History of the BFD

A History of Fire Protection in the Tri-Cities and Baytown

by Patrick Mahoney, Battalion Chief


Organized governmental fire protection in the Tri-Cities began at the latest in 1919. In April of that year the City of Goose Creek incorporated following a January referendum. The new city quickly formed a volunteer fire department. The City of Pelly, also incorporated in 1919, had more or less organized fire protection that year. A chemical cart was housed at Leggett’s Drug store at what is now 514 West Main. The first recorded structure fire fought by either of these departments was in Pelly. A photo lab exploded and caught fire. In 1920 Pelly chartered its own volunteer fire department. The biggest fire of the era was likely the group fire of June 18, 1921. A theater and revival tent were destroyed and a hotel, realty office, plumbing company, and paint shop were badly burned. Damages were estimated at $286,000 in 2015 dollars, not counting the tent.Model T

Career firefighters made their earliest appearance in the area in 1925 when Pelly hired its first fire chief. That was a year of advancements as Pelly also received its first motorized fire apparatus, a used Model T chemical truck. Chemical trucks were a common type of fire apparatus up to that time; many large departments staffed chemical companies in addition to engine and ladder companies. In that era engines had, at most, very small booster tanks. The chemical wagon was used as a quick attack unit. These apparatus usually carried large, mounted soda/acid extinguishers and rubberized hose lines for immediate use on arrival.

The third city in the Tri-Cities was the unincorporated community of Baytown. This Baytown was a rowdy community of refinery workers and sailors, notable for its red light district and relatively dense population. On June 18, 1934 the Baytown Volunteer Fire Department held its first meeting. At some point they acquired a 1927 American LaFrance pumper, though its origin is lost to history.

Perhaps the biggest fire that decade revealed just how dense the community of Baytown was. On September 26, 1939 a group fire destroyed eight buildings, including a Mexican restaurant. The papers reported 150 people left homeless but only about $7,000 in damages. Aside from the ruined buildings a grocery store was saved but looted.

Pelly and Goose Creek took on career firefighters during World War II and shortly postwar. At the beginning of 1945 Pelly hired Jim French and by consolidation in 1948 it is known that Pelly had a staff of five career members while Goose Creek had one. 

Neighboring suburban and rural communities had volunteer departments by this time. Wooster and Cedar Bayou each had volunteer fire departments, though founding dates are unknown. There is also some vague reference to a volunteer fire department farther north along Cedar Bayou, probably in the area of today’s District 6 or just north. These vaguely known volunteer departments provided the remainder of the fire protection in what is today Baytown.


In December of 1945 the City of Pelly annexed the community of Baytown to its west. Just a few months later the citizens of the Goose Creek and the newly enlarged Pelly voted to consolidate. On January 24, 1948 the City of Baytown was granted a charter and the Tri-Cities became one.Fire Station 3 at Consolidation

The three involved fire departments were subsumed into a new Baytown Fire Department. The Goose Creek Volunteer Fire Department voted itself out of existence on February 11th of that year and its lone employee, along with Pelly’s five employees, became the Baytown Fire Department’s paid staff. The old community of Baytown did not have any known paid firefighters. Pelly’s fire station became Baytown’s Station 1, the community of Baytown’s station became Baytown Station 2, and Goose Creek’s station became Baytown Station 3. 

The tiny paid staff expanded by one, to six, by January of 1949. Art Lintelman was chief, Hub Bounds fire marshal, and Luther Talent, L.V. Bailey, Jim French, and Starkey Speights the firefighter/drivers. 

The story of the BFD in the 1950s appears to be one of a department badly undermanned repeatedly facing near-disaster even while making steady advances in equipment and structure. At the beginning of 1950 the department rostered 90 volunteers and six career.

An unusually cold winter early in 1950 and a severe drought that summer made for a tinderbox in the fall. On November 28th the department engaged in 36 consecutive hours of firefighting with numerous incidents, mostly wildfires, from Decker to Sjolander to Beasley Addition, which was apparently off Carey Bayou in the modern District 3. Just 12 days later things were worse.

On Sunday December 10th BFD answered 110 alarms in 13 hours. Things were so bad that about a dozen firefighters were hospitalized with burns that day alone. Fire departments from Houston, Texas City, La Porte, Dickinson, Channelview, Wooster, Galena Park, Jacinto City, Highlands, Dayton, and Greens Bayou responded in to Baytown to assist, though some had to split off to return to their own jurisdictions for fires. Company E of the Texas National Guard and the Galena Park and Jacinto City Police Departments even assisted.

One fire began on Beaumont Street and spread all the way east to the bayou, taking numerous buildings and industrial and agricultural equipment along the way. The woods between Evergreen Road and Pelly burned to the treetops. A lumber yard on Decker was surrounded by ad hoc fire berms but still suffered some fire damage. Many homes were lost. At one point a fire tanker broke down but was so badly needed that a tow truck brought it to a scene. The next day the BFD answered 75 calls in 11 hours, among them a fire that destroyed a sawmill at Highway 146 and Cedar Bayou.

Despite the disasters of 1950, in 1951 only one additional member was hired and the volunteer roster held at 90. These 97 staffed five pumpers, two tankers, a pickup, and a chief’s car. In January of that year the department was already equipped with two-way radios though we do not know when they were acquired.

On August 26th the city bought 628 acres around where the current Station 2 sits; the volunteers considered this satisfactory and the State Fire Insurance Commission endorsed it as suitable given expected growth patterns. A committee was formed to oversee planning for the new station and it had its scheme settled by October. On October 25th the mayor rejected the plan for a 72’x72’ two-story station. He considered the footprint too large and wanted a cost comparison of one- and two-story stations. The station would not open until 1954 and only then after a dispute between the city and its contractor over the quality of interior work. That same year the professional firefighters organized Local 1173 of the International Association of Firefighters.

Career staff had increased to 14 by 1955 when the first midlevel career officer position was created and L.V. Bailey was promoted to captain. The department also suffered its first line of duty death that year. In 1956 the department took on dispatching duties, relieving the Baytown Police Department of that task. Dispatch was housed at Station 2 and was conducted by telephone and radio with firefighters working 12-hour shifts as dispatchers. The city annexed the Cedar Bayou neighborhood that August, taking in the territory of the Cedar Bayou Volunteer Fire Department.

Several major fires that year leave the impression the department was underequipped and understaffed; even city council would come to recognize the former. On September 4th there were three structure fire incidents, one of them a group fire affecting several businesses and another burning a hotel. The group fire involved a glass company and one firefighter was badly cut while three others and a civilian received minor injuries. Less than a week later, on September 10th, a group fire at Market and Harbor destroyed a hotel and three other businesses. Chief Lintelman was overcome by smoke and transported to the hospital by the Earthman Funeral Home’s ambulance. These two fires alone accounted for a fire loss of over $3 million in 2015 dollars.Baytown first aerial fire truck

The next week Chief Lintelman went before city council to ask for the immediate purchase of a ladder truck. He reported that the two group fires could have been controlled sooner had an aerial been present and warned that the city’s good credit with the insurance commission was in jeopardy. A used 1949 American LaFrance 700 series mid-mount aerial was subsequently purchased from the Galveston Fire Department and housed at the new Station 2.

The first new company created by the city was introduced in March 1957 when Station 4 opened on Ward Road. This area had previously been served by the Cedar Bayou VFD from a metal building off Kilgore Road near Ward Road. On January 14, 1956 the CBVFD had lost its only pumper in a grass fire. Four days later the Baytown city council voted to retire the CBVFD’s debts and appropriated funds to purchase a pumper for the new Station 4. With the annexation of the area the CBVFD ceased to exist and the Baytown Fire Department now had four stations.

BFD attended at least three other fire disasters toward the end of the decade. On January 19, 1958 the United Rubber and Chemical plant north of town suffered a butadiene explosion that killed three workers and injured six others. On November 9, 1959 BFD sent nine members on mutual aide to Houston for a ship fire. The S.S. Amoco Virginia was burning at the dock and had already killed six or seven crewmembers. A Houston firefighter drowned in a hold full of gasoline at this fire. On December 3, 1959 a group fire at 1100 Harbor destroyed three buildings and damaged four others.