On December 27, 1850, King Kamehameha III passed an act in the Privy Council that established the Honolulu Fire Department, the first fire department in the Hawaiian Islands and the only fire department in the US established by a ruling monarch.
In 1870, the tallest structure in Honolulu was the bell tower of Central Fire Station, then-located on Union Street. Spotters would sit in the tower, ready to sound the alarm. Central Fire Station was later relocated to its present site at Beretania and Fort Streets. (HawaiiHistory)
Back in those early days, firefighting equipment was primarily buckets and portable water supplies. As the department grew, several hand-drawn engine companies were added.
But bucket brigades were very labor intensive and very ineffective. Large amount of water would be lost during the passing of these buckets before it could be thrown on the actual fire.
In 1693 the first fire hose (what Dutchmen Jan Van Der Heiden and his son Nicholaas called a “fire hoase”) was a fifty-foot length of leather, sewn together like a bootleg. These inventions allowed firemen a steady stream of water and accurately deliver it directly on the fire.
Leather hose had many disadvantages. It was high maintenance. Leather would dry out and crack. The hose had to be washed, dry and preserved using codfish and whale oil as a preservative.
James Boyd in 1821 received a patent for rubber lined, cotton-webbed fire hose. In 1825 the Mayor of Boston reported that a 100 feet of hose would do the same work as 60 men with buckets and more efficient. In 1827 the Fire Chief of New York City put 30 pumpers in a line to pump water a half mile. (Gilbert)
Hawaiʻi later used the rubber lined, cotton covered hoses. But the hoses’ cotton could rot, so they needed to be dried to prevent mold.
Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, as they built new fire houses, a drying tower was added to the main fire house, so the hoses could be hung up to dry.
More often than not, there drying towers are mischaracterized as observation or spotting towers; their main purpose was to hang and dry the cotton covered hoses.
By 1912, the first motor apparatus was put into service. Then, three old steam engines at stations 1 (Central,) 3 (Makiki) and 4 (Palama) were replaced by motorized 1,000-gallon capacity combination engines and hose wagons during January in 1916. May 1920 saw the last of the horses, a gray and black team called Jack and Jill.
By the 1920s, the accepted style for most public architecture in Honolulu was Spanish Mission Revival or, more broadly, Mediterranean Revival. Five fire stations built on Oʻahu between 1924 and 1932 illustrate this stylistic design, despite being designed by three different architects.
The prototype for all five appears to have been Palama Fire Station (Fire Engine House #4,) designed by Oliver G Traphagen. The construction of the building was begun late in 1901 (it was completed on July 1, 1902,) which makes it the oldest public structure completed in Hawaiʻi during the Territorial Government period.
It was boasted in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser that the new station was equal to the “best of its class in the States.”
The building included all the latest equipment: an electric automatic door opener with slide poles to connect the upper dormitory quarters with the ground floor. The lower floor interior was occupied by stands for the engine, hose wagon and horses, a feed room, lavatories and hose washing tanks.
There was a horse watering trough near the feed room. Fire Engine House #4 had a 75-foot drying tower with tackle and hood racks immediately above the hose washing tanks.
The Honolulu Fire Department (HFD) operates 44 Fire Stations on the Island of Oʻahu, and in and around Honolulu. Seven current or former stations are on the National Register of Historic Places, of which five are still in use today as fire stations.
Although designed by various architects, the seven fire stations are similar in character. All seven fire stations are box-shaped, two-story structures, with engine bays on the ground floor and dormitories upstairs.
All have prominent towers. The towers, which generally rise approximately sixty feet in height, function as a space in which to hang and dry the cotton sheathed rubber hoses. (NPS)