Fire stations of the world: DC Engine Co 3, Washington DC, US
Interesting stories surround DC Engine Co 3, which is responsible for protecting landmarks including the Capitol and Union Station. The historic building is over 100 years old, still retains features like fire poles a spiral staircase and possibly a ghost or two. The DC Fire and EMS Museum is located on the third floor of the firehouse and is open to the public. The wonderful original iron spiral staircase runs from the basement to the third floor. Why a spiral staircase? To keep the horses from coming upstairs, of course. See video inside the historic firehouse.
The current fire engine simply has “Columbia” painted on the front, a nod to the company’s roots, which trace back to the volunteer Columbia Fire Company, which was created in 1804. And the fire company’s history is intertwined with American history. “During the War of 1812, when the British attacked the capital, they actually burned our first firehouse down first, before they started burning the capital down,” said veteran fire fighter Margie Dickey, who’s spent her entire career at Engine 3. “So if you take the firehouse out of the picture you have more success with your other endeavours.”
“The volunteer fire fighters begged the British not to burn the firehouse down because it didn’t belong to the government. It was privately owned,” Embrey added. “But the British said ‘Maybe so but it’s on government property, so it’s gone.’”
This company’s current building is over 100 years old, still retains features like fire poles and a spiral staircase and has amassed its own lore over the decades. “This particular firehouse, we believe, has a ghost,” Dickey said. Stories centre on Benjamin Grenup, a member of the Columbia Fire Company, who was long believed to be the first line-of-duty death of a fire fighter in DC. “We believe he’s still in the firehouse with us.” Research in recent years has found that another fire fighter, John Anderson, died two months before Grenup, and that there may have been previous deaths as well.
“I’ve had several people who have gone upstairs and said they’ve heard noises, where they won’t go back upstairs again,” said veteran fire fighter Margie Dickey, who has spent her entire career in the 1916 firehouse. One incident involved a person who had been sleeping in the pitch-black bunk room. “He woke up and he was screaming, enough that he woke the other guys up,” she said.
He described seeing a man with a beard, wearing a jacket with gold buttons, spectacles and a hat. No one else saw a thing. Dickey said she’s never been bothered by the spirit, perhaps because it’s not sure what to make of a woman in the firehouse.
The stories are not just about human spirits, either, some members claim to have heard horses or horse chains. In 1890, a horse assigned to Engine 3 suffered a gruesome injury. Part of its leg was ripped off in an accident on the way to a fire but the horse continued on, managing to pull its fire wagon to the blaze before it was put down. The horse was called a hero, and its severed hoof belongs to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The stories, especially the one about the male ghost, appear to be well-known parts of the company’s folklore. “I’ve heard about it, that there’s supposed to be a spirit here in this firehouse,” said Jim Embrey, curator of the DC Fire and EMS Museum, which is on the third floor of the firehouse. “I’ve never experienced it. I think sometimes the stories of who’s supposed to be haunting different places, the stories themselves are interesting. Whether or not they’re actually here or not, that’s another thing.”
The building, built in 1916, is showing its age aside from the possible accumulation of spirits. While it’s not going anywhere, because of a historic designation, its future as an active firehouse is far from certain. “Our most recent fire truck, we only have an inch clearance on each side,” Dickey said. “We’re having more and more difficulty getting apparatus that actually fits inside of this firehouse.”
“The old firehouses are slowly but surely being replaced with newer facilities,” Embrey said. He said he believes residents and visitors should take note of this building, and others like it that remain in the changing city. “I think they should sit back while they have a chance and look at a lot of the architecture here in Washington. This was a beautiful, beautiful city.”