Last bell to sound for old No. 7

Jacques Kelly

December 12, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The last bell for Baltimore's oldest active firehouse tolls Saturday at 7 a.m.

Engine Company No. 7, housed in a pie-shaped building four blocks north of Lexington Market at Druid Hill Avenue and Eutaw Street, is a firefighting organization nearly as old as the city government. Its closing, along with four others, reflects the city's money crisis.

This is one of those energetic city firehouses whose firefighters never rest. The wall alarm gong summons crews to electrical fires in Amtrak locomotives and Jasper Street mattresses. Then, 20 minutes later, it's a false alarm run to a public housing high-rise on Myrtle Avenue.

There isn't a day when somebody doesn't leave a stewpot on the back burner -- for five hours. Or the truck responds to a drug overdose. The company made more than 2,200 calls last year.

"We act as plumbers, housing inspectors, hazardous material handlers, counselors, carpenters, medical technicians, electricians and firemen," said Lt. Russell Colt Carter, at the firehouse one night this week.

Engine 7 is the last of the old-fashioned single-pumper houses left downtown. And they don't come any more physically perfect than this: neat bunk rooms, brass poles for rapid exits, the vigilant sentinel gong, a pressed-tin ceiling, navy blue window shades, and a cast-iron circular staircase and columns.

There's even a hayloft for the muscular horses that once pulled the steam-fired pumper.

This fire museum works hard 24 hours a day.

Throughout this week, as word spread of old No. 7's demise, other city fire companies have been requesting such treasures as the brass gong, captain's chairs and oak furnishings. No one, however, requisitioned the house's resident ghost.

There are times when the firefighters nap in cots in the second-floor bunk room. All of a sudden, a door or two will slam for no apparent reason.

The men credit the noise to No. 7's last fallen hero, Lt. J.P. Goonan, an old friend who died 20 years ago in a roof collapse while fighting a small blaze behind the Medical Arts Building. They say Goonan never really left old No. 7.

Its members have fought all the city's cruelest fires. The house suffered its worst loss Sept. 2, 1888, when a Sharp Street explosion killed seven firefighters, three from this unit. Another No. 7 man lost his life when Lexington Street's Beehler umbrella factory burned in 1922. Thousands of yards of burning silk blinded the fellow as he plunged through an air shaft.

The men here say that despite all the calls they get for medical assistance, stalled elevators and broken water pipes, they can sense when there's real fire trouble. Late-hour house fires on very cold nights worry the company.

"You get outside and just smell the wood burning in the air. This is the city. It's not like Baltimore County. There aren't any wood-burning stoves around here," said firefighter Joe Palardy.

It is that acrid smell of old wood in city buildings that tips off the company.

It was on an early fall day in 1980 when Lt. Ernst Banse, who's spent 17 years at No. 7, responded to an alarm at the old Bay College building just across the street. He and his men pulled up to the vacant school, entered it and advanced a hose line down a third-floor corridor. They ran back minutes before the spot exploded in a wall of flame termed a flashover.

"That was a scary fire. There were a lot of near-misses," he said of one of the worst blazes of the decade.

No. 7 has a distinguished ancestor brigade, the New Market Fire Company, a volunteer group organized Jan. 14, 1806, to protect the Lexington Market environs. Revolutionary War figure John Eager Howard donated the Eutaw Street land for the original building, which once had an elegant 40-foot steeple, tower clock and 2,000-pound bronze bell. The company moved four blocks north in 1860 and took its tower along. When the house was rebuilt in 1905, its steeple was not reinstated.

Already some of No. 7's full complement of 19 men have asked to be transferred to a busy nearby house, No. 13 Engine, at McCulloh and McMechen streets. They like the rapid action of this part of Baltimore. They wouldn't think of going to a "retirement" firehouse -- one in a sleepy, semisuburban part of Baltimore.

As for old No. 7, it's being studied for use as a homeless shelter.

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