Life of pioneer firefighter presented Sunday at Fort Walla Walla Museum

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WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla’s first firefighter Robert J. Wolfe will be portrayed by Chris Worden at the 2 p.m. Sunday Living History event in the pioneer settlement at Fort Walla Walla Museum, 755 Myra Road. Worden is a current-day firefighter with the Walla Walla Fire Department.

Wolfe will discuss what it was like to fight fires in Walla Walla in the late 1880s and early 1900s.

After moving here in 1883, Wolfe became the first paid firefighter for the city in 1888 when he was hired as a fire truck driver. He later became assistant chief.

Pioneer communities, most often constructed of wood and not subject to zoning restrictions or fire prevention regulations, were subject to frequent fires.

Walla Walla suffered several major conflagrations along its path to the modern era. Among the earliest blazes were those that took down old Fort Walla Walla, the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post on the Columbia River near Wallula Gap, several times. Fires destroyed much of Walla Walla’s downtown area on March 7, 1887, and again on Jan. 26, 1912. St. Mary’s Hospital was destroyed on Jan. 27, 1915.

Before that time, volunteer fire companies, with names like Our Boys Hose Company No. 3 and Tiger Engine Company No. 1, handled the chores and did so competitively. In some communities, the company that reached the fire first was entitled to salvage rights.

A participant in fighting many of the fires, 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 the Odd Fellows section of Mountain View Cemetery. A replica of that statue has been placed in Crawford Park at Fourth Avenue and Main Street, the site of another disastrous fire in which two city firemen perished on Jan. 1, 1974.

Another statue erected in the city cemetery by Josephine “Dutch Jo” Wolf is often thought to have depicted him. Dutch Jo, Walla Walla’s well-known 19th century bordello operator and benefactor of firefighters, was no relation to Wolfe.

Museum visitors can see Walla Walla’s last horse-drawn fire engine, an American-LaFrance Company “Metropolitan” more than a century old, in Exhibit Hall 5.

Fire Station No. 1 was adjacent to City Hall, where the current Farmers’ Market parking lot is.

Visitors are encouraged to question the Living History re-enactors about their lives and times.

The Museum is open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through October. There are admission fees.For more information, call Fort 509-525-7703 or email: info@fortwallawallamuseum.org.

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