The New Bern Fire Department is a unique organization, starting with the Atlantic Hook & Ladder Company, which was organized as a fraternal organization on May 14, 1845. This company became inactive because many members were away serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Seeing a need for an active firefighting company, the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 was established as a fraternal organization on January 1, 1865, by Union soldiers. Thus began the fierce rivalry between the two companies.
The rivalry escalated when Union troops received a hand pump from the North. This contraption reached its maximum output when eight men exerted their weight on each end of the pump’s cross-beam lever. A 16-man crew pulled the vehicle to the scene of the blaze. The pump drew water from one of New Bern’s strategically located wells at Middle and Pollock Streets, Broad and Middle Streets, South Front Street, Bern Street (in Five Points), and North Craven Street at Pelletier’s Knitting Mill. If the fire was near the Neuse or Trent Rivers, water was pumped from them. After pulling and pumping this Yankee apparatus for about three years, the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 persuaded the Town Council to purchase an Amoskeag, the city’s first steam fire engine, which arrived in 1868.
The New Bern Fire Department kept abreast of the city’s growth. With the arrival of the steam fire engines, the city’s streets were paved with oyster shells. The driver’s seat of the engine was equipped with leather straps to keep him from being thrown off when an engine struck a hole in the street. Later plans included paving the streets with bricks; however, this was delayed until a water system could be installed. The project was finally completed just prior to 1900. As a result of these improvements, the fire departments were in a better position to fight several destructive fires that came a few years later.
In the early 1900s, residents of New Bern would gather at a blaze in anticipation of seeing which company would arrive first. The result was quicker response times, bringing fires under control faster. In 1914, each Company was given an American LaFrance motorized truck; the Atlantic Company truck was white and the Button companies was red.