The Sliding Pole

Next to the shiny apparatus, the sliding pole is the most popular attraction to all children that visit the firehouse. Where did this idea originate? Who could have though of this unusual means of travel? The need for speed in getting from the second floor to the apparatus floor was recognized in the early days by greasing or paraffining the banisters of the stair s.

The Boston Fire Department is usually credited with the use of the first sliding pole. Boston Engine 4 on Bullfinch Street installed sliding poles in 1880, but the original sliding pole was invented and constructed at Engine 21 in Chicago in 1878.

One day the firefighters at Chicago Engine 21 were storing the winter supply of hay. The hayloft was on the third floor. The binding pole, a long wooden pole used to secure a load of hay to a wagon, was stuck up into the hayloft to keep it out of the way. An alarm came in and Firefighter George Reid, working in the hayloft, slid down the binding pole to the apparatus floor and responded with Engine 21.
Captain Kenyon got permission from the Chief of Department to cut a hole in the second floor and install a sliding pole.

The chief was not enthusiastic, and he told Captain Kenyon if his plan did not work, the repairs would come out of his pay. The pole was a long beam of Georgia pine. The
members of Engine 21 had to shave off the corners, round it up with sandpaper, and give it several coats of varnish. The finishing touch was to coast the pole with paraffin.
Engine 21 and its sliding pole were the butt of many jokes. The skeptics were soon won over when they noticed that Engine 21 was almost always the first company on scene, especially at night alarms. Engine 21 was getting to fires more quickly than more closely located companies. The Chief of Department was convinced of the value of the fire pole and he ordered that poles be installed in all Chicago firehouses.
The Boston Fire Department installed brass sliding poles in about 1880.

These poles have become standard equipment in firehouses all over North America.

Editor's notes:

In 1878, Chicago Engine 21 was staffed entirely by Black firefighters.

One of the country's leading fabricators of fire poles was and still is McIntyre Brass Company, which is located in Somerville, Massachusetts.