A Year of Colonial American Frontier History

December 07, 1736 - Franklin And Friends Founded The Union Fire Company

A devastating fire swept through the wharf district in Philadelphia in 1730. The fire led a concerned Benjamin Franklin to call for a volunteer fire company to deal with the threat.

The Fire

The fire started on a ship anchored in the harbor. The fire spread to the nearby wharf. Before the citizens could extinguish it, the fire had destroyed all the warehouses in the Fishbourne wharf district and some nearby homes. Philadelphia, in spite of the fire, had luck that night, as it was a quiet night, with no wind. If there had been any wind, the fire could easily have swept over the entire city. Ben Franklin noted that it was only "dumb luck" that the fire had not destroyed the city. He said that if Philadelphia had a trained fire fighting force the force could have put the fire out easily. Colonial and European cities during this time were especially vulnerable to fire. There were no building codes, people used open hearths for cooking and heat and most structures were built of wood. Devastating fires destroyed large portions of cities periodically.

Visit to Boston

Franklin had visited Boston, the city of his birth, Boston. While there, he noted the existence of some loosely organized fire brigades. It was these brigades and their role in fire protection that played on his memory when he began advocating for something similar in Philadelphia.

Letters to his Own Newspaper

Franklin used a ploy he had used effectively in the past, writing in his newspaper under a pseudonym, advocating for an issue. Under the guise of an old man in the February 4, 1735 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he wrote:

"Mr. Franklin, Being old and lame of my Hands, and thereby uncapable of assisting my Fellow Citizens, when their Houses are on Fire; I must beg them to take in good Part the following Hints on the Subject of Fires.

In the first Place, as an Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure, I would advise ‘em to take Care how they suffer living Brands-ends, or Coals in a full Shovel, to be carried out of one Room into another, or up or down Stairs, unless in a Warmingpan shut; for Scraps of Fire may fall into Chinks, and make no Appearance till Midnight; when your Stairs being in Flames, you may be forced, (as I once was) to leap out of your Windows, and hazard your Necks to avoid being over-roasted."

Successful Campaign

His efforts soon paid off. Four of his friends joined with him to form the Union Fire Company. In a short time, they had twenty-four other applicants. When the number reached thirty, a number they felt practical, Franklin turned them away, urging them to form other fire fighting clubs in other parts of the city. This would allow them to protect a larger area. The idea caught on and other fire fighting clubs formed. Each member furnished a leather water bucket and a linen bag for carrying property. These items they would supply at their own expense and mark with their name. The tasks at a fire were broken down, with some men managing the water and others guarding stricken buildings against looting.  The men would meet eight times a year for training and exchange ideas. The group fined members that missed a meeting or were late. Other fire brigades copied the structure of this company, which became standard for fire companies until after the Revolutionary War.

Published by Paul Wonning