Monday, August 25, 2014

Key West Firehouse Museum

Who doesn't want to drive a 1929 fire engine? Happily in Key West anything is possible thanks to the museum created at the old firehouse on Grinnell at Virginia. I got my turn.
When I answer the police phones I still occasionally get callers who refer to this spot as "the old firehouse on Grinnell," which confuses new dispatchers as there are officially only three firehouses in the city and none of them is located near this corner of Old Town...
If you saunter down the sidewalk, and you may have to do that quite a bit before you gain access owing to the relatively restricted opening hours in the middle of the day, you can see the firemen's outfits hanging in the windows, a tantalizing view.
The garden in back illustrates how much care has gone into the preservation of this space and its restoration for future generations to enjoy. The brick building in the background with the two wooden doors is the former feed shed where horse supplies were stored. In front of the shed is the 9/11 Memorial similar to the one standing in front of modern Fire Station One.

The "horse trough" is commonly believed to have been used as a place to water the horses though the sign explains clearly that it's great length was designed to wash fire hoses after use. there used to be a table alongside to dry them out.
 As we shall see inside they used to bring horses into the firehouse through here in the days before fire trucks were gasoline powered. 
They have gone all out to show off equipment from the past century downstairs with living quarters upstairs. Its amazingly well organized and packed with information.

They also have two old maps of Key West, drawn shortly after the city was sold to the four Americans who purchased quarter shares from Juan Salas.
Check this out: there was a pond across Lower Duval. Who knew?
 Someone had the presence of mind in the late 19th century to photograph the fire crews and their horses:
And inside they have recreated a space to show how horses were stabled in those days. The Gift Shop at the entrance is the actual location of the original stables but Big George, formerly on display in purple livery at Cowboy Bill's on Duval is being gussied up to illustrate the life of a fire horse of years past.
The horses were used to two steam fire trucks to the scene of fires, once there the boilers on carts created steam pressure to create a stream of water through the fire hose. The steam was built up by burning coal from this the last known coal pit of its kind anywhere in the US. 
And there they were, protecting the precious wooden homes of Key West, the town of 12,000 huddled around the harbor on the northwest corner of the island.
Fire was a real hazard in those days and not just owing to seasoned wooden homes and oil lamps and the lack of firefighting equipment such as we have today. Check out this fabulous story from Key West Markers:
1886 Fire
At 2:00 am on the morning of April 1, 1886 the most devastating fire in Key West’s history was ignited in a small coffee shop next to the San Carlos Institute.  This fire was more than an accident, there is evidence that this blaze, costing $2,000,000 in property damage in 1886, was set by the Spanish Empire to try to shut down Key West.
At the time of the historic blaze, the Spanish Empire was entrenched in a revolution against the Cuban people.  The Cuban Revolutionaries depended on Key West for the majority of financial support, to keep their soldiers able to fight against the Spanish.  Add this to the fact that Spain had to sell Cuban tobacco to the Key West cigar factories in order to fund their own troops, and it created a vicious circle of each side being funded by Key West.
It made sense for the Spanish Empire to shut down the Key West Cigar Industry to make sure that the funding for the revolutionaries was put to an end.  They had other places they could sell their tobacco, but the Cuban revolutionaries had no other single place that contributed any where near the support that Key West did.
The blaze was ignited very symbolically next to the San Carlos Institute, the club erected by the cigar manufacturers and the focal point of the Cuban society in Key West.  The fire ravaged the downtown area, burning down 18 major cigar factories, 614 houses and government warehouses.  Our only steam fire engine was off in New York being fixed at this time, another suspicious coincidence, which explains why it took 12 hours for the fire to burn itself out.
There are 3 large factors which really add to the intrigue of this destructive fire.  The first is that the blaze was actually extinguished on Whitehead street in the early morning, but against prevailing winds the fire miraculously re-ignited on Duval street, targeting major cigar factories.  The second factor is that the following morning, there was a Spanish flotilla waiting just offshore to take all of the newly unemployed Cuban workers back to Cuba.  The third is that it was reported by the Tobacco Leaf, a paper printed back then solely for the tobacco industry, that an article ran in Havana the day prior to the blaze, touting that Key West had burnt down.
This fire truly was one of the worst Key West had ever seen and with all of the circumstantial and suspicious evidence surrounding it, it’s easy for one to draw the logical conclusion.  Hopefully through in depth research and with a little luck, concrete evidence will be found to finally prove this blaze was no mere accident.

The twentieth century saw the arrival of internal combustion in key West as much as anyplace else in the United States. It used to surprise me to see so many cars parked on city streets prior to the arrival of the "proper" highway in 1938, but the fact is there was a road to the mainland alongside Flagler's railroad. It was by no means as fast or comfortable as the railroad which got passengers to Miami in about eight hours from key West (slow speed only on the bridges over the water!) but the road was a series of sandy tracks connecting the islands. There was a ferry on No Name Key which connected with Marathon and nother ferry bypassing the low lying Matecumbe Keys. It was an arduous journey but cars were a symbol of status and convenience even in the early days of Key West. And the Fire department was no slouch. This 1929 engine had the steering on the right built in an era when traffic was sparse and outside cities there were few rules of the road.
Nowadays firefighters are chemical experts dealing with all the various dangerous chemicals that we use daily and that impregnate, for good or ill, the materials our homes are built of...bottled oxygen and masks from a different era:
Modern fires have left their mark in the city, not so long ago there was a replica of the 1886 fire starting next door to the San Carlos. This time it was knocked down in a  hurry.
The Copa Fire of the early hours of August 3rd 1995 was a landmark disaster that burned up several stores including the night club that gave its name to the fiasco. A shed caught fire around 2am and  that was attributed to arson. Seven engines including help from the Navy were on scene caught in this painting by noted local artist Ann Lorraine whop also helped the firefighters arrange their museum's exhibits:
Other fires are recorded on the Wall of Flame:
One exhibit that set me thinking was this exchange memorabilia from across the waters, the sort of friendly exchange between Cuba and the US that contin ues to be embargo'ed.  These badges are from before World War Two when Key West and Havana were in constant friendly communication. Perhaps those days will return, and it can't be too soon for me.
On the subject of Cuban memorabilia this here is an authentic, true to life Cuban coffee maker. Hang a sock filled with coffee and heat the water. Yum!
And you may be surprised to learn, as I was that some agencies apparently still use these fire alarm boxes as back up communication devices. This lot is strictly for show and education. They also used a ticker tape machine to provide a "hard copy" of the fire's details to headquarters. The dispatcher in me was fascinated, the citizen in me was relieved the Keys have moved on!
Upstairs we see the way firefighters lived and live today pretty much, on the job.
Chief Fraga on the left and his predecessor Chief Wardlow now a city commissioner. I think having been  a firefighter gives Commissioner Wardlow a different perspective of the city; too bad he's just one vote. 
I hate sleeping at the police station during hurricanes and living cheek by jowl with my colleagues in normal circumstances would give me hives, but some people thrive on this stuff. And I have to say that once upon a time when I was a reporter I got a chance to slide down a fireman's pole and I took the opportunity. With all the sexual ambiguity you care to imply, but it seems not much such sliding is done anymore. Too bad.
And now we come to the other great fire tradition of Key West which, in speaking of fire stories cannot be avoided in the Southernmost City. Not only was he a colorful man, was Chief Bum Farto, preferring to wear red and rive a red convertible, he was also blessed with a particular name though his parents had named him Joseph when he grew up as a small child fascinated by the firefighters based at Old City Hall. Bum Farto was caught in a drug sting in 1975, thus putting an end to his career. His Cadillac was found at the Miami airport parking lot but he was never seen again, not for his sentencing or anything else. Speculation has run rife with the preferred odds being that he had a falling out with some nasty people who disposed of him. The fantasy that he is living the good life on a deserted beach seems unlikely for one as exuberant as he was reputed to be. All in all you can see why it is a legend that will probably never die, the story of Bum Farto. to his surviving family's chagrin. 
Mile Zero to Ground Zero. Fire House Museum Facebook
I could have spent a lot longer than I did and being able to go in the summer after schools are back in session was a bonus for me, but I had other appointments to make before I went home. 
According to the museum itself it is now rated the preferred museum in Key West. I never know what to think of these competitive rankings but I will say it is well worth a visit and my hat is off to the driving force that got this done Alex Vega, a retired fire inspector who saw the potential in this place, long since shuttered. (from
This preservation of Key West's real history is what this town needs more of, and less time devoted to non existent pirates and their legends. Fire fighters are real heroes.