Sunday, November 7, 2010

The forgotten history of fire suppression on Hilton Head Island

Several months ago I did some research on the history of the fire service on Hilton Head Island. What I uncovered was beyond my wildest expectations.

I had known that Hilton Head Island, located between Charleston and Savannah, was an important base of operations for the Union blockade of the Southern ports during the Civil War.

What I didn't know was that a fire department thrived here. The first and oldest reference I found was from the Boston Herald in 1863. As far as I know, it's the oldest known reference to "The Hilton Head Fire Department."


"When this place was captured by the Federals, an old hand fire engine, which looks as if it might have been constructed to the order of Mr. Noah, for the purpose of extinguishing fires on his ark, was found here. Another was brought down from Beaufort, and two from New York. A chief engineer, tour foremen, and twenty-five men were detached from the N. Y. 47th Regiment, and detailed to handle these engines. Arrangements were also made for a big force in case of a fire. The suttlers [sic] are under orders, in case of an alarm, to report to one engine, and other details provided for from the Quartermaster’s and Commissary’s departments and other sources, to man all the other machines. Three are located on “Robber’s Row,” in a building provided for the purpose, and one near the Post Office. Cisterns have been made in convenient proximity to all valuable buildings. It is a singular fact that there has never been a fire here since the occupation of the post, and for the exemption from conflagrations we are probably indebted to martial law."
My next stop was the Coastal Discovery Museum.

With the assistance of the good folks there I discovered a photograph of an actual fire station in an out-of-print book called The Forgotten History, A Photographic Essay On Civil War Hilton Head Island.

The caption reads:
"Fire Engine House. The pump for this firehouse is visible in the foreground. The hoses and water supply were inside the building. The first two fire engines on the Island were purchased from New York by John A. Smith, who was the first chief of the fire brigade. The new engines were side-lever type, piano build and cost $800. A small dock enabled engines to take suction from Mud Creek. Cisterns held extra water reserves."

I found two additional news stories using Google's historical news archive search.

The first is from the New York Times, published June 27, 1864.

Is in the process of organization at Hilton Head. One or two meetings have been held, and the principal officers chosen. The number of members will be limited to about thirty. We have at the Head three fire engines which have, on three or four occasions, performed excellent service. The character and location of the buildings here are such that a fire would do immense damage unless speedily checked.
The last story is also from the New York Times, published February 16, 1865.

I didn't think anything could top the "Noah's Ark" comment from the story in the Boston Herald, but I was wrong!

A Narrow Escape from a Disaster at Hilton Head – Serious Fire

From Our Own Correspondent
Department of the South
Friday, Feb. 16, 1865.

A few mornings since the people at Hilton Head very narrowly escaped a disaster rivaling that which occurred in Savannah two weeks ago. At 3 o’clock A. M., on the 14th instant, the guard on the long pier discovered a bright light in a building situated in front of the Ordnance Yard, and used as an office by Capt. Pratt. The alarm was immediately given, and soon thereafter a large crowd of military and civilians were on the spot. Notwithstanding the efforts of the firemen of two engines, the flames spread through the entire building, and, in a short time, communicated to an adjoining building occupied as an office by Lieut. Arnold, of the Ordnance Department. The fire rapidly increased in intensity, and it absolutely became a matter of personal safety that every man in the vicinity should exert himself to the utmost to prevent the fire igniting the powder and ammunition which was stored in dangerous proximity. Major-Gen. Gilmore, who was on the ground in person, threw off his coat and worked with a will that must have astonished, and, at the same time, mortified a few persons who were disinclined to render active aid. On such an occasion, when the life of every person on Hilton Head was in great peril, it is difficult to conceive how any one able to assist in adverting the impending disastrous calamity could stand by as silent spectators. I believe, however, that with few exceptions, the party present took hold and worked with all their might and main to subdue the flames. At one time, during the progress of the fire, Gen. Gilmore ordered a fellow who was standing by, with his hands in his pockets, to go to work with the others. The fellow, not recognizing the General, refused to obey, whereupon he suddenly found himself knocked heels over head on the sand. A half hour later, the force of active laborers was increased by one. As good luck would have it, only the two buildings mentioned were destroyed. With them were burned nearly all of the private property of Capt. Pratt and Lieut. Arnold, also a considerable amount of Government property, consisting mostly of books and documents. The muster-rolls of the Ordnance Department were consumed. Five thousand dollars in greenbacks, which were placed in a safe in Capt. Peatt’s office, were scorched so as to be useless for payment, but they will doubtless be identified and exchanged at the Treasury Department. Brig.-Gen. M. S. Littlefield very wisely sent out to beyond the intrenchments for a force of three hundred laborers, who arrived at the scene in time to render very valuable service. At 5 o’clock the fire was nearly extinguished, but it was not until some hours later that the people at Hilton Head thoroughly comprehended the imminent danger that hung over them during the night. Had a single spark ever found its way into the mass of powder stored but a few yards from the burning buildings, the result would have been appalling in the extreme. Such an explosion, and such a flight of shot and shell would have ensued, that in all probability, not a house would have been left standing on the Head. I dare not even intimate of the loss of life that would have been involved. How the fire originated is a matter of conjecture. Parties who live near the building in which the flames were first discovered, are of the impression that the cause was a defective flue, while others assert that the fire was the work of rebel incendiarism. It is a fact that quite a number of rebel refugees and deserters are employed in the Quartermaster’s Department, but no evidence has yet been adduced sufficiently strong to make them responsible for what might have been a most terrific event.
Does this mean we can brag that Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue is older than Charleston Fire Department? That would be disingenuous, since the fire department stopped operating after the Civil War. But it's fascinating to know that "Hilton Head Fire Department" was battling blazes on this Island 145 years ago!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mushrooms spotted at the Villas of Summerfield

Here's an interesting specimen that we're attempting to identify.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Pelicans at dusk

Folly Field Beach on Hilton Head

Friday, July 9, 2010

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Birdfeeder Bandit

Recently while visiting family in the Preserve at Indigo Run, we caught a beautiful white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus hiltonensis) feasting on bird seed from a birdfeeder that hangs from shepherds hook approximately 4 feet from the ground. Despite the fact that she could see us through the kitchen window, she was determined to get to the feeder and enjoy an easy meal. Apparently this was not the first time she has done this - however since emptying the feeder the other evening, the deer has not been back to see if any refills have been served!

Video clip of the Birdfeeder Bandit

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sea Turtle Nesting on Hilton Head Island

Great news for the local ecology! See "County sea turtle nests near record levels"

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Manatees in Hilton Head

Although I have never had the privilige of seeing a manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) in Hilton Head waters, these gentle and endangered creatures do make their way into Skull Creek and Broad Creek. They are slow moving and nonthreating which makes them vulnerable to injury from boats and other motorized watercraft. Kayaking is a great way to see wildlife that will not injure manatees or other animals and fish while exploring on the water!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ocean conservation - TED Talks

Injured sea turtle found in May River

The South Carolina Sea Turtle Hospital reported the rescue of an injured Kemp's Ridley sea turtle in the May River in Bluffton, SC. The turtle was apparently struck by a boat causing damage to his carapace. "May" is currently recovering at the Turtle Hospital in Charleston, SC.

Kemp's Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys kempii) are smaller than their Loggerhead cousins and have a wide distribution area, however are most often found in the waters of Gulf of Mexico. Although unfortunate that the turtle was injured, it is interesting that he was found in these waters.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Botany 101

Last weekend we went for a walk along the Folly on the beach and came across an interesting and abundant plant along the edge of the water. Bushy seaside tansy (Borrichia frutescens) is a common sea-coast or salt marsh shrub that grows in the sandy dunes and is tolerant of the “salty soil.” Thanks to Dr Hill with the SC Native Plant Society for helping me identify this plant.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Not exactly Peter Cottontail...

Upon driving home from dinner last evening, we saw a marsh rabbit nibbling on vegetation along the road that backs up into a marshy area off of Jarvis Creek.

The Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) is often forgotten as wildlife associated with the coastal region of the Lowcountry. These native rabbits are smaller and darker than their northern cousins, the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) and have small, rounded ears and lack the characteristic white, fluffy tail. Marsh rabbits are strong swimmers, making their nests along thick marshes and brackish water areas. Unfortunately, the rabbits have many predators and are always on alert for danger.

Be sure to keep an eye out for these adorable, but elusive mammals when traveling around the island.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Harbour Town

I love playing tourist when family visits. I get to look at Hilton Head with a different perspective than that of the routine, day-to-day happenings.

Spending the day and evening in Sea Pines Plantation, we had the opportunity to enjoy the sun setting around the famous red & white striped lighthouse in Harbour Town. It is quite a view and a must see when visiting Hilton Head Island.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dolphin Encounter

While taking a leisurely boat ride on Broad Creek, Hilton Head Island a resident Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphin (Tursiops truncates) swam up to the boat. These incredible creatures are abundant in the coastal waters of Hilton Head and tend to be very friendly; often they are looking for food. It is against the law to feed or harass the dolphins or any other wildlife – although it is very hard not to jump in and “play” with them!

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Not all is perfect and predictable in the world of nature; and often I am reminded of this harsh reality. Missing one foot, this seagull has possibly cheated death. Despite his disability, he has adapted amazingly well. Today, even the predictable scenery was anything but ordinary.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Harbor Seal Spotted On Hilton Head Island

The Island Packet is reporting this morning that a wayward harbor seal was spotted on the heel of Hilton Head Island on March 15, 2010.

This is extremely rare and the first seal spotting I have ever heard of on Hilton Head Island.

The story is accompanied by these captivating photographs.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mitchellville Beach Park, Hilton Head Island, SC

On a relatively warmer day in January we took the opportunity to try my new Cannon EOS Rebel XS/1000D at a local beach park. We were lucky to find various shorebirds enjoying the low tide and managed a few good shots.

A personal favorite of mine are Sanderlings. These small little birds spend their time skittering along the sand and surf searching for food. Their fast movements make them a challenge to photograph but fun to watch!

One of the most graceful appearing birds in the water are Great Egrets. These snow white birds are a frequent site in Hilton Head, wading through marshes.

Looking forward to warmer days on Hilton Head Island and capturing nature in action!