Michael Ratcliffe says that among the numerous photographs in his newly released book, “Trenton Firefighters,” he is mostly fascinated by the old images of horse-drawn engines and steamers.
“It’s hard to imagine how (the firemen) did what they did,” says the journalist-turned-professional Lawrenceville fireman. “The firefighters of the 19th and early 20th century were supermen. They did incredible things with limited resources. It’s a romantic image — steam and horses running, and the risks they took and fires they fought. It must have been something to see.”
Ratcliffe says the work on the book goes back some 20 years when he was a Times of Trenton city desk reporter covering crimes and fires and developed a collegial relationship with the Trenton Fire Department.
According to Ratcliffe, the city’s fire department was participating in a celebratory parade at the start of the millennium, and then-fire chief Dennis Keenan asked him to write a history of the department.
Ratcliffe says he agreed and started collecting and preparing information. But when the event was canceled, the Lawrenceville resident says, “All that research got boxed up and sat up in my attic and gathered dust.”
While out of sight, it wasn’t out of mind, and Ratcliffe says Keenan frequently asked about the information and said it should be put to use.
Ratcliffe says that talk turned to action in late 2018 after he accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of the Meredith Havens Fire Museum, located in the Trenton Fire Department’s headquarters building on Perry Street.
“(Keenan) showed me the archive room at the museum, and I was fascinated. It’s a treasure trove of materials, and you never know what you’re going to find. I got myself interested in the history book again,” Ratcliffe says.
Then in early 2019, he says, “I really started getting into it seriously. That involved going through a lot of the archives in the firehouse and my priority was to get (information) scanned. I started visiting the Trentoniana collection in the Trenton Free Public Library and met (archivist) Laura Poll” — who introduced Ratcliffe to the library’s collection of fire department records and historic photographs.
“For almost an entire year I would go there Tuesday nights and Saturdays. It was amazing that I was holding documents detailing the fires they had back then. It was fascinating.
“Then COVID-19 hit. It made researching harder, and I thought that it was time to get the book done. It took 18 months of research and six months editing and production.”
The son of a Metuchen volunteer fire department captain says his interest in firefighting “is something that has been around my entire life. Some of my earliest memories are at the firehouse. I was allowed to explore the engine room and climb on the fire trucks. That was my playground. It was always something in my life. I remember the firehouse picnics.”
He says his interest got stronger when after he graduated St. Joseph’s High School and moved to Lawrence to attend Rider University in 1992, and became a volunteer with the Lawrence Fire Department. “That fire service and history has always been with me,” he says, adding, “I came to Lawrence and never left.”
A communications major on a full scholarship, Ratcliffe says he was also attracted to Rider because of the college’s semester abroad program and went to London to study. He also connected with a fire department in East London that welcomed him and allowed him to participate in fire calls.
When he returned to Rider and was continuing to meet his requirements, he mentioned his London firefighter experience to Rider journalism professor Tom Simonet.
Simonet had a close working connection to the editors of the Times of Trenton and encouraged Ratcliffe to write about that experience and offer it to them.
The result was that the editors were interested in a young writer with firefighting experience who could follow the police scanners.
“They put me on the crime beat and got me to cover fires. I got a great appreciation for the Trenton firefighters and wanted to see more. So when nothing was going on at the paper I would go through the microfilm files and start learning about all the larger-than-life-firefighters.”
He also got an appreciation for the paper’s longtime city editor and columnist Harry Blaze. “He and I were on the night time desk. I got to know Harry really well. He taught me how to improve my writing. He was a great guy.”
Ratcliffe’s tenure spans from the summer of 1994 to January of 2009, when the paper began downsizing and offer staff buyouts. “It was a rough time at the end,” he says. “I freelanced for a while and got a job as an editor at the Lawrenceville Patch and got lucky enough to get a full-time job as a firefighter.”
When he returned to researching the book, Ratcliffe says the digitization of information was a great help, but he still needed to depend on old-fashioned detective work and find multiple sources to “pin down” information.
He says between the time he started gathering information in the late 1990s and 2018, when he got serious about creating the book, research became easier, and a combination of digital technology and old fashioned detective work helped him verify facts — like fire department staff changes — through multiple sources.
“I tried to squeeze in as much information in as I could. Those looking into the firefighting industry will find answers in the book,” he says.
Starting with the fact that firefighting in Trenton started before there was a United States and even a City of Trenton, the book uses mainly photographs grouped into eras to tell the story of Trenton’s firefighters.
“I could have taken a different tack and done something other than a chronological approach. But I wanted to give a comprehensive history as space would allow. I had limitations on how much text to use on a page, but I wanted to provide a comprehensive overview of important events and fill out the background of people involved.”
But at times he says he fell short. “The last couple of pages I wish could have been a lot more detailed in the Role of Honor. Several of the people listed do not appear on the memorial in front of city hall. Some of their names are lost. One person was killed by horse-drawn engine wheels and wasn’t recorded. It was important to me to remember the people that were lost.”
He said it was also important to pay tribute to “the early era of firefighting and guys coming on as paid staff. They were on duty all the time. They would live at the firehouse and go to fires, get beat up putting out fires, go back to the firehouse, and then do it all over. It is a testament to their endurance.”
He also wanted to present the dramatic moments of Trenton firefighting history. If one fire can show the drama of Trenton firefighting it is the 1915 Roebling Factory fire — suspected of being part of a pre-World War I German sabotage effort (after the Roebling Company received a U.S. military-related contract).
“It is said to be the worst fire in Trenton’s history,” says Ratcliffe. “From the descriptions in the newspapers, you could see how these guys were behind the eight-ball. It was a wonder they didn’t lose more of the buildings so close to them. There were many fires at the Roebling plant — fires and Roebling went hand-to-hand.”
Ratcliffe says he approached Arcadia Publishing — the company known for its images of America series — because he seen several of their other books on firefighting and thought it would be a good fit.
While the book is dedicated to his father, he says he says he was thinking of all the “firefighters who gave their lives but are forgotten. These guys rescued a lot of people and saved a lot of lives. Their stories should be told.”
Looking ahead to the potential of another book, Radcliffe says, “There is more than enough material to do another volume on Trenton. There are more than enough stories to tell. And maybe I’ll do something on Metuchen, and there is a thought of doing a similar work with Lawrence Township. I can see myself doing another book. My interest is there, and there is more to find.”
The current book is being sold with proceeds going to the Meredith Havens Fire Museum and the Trentoniana Collection.
“Trenton Firefighting,” by Michael Ratcliffe, 128 pages, $21.95, Arcadia Press.
From ‘Trenton Firefighting’
Volunteer firefighters had been protecting Trenton for more than four decades by the time the city was made New Jersey’s capital in 1790 (actually, it was just a township back then, not becoming a city until 1792). In fact, organized firefighting here is older than the United States, predating by a generation the Revolution and George Washington’s famous Christmas 1776 crossing of the Delaware River to lead the Continental Army to victory in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.
It all started on February 7, 1741, when George Elyh, Obadiah Howell, John Hunt, William Plaskett, and Thomas Tindall gathered in a blacksmith’s shop at Queen (later Greene, now Broad) and Front Streets to discuss forming a fire company for Trenton. That night, it was decided that Howell would obtain buckets, fire hooks, ladders, and other equipment, while Ely and Plaskett would draft a constitution for the proposed organization. They reassembled the following evening and chose “union” as their name, both as a nod to the successful fire company of the same name formed in 1736 by Benjamin Franklin in nearby Philadelphia and in recognition of their stated purpose to “better preserve our own and our fellow citizens’ houses, goods, and estates from fire.”
How often those early Trenton firefighters went to work is unknown, as the earliest records of Union Fire Company have been lost. The oldest documents know to still exist — archived in the Trenton Library’s Trentoniana Collection — include a journal of meeting minutes dating to November 14, 1875, and a copy of the company’s constitution from 1792. But thanks to preserved newspapers, it is known that a major blaze struck Trenton on January 30, 1772. Starting in the home of merchant Dunlap Adams and fanned by a stiff wind that sent embers showering upon neighboring roofs, the fire rapidly spread, and for a time, it was feared the entire town might be consumed. In the end, at least six dwellings and many outbuildings and stables were destroyed.
In the aftermath of that blaze, concerned Trentonians led by Rensselaer Williams met on April 2, 1772, and organized a new fire company. Taking the name Hand-In-Hand, members immediately set out equipping themselves with two leather buckets each and other tools for use in extinguishing small fires and salvaging property from blazes that could not be controlled. The Union, meanwhile, sought to improve on the bucket brigade firefighting method by purchasing its first fire engine in 1772, a small hand-tub model built in Philadelphia that was reportedly operated by just two men. A larger engine, also built in Philadelphia, was later purchased by the Union around 1786.
Another fire company, the Restoration, is said to have been formed sometime after the Union’s organization but prior to the Hand-In-Hand’s. No records exist for Restoration Fire Company itself, but surviving Hand-In-Hand documents show that the Restoration surrendered its engine to the Hand-in-Hand in 1779 on condition the latter repair and maintain the apparatus until such time that the Restoration should reorganize. However, a revival of the Restoration never happened.