J. W. Dickinson
The pen picture of Fire Chief Dickinson, of the Cleveland fire department, is most appropriate in this volume by virtue of his control of the fire boats and pipe lines of the Cuyahoga river, and more especially as it was he who introduced the system at the port of Cleveland. It would be proper to take up his career in chronological sequence.
Mr. Dickinson was born in Saxton's River village, Windham Co., Vt., on December 25, 1836, the son of Charles S. Dickinson, and attended the public schools of Lowell and Springfield, Mass., and Wheeling, W. Va. The school building on the commons in Lowell, Mass., was also occupied by Mazeppa Engine Company, No. 10, and thus, at the early age of eight years, the gallant acts of the fireman aroused his instincts and admiration to such an extent that they shaped and controlled his after life. In 1851 he removed to Cleveland, Ohio, arriving there on the memorable day of the Medical College riot. In 1858 he joined the Cataract Engine Company, No. 5, as a torch boy, and served in that capacity until September 3, 1854, when he was elected a member of the company. Early the next year he was made second assistant foreman, and in 1857 was advanced to the position of first assistant. It is said that when, in 1859, he was elected foreman of that company he was the proudest young man in the volunteer fire department in Cleveland.
Chief Dickinson is a born musician, and in 1861, when the war of the Rebellion broke out, he was among the first to respond to President Lincoln's call for three-months men, joining Leland's band, which was attached to the Nineteenth O.V.I., Col. Samuel Beattie commanding. After receiving an honorable discharge at the end of his term, he re-enlisted and was assigned to the Forty-first O.V.I., under the command of Col. W.B. Hazen, and was present at several of the historic battles in which that regiment engaged. He remained with the Forty-first until all regimental bands were discharged, in the fall of 1862. Upon his return to Cleveland he resumed his position as foreman of the Cataract Engine Company, and agitated the question of a paid city fire department, which, notwithstanding the strong opposition to the project on the part of the volunteer forces, he succeeded in having established. He tendered to the city the services of the Cataract Company, and the authorities gave him the privilege of selecting the men for his company for the paid department, which he did from the members of the volunteer companies, placing four stationary and two minute men to that company. On January 23, 1863, Mr. Dickinson was placed in charge of the J.J. Benton Engine Company No. 2, in which position he remained eleven years. In May, 1864, the patriotic spirit of Chief Dickinson being again aroused, he enlisted in Company E., 150th O.V.I., commanded by Col. W.H. Hayward, and was subsequently detailed for service in the famous Leland band. He was honorably discharged at the end of the one hundred days, for which the regiment had enlisted to hold the forts around Washington. They received special thanks and recognition from President Lincoln and Secretary Stanton.
In 1873 Mr. Dickinson was chosen to attend the World's Fair at Vienna, Austria, as engineer of the American exhibit of rotary steam fire engines, and on his return in February, 1874, he succeeded John McMahon as second assistant chief. In 1875 he was promoted to the rank of first assistant chief, and on December 22, 1880, was advanced to the top of the fireman's ladder, being appointed chief of the Cleveland department.
As has been said, the point at which the career of Chief Dickinson touches the marine interests consists in the superb and effective system of fire boats he has put upon the Cuyahoga river, the miles of pipe-lines which traverse the streets leading up from the river in diverse directions, and in the protection these fire boats give to the shipping, without which that vast amount of property would be at the mercy of the flames. It may be noted here that vessel owners seek winter mooring, if possible, near fire boats. The first boat placed on the Cuyahoga river was not an experiment with the veteran fire chief of Cleveland, but the idea was evolved by mature thought and observance. It was the purpose of Chief Dickinson to give the destructible property within the river districts all the protection possible, and if he could not do that with the means at hand he determined to multiply those means; the result of this determination was the construction of fireboat J.H. Weatherly, built by the Excelsior Iron Works, and launched in the fall of 1885, after a strong opposition by many influential men of Cleveland who had not yet considered the power and effect of the addition of such a fire extinguisher would have upon the property and insurance premiums of Cleveland citizens. Before the close of the following year the wisdom of the chief's measure was acknowledged, and another boat ordered to be placed upon the river; this, too, was met with the same persistent opposition, and it was not until the 15th of March, 1894, that the Clevelander was launched. This was the work of Thomas Manning, Jr. The effect of these boats became apparent to all, and instead of opposing the wise and protective measures of the fire chief, the city of Cleveland, especially those citizens interested in property along the river front, ordered a third boat, the hull of which, made of steel, was built in Buffalo, and placed at the foot of Seneca street. This boat was put in service January 6, 1895; two boats are now in use on the Cuyahoga river, the Weatherly having been taken out of commission and her boilers and pumps placed in the Farley. These two boats are acknowledged to be equal to any fourteen land fire steamers in service in the city. Had Mr. Dickinson been of a timid nature he would have succumbed to the opposition brought to bear against him by the authorities, and the city in consequence deprived of this effective branch of her fire protective system.
But it is not the purpose of this article to lead the reader to infer that the usefulness of these fire boats is confined to their efficiency in times of conflagration along the river front and about shipping; it should be set forth that during the winter the boats are using to break the ice in the river, so that the launches are not delayed; that boats may be moved to dry docks at any time; that boats can be fitted out at any time and be ready to move; that dams of ice can not form across the mouth of the river, and that since the fire boats have been placed on the river no floods have occurred, which previously destroyed thousands of dollars worth of property during the spring freshets.
It can be truthfully said, that the credit for the conception and laying of the fire pipe-line system in Cleveland November 16, 1891 (which line leads from the river up to the fire centers of the city), is entirely due to the wisdom and forethought of Chief Dickinson, and is being adopted by all the large cities in the United States which have a large water front. The pipes of Cleveland are:
All of these are subject to a pressure of three hundred pounds. To quote from a pamphlet issue from the Fire Department of Detroit: "Detroit has thirteen complete lines of pipe from high pressure service, the supply coming from the Detroit river through the fire boat Detroiter. To Chief James W. Dickinson, of the Cleveland Fire Department, is due the credit of causing these first permanent pipes to be laid for fire boat service, as he first conceived and adopted such pipes. They showed the great effectiveness of a fire boat on a fire 4,000 feet from their station on the river."
Chief Dickinson now has under consideration a matter which will soon be put to use, that of a union of pipes after the principle of the pumping engines which supply the city with water, by stationing his fire boats so that they may pump into all the pipes simultaneously, thus dispensing water at three hundred pounds pressure in every direction at a distance of 4,000 feet. Our subject is a veritable general when in contest with a large conflagration, and so forms his lines of steamers and men that there is not much chance for the escape, or rather extension, of the enemy. Like most men of good physique, he is big-hearted, good-natured and kind and fatherly to every member of the force. He has the unbounded confidence of Cleveland's business men in his generalship during the progress of a fire in the business centers of the city. During active work at fires he is very careful of the lives of his men, and he is conversant with the structure of the business blocks he knows what risks they may take, and has, therefore, lost but one man during the forty-three years he has been a fireman.
During his connection with the department he has assisted in organizing the Fireman's Relief Association, and he has been a member of all the Firemen's Relief Associations since their formation. It was due mainly to his efforts that the comprehensive pension law now in force in Cleveland was passed for the benefit of the fireman, their widows, orphan children and dependent parents. He was elected vice-president of the association, which under this law pays annually the sum of $24,000 to firemen's widows and orphans and maimed firemen. He was chosen president of the Firemen's Life Insurance Company, which does business under charter of the State of Ohio, and he is also a member of the board of trustees of the Firemens Insurance and Firemens Relief Associations. He is a Master Mason of Bigelow Lodge in Cleveland and a veteran of that body.
Mr. Dickinson was united in marriage on December 12, 1877, to Miss Donna Z. Needham, the talented daughter of William L. Needham, one of the first engineers on the Big Four railroad. Mrs. Dickinson is a public-spirited woman, and takes much interest and satisfaction in the steady advancements of the Chief. Two sons, James Earle and Charles William, have been born to this union. The family homestead is at No. 36 Bridge street, Cleveland, Ohio.
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.