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 rivalry between the Atlantics and the Buttons gained momentum when both companies competed against each other in many firefighting competitions throughout the state. During competitions, the two companies set many world records. To this day, the Button Company holds the world record for running quick steam in 1 minute 46 seconds. The Atlantic Company won the state championship for reel racing several times.
Although the Atlantics and the Buttons were the leading fire companies in the city, they were not the only firefighting organizations. There were several others, both white and black, as well as a junior fire company. The junior fire company was made up of young men between the ages of 16 and 18, and was called the “Excelsior Bucket and Axe Company.” Upon reaching manhood, these junior firefighters were absorbed by the Atlantic and Button Companies. Other fire companies that came about were: the Mechanics, the Fourth Ward, the Riverdale, the Holden Company (named for Governor Holden), the Axe, the Rough and Ready Fire Company, and the Independent Colored Fire Company.
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.
The rivalry continued until 1928 when the Town Council decided to house both companies in a central fire station, located on Broad Street in downtown New Bern. The building is symmetrical in almost every way so that the two companies could work together equally. The exception is that each company had its own slide pole and held its own meetings.
Today, the rivalry is a good-natured one and many traditions still hold. The Button and Atlantic Companies are now called New Bern Volunteer Fire Department. In 2001, the City appointed a full-time Fire Chief. Prior to this, the position of Chief rotated between the Atlantic and Button Companies each year. This is one reason the rivalry kept going for so many years and is also the reason New Bern has had so many fire chiefs. Today, the Volunteer Chief is appointed by the Fire Chief and has the title of Deputy Chief of Volunteers.