The First Waco Disaster

By Robert F. Darden

Rediscovering the Rescue Hook & Ladder Co., No. 1

Tucked away behind the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in the historic First Street Cemetery, a small and fading stone monument may be the last surviving connection to a pivotal moment in Waco history.

Time and the elements have not been kind to the memorial, though the words “Death Roll of Rescue Hook & Ladder Co., No. 1” are still faintly readable. It commemorates a devastating fire that threatened the city’s future, then spurred the creation of one of the essential elements of any city — its fire department.

Waco in early 1873 was still in the throes of transforming from a sleepy village to a small town, a conversion ignited by the recent construction of the Suspension Bridge over the Brazos River and the subsequent arrival of the first railroad line. Waco was on one of the major Texas cattle trails and the cotton trade was returning to the Brazos valley.

As a result, the town had grown steadily from a cluster of buildings on the Brazos, particularly up Austin Avenue — though the oldest buildings on either side of Bridge Street (formerly Main Street, renamed in honor of the new bridge) still did a brisk trade. By 1873, however, these businesses were so decrepit that the street had been nicknamed “Rat Row” by dismissive Wacoans.

On March 23, 1873, as citizens watched in horror, a devastating fire roared through Bridge Street, consuming every one of the old wooden frame and slab buildings on the block. When the fire finally burned itself out, it had caused more than $60,000 in damages, mostly to establishments with no insurance.

Unfortunately, despite the Texas Collection at Baylor University’s wealth of holdings, there are no surviving newspapers from that day, or the immediate aftermath of the fire. The incident may have been lost to history save for the reaction it provoked.

The various accounts are scattered and sometimes contradictory, but the general outline of what happened next looks something like this:

Almost immediately, a group of Wacoans met to form the town’s first fire brigade and by the following Monday, the Rescue Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 was formed. The earliest fire chiefs were likely Fred J. Axling and J.B. Hayes, who (according to T. Brad Willis’ excellent research) was also noted for erecting the first brick building in Waco. Hayes was also elected the first president of the organization. A few months later, a second volunteer fire department, Waco Steam Fire Engine Co. No. 1, was founded. And in 1874, the two groups merged to create the Volunteer Fire Department. The first recorded chiefs were Edward “Ed” Ludecus and J.W. Gollege. Tom Padgitt and James Greaves were appointed — or voted — as assistant chiefs.

Early volunteer fire departments like Rescue Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 were often unruly — sometimes rowdy — outfits. The fire fighters formed their own social clubs and organized performing bands, singing groups and even baseball teams. They held competitions with their sometimes not-so-friendly rivals and — in some cases — battled over which organization would respond to a specific alarm. Downtown Waco parades soon featured the different fire-fighting organizations, much to the delight of young children.

The horse-drawn “fire engines” drew water from large cisterns in the middle of downtown to fight a blaze, with the largest at Fifth and Austin. Horse-drawn water tanks came somewhat later.

In the beginning, both the Hook & Ladder Co., Waco Steam Fire Engine and the Waco Volunteer Fire Department relocated their base of operations regularly, from different livery stables for their horses and engines, then into a series of rented buildings. (A permanent fire station was not built until 1894, on the 300 block of Washington Avenue.)

Three names can also be discerned from faded letters carved into the “Death Roll” column on the modest four-foot-tall memorial: Hayes, Axling and Ludecus. According to Willis, Ludecus (ca. 1848 to 1878) was a “dealer in millinery and fancy goods. His business was located at 29 Austin Street in 1876. He served as the first assistant in the Rescue Hook & Laddery Co. No.1.”

Hayes, who died in 1876, was married to Mary Elizabeth Hayes (ca. 1839-1900).

The third name, Fred Axling, appears regularly in articles in the old newspapers, particularly “The Waco Daily Advance” and “Waco Daily Examiner”. The Swedish-born Axling operated the Bank Saloon and was active in the Waco Grays men’s social organization. Two letters to the editor from December 1874 provide an idea of just how social the Grays were:

To the Waco Grays – You are respectfully invited to be present at the Sturgis House on Christmas Day at 4 p.m. sharp, to assist in demolishing “that Champagne and cake.” – Rescue Hook & Ladder Co. By Committee. Waco, December 23, 1874

To Rescue Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 – The Waco Grays acknowledge the receipt of the kind invitation extended by the Rescue Hook & Ladder Col. No. 1 and will be on hand to “assist in demolishing that champagne and cake.” – Waco Grays, Waco, December 24, 1874.

By December 1875, articles begin to appear concerning Axling’s declining health. When he passed in early January, his obituary was accompanied by tributes from firemen, members of the Waco Grays, J.H. Gurley Lodge No. 337 and others. “The funeral cortege was very large and imposing,” noted one reporter, “and many a bronzed face was wet with the tears of bitter regret…”.

Shortly thereafter, his brothers in the fire department, members of the Grays and his lodge commissioned and erected the “Death Roll Memorial” to the three men in the First Street Cemetery.

According to librarian Sean Sutcliffe and others who have researched the early fire departments, there is no indication or record that any of the three men – Hayes, Axling or Ludecus – died while fighting a fire. Perhaps, the “Death Roll” memorial was meant to honor the first of the original members of the Rescue Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 on their passing.

Waco firefighters have a much more imposing monument in beautiful Oakwood Cemetery on LaSalle that lists the too-many names of the firefighters who have died in action in Waco. The monument is topped with a heroic statue of a firefighter, complete with a bright red helmet.

Today a faint “38” can just barely be seen on Hayes’ side of the “Death Roll” memorial. Willis’ research indicates that the monument was originally located in the First Street Cemetery’s lower terrace (closer to the Brazos River) but was one of many stones and markers that were relocated closer to what would be called University-Parks Drive in 1968.

Despite the thundering traffic on Interstate 35, the First Street Cemetery is still a wonderfully serene and thought-provoking patch of pleasant green, topped by massive oaks and dotted with fascinated gravestones from Waco’s earliest days.

And should you happen to find the “Death Roll” monument for the Rescue Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 on those grounds, remember that to truly flourish, every great city must have a great fire department. And Waco’s begins here …