Hibernian Hook & Ladder
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/DONALD R. SERFASS A group of Tamaqua men apparently organized Hibernian Hook & Ladder Co. in the 1870s.
It was a group civic-minded men.
They lived in the 1870s and most or all were likely Irish Catholic. They were either immigrants or sons of immigrants.
They likely worked in the mines or performed manual labor.
They joined together and called themselves Hibernian Hook & Ladder Co. of Tamaqua. And they blazed a trail.
But they also left a trail of questions.
Three early units
To understand Hibernian H&L, one must first look at the earliest days of firefighting in Tamaqua.
Before the emergence of today's four fire companies, at least three very early units served the town during the 1800s. Of those, two companies can claim to be the town's oldest, something that makes the Tamaqua Fire Department unique.
According to records, Perseverance Fire Co. # 1 dates back to 1852 when the borough bought its first hand-drawn hose cart. The company began when town fathers saw the need for organized fire fighting. The single hose carriage was stored in a barn.
By 1875, the company acquired a steam fire engine drawn by hired horses and two hand-drawn hose carts, one with four wheels, the other two. At the time, the unit also boasted 1,500 feet of gum hose valued at $6,500. The fancy new equipment led to a revised name, the Perseverance Hose and Steam Fire Co.
The name would be changed again in 14 years. The unit eventually was reorganized as Citizens Fire Co. # 1, making CFC the fire company with the longest history in Tamaqua. Interestingly, many Citizens members belonged to an intellectual group called the Tamaqua Lyceum, a band of men who met to discuss and debate current events.
CFC has been steadfastly based at the same general location at the start of West Rowe Street in the heart of downtown.
But there was another early unit - Reliance Hook & Ladder Co., begun in the 1860s. The demise of Reliance in 1878 led to the creation of today's American Hose Co. in the same year, making American Hose the community's oldest firehouse by name.
The town of 5,800 looked to American Hose for protection. In September 1881, AHC appointed its own police force to do duty at fires by caring for furniture and other personal property carried from burning buildings.
The company also was responsible for watering the dirt streets.
On September 5, 1924, American Hose spawned the town's first ambulance committee, purchasing a Cadillac in October at a cost of $2,075.
So staunch and forthright were members that in 1897 they adopted a resolution saying they'd: "always be ready to sacrifice our life for that of others no matter what creed, color or race, all fellow man alike with courage and promptness in case of fire."
American Hose Co. #1 is housed in its 1885 building at 39 Mauch Chunk Street.
But while those two early companies were in the throes of development, another unit was up and running by the 1870s - Hibernian Hook & Ladder Co. And that company is cloaked in mystery because so little is known.
The legend of Hibernian H&L is supported by at least one document and several stories handed down through the years.
The Hibernian unit supposedly owned and operated a single hose reel drawn by a few men or a horse. According to lore, the hose reel broke loose one day while being pulled down a steep incline from the Dutch Hill section of the community. The reel was destroyed, essentially putting Hibernian out of business.
The Dutch Hill connection is particularly interesting. An old-timer by the name of Andy, now deceased, reportedly told members of the Tamaqua Fire Department that a garage or building located in that part of town contains a visible link to Hibernian Hook & Ladder. It is unclear if that link is a name or logo, or if it is written, painted or even engraved in or on part of a building, such as a cornerstone.
That report raises questions. Did Hibernian store their hose reel on Dutch Hill? Or did they perhaps conduct meetings there?
If so, that information appears to contradict a reliable source that corroborates Hibernian's existence.
The official publication of the 32nd Annual Convention of the Six-County Firemen's Association, hosted in Tamaqua, June 16-21, 1935, states: "In the early 70s, the Hibernian Hook & Ladder Company was organized and was located for a number of years in a building on the North side of Rowe Street near the present site of the Reading Station, but this company passed out of existence entirely."
Today's firefighters said their curiosity was piqued when they discovered the report about their firefighting ancestors.
"We saw the information when going through the program," notes Jason Hartz, captain, Citizens Fire Company. Hartz said members recently pored over documents stored inside the fire company's antique floor safe and learned about Hibernian.
CFC once shared quarters with the borough police department and jail. As a result, CFC inherited the old borough-owned vault, an 1880s Stiffel & Freeman safe made in Philadelphia. The 2,000-lb. strongbox has been housed at CFC's Rowe Street fire station for 130 years and contains early town documents, particularly items pertaining to firefighting history.
As for Hibernian Hook & Ladder, the word Hibernia is a Classical Latin term for the island of Ireland. The name used in Tamaqua suggests that members of Hibernian chose the name to honor their homeland.
It wouldn't be a stretch to hypothesize that Hibernian fire company members may have been associated with the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, established in 1836 and now the oldest and largest Irish Catholic organization in the U. S.
Hartz and others at CFC would like to learn more about these first responders.
That sentiment is shared a few blocks away at American Hose Co., where past president Brian Connely, vice president of Tamaqua Borough Council, would like to see more information uncovered.
"It's amazing to me that after all of these years and having so much documentation and the history of the fire department, there is no reference to the Hibernians," he says. "This is truly an interesting topic. I would really like to find out more about this. We all know the history and the names of who have gone before within our own companies. I would really like to learn more, if there is more to the story."
Connely, Hartz and others of the Tamaqua Fire Department want to fully understand the development of local firefighting. Hibernian Hook & Ladder amounts to a missing link in that story.
"There are just so many questions if they existed," says Connely. "When did they form, when did they disband and why, where was the station and who were they?"
Honoring a mission
The printed program confirms that members of Hibernian Hook & Ladder succeeded in their mission of organizing a first response team to protect lives and property. It is believed they thrived as an active fire company for several years.
But Hibernian folded after the reel cart accident and most believe the company no longer existed by about 1880.
If that timeline is accurate, there is an interesting sidenote: the disappearance of Hibernian Hook & Ladder coincided with the end of the reign of terror attributed to the alleged Molly Maguires. The Mollies were a band of Irish immigrants accused of wreaking havoc in the local area in retribution to oppressive working conditions in the mines. It must be emphasized that nobody is even remotely suggesting any correlation between Hibernian and the Mollies, other than coincidence in chronology.
Who, exactly, were the early Tamaquans who comprised Hibernian Hook & Ladder?
Members of the Tamaqua Fire Department want to learn more, including any information leading to a building or garage on Dutch Hill that allegedly carries the Hibernian name or other proof to aid in the understanding of an important early part of local firefighting.
In the meantime, Hibernian Hook & Ladder remains an integral part of the development of first response and a legend shrouded in mystery.