Firehouse Comfort Station | Former Fire Station No. 2.
In a windswept town made of wood-framed buildings jam-packed together, fire is a dreadful and relentless enemy. That’s why you don’t have to walk far to see more than one fire house. It was for good reason that they seemed to be everywhere along Commercial Street: No. 117, No. 189, No. 254, No. 351, and No. 514. Volunteer companies were summoned to their houses by an alarm sounded at Town Hall. Two blasts were a call for Pumper Company No. 2, whose quarters were here. Its days as a firehouse ended in 1993 with the opening of the new central fire station and departmental headquarters at 25 Shank Painter Road. Then, a mere 17 years later, the building returned to public service.
Eureka! has been the most fitting phrase since 2010 for 189 Commercial Street, the public restroom situated at the foot of the Fourth Town Landing, strategically in the heart of the “Yingdom” — a cluster of popular restaurants and bars owned by the Yingling family. But Excelsior! was the original watchword at this structure, built in 1869 by the fledgling Provincetown Fire Department to house Hose Company No. 4, also known as “Excelsior.” (Other named companies in town included Franklin, 117 Commercial Street; Mazeppa; Ulysses; and Tiger.) Over time, a variety of crews and apparatus occupied the Excelsior house, including Chemical Company No. 4, Pumper Company No. 1, and Engine Company No. 2.
The Provincetown Fire Department, a volunteer force, was formally established in May 1859, though the Town already owned at least two fire engines (or pumpers), one fire truck (the hook and ladder), and 40 leather buckets for the hand brigade. A decade after the department was founded, four nearly identical one-bay, two-and-a-half-story firehouses were built across town, at 117 Commercial Street; here at No. 189; 4 Johnson Street and 514 Commercial Street, both of which are still in use.
Members of Chemical Company 4 and Hose Company 4 at 189 Commercial Street in 1927. From left: Manuel Steele, John Raymond, Capt. Raul Motta, Stephen Roderick, Jimmy Rich, and Ernest DeSilva. The photo, provided by Charlotte Motta, was published in the Advocate on 21 August 1969. From the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 1, Page 117, in the Dowd Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1193.
This firehouse was home to the No. 4 pumper, called the Excelsior. Manufactured in 1850 at the works of the highly regarded Hunneman & Company in Boston, the Excelsior was a “hand tub.” Within a large cast-iron tub, set on a carriage, was a reciprocating-action pump. Firemen stood on opposite ends of the tub and, using broad cross-bars, pumped water in a seesaw manner; up and down, up and down. The pumper sent the water streaming out through rubber-lined cotton hoses. As many as 20 men were required to work the enormous and cumbersome pump. A company had to have a large complement. Excelsior was composed of 78 men in the early 1870s, 50 of whom were paid and 28 of whom volunteered. The company foremen included Marshall L. Adams and George H. Holmes in the ’70s and ’80s, Michael Bradshaw in the ’80s, and Stephen A. Childs in the ’90s.
Exhausted firefighters everywhere welcomed the arrival of “chemical engines” in the latter half of the 19th century. Unlike pumpers, which required either hand power or steam power to work, chemical engines functioned like enormous fire extinguishers. The needed pressure was provided by a powerful chemical reaction that began when a container of sulfuric acid was released into a copper tank full of water in solution with sodium bicarbonate — a/k/a baking soda. Chemical engines were of limited use in a prolonged fight, but could be counted on to work the moment they arrived on the scene. And first moments are critical in battling fire.
Redesignated Pumper 1, 189 Commercial was the backdrop for a group portrait on 9 October 1949. Manuel Steele (pictured above in 1927) at far left, standing, followed by Oscar Snow, Joseph Perry, Ralph Snow, Eugene Watson, and Peter Leonard. Kneeling, from left, were Manny Morris, Lieut. Frank Prada, Capt. Edward A. Noones, and John Raymond, another veteran from 1927. Fire Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1763.
Provincetown’s chemical engine, with two 35-gallon tanks, was purchased in 1889 from the Fire Extinguisher Manufacturing Company of Chicago. The list price was $1,900, or about $55,000 in today’s money. But after allowances and contributions, the Town paid only $1,375, or about $40,000. The chemical engine was put into service from this house in October 1889, along with the hand tub. I imagine the two engines being used for a one-two punch: the chemical spray launched immediately on arrival while the men worked the hand tub to build up the pressure needed for the longer fight ahead.
The hand tub was at last retired in 1899 and sent to Smith Mills. This may well be the apparatus referred to in a history of the Paskamansett Engine Company as the first to serve that village.
In its last three decades at 189 Commercial Street, Engine Company No. 2 used this 1962 Chevy/Maxim 750/500 pumper. The photograph is from Britton W. Crosby’s Provincetown Fire Department history on CapeCodFD.com.
Firehouses also served as social centers. The Advocate in March 1880 described an evening’s gathering of firefighters and their guests at the Excelsior company headquarters as “one of the pleasantest of its kind this season.” After Foreman Holmes welcomed the crowd, clam chowder was served in the apparatus hall, toasts were exchanged, readings were given, and songs were performed to a piano accompaniment. That was followed by dancing downstairs (after the apparatus was cleared out) and games upstairs, with more music.
As late as the 1920s, a hose cart stationed at this house was pulled to fire scenes by citizen volunteers. The company in the late 1920s included Capt. Raul Motta, Ernest DeSilva, John Raymond, Jimmy Rich, Steven Roderick, and Manuel Steele (1890-1965). At some point, perhaps in the 1940s, these quarters became Pumper House No. 1. Reference was made in a couple of Advocate articles to company No. 1 “at the foot of Court Street.”¹
Left: Photo taken in 1977 by Josephine Del Deo for the Massachusetts Historical Commission survey of historical properties. Right: 189 Commercial was raised off its foundation as part of the renovation in the early 21st century. Photo from the Provincetown Annual Town Report of 2001.
For that reason, I believe the group portrait of the Pumper 1 company in the Provincetown History Preservation Project (Page 1763) shows the men in front of this house; not 117 Commercial Street. At the muster for the 1949 portrait were Capt. Edward A. Noones (1904-1984), Lieut. Frank R. Prada (1900-1955), Peter Leonard, Manny Morris, Joseph Perry, John Raymond (again), Oscar Snow, Ralph Snow, Manuel Steele (again), and Eugene Watson. Noones, a garage manager, went on to serve as a deputy fire chief and member of the Board of Engineers. Prada, a mechanic at the Cape Cod Garage and consultant to the Water Department, succeeded Noones as captain.
The end was already on the horizon when the group portrait was taken. A year earlier, Chief Joseph E. Matta of the Fire Department said that the Pumper 1 house was beginning to lean over as its foundations gave way, that its roof was leaking, that its chimney and doors needed repairs, and that the old stove in the upstairs quarters — a fire hazard itself — ought to be replaced with a radiator.
Details of the old firehouse taken in 2009 by David W. Dunlap.
In a fit of common sense in 1957, the Board of Fire Engineers determined that the number on a firehouse ought to correspond with that of the district it served, which in turn corresponded to the number of times a fire siren was sounded. Because the firehouse at 189 Commercial Street served District No. 2, from Franklin to Court Streets, it was accordingly renumbered.²
Now known as Engine No. 2, the company took delivery in 1962 of a Chevy/Maxim 750/500 pumper made by the Maxim Motor Company of Middleborough, which specialized in fire apparatus, on the chassis of a G.M.C. truck. The engine had a 500-gallon water tank and could pump 750 gallons of water a minute. This replaced a 32-year-old American LaFrance pumper, according to Britton W. Crosby’s detailed and authoritative Provincetown Fire Department history on CapeCodFD.com.
Photos taken before and during the final phase of the restoration project, in 2008 and 2010, by Dunlap.
Voters at Town Meeting in 1988 authorized the development of a new Fire Department headquarters and fire station on Shank Painter Road, and further authorized the department to rid itself of Fire Station No. 1, Fire Station No. 2, and Fire Station No. 3, at 254 Commercial Street — by declaring them surplus and surrendering them to the Town for disposition. Five years later, as it prepared to leave this house, the company was composed of Capt. Elias J. Martinez, Lieut. George Felton, Steward Alan Felton (tended the apparatus and made sure all equipment was in good repair and ready for use), Che Carreiro, William J. Hobby Jr., Lawrence Flores, Brian Lisbon, Arthur Martinez, Thomas Roda, James Roderick, Paul Roderick, Bernard Santos, Carl Sawyer, and Glenn White.
After they departed, Provincetown faced (or, rather, avoided) the vexing question of what to do with Fire Station No. 2. Broadly speaking, there were three choices, each of which had advocates. The first choice was to demolish the structure, or to remove and rebuild it elsewhere, thereby opening the narrow 15-foot neck of the Fourth Town Landing to a full 40 feet and permitting creation of a small waterside park. This was the recommendation of the 1997 Harbor Plan for the Town of Provincetown and was championed at Town Meeting by Francis “Flyer” Santos (1914-2015) and Paul Trainor, the owner of 188 Commercial Street, across the way. Another choice was to sell the firehouse to a private owner, as had been done with Fire Station No. 1 at 117 Commercial Street.
At first, it seemed as if the least likely choice would be to preserve the structure in place and undertake an adaptive reuse. But that is what Town Meeting settled on in 2000, when voters approved a plan to convert 189 Commercial Street into a public restroom and a small visitors’ information center, with storage upstairs for official Town use, on a motion by Barbara Rushmore and others.
The $238,000 project ran into trouble almost immediately. The pronounced eastward lean of the firehouse — pointed out by Chief Matta in 1948 — was attributed at first to simple flexing of the balloon framing of the building. But once the structure was elevated, it turned out that the fault was a deteriorating foundation. Further inspection in 2006 revealed even more problems with the structure, prompting at least one member of the Select board to renew the idea of a sale.³
The upstairs quarters were used for a time as storage for Building Department records. 2019, Dunlap.
Though plagued by delays and budget overruns — requiring, among other things, elimination of the visitors’ center — the Firehouse Comfort Station opened to the public in 2010, at a cost of about $363,000, according to the Banner.⁴ A roll of toilet paper substituted for a satin ribbon at the modest opening ceremony. It was torn apart by Sandra M. “Sandy” (Adams) Turner (1953-2012), a Vietnam veteran who had charge of the project as the deputy director of the Department of Public Works. “I’m so happy,” she said. Understandably.
In recent years, the Building Department has used the upstairs space for storage.
For the attendant. 2019, Dunlap.
¶ Last updated on 5 July 2021.
189 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
• Edward Augustus Noones (1904-1984)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 162733748.
• Frank Raymond Prada (1900-1955)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 162572987.
• Sandra M. “Sandy” (Adams) Turner (1953-2012)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 88299486.
¹ “No Arrests Yet in Vandal Case,” the Provincetown Advocate, 14 November 1946, Page 1; “Fire Chief Tells Department Needs at Meeting of Civic Association,” the Provincetown Advocate, 14 October 1948, Page 1; “Roomer Escapes Death in Flames of Saturday Fire,” the Provincetown Advocate, 1 April 1954, Page 1.
² “Firemen to Match Up Houses,” the Provincetown Advocate, 14 February 1957, Page 1.
³ “Firehouse No. 2 Needs New Foundation,” by Mary Ann Bragg, the Provincetown Banner, 3 January 2002; “Selectmen Mull Over Fate of Court Street Firehouse,” by Mary Ann Bragg, the Provincetown Banner, 8 June 2006.
⁴ “Finally Flushing in Provincetown,” by Pru Sowers, the Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 7 June 2010.