Eastern Main Line, PA
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121 S Wayne Ave
Wayne, PA 19087
In 1904, the Wayne area found itself without organized fire protection for the first time in thirty years. The two volunteer fire companies in town – the Wayne Hose Company, and the Wayne Chemical Company, had never been noted for efficiency or professionalism – and by 1904 both had had given up the ghost and disbanded. Nobody was minding the store.
For a year and a half, the community was lucky. However, in 1906 there were two blockbuster fires – one of which destroyed the offices of Wayne’s newspaper, The Suburban. The people of Wayne were disturbed. They realized that the area could not really grow and prosper without effective fire protections. They could no longer manage with buckets and brooms.
So on March 15, 1906 twenty-four men organized the Radnor Fire Company. The original equipment was a two-horse chemical engine and a one-horse hose cart, both housed at the present firehouse location on South Wayne Avenue. The R.H. Johnson Company on Conestoga Road agreed to provide the horses to pull the wagons – day or night – free of charge. A plant that furnished steam for the central heating system agreed to use its whistle to summon the firemen. It was a very loud whistle and it blew on May 24, 1906 to summon the members of the new fire company to their first fire in a house near the Strafford station. By the end of that first year, Radnor Fire Company had responded to 13 alarms.
The first president of the Radnor Fire Company, W.W. Hearne, was aware of the growing popularity of the automobile and he wondered if it might be possible to buy a self-propelled automotive fire engine for the new fire company. Three members of the company – Charles Wilkins, Charles Clark, and Charles Stewart (soon known as “the three Charlies”) – were appointed as a committee to locate such a motorized fire truck. They found that none existed, so they drew up specifications and contracted with the Knox Company to build the first automotive fire truck in the United States.
The truck was called The Fireman’s Herald, and it was an immediate sensation. It was a lot more efficient than the horse-drawn fire engines even though gasoline was expensive (12¢ a gallon). The Herald did have one flaw – its pump was so powerful that vibrations tended to drive the truck’s wheels deep into the muddy ground at the scene of a fire. Overall, the Herald was such a success that another motorized truck was ordered – this time with an independent pump motor that solved the vibration problem.
Rival fire companies, stunned by the splendor of the Radnor Fire Company’s two motorized trucks dubbed Radnor “the Millionaire Fire Company” or “the Billionaire Blaze Battling Battalion.” The two historic trucks were in use until 1919 when they were left to rust away, losing their chance to be enshrined in some fire engine hall of fame.
January10, 1912, a bitter cold day, saw the first of three disastrous conflagrations at then Villanova College. This one destroys St. Rita’s Hall, the original college building dating back to 1808. On December 30, 1914, the old Opera House in Wayne burned to the ground.
In January of 1916, a new firehouse was under construction at the same location and by April meetings and other functions were being held there. In August 1918, a shortage of coal resulted in the closing of the town steam plant, which left the fire company whistleless until a new whistle was mounted on top of the firehouse.
When the fire company members we not busy fighting fires they carried their team spirit into a variety of sporting events around the area. On July 4, 1922 it is recorded that the fire company tug-of-war team “easily defeated teams from the police and postal departments.” In addition, on March 18, 1924 the bowling team won the championship of the Main Line Bowling League. To keep the competitive spirit within bounds the Board of Directors of the Fire Company ruled, “card games will be allowed in the firehouse, but gambling in any form will be prohibited.”
On January 29, 1928 a fire, whipped by a strong and gusty wind, gutted College Hall at Villanova. The loss came to two million dollars and many of the firefighters left the college grounds with frostbitten fingers after nine hours of handling the hoses. A year later the Devon Inn, at that time the first home of the Valley Forge Military Academy, was destroyed by fire. The cadets were temporarily housed at St. Luke’s School in Devon. On May 6, 1929 a distinguished new fire company member was elected – Dinty, a wirehaired fox terrier, became the company’s mascot.
At ten o’clock on the morning of April 4, 1930 a tremendous explosion occurred at the Pennsylvania Fireworks Company in Devon. Ten employees of the fireworks company were killed and forty others were injured by a series of blasts, which destroyed a number of nearby businesses, and homes, set fire to parked cars, and broke windows from Paoli to Bryn Mawr.
On August 2 of the same year fire leveled the main section of the monastery at Villanova College. As often happen, a number of Radnor Fire Company members were injured battling the fire.
A new era for the fire company began in 1932 with the purchase of a LaFrance engine costing $13,500. It was the first of a brand new breed of engines, which were to greatly expand the firefighting capabilities of the Radnor Fire Company.
Probably the most unusual fire of 1935 brought the fire engines to a house on South Aberdeen Avenue. No one was at home, but a 750-gallon still was found perking away. A contemporary account noted that the still was brewing a “fine grade of alcohol,” although it wasn’t clear how this judgment was arrived at.
In 1963 the firehouse was altered and enlarged to house a new apparatus. The following year the fire company bought its first ladder truck, splitting the cost with the township. At the same time the Radnor Fire Company organized a relief association to furnish aid beyond the local area in times of disaster. Almost immediately it went into action to help the city of Louisville, Kentucky, through a severe flood emergency. Radnor sent four volunteers and an engine all the way to Louisville where they helped fight fires until the flood waters subsided.
During World War II, when a number of members joined the armed forces, Radnor Fire Company, initiated a program of “Schoolboy Firemen” in which local high school students were trained and authorized by the school district to leave class to fight fires. These students were, naturally, the envy of all their classmates – and the program was so successful it became a permanent one involving four high school seniors and two juniors each year. In April 1941 the company answered 76 alarms, a record up to that time.
In the summer of 1943 a P-40 fighter plane crashed in Devon, the first of several plane crashed to which the fire company was called. And in 1947 Earl Frankenfield, a member of the company, died after fighting a fire at Liggett’s drug store. That same year with money raised by the Wayne Rotary Club and the citizens of the town, the company bought its first ambulance, a Packard. This new service was well received and its use continued to grow over the years.
On March 2, 1951 the company fought a dangerous million-dollar blaze at the Ryan & Christie Warehouse in Bryn Mawr. Radnor’s ambulance assisted at two serious accidents that year. In April seven persons were seriously injured in the crash of two P&W trolleys near the St. Davids station. And only a month later two trains collided near Bryn Mawr station killing eight passengers and injuring sixty others.
In 1952 the Devon Horse Show grounds had a major fire with $125,000 in damages and Villanova College had an unusal incident in which 100 tons of coal in the basement of Mendel Hall caought fire. Hurricane Hazel felled something like a thousand trees in 1954 and the fire company lent a hand to clear the streets and highways of the area. Later that year fire consumed St. Joseph’s Hall at the Malvern Retreat House.
Fire destroyed the Thomas Memorial Gymnasium at Valley Forge Military Academy on August 2, 1957 and on the same weekend a smaller fire was extinguished in Hamilton Hall. A spectacular fire destroyed the woodworking shop at the Wayne Iron Works in November 1959, and January 1961 there was another big blaze at Valley Forge Military Academy, this one causing $250,000 damage in a barracks building. Fifty-three cadets escaped from the building safely.
In March of 1963 the Ladies Auxiliary of the Radnor Fire Company was formed. It has been an invaluable asset to the company ever since, particularly in the areas of fund-raising and providing food and beverages to firefighters at the scene of long and difficult fires. The purchase of many key pieces of equipment has been made possible only by the dedicated efforts of the women and men of the Auxiliary.
Spring drought always intensifies the danger from careless burning and the week of May 2, 1963 set a record of close to a hundred field fires of one sort or another. The week ended with a $100,000 fire, which leveled the Convent of the Sisters of the Holy Rosary in Villanova.
In July of 1964, the Overbrook Golf Club suffered a $200,000 fire believed to have been set by an arsonist. An employee of the club was burned to death. In 1965, the firehouse was enlarged and renovated. During the next few years, there were major fires at the Valley Forge Shopping Center and Valley Forge Military Academy. In 1968, the Ambulance Division reported answering 577 calls and traveling 13,000 miles in doing so.
A crowd of over two thousand residents watched a spectacular fire at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Wayne on July 17, 1969. By 1972, Radnor’s volunteer firefighters were spending over 6000 man-hours a year fighting fires and participating in drills.
A fire at the Caley Nursing Home on December 3, 1973 turned into one of the worst tragedies the area has ever experienced. Fourteen patients died and twenty-four were hospitalized. Seven firefighters were injured in courageous efforts to rescue elderly patients and subdue the fire. The entire community united in working to aid the victims.
In 1974, a $150,000 fire damaged Hamilton Hall at Valley Forge Military Academy and two years later, a big fire destroyed the stock and equipment at Colonial Village Meat Markets. The Tower House Apartments in St. David’s were destroyed by fire in January of 1978.
The record for April 1979 showed that the Radnor Fire Company had answered 392 calls in the previous year. A year later, the count was 382 alarms answered while the Ambulance Division handled 897 emergencies.
Over the years the trucks and other equipment of the fire company have become more sophisticated and, of course, more expensive. The first ladder truck was purchased in 1937. By the 1950’s the company was equipped with three new Mack fire trucks, a 65-foot aerial truck, a field truck, and an ambulance.
Two-way radio communication was also introduced and later a system for recording all incoming telephone calls so that they could be replayed if necessary to correctly interpret information from sometimes excited callers.
The efficiency of the Ambulance Division was improved in the 70’s by the addition of a second ambulance and the hiring of two emergency medical technicians to be on stand-by at the firehouse. The first women joined the ranks of the previously all-male firefighting team.
Although the firehouse was enlarged several times in the past, the building barely contained all of the equipment houses there, and a committee was formed to look into the building of a new firehouse, or renovating the current firehouse. It took a steady hand to back the current fire trucks and ambulances into bays that allowed only a few inches clearance on each side. Moreover, once inside, there is very little elbowroom for arranging equipment or making repairs.
In May of 1996, the fire company packed up and moved out to a temporary location, up the street at the AT&T lot. The old firehouse was torn down, and a new and current firehouse built on the same location. A large commercial tent was erected to be the home temporary home of the fire company. While life in the tent was the talk of all the surrounding companies, the membership was glad to move back into the new firehouse.
Today, the Radnor Fire Company employs five full-time and numerous part-time firefighter/EMTs to supplement the ranks of men and women volunteers. Last year the company responded to over 800 fire rescue emergencies and over 1800 medical emergency calls. The members of the fire company and the community at large are proud of the exceptional performance and professional conduct of the Radnor Fire Company in protecting the lives and property of area residents and assisting fire companies from other communities when called upon. The Radnor Fire Company’s methods have been constantly upgraded over the past one hundred years but the goal of service to the community has remained the same. We look forward to serving the community for another 100 years and beyond.