“I need one just like him,” my 3-year old exclaims, excitedly pointing at the picture. The dog’s name is “Squirt,” his 6-year old sister reads aloud, and he will help us “sniff out the coolest stuff” at the “hottest museum around.”
We are, of course, at the Denver Firefighters Museum at 1326 Tremont Place in downtown Denver, Colorado. And while we are waiting in line at the reception area, I take a quick peek into the adjacent gift shop: Dalmatian stickers and pens, plush Dalmatians, Dalmatians on cups, coasters and key chains. What better place to be to finally find out about the dotted dogs’ mystic connection to the firehouse.
The museum is in the historic Station One built in 1909. The main floor chronicles six themes, including changing firefighting strategies; personal protective equipment; and how fire has been communicated through time, from pulling alarm boxes and relays via telegraph to dialing zero and calling 911 today. Children can practice how and when to dial the emergency number with a friendly talking play phone.
But the most intriguing section — if you ask my son at least — is the antique “Fire Apparatus,” also known as fire engines and trucks used throughout the history of the Denver Fire Department, which began in 1866 as an all-volunteer operation. At that time Denver did not have a ready source of water needed for firefighting, especially in winter. The little leather buckets displayed at the museum don’t exactly look very efficient to me for battling a full-blown blaze, either.
Pumpers came next. Volunteer firefighters sprung into action while pulling hoses by hand on enormous reels. The large handles were operated by 10 men on each side lifting them up and down to pump 300 gallons of water per minute. The pump on display was purchased in October 1867 for $1,300. More firefighters would arrive for reinforcement with ladder and hose carts, equipped with metal bells and petroleum lanterns.
The response time was considerably improved when Denver received its first horse-drawn ladder truck in 1880. Firefighters started to be paid now “because someone had to feed the horses,” explains museum director Winifred Ferrill. The fast yet sturdy Percheron horses imported from France needed to be trained for two years until they had learned to push their own stall doors open at the sound of the alarm, trot down to their rig and wait for the firefighters to drop the harness from the ceiling. You can still see the marks where the metal buckles flew up and hit the ceiling. The men had the trucks out the door in 17 seconds.
And dogs could take some credit, too. We’re finally talking Dalmatians! Well, not at first. Initially, firefighter dogs were herding dogs like Border Collies and Terriers. The dog’s job was to bark at the horses and nip at their heels to encourage them to go faster. Once at the fire, the dogs herded the horses at a safe distance. Dalmatians became synonymous with fire houses because they were known to be very social and having a calming effect on the horses, who had to stay in their stalls when at the station. Dalmatians kept them company. After the horses were replaced by motorized engines, the firefighters kept the Dalmatians as mascots and pets.
Black and white photographs show somber men with handmade tanned leather helmets, not the plastic kind my children are trying on at the “Dress like a Firefighter” pretend play station, which includes a truck to climb into for authenticity but only half a fire pole for security reasons.
Soon, steamers would replace the simple hand pumps. When the alarm rang, firefighters stoked a coal fire in a vertical boiler mounted on a horse-drawn platform so that there would be enough pressure to pump water when arriving at the scene of the fire. Station One operated as Steamer Company One until 1925, when it was remodeled to accommodate motorized fire engines, including an American LaFrance 1923 Pumper and a 1942 Squad. Both still look quite antiquated, but could pump up to 1,000 gallons of water per minute. A concrete floor replaced the old wood floor and the hayloft made way for partly preserved locker rooms, dorms, officers’ quarters and kitchen facilities on today’s second floor.
Maybe we’ll find the other half of the pole upstairs. There it is, but the hole is covered with thick Plexiglas. The poles — invented by Chicago Fire Department Engine Co. 21 in 1878 — enabled crews to quickly reach the trucks on the lower garage level and greatly improve response time. It also increased firefighters’ injuries. That’s why today’s modern fire stations are built on one floor or rely on stairs again for a safe sortie.
No sliding allowed, but children meet an animated Squirt again at the computer kiosk. The museum mascot reinforces fire safety tips and prevention. Children will recognize the sound of a smoke detector. There is a practice house to rehearse a safe escape by crawling low under imaginary smoke and meeting at a safe place.
We didn’t get around to doing take-home activities because we had to climb into the flaming red engine in our pretend gear once more, but children can “draw an escape plan” or “color a firefighter” — most likely with a cute Dalmatian by his side.
Denver Firefighters Museum
1326 Tremont Place
Denver, Colorado 80204
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Admission: $6 for adults, $4 for children, $5 for students and seniors.
Among other special events and exhibits, the museum also offers a children’s educational series, like “Wee Wednesdays,” a six-week fire safety session for children ages 3 to 5, or “Junior Firefighter Mini Camps” during the summer holidays.