Overlooking the cobblestones of Chalmers Street in downtown Charleston stands the historic German Fire Steam Engine Company building. Just down from the iconic Pink House, the fire company building adjoins the Old Slave Mart Museum, affixed by a trussed roof shed. The attached shed was built in 1859 by slave mart owner Z.B. Oakes so that he could sell slaves inside the building walls in order to abide by an 1856 ordinance forbidding the selling of slaves in open-air markets. The Romanesque fire company building, seen to the left of the slave mart, was completed in 1851.
Until the city’s first municipal fire department was founded in 1882, fire companies in Charleston were either privately-operated businesses or run by volunteers and slaves. Charleston was especially vulnerable to fire because harbor winds carried flames quickly among the peninsula’s densely-packed neighborhoods. Because of this, several fire companies, many of them ethnically-based, were established throughout the city in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The German Fire Steam Engine Company was founded in 1830 and incorporated in 1833.
Most of the private fire companies eventually went out of business as their resources could not keep pace with the city’s many conflagrations. When Mayor William A. Courtenay established the Charleston Fire Department on January 1, 1882, several private fire companies merged with the city. The German Fire Steam Company building subsequently became Fire Engine House No. 1. As newer fire stations were built around the city in the following years, including the Central Fire Station on Meeting Street, this building was no longer needed by the fire department.
When it ceased serving as a firehouse, the Carolina Light Infantry armory occupied the building until 1907. The building later became the Good Samaritan Hall and the Embry Mission, charities operated by local African-Americans, until 1937. The building was restored in 1981 and today serves as law offices.
The German Fire Steam Engine Company is listed in the National register as part of the Charleston French Quarter District:
(Lodge Alley) The French Quarter District is located in an area of the old walled city of Charleston where the French Huguenots once had warehouses and dwellings. Early Charleston merchants used the warehouses for their ships at the docks off East Bay Street. One of the oldest streets in Charleston, Lodge Alley is a visual example of Charleston’s Old World ties, exemplifying the definition of an ally as a city street but not a main thoroughfare. Lodge Alley still has a seaport look. Brick warehouses of Flemish and American bond bound each side of the ten-foot wide passage. The alley is paved in Belgian blocks – a local term for a brick shaped block of granite. The ten-foot width of Lodge Alley compares favorably with many of Charleston’s principal streets of the early 18th century, now impossibly narrow by modern standards. Lodge Alley also illustrates Charleston’s distinction as one of the cradles of Freemasonry in America. The alley takes its name from the Masonic Lodge situated on its course about midway from East Bay Street. This site was acquired as early as 1773, making it one of the oldest Masonic Lodges in the country. As part of the old walled city of Charleston, Lodge Alley and the French Quarter District are in an area which reflects not only three centuries of South Carolina history, but also three centuries important to the course of American history.
Ann Victoria Paras says
Thank you for this wonderful site. As a new resident of Charleston, I enjoy reading the history and seeing pictures.