Rapid City's historic Main Street firehouse continues to serve a prominent role in the community, even after 100 years.
For 60 of those 100 years, the downtown landmark at 610 Main St. served as headquarters for the Rapid City Fire Department, housing officers who saved lives and property from fires large and small, but also suffering losses in the epic flood.
The department inevitably outgrew the old station, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, as the city continued to flourish. With the fire department headquarters now located several blocks east on Main Street, the historic fire hall is under private ownership.
Taking advantage of its former use, the Firehouse Brewing Co. is home to an established restaurant, brewery and playhouse, where food, drinks and drama are served up amid the brick walls that have stood now for a full century.
Owners of The Firehouse Brewing Co. are fully aware of their building's historic significance, and are planning a centennial celebration on May 16.
"It’ll be wonderful," said building owner Bob Fuchs, who turned the firehouse into the city's first microbrewery in 1991. "There’s no doubt it’s going to be a fun weekend."
Born of a great need
The Firehouse is indeed mostly about food and fun these days. But in 1915, the growing town needed a downtown headquarters for its fledgling fire department.
Rapid City was in the midst of a growth spurt driven by the birth of automobile tourism. In 1900, Rapid City was home to just 1,342 residents, according to U.S. Census figures. The population jumped to 3,454 in 1910 and 5,777 in the 1920 census.
Volunteer firefighters, split into competing hose companies in those days, didn't have a place to store an expanding stable of hose carts and hook-and-ladders to hold at the ready to fight fires across a growing city.
“They had all this equipment, but no place to put it,” said Lt. Jeff Bauer, historian for the Rapid City Fire Dept. "They used to keep carts in barns, wherever they could find space."
The city finally completed a brick and stone central fire station on Main Street, which was then a quiet dirt road in the heart of a bustling business district that included the Elks Theatre, Sweeney's Hardware, Chase's Department Store and the Cozy Café.
"They finally had a place they could meet and stay overnight while they were on duty," Bauer said.
The city’s four hose companies, Rapid City Hook and Ladder, Gate City Hose Company, Sweeney Hose Company and the North Rapid Hose Company, initially formed in the mid-1880s. They remained independent until organizing into a single fire department in 1931, according to Rapid City Journal archives.
The fire department was a volunteer organization until 1948, when a paid staff of 14 full-time firefighters was formed.
“We weren’t much bigger than a substation and we had the whole town to cover,” said Vess "Babe" Steinberg of Rapid City, who joined the department as a 21-year-old in 1947 and retired in 1973.
"When I first went in there, there were harnesses (for horses) hanging in the hose tower," Steinberg said.
Steinberg eventually became first assistant fire chief. He remembers several seminal moments in the department's history: the 1960 blaze that destroyed four downtown businesses in the Bennett block of St. Joseph Street; a bitter 1970 contract dispute with the city that saw all but five firefighters resign (half of those would eventually be rehired); and the disastrous 1972 Rapid City Flood that killed 238 people, including three firefighters.
"We had a good department," said Steinberg, who retired after the flood and went on serve on the Rapid City Council.
Ladder trucks, pumpers, brush trucks and other vehicles were double parked behind the two main doors, which emptied out on a one-way Main Street often crowded with traffic, particularly during the summer tourist season.
Guiding the department’s big aerial ladder truck through the narrow doors designed for the horse-and-buggy era was an exercise in “skillful maneuvering” according to an April 1969 Journal story on the aging building.
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That story also detailed problems with creaky wooden floors, wobbly stair banisters and crumbling walls and ceilings.
“Plaster fell on firefighters while they were sleeping,” Bauer said.
Bauer said the firefighters did what they could to do to keep the building up. Practical jokes, including some rite-of-passage hazing for rookie firefighters, kept morale high.
“The guys were a tight band of brothers,” said former firefighter Gary Kaul, a rookie in 1973 who retired in 2010, in a written memoir provided by Bauer.
In a 1974 incident, Kaul, watching from an upstairs window, saw Captain Marv Wiley and then Rapid City Mayor Jack Allmon talking in front of one of the front bay doors. Kaul filled a 5-gallon pail with water and dumped it out the window, intending, he said, to just get Wiley’s feet wet.
The prank backfired. He doused both men.
Kaul then ran to the fire pole, slid down quickly and took a seat in a locker room, pretending to read a book when a still-dripping and seething Wiley stormed into the room and demanded the name of the water-thrower.
“Of course no one else was around and Gary never mumbled a word,” Bauer said.
Eventually, the lack of space, deteriorating building conditions and downtown traffic congestion eventually became too intrusive, forcing the department to move to a new main fire station built at the corner of East Main Street and East Boulevard.
The garage bay doors went down for good after the last shift at the downtown station on June 24, 1975.
Breathing new life
The original firehouse building was eventually sold and became a restaurant, the 1915 Firehouse Company. Fuchs bought the building in 1991.
Fuchs found old hose nozzles, the old fire pole and a pair of bronze plaques remembering two fallen firefighters when he bought the building in 1991 with plans to convert it from a fine-dining restaurant to casual eatery and the city's first microbrewery.
The plaques and fire pole are on display at the brewery. Firehouse Brewing plays its connection to firefighting to the hilt with its numerous fire trucks that are positioned along with signage at various sites along Interstate 90 east of Rapid City.
A far more subtle reminder of the fire department's past is a pair of holes in the stone walls near the front bay doors.
Bauer said firefighters were forbidden from sitting in chairs in front of the old station. Instead they rigged small wooden benches to be affixed to holes in the exterior walls with wooden pegs.
“They looked like they were just leaning on the building, but they were actually sitting on these little benches,” Bauer said.
Fuchs said the spirits of departed firefighters may still be in the station.
"Occasionally we’ll have someone there late at night who claims they saw a ghost," Fuchs said. “We’ve never seen (the ghost) however."
None of the current fire department staff of 135 served in the old station, but the stories and memorabilia from the history of that era remains in department lore, Bauer said.
"They were happy to serve there," Bauer said. "The older guys remember the glory days of the old station."