In line with the exciting history of the county, the history of Storey County’s Fire Department is just as colorful and dates back to 1850, when gold was discovered by three Mormons in the ground around Mount Davidson. In 1857, the Grosch Brothers were the first to intelligently mine silver, leading to the mining rush that was soon to follow. In the fall of 1859, Virginia City’s first street was laid out, marking the start of the fastest growing city in the west.

The town was comprised of tents, dugouts, shanties, and various other structures. By 1861, permanent brick structures were prevalent along the main street and wood structure suburbs were expanding outward. Many homes were thrown together with whatever could be found: canvas covered walls, empty whiskey barrels for chimneys, and so on. The threat of fire was great in Virginia City and would soon grow greater.

The Need for Fire Protection

One of the first fires to threaten Virginia City occurred around January 1861. A fire started in a wood cabin on A Street, and with no organized fire brigade, citizens gathered around and threw snow balls at the fire. Needless to say, this course of action produced no results (so the snow balls were soon turned on each other).

This incident, however, served as a wake up call, as the citizens of Virginia City realized the need for an organized fire brigade. The founding fathers of the Fire Department were to be found in this group of people.

Cisterns were built and a bucket brigade was formed. This bucket brigade was soon abandoned, and in February 186,  under the guidance of Thomas Peasly, Virginia Engine Company #1 was formed as the first engine company in Nevada.

At the same time, Peasly helped to form Nevada Hook and Ladder # 1 to work with the engine company. Between the two, they were 65 men strong. Tom Peasly became Virginia City’s first engine foreman. He had come from New York and had knowledge of firefighting.

For Virginia Engine Company’s pumper, they ordered the most powerful one on the west coast. On March 17, 1861, Young America Engine Company #2 was formed, with Jacob Young as their foreman. In the spirit of rivalry, they ordered an even more powerful engine than Virginia # 1. Four more engine companies were formed through 1866, as follows:

  • Eagle Engine Company #3 formed August 12, 1863
  • Washoe Engine Company #4 also formed in August 1863
  • Knickerbocker Engine Company #5 formed in the summer of 1864
  • Confidence Engine Company #6 formed October 19, 1864 (and later changed their name to Monumental # 6 in May of 1866)

Naming the First Engine Companies

The engine companies would sponsor hook and ladder companies as well as many hose companies. All pumpers and wagons were hand drawn. Some names were chosen to reflect a certain character of the company or were used because the name was already painted on the equipment when it was purchased from someone else, such as Knickerbocker and Good Will. Knickerbocker purchased its pumper from Marysville, California, and kept the name.

Good Will purchased its hose wagon from Philadelphia and also used the name already in place. Names like Liberty, Young America, or Eagle were patriotic, while others such as Confidence, Monumental, Invincible, or Neptune reflected dependability, bravery, strength, or other such traits as they wished to convey to others.

Still others were named for places like Virginia, Washoe, Nevada, and Divide, while Yellow Jacket was also the name of a mine that the company served.

The Brave Men of Virginia City

These fire companies were comprised of volunteering men from all walks of life, from miners to mine owners, shop keepers to reporters. No matter what social status a person held, they were all equal when wearing their fire department uniforms and battling the flames that were a constant threat to the town. It was also a completely volunteer organization: men volunteering to place their own lives in danger for the good of the community.

These men answered to their individual foreman who in turn answered to the Virginia Fire Department Chief. This position was an elected one, voted into office by the members of all companies. This Chief was guided by the Board of Alderman, which is similar to our present day Board of Commissioners.

Healthy Competition

Distinguishing marks were in order for all of these companies. Uniforms, helmets shields, colors of apparatus--even company bells--were symbols of pride. Almost all companies had alarm bells of different tones so that when a bell was rung, everyone knew who was on the way to a fire.

One such bell was ordered by Virginia Engine Company #1, the first fire bell in Nevada. It was cast in England and shipped to Virginia City especially for their use. This bell stayed with the Fire Department, moving from building to building, and is still in use to this day for special occasions at the current Fire Station # 1 in Virginia City.

Rivalries were common among the different companies, mostly friendly with contests and competitions at parades. One of the most common competitions was the act of getting First Water. To hear this cry meant that oneengine company was the first to put water on a fire.

The Fourth of July parade was also one of the most anticipated events of the year, when the individual companies would decorate their equipment with all manner of items, including flowers and evergreen boughs, banners and glitter. It was common for many companies to have a young lady dressed as the Goddess of Liberty. Companies engaged in all manner of contests in the name of fun, such as how far a company could get their pumper to shoot a stream of water.

Occasionally, however, these rivalries took a more serious tone, resulting in violent clashes, even riots.

In 1863, a fire broke out in a saloon owned by Pat Lynch at the corner of C and Taylor Streets. A confrontation erupted between two  companies and soon developed into a riot. The clash eventually resulted in a member of Young America Engine Company being shot and killed by an Assistant Chief of the Virginia City Fire Department. This was to be the first of two violent confrontations between these two companies. 

The Fire of 1875

Virginia City was plagued by a number of devastating fires in 1875, but October of 1875 marked the end of company rivalries in Virginia City forever. At about 5:15 in the morning of October 26, a few miners in a boarding house on A Street became a little too rowdy and knocked over a lamp. The resulting fire was fanned by fierce winds known as the Washoe Zephyr and ultimately destroyed fully two-thirds of the city--more than 2,000 structures.

A valiant effort was made by each and every company of the Virginia Fire Department, but it was to no avail. The fire was too quick, too hot, and too big. No sooner would a company get set up when the fire would swiftly pass them by. Water ran out, and explosives from the mines were used to blow up buildings in an effort to stop the flames.

Sadly, this fire also spelled the end of the Virginia Fire Department as it existed. During the firefighting efforts, virtually all of the fire equipment in the city was destroyed, including that of several Gold Hill companies who responded to help. Many fire houses themselves were burned to the ground along with whatever equipment was in them.

Of all of the area fire companies in existence, only Young America #2 and Monumental #6 came out with their equipment intact.

Rebuilding the Fire Department

A new fire department was organized, this time a paid department--the first in Nevada. The equipment from the two surviving companies were combined with the purchase of two new horse drawn hose carts. These were the first horse drawn hose carts in Nevada. In addition, a sleigh was turned into a hose cart due to the vast amounts of snow that could accumulate during the winter.

A new fire house was built on B Street, South of Taylor, and was called the Corporation House. A watch tower was built into this new building and painted maroon. From the watch tower, a watchman could see smoke and sound the alarm getting equipment to the fire sooner. This system stayed in service for about sixty years until Virginia City received its first motorized fire truck in 1934.

The 60-year-old Corporation House was abandoned, and the equipment was moved to an old saloon on C Street. In the 1940s, the old Corporation House was torn down because it was deemed a fire hazard. More equipment was added, and in 1962, it was felt that the old saloon was inadequate. Thus, a new fire station was built on North C Street, where it is still functioning as the Storey County Fire Department, Station # 1.

Today’s Fire Department

In the early to mid 1970s, volunteers built fire stations in the communities of Virginia City Highlands, Six Mile Canyon, and Lagomarsino. These all-volunteer stations were supported by the Nevada Division of Forestry until 2001, when the Storey County Fire Department took over responsibility for all four stations.

All historical equipment is now housed in the Comstock Firemen’s Museum on South C Street. For more information, please call (775) 847-0717.

Written by Tracy Curtis, Captain, Storey County Fire Department, in 1998.
Revised and added to in 2006, 2008.

*Thank you to Steve Frady for his many years of research and work while
authoring Red Shirts and Leather Helmets. Thanks also for his permission in
using his book as a reference while compiling this short history.