It was December 23rd, 1895, just two days till Christmas. The people of the Village of Toms River, Ocean County, New Jersey, were busy preparing for the holiday, each of them not anticipating the chain of events that were about to unfold and change their town forever.
According to a newspaper article published in the December 26th, 1895 edition of the New Jersey Courier, a maid by the name of Kate Kinney, was working in the kitchen of the Main Street home of Captain E.M. Lonan, who was then Superintendent of Ocean County’s Public Instruction. At about 7:30pm an oil lamp “flared up.” Miss Kinney threw a shawl over the lamp in an attempt to smother the flames. The lamp then “exploded,” setting her clothes and the kitchen on fire. Panicking, she ran, her clothes on fire, next door to the home of Dr. I.C. Schureman. Mrs. Smith, the doctor’s house keeper, wrapped a comforter around Miss Kinney to smother the flames.
At the same time, George Applegate and Barzillist Hyers were walking along Main Street, and rushed to the aide of the women, yelling “FIRE” as they ran. The alarm spread fast and soon other townspeople were rushing to the scene. Because of the grave injuries to Miss Kinney and the pain that she was suffering, no one noticed the structure fire until it totally involved the kitchen and began spreading to the main house.
As the townspeople arrived, they knew that a bucket brigade would not be able to extinguish the fire in the Lonan house. Instead their only hope was to keep the fire from spreading. The set about placing ladders against the houses on either side of the Lonan house and began dousing them with buckets of water. Wet bed quilts and carpets were hung on the more exposed parts of each house.
Soon the main part of the Lonan house became well involved and the fire blazed up through the roof. The heat was intense, but this did not stop the firefighters from climbing on the roofs of the exposed houses, with buckets of water, to cool the wood shingles and siding. Wet carpets were held up to shield the firefighters from the heat. Every well and cistern in the neighborhood was used for water. Even a small hand pump, (used to wash carriages), was employed to keep a steady stream of water playing on the gable of the Applegate house, which was on the north side of the Lonan house. A bucket brigade kept a tub of water full, as a man operated the pump by hand.
When store keeper Will Frost heard the fire alarm, he telephoned Frank Standwood in Island Heights. In eight minutes, the Island Heights Fire Company, with their Howe Chemical pumper were on their way. It took the Island Heights Fire Company 40 minutes to pull the fire engine the three and one half miles to Toms River. By this time the Lonan house was burnt to the ground, however, the fire engine was put to work wetting down the ruins and a blazing tree that was endangering the Applegate house.
Thanks to the efforts of all persons involved the houses on either side of the Lonan house had been saved. Miss Kinney, who was taken to the Lane’s residence, was attended to by Drs Schureman and Disbrow. She died the next day, Christmas Eve, at around noon.
That night, in the hopes of organizing a fire company, William Fischer (who was involved in the firefighting effort) wrote down the names of all the men that were very active at the fire. Mr Fischer, who was the editor and owner of the New Jersey Courier, knew that they had been lucky that only the Lonan house was lost. He realized that if a wind had been blowing, they could have lost more, maybe the whole town. He also knew that since the town was chosen as the county seat in 1850, the number of homes and businesses was growing significantly and, because there was no organized firefighting in town, the insurance premiums were climbing. A fire company was a must.
In the early morning hours of December 26th, the townspeople were awaken by a cry of “FIRE.” This time a vacant building on Water Street across from Horner Street was burning. Again the citizens found themselves using buckets and ladders to protect the homes of friends and neighbors against a fierce fire. Soon an adjacent vacant building was involved but the firefighters were able to save the homes of Captain Horner, John Robinson and Elwood Slawter. The townspeople fought on bravely again, but they had enough.
A meeting was set for Friday, January 10th, 1896, at the Cowperthwatt’s Exchange on Main Street. Many of the young men that had fought the two fires attended, along with the older residents of town. Dr Rem L. Disbrow was chosen to run the meeting and William Fischer was chosen to take the minutes. There was considerable discussion as to the best way of fighting fire, but it was finally resolved to organize a fire company. Two committees were formed, one to secure membership and one to draft a constitution and by-laws.
Another meeting was held on Wednesday evening, January 15, 1896 where the constitution and by-laws were read and adopted and a list of “75 of the best men in town” was submitted. An election was held and the following were elected for the year:
President: Dr. Rem L. Disbrow
Vice President: Hon. Adolph Ernst
Treasurer: Thomas B. Irons
Secretary: William H. Fischer
A committee was formed to select 25 active firefighters from the list. The remainder would be contributing members, who would help raise the funds needed to support the company. The secretary was also instructed to look into the laws that were related to starting a fire district.
On Friday, January 17, 1896, a third meeting was held at the Cowperthwait Exchange where the 25 active members were selected along with the firematic officers for the year, as follows:
Chief: E.J. Wirth
Assistant Chief: W.S. Roberts
Foreman: Clark B. Rogers
Assistant Foreman: Robert I. Holman
At the fourth meeting, on Friday, January 24, 1896, it was decided to purchase buckets and ladders for immediate protection and to look into more expensive apparatus at a later date. The membership dues were set at this meeting at 20 cents per month. The following Friday, January 31, the company reported at a meeting that 100 buckets had been ordered and that the Presbyterian church had agreed to the use of the church’s bell as a fire alarm for the time being. A rope was hung on the outside of the church so that the townspeople could ring the bell when there was a fire.
TOMS RIVER FIRE COMPANY # 1