The forgotten history of fire suppression on Hilton Head Island

Several months ago I did some research on the history of the fire service on Hilton Head Island. What I uncovered exceeded my expectations.

I had known that Hilton Head Island, located between Charleston and Savannah, was an important base of operations for the Union blockade of the Southern ports during the Civil War.

What I didn’t know was that a fire department thrived here. The first and oldest reference I found was from the Boston Herald in 1863. As far as I know, it’s the oldest known reference to “The Hilton Head Fire Department.”


When this place was captured by the Federals, an old hand fire engine, which looks as if it might have been constructed to the order of Mr. Noah, for the purpose of extinguishing fires on his ark, was found here. Another was brought down from Beaufort, and two from New York. A chief engineer, tour foremen, and twenty-five men were detached from the N. Y. 47th Regiment, and detailed to handle these engines. Arrangements were also made for a big force in case of a fire. The suttlers are under orders, in case of an alarm, to report to one engine, and other details provided for from the Quartermaster’s and Commissary’s departments and other sources, to man all the other machines. Three are located on Robber’s Row, in a building provided for the purpose, and one near the Post Office. Cisterns have been made in convenient proximity to all valuable buildings. It is a singular fact that there has never been a fire here since the occupation of the post, and for the exemption from conflagrations we are probably indebted to martial law.

47th NY Vols

My next stop was the Coastal Discovery Museum.

With the assistance of the good folks there I discovered a photograph of an actual fire station in an out-of-print book called The Forgotten History, A Photographic Essay On Civil War Hilton Head Island.


Fire Engine House. The pump for this firehouse is visible in the foreground. The hoses and water supply were inside the building. The first two fire engines on the Island were purchased from New York by John A. Smith, who was the first chief of the fire brigade. The new engines were side-lever type, piano build and cost $800. A small dock enabled engines to take suction from Mud Creek. Cisterns held extra water reserves.

I found two additional news stories using Google’s historical news archive search.

The first is from the New York Times, published June 27, 1864.


Is in the process of organization at Hilton Head. One or two meetings have been held, and the principal officers chosen. The number of members will be limited to about thirty. We have at the Head three fire engines which have, on three or four occasions, performed excellent service. The character and location of the buildings here are such that a fire would do immense damage unless speedily checked.

The last story is also from the New York Times, published February 16, 1865.

I didn’t think anything could top the “Noah’s Ark” comment from the story in the Boston Herald, but I was wrong!


A Narrow Escape from a Disaster at Hilton Head – Serious Fire

From Our Own Correspondent
Department of the South
Friday, Feb. 16, 1865.

A few mornings since the people at Hilton Head very narrowly escaped a disaster rivaling that which occurred in Savannah two weeks ago. At 3 o’clock A. M., on the 14th instant, the guard on the long pier discovered a bright light in a building situated in front of the Ordnance Yard, and used as an office by Capt. Pratt. The alarm was immediately given, and soon thereafter a large crowd of military and civilians were on the spot. Notwithstanding the efforts of the firemen of two engines, the flames spread through the entire building, and, in a short time, communicated to an adjoining building occupied as an office by Lieut. Arnold, of the Ordnance Department. The fire rapidly increased in intensity, and it absolutely became a matter of personal safety that every man in the vicinity should exert himself to the utmost to prevent the fire igniting the powder and ammunition which was stored in dangerous proximity. Major-Gen. Gilmore, who was on the ground in person, threw off his coat and worked with a will that must have astonished, and, at the same time, mortified a few persons who were disinclined to render active aid. On such an occasion, when the life of every person on Hilton Head was in great peril, it is difficult to conceive how any one able to assist in adverting the impending disastrous calamity could stand by as silent spectators. I believe, however, that with few exceptions, the party present took hold and worked with all their might and main to subdue the flames. At one time, during the progress of the fire, Gen. Gilmore ordered a fellow who was standing by, with his hands in his pockets, to go to work with the others. The fellow, not recognizing the General, refused to obey, whereupon he suddenly found himself knocked heels over head on the sand. A half hour later, the force of active laborers was increased by one. As good luck would have it, only the two buildings mentioned were destroyed. With them were burned nearly all of the private property of Capt. Pratt and Lieut. Arnold, also a considerable amount of Government property, consisting mostly of books and documents. The muster-rolls of the Ordnance Department were consumed. Five thousand dollars in greenbacks, which were placed in a safe in Capt. Peatt’s office, were scorched so as to be useless for payment, but they will doubtless be identified and exchanged at the Treasury Department. Brig.-Gen. M. S. Littlefield very wisely sent out to beyond the intrenchments for a force of three hundred laborers, who arrived at the scene in time to render very valuable service. At 5 o’clock the fire was nearly extinguished, but it was not until some hours later that the people at Hilton Head thoroughly comprehended the imminent danger that hung over them during the night. Had a single spark ever found its way into the mass of powder stored but a few yards from the burning buildings, the result would have been appalling in the extreme. Such an explosion, and such a flight of shot and shell would have ensued, that in all probability, not a house would have been left standing on the Head. I dare not even intimate of the loss of life that would have been involved. How the fire originated is a matter of conjecture. Parties who live near the building in which the flames were first discovered, are of the impression that the cause was a defective flue, while others assert that the fire was the work of rebel incendiarism. It is a fact that quite a number of rebel refugees and deserters are employed in the Quartermaster’s Department, but no evidence has yet been adduced sufficiently strong to make them responsible for what might have been a most terrific event.

Does this mean we can brag that Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue is older than Charleston Fire Department? That would probably be disingenuous, since we’re not sure what happened to the fire department after the Civil War. But it’s fascinating to know that “Hilton Head Fire Department” was battling blazes on this Island 145 years ago!


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