Sliding down the Pole

I was just a kid on Chicago’s north side when my grammar school class toured the Chicago fire Department Engine 71’s firehouse at 6239 N California. Watching the fireman slide down the fire pole, we learned  that the fire pole was actually invented in Chicago some 71 years earlier. A few other cities claim that they had a fire pole first, but I shall stubbornly stick to this Chicago story unless proved otherwise.

Flash back to 1878 and a three story wooden frame firehouse at 313 Third Avenue (later renamed and renumbered to 909 South Plymouth Court) in Chicago.  Although long gone, it was then the busy quarters of Engine Company 21 organized in 1872 as the first black fire company in the Chicago fire Department. The ground floor containing the firefighting equipment and the horses, the floor above was for sleeping, and the top floor the hayloft used to store the winter supply of hay to feed the horses.

Until 1878, firefighters would come down from their sleeping quarters to their fire apparatus  either by a spiral staircase or through a slide chute. A spiral staircase was better than a regular wide staircase because it took up less space in the firehouse. Worse yet, the fire horses could at times try to climb the regular stairs to visit the firemen or get a treat! Just picture a firemen who would awake to either a hungry or playful horse that missed their human companions. It really happened!

The officer in charge of Engine 21 was Captain David B Kenyon born in New York on August 27 1836 to James and Mahala Kenyon and came to Chicago in 1856. He originally began his fire career as a member of a Chicago volunteer fire fire brigade as early as 1856. He then enlisted in the United States Civil War in 1861  on the side of the North, and served until 1864, earning the rank of Captain . He had taken part in several Civil War battles including at Fort Donelson, Stewart County TN in February 1862 and Shiloh in Hardin County TN in April 1862 (also known the battle of Pittsburgh landing).

About 1866, he married Mary E Houser (1840 – 1915) ).  Records indicate that they had at least 9 children together, between 1867 and 1881. Most died young.

 He joined the Chicago Fire Department on December 1 1869 as a pipeman and quickly rose through the ranks attaining the rank of Captain, and later the Acting Fire Marshal, Chief of the First Battalion..

Fire companies are especially proud of their response times to fires. Back in the day there was fierce competition between fire companies to arrive first at a fire. Engine 21 was no different and because they were a newly formed all-black firehouse, they eagerly wanted to prove themselves. There was just something special that came from beating the other companies to a fire. Engine 21 is about to find an huge advantage using a simple wooden hay pole.

During transport, hay was secured to wagons using a wooden binding pole. The winter supply of hay to feed the horses was stored in the hayloft on the third floor of Engine 21. On April 21, 1878, firefighter George Reid was with Captain Kenyon, where the two were stacking hay when they got a fire call, Reid reacted to the alarm by sliding from the third floor to the first floor down the wood pole that had been temporarily lashed in place to allow for hoisting hay bales. Reid reached the ground faster than the others on the second floor who were using the spiral staircase. An idea was born.

Inspired by firefighter George Reid, Captain Kenyon thought a permanent pole leading directly from the upstairs sleeping quarters to the apparatus floor would be much faster than the spiral staircase or chute.

So the men of Engine 21 began working with a 4” x 4” Georgia pine timber which they carefully shaved and sanded into a 3″ diameter pole, and which they then gave several coats of varnish and a coat of paraffin. The next week Kenyon obtained permission from Chief of Department Matthias Benner to cut a hole in the floor of the station and install the pole, after first agreeing to pay for any necessary repairs to the fire house floor if the experiment failed.

Once the pole was installed, George Reid, was the first to use it and thus possibly the first to use a sliding pole in a fire station anywhere in the country. Other firefighters in the city thought little about the idea until they saw that Engine Company 21 was now very often the first to arrive at a fire.

According to an 1888 Chicago Tribune article, no other engine company in the city had a better record of responding to fires.

Now with their new fire pole, the full team could go from the sleeping quarters upstairs and horses in their stalls to a fully-hitched and mounted rig in something like 14 or 15 seconds in daytime, 25 or 26 seconds at night. So successful was the first pole that another was placed in another Chicago fire station on May 24th, and soon after, the Chief of Department ordered the poles to be installed in other Chicago firehouses. And not long after, the fire pole came into common use across the entire country.

It is reported that he in addition to the fire pole David Kenyon invented an automatic door to let in horses and wagons out even faster.

Who’s pole was first?  Many different and inaccurate stories have been published of the origin of sliding poles in fire stations. Some might simply be bragging rights claiming they were first with a pole. Other stories might be proven to predate Chicago’s pole.

At the Louisville Fire Department, the pole was claimed to be invented by Captain B.F. Bache, around 1858. Supposedly a pole had been left standing in the middle of the stairwell, so firemen took the fastest route down. The St. Joseph Missouri Fire Department claimed that their pole made out of waxed wood was first used around 1871. Another article claimed that the first firehouse pole was installed in New York in April of 1878 the same year as Chicago.

 The Boston Fire Department was said to install their first brass pole in Engine 4’s station on Bullfinch Street in 1880. The Worchester Fire Department claimed the first brass sliding pole, the idea of Captain Charles Allen of Engine Company No. 1, first used June 14, 1880. However, an article said that the Worchester station didn’t have room for a full pole to the apparatus floor, and a hanging half pole was installed so the horses could pass under it.  

Whoever really had the first fire pole may never be proven, but whichever pole was the first, I am sticking to my Chicago story.

Wood poles and the slivers that came with them were replaced with brass poles are made out of tubular brass and fitted with bronze castings. McIntire Brass, Inc., still a major manufacturer of slide pole systems, offer fire poles  that vary in diameter and size., with the most common a  3-inch diameter pole and about 20 feet in length.

Injuries and accidents have occurred over the years. firefighters often sustained sprained ankles, concussions, and falls. Some firefighters simply fell into the hole falling 20 or 30 feet. There is a report that18 firemen died from fire pole accidents between 1890 and 1930


Safety improvements have included railings or closets around the entry opening , weight-activated doors to prevent accidental falls. Cushions have been placed at the base of poles and shutters can be used to prevent exhaust fumes from the apparatus bay from reaching the upstairs living quarters area .

By the late 1940s, the single floor fire station design became more common where all the rooms were on the one level, with the apparatus floor to one side and a living area adjacent, eliminating the need for a fire pole.  But in recent years multi-story stations have come back a bit possibly because of land values and available space. Regardless fire pole continues to hold its place in the fire service and in the memories of older firefighters. It is a powerful symbol of our fire service.

On October 3, 1884, Chicago Fire Department Captain David B. Kenyon of Engine 21, then the Acting Fire Marshal for the First Battalion, died in the line of duty while responding to box 47 at Adams and Clark streets at 12:45 PM for an awning fire at 200 South Clark Street.

Acting Fire Marshal Kenyon was thrown from his buggy at 1:30 pm when it collided with Engine 32 driven by Eugene Brown at the intersection of Dearborn and Monroe Streets. Kenyon was struck in his back by one of the wheels of engine 32 and was dragged several feet.

He was first taken to the foyer at Haverly’s theater right there on the Northwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe.  and then he was taken to his home  at 515 State Street where he was  attended by Dr. Henrotin  ( Henrotin hospital was named after him).  The doctor operated on his dislocated hip but because of other injuries his condition worsened. He was unconscious at the time of his death on October 25 1884.

Funeral services for Kenyon were held on October 28, 1884, first at his home at 515 State Street, and then at at the Railroad Chapel 1419 State Street. He was then taken to by carriage and buried in Rosehill Cemetery on Chicago’s far north side. . The funeral was attended by more than 120 firefighters, including those from St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati.

A few final tidbits:

David’s wife Mary and some of his children are also buried in Rosehill Cemetery in the Kenyon plot.

The original wooden fire pole was subsequently replaced by a brass pole, and the original wood pole was cut into small pieces to become relics.

Six members of Engine Company 21 died in the 1910 Stock Yards fire. By 2014 Engine Company 21 had become Engine Company 19 and today is located at 3421 South Calumet.

Engine 98 just off of Michigan Avenue still uses the brass pole, the kitchen was once the stable, and the hayloft was converted to a workroom. Other older firehouses still retain some of those same original features from back in the day..

I have done a few other cool stories about Chicago fire Department please feel free to click on any or all of these related links:

your comments and thoughts are always welcome! Be safe. Stay well.

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