The History of Saint Louis' Fire Alarms

     St. Louis was the third city in line to have a telegraphic fire alarm system installed, behind Boston and Philadelphia.  However, St. Louis was the first true Gamewell system, with 50 crank boxes (Roncallo).  The system was installed and completed on February 22, 1858.  The original central office where all of the telegraph signals were sent was in the attic of the Old Courthouse at 4th & Walnut (pictured to the right).

     In 1866, ten years after the original system was installed, an updated system using 75 new boxes, with an updated Gamewell telegraphic system, was installed.

     By 1875, St. Louis had 267 alarm boxes in service (click Evening Chronicle below), with 346 by 1883.    This number continued to quickly increase, growing to 565 boxes by 1892.  On November 7, 1895, the terminal system was entirely destroyed by fire, when wires from  the electric company crossed with those of the telegraph system.  Luckily, the system was back up and running in just 11 hours.





     The original office that received the alarms would eventually relocate in 1900, when it was moved to the fourth floor of City Hall, which at that time was a new building.  Pictured to the left.

     In the early 1900's it was recommended for faster identification of alarm box locations, the street gas lights near fire alarms be provided with red domes, rather than the standard black.  While this never happened, purple bands did replace the clear glass bands that had the street names etched into them around the top of these lights, near fire alarm boxes.

     According to the Fire and Police Patrol Census of 1912, St. Louis had a fire and a separate police system in place, with a total of 1,433 telegraphic boxes and 571 telephone boxes.

     False alarms were a problem in every city that had alarm boxes.  In 1932 it was reported that the City of St. Louis received 12.4 false alarms per week.  Most turned in by children on a dare.

     Still around in the 1950's, when most people still did not have phones, 47 people work in the Fire and Police telegraph section. 

     In 1964, the Alarm center headquarters moved again to a location at 4971 Oakland Ave.

     According to Fire Chief Neil Svetanics, Even though the average time for a telegraph signal to be sent was only 15 to 20 seconds, versus 60 seconds for a telephone, with the introduction of the 9-1-1 system, the city began removing the Fire Box Alarm System.  This was mainly due to the high number of false alarms.  Effective January 1, 1977 the "Gamewell" system was discontinued.  All alarms were struck over the audible and radio.  The last boxes to be removed were the institutional boxes inside of public places such as, the Kiel Auditorium, hospitals, factories and theaters.  This marked the end of an era that dates to the beginning of Fire alarm dispatching in St. Louis in 1858. 

     August 10, 1989 the city moves its Alarm Dispatching Center to 1421 North Jefferson.


Still Have A Presence Today

    Fire Alarm Telegraphs are fairly simple devices that worked when activated by someone who spots a fire in the area.  In the City of Saint Louis, there were several indicators that would help someone locate one of these Fire Alarm Boxes.  In the modern day picture to the right, the telephone pole is still faintly painted with a large red stripe with small yellow stripes above and below (click on it for larger view).  This pole is located at Pestalozzi and Salena, the nearby Fire Alarm Box, number 3429, was in District 34, which ran from Arsenal to Shenandoah, and River to Jefferson Avenue.


     Telephone or telegraph poles, would be painted in a similar fashion to this on the streets where a Fire Alarm Box was located.  If someone spotted a fire they could look for the street with the painted telephone poles.  Gas street lights, in similar fashion, had a purple stripe on them indicating a Fire Alarm Box on that street as well.

     Here is a chapter from the book History of the St. Louis Fire Department about how the alarms were used in conjunction with the other equipment by the firemen, such as their horses.

     The St. Louis Fire Alarm Box Locations book by the Department of Public Safety is a valuable tool for pinpointing the ghost locations of the historic fire alarm boxes.

History of the St. Louis Fire Department 1914.  St. Louis Fireman's Fund, 1914.

History of the St. Louis Fire Department 1977.  St. Louis Fireman's Fund, 1977.

History of the St. Louis Fire Department 1991.  St. Louis Fireman's Fund, 1991.

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