Repurposed from a blog written in my role as an archivist at the Utah State Archives and Records Service.
RISING FROM THE ASHES
Salt Lake City’s first professional fire department was born in October 1883 out of the ashes of a devastating fire that occurred in the heart of the city during the summer that same year. Prior to 1883, the city had relied on volunteer fire fighting services that were organized into local brigades around the city. The first voluntary fire protection service for the city was organized in 1853 with the passage of a city ordinance that allowed for the creation of a volunteer city fire brigade. Four years later, in 1856, the Salt Lake City Volunteer Fire Department was organized and placed under the direction of Chief Engineer Jesse C. Little. This volunteer service served the city’s needs for over two decades until June 21, 1883 when a massive fire broke out at the H.B. Clawson Wagon Depot on the city block immediately south of Temple Square.
As the June 1883 fire raged, the resources of the city’s volunteer fire department proved unequal to the task of effectively managing it. The situation was compounded by the fact that Clawson had illegally stored a cache of gunpowder on his property. When the fire reached this powder it exploded, simultaneously spreading the fire, and breaking much of the glass in buildings surrounding the downtown area. Once the fire was effectively contained, the losses were catastrophic. Clawson’s property was a total loss, as were the neighboring Savage Art Bazaar, the Council House, and several businesses in the vicinity of Temple Square.
In response to the devastation of the June fire, the Salt Lake City Council voted and approved an ordinance in October, 1883 that established the city’s first full-time, paid fire department. George Ottinger, who had served as the Volunteer Fire Department chief since 1876, was named the first chief of the Salt Lake City Fire Department, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1890.