Titusville’s Great Fire of 1895 Ravaged Majority of City’s Business District
By City of Titusville // September 20, 2019
arson fire destroyed 42 buildings
BREVARD COUNTY • TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA – Like so many other small towns, Titusville’s citizens since the city’s founding in 1867 has banded together to protect their homes and businesses from fires.
They held socials and collected subscriptions to support basic fire protection for their town.
They urged their neighbors to install lightning rods on their homes and clear their lots of overgrowth to prevent fires from starting or spreading.
When Titusville was in financial crisis in 1888, the citizens of the volunteer fire department donated their fire protection fund to the town fathers to keep Titusville from financial ruin.
Titusville’s monetary difficulties were of short duration and the town continued its rapid growth.
So rapidly in fact that in the spring of 1890, the East Coast Advocate published a letter from Insurance Agent Silas Wright of Deland explaining he was unable to find insurance coverage for their building due to Titusville’s rapid growth and the number of wooden buildings liable to go up in flames by the spread of a single fire.
He suggested the town purchase a steam engine and organize a fire department to remedy their insurance situation.
After the town of Cocoa suffered tremendous fire damage in December of that same year, the newspaper’s editor urged the town of Titusville to consider some method of fire protection, proposing the erection of a 50,000-gallon water tank, running a 6” water line in the business district and installing hydrants.
It was suggested that residential properties could be protected with the purchase of a hand engine and reel of hose.
He reminded the Town Council that the Titusville Volunteer Fire Department had come forward and tendered their funds to the City Fathers when the city was in dire necessity with the understanding that it would be returned in brighter days.
The editor stated that the brighter days were here and that reorganizing the volunteer fire department and taking preventive actions should be encouraged, stating: “It behooves our merchants to take early action as we may wake up any morning and find we have deferred the matter just one day too long.”
That “one day too long” occurred a short five years later when, on December 12, 1895, the majority of the business district of Titusville was destroyed by an arson fire.
Titusville’s central business district was concentrated between Broad Street and Julia Street on South Washington Avenue, with buildings nestled close to each other and built of wood frame construction.
The final toll from the fire was 42 buildings and out-structures destroyed, several people seriously injured and at least one death. A serious blow to the town was also the loss of the entire contents of the Town Council’s records up to that time, including council minutes, official record books, paper receipts, tax assessments and property records. It would take most of the next decade to resolve property ownership and tax payment disputes.
It was the heroic efforts on the part of citizens that eventually stopped the fire of 1895. The foundation of Titusville’s current fire service agency is based on this example of selfless citizens who responded to fight the conflagration when their community and their neighbors’ lives and properties were in jeopardy.
Future town councils appointed standing fire committees from among its Council members. The Fire Committee was charged with making recommendations to the Town Council regarding fire protective actions.
During the next two decades improvements in fire prevention and response measures were undertaken in Titusville. Some of these included ordinances prohibiting vegetative overgrowth on lots, bans on the use of pressurized gasoline or kerosene lamps, annual inspections of chimney flues, demolishing buildings that constituted fire hazards, regulating fire escapes for hotels and boarding houses and recommending changes in building construction materials from pine wood to brick.
In 1901, the citizens also approved a one year—2 mill tax, the proceeds of which were to be placed in a Fire Protection Fund to help purchase fire equipment supplies. The Fund garnered a total amount of $213.33.
Titusville’s fire protection measures in the first decade of the twentieth century also included the purchase of a portable water tank on wheels and lengths of hose along with a fire bell and establishing fire districts.
Underground water drafting tanks were installed and as the town’s water lines were extended, these were replaced with fire hydrants. Sustaining a group of organized volunteers, however, appeared to be like trying to herd a roomful of cats and some years were more successful than others in maintaining a consistent volunteer department.
By 1913, Titusville’s Town Council approached town citizen Burt Johnson to serve as the first volunteer fire chief formally appointed by the town council and under their direct supervision. When he accepted the position for a salary of $10 per month, he was charged with formulating rules and reforming the town’s volunteer fire protection in the town.
On December 2, 1913 the ordinance outlining the formation of the official Titusville Volunteer Fire Department was approved by the Town Council. During that same meeting, the Council passed an ordinance establishing the town’s fire limits.
During the next year, Volunteer Fire Chief Johnson enhanced firefighting capabilities with the additional purchases of fire hose, fire buckets, fire ladders, two fire extinguishers, a play pipe and he worked to locate and build a shed in which to store the new fire equipment.
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