Tonawanda News

June 15, 2013

Parade of history

TRADITION: Firemen's Day Parade hits NT, Tonawanda streets for 133rd year.

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

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When the first Firemen’s Day Parade in the Tonawandas stepped off, Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the United States, Thomas Edison had just created the first functioning light bulb ... and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral hadn’t even happened yet.

A lot of history, both local and otherwise, will be marching with the 133rd annual Fireman’s Day Parade today in North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda. The parade will begin at 2 p.m. at Thompson Street and Payne Avenue in North Tonawanda, then proceed south on Payne, west on Goundry Street, south on Webster Street, across the bridge into Tonawanda and finally, to Main and Broad streets in the City of Tonawanda.

North Tonawanda Fire Chief John Lapham said the six NT volunteer companies — Columbia Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1,  Active Hose Co. No., 2 Live Hose Co. No. 4, Rescue Fire Co. No. 5, Gratwick Hose Co. No. 6, Sweeney Hose Co. No. 7 — and a unit of the city’s career firefighters will be marching in the parade.

From the City of Tonawanda, Fire Chief Charles Stuart said that the four volunteer companies — Union Hook and Ladder No. 1, National Hose No. 1, Delaware House No. 2 and Niagara Hose No. 3 — will take part, as will the career division, members of City of Tonawanda Professional Firefighters Local 859.

While the NT companies are expected to field 250 to 300 people for the event, with about 75 from the City of Tonawanda, the parade has nonetheless grown smaller over the years, Lapham said.

“Back in the heyday, it was nothing unusual for each company to turn out over 100 people themselves, so you would have over 1,000 in line,” he said. “It’s a national trend and it’s been that way for 20-plus years. People don’t volunteer as much. Double-income families make it difficult to volunteer. It makes it difficult to find the time.”

Stuart agreed.

“In the early days, it was held on a weekday and they closed the schools and banks down,” he said. “It was quite the event. The fire companies were much bigger. There was much more involvement. Our culture’s changing now and people do other things, but that was how it was.”

Even 20 years ago, the various NT companies used to hold Field Days events in a succession of weekends over the summer, Lapham said. “It was just a weekly progression. With the liabilities of Field Days now, it’s cost-prohibitive to do that every week, so this is the one parade left in the city other than Canal Fest.”

The event has changed in other ways large and small over the years, including tinkering with the route designed to bring more people out to watch the parade and salute their firefighters. In another change, this year Mayor Robert Ortt and members of the City Council will formally review the North Tonawanda firefighters in front of City Hall as they stand for inspection before the parade, Lapham said.

“We’ve never really had a formal inspection by the city officials before,” he said. “I think that sort of brings a little more decorum to it.”

The Tonawanda fire companies will have their own inspection at 12:30 p.m. in front of fire headquarters on William Street, Stuart said. For the past two or three weeks, the vehicles have been inspected, washed, waxed and prepared for the day.

“Especially the volunteers, they really appreciate the opportunity to do this,” he said. “They show who they are, what they are. It’s just a little bit of letting the public know who their firefighters are.”

Tom Pendleton, a former firefighter with Columbia Hook and Ladder in North Tonawanda, has been involved with the parade for more than 40 years. He said it’s something he always enjoys.

“It’s always been one of the things our six companies enjoy, and we’re all sorry to see it getting smaller and smaller each year,” he said. “Most of the companies aren’t finding it easy to add new members to the roll call, so ... there’s less people getting in line to march, more people riding in the cars because it’s harder to walk.

“You don’t want to see it go, because all the people who are in it, they want to be there. It’s a sign of the times.”

Lapham said that, without a doubt, the event is good for firefighter morale.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t look forward to parade day itself,” he said.