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June 24, 2014 > History Column: Centerville Fire Department

History Column: Centerville Fire Department

By Philip Holmes

People usually experienced excitement and fun when the circus came to town, but Centerville was nearly burned out when the circus visited in September 1887. Apparently the fire was started by a careless visitor in the John Reiss and Company saloon. Several buildings burned to the ground; the town was saved by the valiant efforts of citizens who tore down a building to stop the fire.

The Centerville Fire Department was organized in 1890 with either Walter Walton or Judge Sandholdt as fire chief. At first they had only one fire hydrant, several buckets and 500 feet of hose. The Sanborn map noted that the Spring Valley water main passed through town affording ample water with two fire plugs.

The first station was built on North Main Street near the Presbyterian Church in 1905 and was moved to 143 South Main Street in 1917. It was a small building just large enough to hold one fire truck and a small meeting room. Frank Madruga recalled that the first fire truck was painted black, pulled by two horses.

The 1906 earthquake damaged the town of Centerville, but the fire that followed was even worse. It threatened to burn down the entire town. People were so alarmed they carried some of their belongings into the street and waited in fear. The fire destroyed the Gregory and Coney barns, SouzaÕs warehouse, and several other buildings, but the fire department controlled the blaze and saved most of the town. Residents had just a glimpse of what it was like across the Bay, in San Francisco.

A fire broke out in the bakery of A. Bartoletti in April 1915, swept through the business houses, and threatened the entire village. Flames roared skyward and were visible for miles around. Scores of residents joined Centerville and Newark firemen fighting the fire. Flying sparks set houses and stores in adjacent blocks on fire. A large plate glass window across the street from the bakery was broken by the intense heat from the blazing mass of wooden buildings.

Fire fighters saved the town and the nearby Centerville Bank building, but one of the main business blocks was lost. The destroyed property included LernhartÕs Drug Store, The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, HansonÕs Saloon with lodge rooms on the second floor, George CoitÕs plumbing shop, and the courtroom of Justice of the Peace John G. Mattos.

The Monday after the fire, the Bank of Centerville sent a check for $20.00 to the Centerville Fire Department with a letter expressing appreciation for the good work of the firemen that saved the bank building. Citizens expressed their appreciation to the Centerville and Newark firemen for saving the town.

The department purchased a chemical outfit on an Alco truck about 1920. A Mack truck with high pressure equipment was secured about 1927, and another piece of equipment was added 10 years later.

Fire was discovered in the Centerville Courtroom about 2:30 a.m. August 7, 1931. Firemen and volunteers responded quickly to the alarm and soon had the fire under control, but everything in the courtroom was destroyed. Fixtures, benches, desks, files, and law books belonging to Judge Allen Norris were lost. The fire burned through the back corner of the building and destroyed several tools in CoitÕs Hardware Store.

Fire Chief Fred Rogers helped put out a fire in an automobile on Thornton Avenue in 1947. After the fire was out, the Chief found 52 undersize, out-of-season clams in the car. Since he was also the game warden, he arrested the man and cited him to appear in court. The problem was that Rogers had to keep the clams alive by feeding them corn meal and salt until Judge Allen G. Norris fined the man $50 in court. Then the clams were returned to the bay.

Jack De Luce and Manuel Abreu circulated petitions in 1948 to enlarge the Fire District to the boundaries of adjacent districts. Pending construction was postponed to purchase a new, fully equipped fire truck.

The old station was moved back on the lot in 1954 to make way for a new, $53,000 two-story, four-truck building that was finally dedicated in March 1955. Chief Frank Madruga estimated that 600 residents came to admire the brick and concrete station house with its meeting hall modern kitchen, tiled shower room, and a spacious bedroom for future paid firemen. The foyer of the Center Theater, across the street, displayed the word ÒCongratulationsÓ. The station housed a two-year-old 750 gallon pumper and a 1937 model 500 gallon pumper; and still had room for two more trucks.

David Souza, John Taylor, and George Azevedo began duty as the first full-time paid firemen July 1, 1955. Fred Rogers was Fire Chief for some 30 years and Frank Madruga, assistant chief for about as long. George Mathiesen was Second Assistant for 25 years.

The Centerville station became the headquarters for the City of Fremont upon incorporation in 1956, and Frank Madruga was sworn in as the first fire chief. Centerville volunteers continued to serve the City of Fremont for several years and helped fight the big fire in the F. E. Booth Company cannery in 1959. In spite of the 11,000,000 gallons of water used in two days, the cannery was destroyed. This was the largest business in Centerville and a great loss to the area and employees.

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