The City of Beckley was, in the early twentieth century, typical of most towns of that era. The buildings in the city’s business district were mostly cheaply built frame structures, haphazardly constructed and situated in the downtown area. The existence of building code enforcement was some time off and construction was unregulated. Fire protection was not organized, but the citizens participated in informal “bucket brigades,” since a fire in one part of town could quickly spread and endanger other areas. Realizing the possibility of damage from a conflagration, Mayor Dunn and the Beckley City Council acted September 12, 1907, to provide for fire protection in the city, and essentially the Beckley Fire Department was born. The Mayor and Council authorized the purchase by the City of a hose reel with hose. This equipment was to be put into service at the completion of the city water system in November of 1907. The Mayor and Council, during the Council meeting of December 26, 1907, contracted with local plumber J. L. McCoy to provide fire fighting equipment. A hose reel, fire hose, and other fire fighting equipment was to be provided for the sum of $1,000.00. The fire equipment arrived April 16, 1908, and with its arrival the City Council approved an expenditure for materials and construction of what was to be he city’s first fire station. A site on Fayette Street was chosen for the construction of the 24′ x 12′ building that was to house the fire fighting equipment. Now that the equipment was in place it was time to formally organize a group to use it. This task fell to W. L. Ticer. Ticer organized a volunteer company of 30 men in May of 1908 that would serve as the city’s fire protection. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place on March 28, 1912, when the city’s fire bell arrived. The bell was to be used as a signaling device to summon the volunteers to the station and alert the community in the event of a fire.
Just past midnight on Sunday, April 14, 1912, the event that the mayor and Council had anticipated just four years earlier occurred. A fire was discovered in the Rose-Turner building at the corner of Neville and Heber Streets. The fire bell was rung and the firefighters summoned, but their efforts were to be unsuccessful. As the firefighters pulled the hose reel and wagon to the downtown area they found a fire that would ultimately consume 29 businesses, destroy approximately four blocks of the downtown area bordered by Neville, Prince, McCreery and Heber Streets, ruin the City’s newly paved streets and amount to approximately $275,000 in damages. Fortunately there were no fatalities or even serious injuries in the fire. The buildings that replaced the ones lost in the fire were of modern brick and stone, and the lessons of fire prevention and inspection are taken to heart today by the department’s Fire Prevention Bureau, now headed by Captain Johnny Mann.
The Beckley Fire Department from its earliest beginnings has realized the importance of training for this most hazardous job. Proper training ensures that the best interests of the citizens are being served. Even in the beginnings of the fire department, a trained fire fighter in J. L. Guthrie of the Charleston Fire Department was brought in to share his knowledge and expertise. Chief Walter Weidensall greatly emphasized training during his tenure. Under his guidance the fire department became only the second in the United States to have each member completely trained in first aid. Additionally each of his men had certificates from the American Red Cross, West Virginia Department of Mines, and the United States Bureau of Mines. The fire fighters under his direction took training from West Virginia University in a fire service extension class lasting 30 weeks. Chief Weidensall’s efforts to develop a well trained department were recognized when he was elected President of the West Virginia State Fire Chiefs Association in October of 1943. The importance of training is still being emphasized under the direction of Captain Ed Thompson, the department’s current Training Officer.
The Beckley Fire Department still maintains the rich tradition of anticipating and preparing for the future instead of hoping to be able to react when something happens. The BFD has a legacy that goes from pails to pumpers, and beyond, having met the challenges of the past while anticipating the promise of the future.