city’s history.

Portrait of A. Slaight (series 23526).
Portrait of A. Slaight (series 23526).

The collection also includes a photograph book that was presented to the Salt Lake City Fire Department by famed photographer C.R. Savage in 1888. Much like the Shipler photographs, these portraits provide a visual record of the first professional fire fighters to serve in the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

In an attempt to enhance the preservation of these historically fragile photographs, the Utah State Archives has digitized all of the earliest photographs from this collection. These images will soon be made available through the Utah State Digital Archives, providing a tremendous resource to anyone interested in the rich history of Salt Lake City’s Fire Department.


SOURCES

A Brief History of the Salt Lake City Fire Department. (n.d.). Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://www.slcfire.com/external/content/document/3687/1918878/1/Brief history.pdf

Harp, M. (2007, August 1). Salt Lake City’s Ottinger Hall Holds Important Place In Utah’s Fire Service History. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://www.slrfa.org/images/History/Backdraft/OttingerHallHarpBackdraft082007.pdf

Nichols, J. (1995, May 1). 1883 Blaze Spurred Creation of Salt Lake City’s Professional Fire Department. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://historytogo.utah.gov/utah_chapters/mining_and_railroads/1883blazespurredcreationoffiredepartment.html