The time is the late 1800’s, maybe 1880. Chillicothe is a thriving river town with a population of 930 people and is part of Chillicothe Township. At this time, Chillicothe was widely known as an important collection and shipping hub for grain, pork, and other farm products due to its location on the Illinois River. Availability of rail transportation via the main line of tracks, the Rock Island RR, a good road connecting Chillicothe with Rome and Peoria, and most importantly, a ferry that was capable of transporting cargo, wagons, horses, and people across the river to and from Woodford County, was key to the city’s success. The ferry business was so important, that the Chillicothe Ferry and Bridge Company acquired the legal means to establish and run a ferry to build a bridge, to make roads approaching the same on both sides of the river, and purchase or condemn lands for that purpose; these rights to be exclusive for a distance of three miles along the river. It established the ferry and constructed a road across the bottom lands on the easterly side of the river. The ferry operated until the early 1900s when at that time, the city chose not to fund the repair and upkeep.
At this time, Chillicothe had several hotels/boarding houses, grain elevators, and grain milling companies, as well as stores selling dry goods, general merchandise, farm equipment, etc., and taverns. The town had one bank in town, The Truitt Mathews and Company, with assets of $40,000 in capital and a surplus of $30,000. In April, 1873, Chillicothe transitioned from a form of village governance by a board of trustees, to a form of governance of a city council and aldermen, all elected positions. This form of city government allowed the city leaders to pass referendums, set city ordinances, appoint city employees, and in some cases levy fines for ordinance violations. Mr. Henry Hosmer was the first city mayor elected under the new system. In 1876, the first organization for the protection against fire was affected. The company, consisting of ten members, was formed and named the Champion, with G.P. Lester as Fire Marshal. It only existed a few months, and there was no further effort made until the Fall of 1878, when another company, called the Rocket, was organized, with James Kenlock as Captain: G.B Temple, Lieutenant: Wm. Story, Foreman, and twenty members, G.P. Lester being appointed Fire Marshal by the city. During the existence of the Champion company a large, two-cylinder chemical engine was purchased, at a cost of $2,000; but finding it too heavy and unwieldy, it was exchanged for two single-cylinder engines of 100-gallon and 70-gallon capacity. Engines at this time were not motorized but were instead pulled by either teams of horses, or by the men of the fire brigade. While the records show that there were several Fire Marshals identified and appointed by the city, it was not until 1889 that city ordinance #13 was passed by the city council and the position of Fire Marshal was outlined and his duties were detailed by city ordinance.
By 1890, Chillicothe had a well-established business district along what is now known as Second Street, from Walnut St. to Cedar St. The street was unpaved, and the stores and buildings along Second St. were primarily made of wood. There was a City Hall in the same location as the current City Hall, and this structure was made of block, mortar, and cement. Transportation in town was still by horse and buggy. A night watchman and a daytime watchman had been appointed by the city with one of the duties of the night watchman to light the street lights each night at dusk.
In 1890, two significant fires occurred. The first was to consume the public school that was located at the corner of Elm and Fourth, it was two stories high and originally constructed in 1856 and enlarged in 1870. The fire in 1890 destroyed the school and the city built a new school on Sixth St. between Chestnut and Cedar.
The second significant fire occurred on Halloween night, October 31st, when the downtown business district caught on fire and destroyed most of the businesses on Second St. The fire started in Bob Hallock’s livery stable located on the South East corner of Second and Pine. Bill King had just closed his tavern for the night and went to the back door of his tavern to check on the weather before turning in. He opened his back door and saw sparks rising from the livery across the street. Bill ran a block South to the city hall and rang the fire alarm bell. By the time help arrived, the stable was a mass of flames and had spread to a long shed running West to the business house on Second Street. A dozen horses were lost in the stable fire. The fire brigade brought the chemical truck to the scene, but before the firefighters could use the contents on the burning shed and stop the fire before it got to the business district, the owners of some of the nearby buildings secured the nozzle to reserve the contents for use in case their own buildings caught fire. They did not have to wait long to see that their actions doomed most of the downtown business district.
With the high winds, wooden buildings, and the head start of the fire, the flames leaped from the shed to the saloon building of D. Daugherty and the butcher shop of G.O. Fredrich. Throughout the night, the fire jumped from one building to another, both North and South, and eventually crossed Second Street to destroy buildings on the West side of Second Street. Help from Peoria Fire Department was offered. From an article in the Chillicothe Bulletin: “As it became evident that the fire was completely out of control, Alderman Beebe wired Peoria for help. The Peoria mayor dispatched a steamer, hose cart, and a crew to the scene. The Rock Island R.R. placed a box car, flat car, and engine at their disposal, clearing the track for a special run. When the train arrived here it was discovered that no preparations had been made to unload the steamer and considerable time was lost before the steamer could be unloaded and put into action. The steamer ran down Pine Street to the river and a line of hose stretched all the way up to the business district.” Despite the efforts of the Chillicothe Fire Brigade and the Peoria Fire Department, 36 businesses were either completely destroyed or suffered major damage. The fire burned on both sides of Second Street from the middle of the 900 block through the complete 1000 block, stopping at Chestnut Street. Most of the reconstruction after the 1890 fire didn’t start until the Spring of 1891. By 1896, the entire business district had been completely rebuilt using bricks.
As a result of the 1890 fire, the city passed a significant building code ordinance. In September 1892, the city passed Ordinance #19 establishing fire limits in town and establishing the city’s first building code. A boundary was set approximately one block on either side of the second street business district for fire protection, and the ordinance prohibited wood-front buildings in the business district and required brick fronts. In the years following the Halloween fire of 1890, the city continued to grow and prosper, and the fire department continued to exist as a fire brigade acting under the direction of the Fire, Water, and Light Committee. In 1899, the “department” consisted of 28 members, no steamer, no hand engine, no truck, 2 chemical engines, ladders, two hand hose carts, and 1000 feet of 2 1⁄2” hose. There had been installed in town a Peabody electric fire alarm system with 7 pull boxes. Fire alarms were still transmitted to the brigade members and the general public via the bell at city hall.
Through 1900, the fire brigade system was used in town with limited success. The firemen did not receive formal training, and the equipment they used was all manual.