First professional firefighter portrayed at Fort Walla Walla Museum


Fort Walla Walla Museum's Living History Company tells the story of the community's first professional firefighter, Robert J. Wolfe, at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Museum Exhibit Hall, 755 Myra Road.

City of Walla Walla Fire Department's Jason Strange and Jeff Harwood tell Wolfe's story. The performance is a kick-off to National Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 9-15.

Pioneer communities were often built of wood without construction standards or zoning restrictions. Some earliest blazes in the area were those that took down old Fort Walla Walla, the Hudson's Bay Company Trading Post on the Columbia River near Wallula Gap, much of the downtown area on March 7, 1887, and again on Jan. 26, 1912. St. Mary's Hospital burned Jan. 27, 1915.

After arriving in 1883, Wolfe became the first paid firefighter for the city of Walla Walla in 1888 when he was hired as a fire engine driver. He later became assistant chief. Prior to that time, volunteer fire companies, with names like "Our Boys Hose Company No. 3" and "Tiger Engine Company No. 1," handled fires competitively. In some communities, the company that reached the fire first was entitled to salvage rights; in Walla Walla, the first to "show" water at a fire earned the coveted foxtail, kept at the victors' station until the next blaze as a symbol of their prowess.

Wolfe died in the large 1912 downtown fire. Two years later, a statue in his honor was erected on the site but later relocated near his grave in Mountain View Cemetery. A replica of that statue stands in Crawford Park at Fourth Avenue and Main Street, the site of another fire in which two city firefighters perished on Jan. 1, 1974. Another statue erected in the city cemetery by Josephine "Dutch Jo" Wolf is often thought to have depicted Wolfe. Dutch Jo, Walla Walla's well-known 19th century gentlemen's club madame and benefactor of firefighters, was no relation to Wolfe.

Walla Walla's last horse-drawn fire engine, an American-LaFrance Company "Metropolitan" more than a century old, is in Exhibit Hall 5. The horses were trained to move into place in front of the engine so that harnesses stored above them could be dropped into place. The fire engine is housed behind the original doors of the city's old Rose Street Fire Station. The doors were spring-loaded for a quick getaway, though men were required to close them after the fire crew's return from action. Fire Station No. 1 was located adjacent to City Hall, where the Farmers' Market parking lot area is now. The exhibit, along with brass poles from Fire Station No. 1 is in Exhibit Hall 5.

Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, April through October and 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Nov. 1 through Dec. 23. The Museum is open weekdays 10 a.m.-4 p.m., January through March. Admission is free to members and children under 6, $3 for children ages 6-12, $6 for seniors 62 and older and students, and $7 general admission.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment

Click here to sign in