Fighting Fires in the Capital City

Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

City fires were a big deal in my house. In addition to his fulltime job on the railroad, my father, Harry W. Peifer, was a volunteer firefighter for the Camp Curtin Fire Company in Harrisburg. He began volunteering long before I was born in 1946, and eventually was awarded a fifty-year pin for his service. One of his favorite stories was about a horse that was used to pull the old fire appara­tus. When the horse grew old, the fire company sold him to a grocer on Cameron Street who had him tied in front of the store. Whenever the fire alarm rang, the horse broke his ties and took off down the street. The City of Harrisburg had a call box system for reporting fires. They were boxes mounted on poles on the street corners. Each box had a handle that one pulled to report a fire. The location registered on a control panel at City Hall and was relayed to the fire stations. Each location had its own code, which the fire station rang in a combination of bells that told the fire fighters where the fire was. We had a list of the codes and their locations posted by our telephone, but my father knew most of them by heart. So, for example, if the station bell rang three­ – pause – one – pause – two – pause, my father would announce the street corner where the alarm had been pulled. When the bell rang, everyone became quiet and counted. If additional help was needed to fight a fire, there were special bells for that purpose. I remember five bells being a general alarm fire, and there were others for second, or third, or fourth alarm fires as well.

When there was a fire at a location for which the Camp Curtin Fire Company had responsibility, my father would sprint out the door, often with neighborhood children running behind him, up to the corner where the fire engine, with sirens blaring, would slow down just enough for him to jump onto the back of the truck. This went on day and night and in all kinds of weather. There was a ten-cent fine if a fire fighter missed a night fire. I remember nights with a house full of fire fighters, all smelling of smoke and covered in soot.

My mother would make coffee and prepare some­thing for them to eat. They would talk about the fire they had just fought and unwind in the process. We kids would try on their heavy boots and metal hats.

There was always talk about the big fires – the lumber yard on Seventh Street, a factory on Cameron Street, Stitt’s Bakery on Seventh Street, and Hoover’s Furniture on Third Street. There was also talk of injured firefighters and one, I remember, who had lost his life. You could see the pain in my father’s face when he talked about not being able to find the body until the next day and how hard it was to tell the man’s widow and children.

I remember the Camp Curtin Fire Company Station, too. It housed two fire engines and had sleeping quarters upstairs with a pole for the fire fighters to slide down when the bells rang. There was a large bell above the station in a small brick tower. The bright red engines were always sparkling clean, with shiny gold bells mounted on them. Fire hoses were laid out to be carefully folded back into their proper location on the truck. Everything was “spit and polish,” as my father would say.

Gone are the call boxes, displaced by the telephone, and I haven’t seen any fire fighters hopping onto a moving fire engine lately, but I have those memories. I’m very proud of my heritage in the state where volunteer fire fighting had its beginnings.


Susan Peifer Marcus, a resident of Camp Hill, retired as a logistics manager from the former Navy Ships Parts Control Center, Mechanicsburg. Site is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University and currently works part-time for TEAM Financial Systems in Harrisburg. She is also a volunteer reader at the Harrisburg Radio Reading Service, Tri County Association for the Blind, Harrisburg. Her hobbies include genealogical research and reading.