Ind. police, fire museum closed due to building problems

The deteriorating condition of the former fire station housing the Terre Haute Police and Fire Museum has caused a closure of the historic building


Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.

TERRA HAUTE, Ind. — The deteriorating condition of the former fire station housing the Terre Haute Police and Fire Museum has caused a closure of the historic building and the upcoming move of its collection into storage.

Located at the corner of South Eighth and Idaho streets, the 1905 building is like a time capsule containing decades of old uniforms, hats, firefighting equipment, trophies and awards, plus antique vehicles and horse tack from the days when horses pulled equipment to fire scenes.

Located at the corner of South Eighth and Idaho streets, the 1905 building is like a time capsule containing decades of old uniforms, hats, firefighting equipment, trophies and awards, plus antique vehicles and horse tack from the days when horses pulled equipment to fire scenes.
Located at the corner of South Eighth and Idaho streets, the 1905 building is like a time capsule containing decades of old uniforms, hats, firefighting equipment, trophies and awards, plus antique vehicles and horse tack from the days when horses pulled equipment to fire scenes. (Photo/Terra Haute Fire and Police Museum)

One room contains a huge bank of communication equipment — switches and bells and wires — that connected the city with a telegraph system that sent alarms to the fire houses.

"I don't even know how all of this works," said retired firefighter Dave McCarty as he demonstrated how messages arrived on ticker tapes via the elaborate system.

A sign for the telegraph fire alarm system says it was installed in 1923, costing $100,000. It served the city until 1984 and used 100 miles of wire running to fire alarm boxes stationed around the city.

McCarty retired after 34 years with the department, and he is now the caretaker of the museum and its assortment of memorabilia, which also included photos, badges and uniforms from the city police department.

Previous curator Tom Champion passed away in 2018.

During a walk-through of the museum, McCarty pointed out how the front exterior wall of the building is collapsing inward. It is a costly project to remove the brick front, reinforce the structure and rebuild it while repairing the roof and adding climate control — for a start.

The building and its contents are owned by the city's Board of Public Works and Safety. The fire department maintains the grounds, including the Police and Firefighter Memorial outside on the triangle shaped property.

Mayor Duke Bennett and other city leaders are considering options for the museum.

"We will work hard to determine if we can keep the current building or need a new location," Bennett said. "We will continue to have a fire and police museum in our community and hope to reopen it as soon as possible."

Perhaps the star of the collection is a 1910 Oldsmobile fire engine, the first motorized fire apparatus for firefighting in the state.

Manufactured in Terre Haute by the O'Brien and O'Connell company, it was used by Hose and Chemical Company No. 5, labeled as Engine 4, a four-cylinder, 40-horse power truck. The vehicle was restored in 1971 by Tom Champion, but today needs more work for it to become operational.

Nearby sits a dray wagon, a delivery vehicle used from 1840 to 1870 to haul water to fire scenes via a large wooden barrel. A horse-drawn ambulance sits nearby.

The north wall contains a display of horse harnesses and leather tack used for "Colonel", "Mack" and "Dude" who knew to step up from their stalls when they heard alarm bells and to walk into the quick-hitch harness system that was suspended from the ceiling.

Tucked under the wooden stairway leading to the second level is a display case containing a wooden water line from the 1840s. The system is where the term "fire plug" originated in reference to hydrants, McCarty explained.

Firefighters would use a hand auger to drill down into the wooden water line to access the water for hoses. When finished, a tall wooden plug was driven into the water line, but it could be used again later if another fire occurred nearby.

Photos cover many interior walls in the museum. Many images show previous fire stations and equipment. McCarty said he has already taken down many of the photos — some of which are from the late 1800s and were simply pinned to the wall with thumbtacks.

More than 2,500 photos have been removed and sent off to be digitized with the originals to be preserved, he said.

Inside glass display cases, uniforms show signs of mildew due to the varying temperature inside the building.

McCarty said he and some firefighters removed two 30-yard dumpsters of trash and debris from the building a few months ago.

"We have the new recruit classes come and do a lot of the work," he said of the cleaning.

The second floor has a room containing the old iron beds where firefighters stayed during their shifts.

Old uniforms still hang in some of the closets.

A machine shop in a rear room — the former hay loft for the horses — allowed firefighters to maintain and repair equipment.

A tall shaft was where firefighters hung hoses to dry out after use. Another room contains a large chalkboard on which each station made notes about firefighters on shift, road closings, new firefighters, and special messages. Called simply "the board", it is a snapshot of a day in the fire station.

Arrangements are being made to store the large equipment off-site when the building is emptied, McCarty said. The police department's portion of the collection has been boxed up and removed.

McCarty recently sent hundreds of police-related photos and items to the current police station. Some of the early photos will be reproduced to be hung in the new police station, the former Tribune-Star building at 222 S. Seventh St, now being revamped for the police department.

McCarty said a local historian has reviewed the museum's collection, and she made some recommendations for care and display of items.

For the near future, options are being considered of whether to restore the building or find another home for the museum's collections.

Anyone who wants to make a donation to the restoration effort should contact the Mayor's Office or can make donations to the Terre Haute Firefighters Union Local 758, which keeps some funds for the museum.

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(c)2021 The Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Ind.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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