Historic Building of the Month: Engine 50

One of the most beloved buildings in all of Charlestown is the Engine 50 firehouse on Winthrop Street. The current building was opened in 1918, but a firehouse has operated on this site since 1853 making it the longest serving firehouse site in Boston. The land was purchased from John Soley in 1852 for $3402. The cost of construction of the firehouse was $7240 and the builder was Issac Cushing. At that time the usage was mixed with half of the building used for a ladder truck and half for the local militia. One source states that the initial orientation was facing Soley Street and that the current parking lot was used as a stable yard. The 1853 building was quite different from the current iteration. The 1853 building was a red brick four story structure, with four bays on the second and third floors, and a fourth floor under a dormered pitched roof. The first floor had a center entry door with two flanking garage doors.

Although some of the historical accounts suggest that the original building was renovated in 1918, it is probable that the current building was largely rebuilt, as the upper floors look nothing like the 1853 building. The current 1918 building is a wonderful Georgian Revival fire station made of red brick with handsome stone detailing. It is a three story symmetrical building, again with two garage doors flanking the center entrance. The floor above the garage bays features three cast stone pedimented floor to ceiling windows enframed by Doric pilasters. The windows open onto small wrought iron balconies. The third floor features five windows with stone detailing, surmounted by a metal cornice and a parapet.

The 1875 Beers Atlas of Charlestown shows the 1853 firehouse as Washington Hose No. 3. Historically, prior to firehouses, Fire Societies were organized to protect towns from the devastation of fire. Charlestown’s oldest, the Ancient, was founded in 1743.  Members of each society were limited to 25 men. Each member, effectively a volunteer firefighter, was required to keep two leather buckets, two bags, and something called a bed-key, a metal tool that allowed the men to disassemble the wooden frame of a bed in order to easily remove it from the dwelling. Beds were quite valuable possessions at that time. The members were expected to use their best efforts to save lives and property. Following the Revolution three more societies we organized:  the Phoenix (1795), the Washington (1800) and the Jefferson  (1810). The Washington Fire Society was most likely a precursor to the aforementioned Washington Hose No. 3 on Winthrop Street, now Engine 50.

Note that early 20th century Charlestown’s firefighting equipment would have been horse drawn. Charlestown became part of Boston in 1874. In 1910 the Boston Fire Department purchased the first motorized firefighting apparatus. Until 1923 both steam and motorized engines were in use as well as the remaining horse drawn engines. The last fire horses in Boston were retired in 1925.

Many decades later, in 1981, the City of Boston was undergoing financial struggles that forced the BFD to propose the closing of a number of fire houses including Engine 50. This decision was not warmly received by the residents. Neighbors held rallies and sit-ins for months, even handcuffing themselves to the fire truck. The residents prevailed and Engine 50 reopened in May of that year.

In 2017, much needed renovations commenced on the aging firehouse. Not only was the building antiquated, with soot covering the walls of the first floor, but the building was environmentally unsafe. Exhaust from the firetruck would float into the first floor kitchen and gear was covered with years of toxic residue. Following a two and a half year renovation that cost $3.8 million, the building is now pristine and has been reconfigured to make it much safer, including new ventilation systems, improved bunkrooms, an updated workout area and a kitchen and living area on the top floor. The design utilizes a three zone plan, the first Firehouse in Boston to do so, with the top floor living areas providing the cleanest air. Fortunately the original wood floors and the traditional fire pole were kept. The newly renovated firehouse reopened in late 2019.

Following the saving of the firehouse by the local community, Engine 50 has often been referred to as The People’s Firehouse. Engine 50 has always had a strong relationship with the community. Firefighters often sit out front and chat with passersby as well as tourists. It’s also well known to its four legged neighbors as a great place for doggie treats. In my family, my son and I paid frequent visits to Engine 50 for years, and were always greeted warmly by the firefighters. Engine 50 serves Charlestown, the North End, North Station and Beacon Hill, and responds to approximately 1500 incidents per year. We are all very lucky to have Engine 50 and its firefighters in our midst.

Sources:  Boston Landmarks Commission/MACRIS, Boston Fire Historical Society, Images of America by Anthony                                                     

Mitchell Sammarco, A Century of Town Life by James Hunnewell, Wikipedia,

Boston Globe, CountryBed.com, Digital Commonwealth

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