The Great Barrington Fire District's major mission has been to provide water for fire protection and domestic use. For many years, it also maintained sidewalks and sewers within the district.
A town warrant article in July 1854 called for the creation of a district. The group held its first meeting that August, and its newly elected Board of Engineers (soon to be called the Prudential Committee) got together four days later and elected C.S. Plank as the clerk and appointed nineteen members of Hope Fire Company as enginemen. This was fast action, considering a fire company had been only half-seriously proposed in February that year. Town taxpayers were fully serious, however, in addressing the issue of fire protection.
Calvin C. Crane was elected first chief engineer in October 1855. On the first Prudential Committee were Ralph Taylor, S.G. Robbins and Calvin Rood. They set as priorities the establishment of a hook and ladder company and the construction of at least four reservoirs, of 100 barrels or more each, placed strategically about town. The district's first reservoir was under the engine house on Castle Street. In 1858, the District built three more reservoirs—small water holding tanks—for $300.
The District has considerable money troubles in its first two decades—at one point it had only 51 cents in the treasury. At times it had to tax its firemen to get sufficient money to buy hose.
Private interests such as the Great Barrington Water Company led the way in establishing a town water system; in 1868 it raised $20,000 in capital and built the East Mountain Reservoir and provided hydrants for Hope Fire Company.
Open water sources were at times ill-protected. "Not a hundred steps from the East Mountain reservoir," noted The Berkshire Courier in February 1900, "there has lately been dumped what is estimated to be no less than eight barrels of dead fish, spoiled meat, beef trimmings and all manner of butcher’s refuse. The smell is vile and as soon as thawing weather comes, if the stuff be not removed, the villains will be washed into the reservoir. Who is responsible for the danger to the public health in this manner is not known, but prompt steps should be taken..."
Turtles in the reservoir in 1920 churned up the water, giving it a bad taste and prompting a boil order. One turtle, when caught, turned out to be a twenty-five-pound snapper.
An engineer urged expansion of the East Mountain Water Supply in 1922. In a slowness sometimes typical of municipal projects, it wasn't until January 1947 that a large Hendley & Lundergren shovel rolled in to enlarge and clean the water supply.
Rotting fish, turtles—then in December 1947, the body of John Finley, eighty-eight, of Pine Street, was found in the reservoir after a search by divers. The man, who was in the habit of getting his water from the reservoir, had apparently fallen in and drowned.
The Mansfield Lake Aqueduct Company was a fancy name which Edward F. Searles gave to a water line run in 1887 from Lake Mansfield to his Kellogg Terrace property, providing water for fire protection and to spew from the center of cross pond. The fire district paid for installation of seven hydrants.
Berkshire Heights Water Company also formed during this period under the guidance of Edwin D. Brainard, who developed Berkshire Heights for housing.
Ultimately the Great Barrington Fire District acquired all of these water works, beginning in 1890 with Great Barrington Water Company (for which it paid $34,381) with a vote in April then Berkshire Heights (for $30,304) with a vote in June. In March 1894, it voted to buy the Lake Mansfield Aqueduct water lines for $1 plus a grant of perpetual rights to water for the Searles property.
Great Barrington is unusual in South County in having three water systems to draw on for fire protection within the fire district, according to retired fire chief and Prudential Committee Chairman Mort T. Cavanaugh. Orange colored hydrants on Main Street are Lake Mansfield water, blue ones are Berkshire Heights and silver ones come from East Mountain, he said.
The Berkshire Heights dam just west of the Hurlburt Road bridge burst in April 1898. It cost the district $4,000 to repair the structure. In June 1900, the selectmen were adamant the Berkshire Heights dam had washed out the town's bridge abutments, incurring a large expense. It was the third washout since the bridge had gone up. The dam was eventually rendered unnecessary; a filtering crib was installed in the river at Berkshire Heights pumping station in October 1902. It filtered water through 3 feet of sand and gravel. A fence around the Berkshire Heights reservoir, in August 1914, was in such shape that "dogs desiring to have a bath have no difficulty getting one," according to the local press.
The Fire District took on other enterprises over the years. In 1871, it voted to erect twenty-five kerosene and gas street lamps. In 1886, plans were made to build sidewalks and sewers and the next year the district voted to spend $2,000 to construct "main drains and common sewers." These emptied, naturally, into the Housatonic River. In 1888, the District contracted with Great Barrington Electric Light for twenty electric streetlights. The District gradually ceded some of its responsibilities to the town. In 1928, the town took over control of streetlights and the first attempt to turn sidewalks and sewers to the town was made (but failed) in 1938.
The town needed additional water sources. One suggestion was made in July 1903: build a lake in Seekonk, which would double as a resort. In January 1905, a committee looking into finding new sources, made up of A. Chalkley Collins, William W. Norton, John N. Eastland and John Viola, recommended tapping Goodale Brook in South Egremont. Member Frederick N. Deland dissented because it would cost $300,000 and he felt Green River and East Mountain afforded sufficient supply. Voters in the Fire District in February vetoed the idea. If townspeople expected to gain use of Roaring Brook south of town for a water source, they were surprised when William Stanley in March 1905 said it wasn't available; he had other plans. The Fire District again downed the Goodale Brook scheme, 206-107, in September 1905, but put up $5,000 to repair and enlarge East Mountain Reservoir.
A new dam was built at the East Mountain reservoir in 1906. The district, by eminent domain in 1920, took forty acres of land around the reservoir from the Goodrich estate. The district in September 1930 considered linking with Long Pond for water to reduce pumping costs. Instead, filtration beds and a new pumping station were installed at Green River in 1936 to feed the Berkshire Heights and East Mountain reservoirs. Plans emerged in January 1934 for a new Green River pumping station, a Civil Works Administration project.
The Fire District in January 1938 proposed turning maintenance of sidewalks and sewers over to the town. Some counter-proposed eliminating the Fire District entirely; but when a showdown came, in April 1938, the vote was overwhelming to retain the fire district independent of the town. (The issue still smoldered; Robert K. Wheeler in May 1967 urged abolition of the Fire District as "obsolete.")
The district was extended to Brookside in 1917. Residents of Christian Hill and Blue Hill petitioned in April 1948 to be included. There was stormy opposition and the request was voted down. The fire district annexed State Road and Blue Hill Road sections in April 1949, however.
The Prudential Committee asked that surface drains be disconnected from sewer pipes in August 1949. The town’s water system in December 1951 was seen in need of modernization to achieve more volume. Water rates were frozen, perhaps longer than reasonable. The district raised them in September 1954 for the first time since 1894 when Parley A. Russell sought an increase and was turned down cold. Costs had risen 700 percent in the sixty years since Berkshire Heights, Lake Mansfield and East Mountain water systems were merged. The new rates: Family of one or two, one bath, $12 for six months; family of three or more, $15, additional toilet $2, additional tub $2; seasonal hose, $6; beauty shop, $8; barber shop, $5; dental office, $8; cows 75 cents each, horses $1.50 each. There was a ten percent discount if paid in fifteen days. There were also meter rates.
William A. "Archie" Lamont was set to retire from the fire district in December 1958 after forty-three years—but he died the day before his last work day. He was born in West Stockbridge and moved here as a boy. He was a high school athlete and served in the Army during World War I. He later worked for American Railway Express. He became fire district superintendent after Fred E. Larkin. He served under Chiefs Norton, Flynn, Tracy and Cavanaugh. He married Hilda Ambach in 1920 and they had one daughter.
Martin Graham (b. 1925) became fire district superintendent in April 1958, taking charge of water, sidewalks and sewers. He graduated from Searles High and served in the Navy during World War II. He was a plumbing contractor before becoming assistant superintendent in 1951. He married Betty Barnum.
Graham said that in his years with the department, most of the 100-year-old systems' mains were replaced with 12—inch piping. The biggest headache of being water superintendent? Digging in the middle of winter. A second big headache was keeping sidewalks clear in winter with a cabless tractor. One Palm Sunday, a storm dropped 20 inches. A member of the Prudential Committee had to sit on the tractor to give it enough weight and traction so Graham could plow in front of the town’s churches.
A million-and-a-half-gallon stand pipe was built on Berkshire Heights in 1984-85 at a cost of $900,000, under state directive, to improve both system water pressure and assuring drinking water quality. The old reservoir on Berkshire Heights was drained and filled in, according to Graham.
The Fire District built a matching-size tank off Blue Hill Road to replace the East Mountain reservoir in 1994-95, and according to Graham the old reservoir is now just a pond. "We cut off the pipes," he said. He added that Lake Mansfield is also separated from the two systems, though it does supply some hydrants, including one on Christian Hill.
Graham retired in 1995, succeeded by Michael Vincent, whose immediate chore was replacing mains which burst because of increased pressures when the Blue Hill Road standpipe went on line.
Faber, Susan, "Marty Graham Retiring As Fire District Supt. Did an Outstanding job," Berkshire Courier, 6 April 1995.
"Fire District," Berkshire Courier, 20 April 1916