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The Firemen of Spencer Shops

By Xavier Klonowski

Southern Railway opened Spencer Shops in 1896 to perform maintenance on steam locomotives at the halfway point between Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. Built just north of Salisbury, North Carolina, this massive industrial complex would continue to grow for the next 50 years, employing over 3,000 people who helped create the adjacent towns of Spencer and East Spencer.

The Spencer Shops Fire Department reel team poses for a photo, in position for a race, circa 1920s.

Spencer Shops, as with all industrial sites, was not without its dangers. The Shops were in operation 24 hours a day with locomotives and electric generators using coal as their main fuel source, a foundry, blacksmith shop, and many wooden structures that littered the site, so the threat of fire was always present. And with a large site, over 70 acres, Southern Railway decided the best way to combat any potential fires at the new shops were with their fire department. The Spencer Shops Fire Department consisted of three-reel teams of eleven men each, operating 2,000 feet of two and a half inch fire hose. These men, a team of which would be stationed around the clock, were charged with keeping Spencer Shops safe from fire. But with many of the Southern Railway employees living in the adjacent towns, the Spencer Shops Fire Department’s paid firefighters also responded to the calls of the nearby community, lending a hand to the local fire departments, who relied on volunteers and might not be available to fight fires at all hours of the day. This way the Spencer Shops Fire Department kept both the Shops and the community safe so that work could continue uninterrupted day in and day out.

A hose reel used in competition by the Spencer Shops Fire Department team on display at the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

Fire hose reels were common firefighting equipment at the beginning of the 20th century, especially at industrial sites such as Spencer Shops, which were required by law to have them on hand to aid firefighters in case they were needed. The fire hose reels were just that, large reels for storing and distributing fire hoses. They often were built with large wheels and handles to assist firefighters in pulling the reel to where it was needed most, and sometimes were even outfitted to be attached to a horse for longer trips.

A hose reel shed at the North Carolina Transportation Museum was used to store the hose reels when not in use.

The fire hose reels provided not just a way to fight fires but were also a source of recreation. Competitions were common in the early 20th century between teams and featured two events, the hand reel contest, a competition to see who could unravel up to 150 yards of hose, attach a nozzle, and produce water from the end of the hose in the least amount of time, and the grab reel race, a competition to see who could move their equipment the fastest between two points. Spencer Shops first started fielding competitive reel teams in 1899, made up of volunteers of the white workers of the shops. These teams would travel throughout the state and beyond to compete and were even allowed to keep any winnings they won from the competition. But in 1906 the Spencer Shops Fire Department started to field a competitive team made up of professionals. The Spencer Shops Fire Department claimed to be able to produce water anywhere on-site in just 45 seconds, and these competitions were the perfect chance for them to receive accolades for their skill. This new Spencer Shops team quickly set records in both events. They were crowned the North Carolina Champions of the hand reel contest from 1906 until 1920 but would continue to be strong competitors, setting a record low of 17 seconds flat in 1928. They were crowned North Carolina Champions of the grab reel race from 1916 until 1927 and set a record low of 16.4 seconds.

A 1949 Mack Firetruck, which gave the Spencer Fire Department the ability to take on the role as primary firefighters of the Spencer Shops, on display at the
North Carolina Transportation Museum.

Unfortunately, with the cost-saving measures enacted by Southern Railway due to the Great Depression, Spencer Shops was no longer able to field competitive reel teams. The Spencer Shops Fire Department continued to watch over the site, but their days were numbered. The Town of Spencer began purchasing more modern firefighting equipment, including trucks and turn-out gear, giving them better abilities to fight any potential fires at the Shops. The reel teams of the Spencer Shops Fire Department had become obsolete and would become victims of Spencer Shops’ downsizing after the dieselization of Southern Railway. 

The Spencer Shops Fire Department reel team poses for a group photo, circa 1920s.

While the Spencer Shops Fire Department is no longer in service, the North Carolina Transportation Museum, housed in the former Spencer Shops, still has mementos from the Department for viewers to see, including the brick and slate, shed used to store the hose reels when not in use, a hose reel used in competition, as well as an early Mack fire truck used by the Spencer Fire Department.

 All photos are courtesy of the North Carolina Transportation Museum and the NC Division of Historic Sites and Properties.

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