The history of organized firefighting in Lakewood goes back to the days when the town was called Bricksburg and part of Brick Township. In June of 1870 the Ocean Hook and Ladder Fire Company No 1 was founded. A small ladder cart was purchased the next year, but with the local economy in a recession during the period of 1872 to 1873, the purchase of additional equipment for use with the ladder cart and a building to house the apparatus wasn’t financially possible. After a few years, the fire department would fade away from lack of activity and the demise of the Bergen Iron Works. The old ladder cart was left to rot in an open field on First Street and served as a symbol of the first company’s demise. Between 1874 and 1888 the town relied on the good will of its citizens to assist their fellow neighbors in the event of a fire.
Although this first group firefighting activity was short lived, it provided a link to the success of the second attempt of forming a new fire department in late 1888. James Westhall was elected to lead this new group because of his previous experience as an officer with the old Ocean Hook & Ladder Fire Company of Bricksburg.
The current Lakewood Fire Department can trace its origin back to October 31, 1888, when a barn located on the southwest corner of Madison Ave and Second Street caught fire and was destroyed. The ringing of the local church bells was the only means of alarm at the time and word soon filter about of a fire down on Madison Ave. minutes later about two dozen men had gathered and started to battle the flames with few lengths of hose and nozzle borrowed from the Laurel house hotel. The hose was connected to a hydrant located on Madison Ave just north of Main Street. When the few lengths were found to be too short to reach the blazing barn, the call to form a bucket brigade and assist the men was given by someone in the crowd of gathered onlookers. After many pails of water were applied what was left of the once blazing barn was contained to just a pile of steaming rubble. The exhausted group of men were proud of the fact that they held the fire to just the one building and decided to retire to James Todd’s store on Main Street to get some refreshments and try to warm up their soaked clothing. From this gathering it was decided by the group of men to start a fire company to protect the village of Lakewood and James Westhall was elected as its first Chief.
Over the next thirty-two years, the Lakewood Fire Department would expand to five volunteer fire companies as the town grew from just a small-town village into a major winter resort for the rich and famous. Those companies are Engine Company No.1, Rescue Company No.2, Junior Hose Company No.3, Reliance Hose Company No.4 and Hook & Ladder Company No.1.
The first paid employee of the fire district was Company No.1. member Edward Stothard who was hired to serve as the janitor of the firehouse on March 6, 1904. The duties of the janitor were to keep the stove always running to provide heat for the station and to keep the building and apparatus clean. With commercial and residential building in town on the increase, the Fire Commissioners realized the need to for a driver to respond to calls in a timely manner. A quick response in the downtown area was needed because of the closely packed and highly combustible structures that lined the Streets and Avenues. November of 1915, The Commissioners signed a lease with Mr. H. Elwood Kingsley for the apartment located on the second floor of Engine Company No.1 and was paid $20 a month as Janitor for the new station. It wasn’t until a few years later that a job description and duties were defined turning this position from janitor to paid driver for the fire engine.
Fast forward to today, Lakewood has become a city of over 135,000 residents. The department annually responds to more than 4000 calls for service. The last few years with the increase in call volume, the Board of Fire Commissioners has increased the career firefighter division of the department to 32 full time firefighters. Each 24-hour shift is staffed by eight firefighters manning an engine and ladder truck. Volunteers back up the career division on all working structure fires and during high call volume periods.
In 2020, the department chief’s positions was made a full-time position to oversee both career and volunteer divisions. Chief Jonathan Yahr currently oversees the operation of the Lakewood Fire Department and is assisted by a battalion and deputy chief from the volunteer ranks.
The town has had a grim history of tragic fires over the years. February 12, 1936- the Victoria Mansion fire. Located on the southeast corner of Lexington Ave and Seventh Street, the hotel burned to the ground and 16 people were killed. April 20, 1941, a massive brush fire that started in Pleasant Plains, burned through the southern section of Lakewood, killing one resident, and destroying over 55 homes. Damage was listed at over $1,000,000. The fire was stopped the next day in the Laurelton section of Brick Township along Route 70. March 28, 1967, the largest of all Lakewood hotels, The Laurel in The Pines, spanning some 20 acres on North Lake Drive and Private Way was burned to the ground and two people died in the blaze. A May 1, 1973, fire at the Manhattan Hotel at Sixth Street and Clifton Ave, killed five hotel guests. In November 1985, a fast-moving fire on North Oakland Street would trap and kill 7 residents in a single-family dwelling.
The Lakewood Fire Department would experience its own tragedy with the death of two firefighters. The deadly fire occurred the night of December 23, 1976, at the Hotel Allaben, located at the northeast corner of Monmouth Ave and Fifth Street. The department was summoned at 1:19 AM for a working hotel fire. Firefighters Stanley Marks and Alex Latyshev, members of Junior Hose Company No 3, were part of a crew that advance a hose line to the second floor when conditions in that section of the hotel rapidly deteriorated and a flash over occurred trapping the men. Firefighter Stanley Marks body was found the next morning on the first floor just below the area of flashover having fell through the burned away floor above. Firefighter Latyshev was able to get to a small second floor window and was pulled down a ladder to safety. He was rush to a burn unit in Philadelphia but would succumb to burns received during the flash over conditions on January 26, 1977. Firefighter George Reynolds of Engine Company No1 was also on the same hose line and was able to exit the building on his own but suffered burns and smoke poisoning. He was rushed to Paul Kimball Hospital and would recover from his injuries.
A firefighter memorial was constructed in Pine Park in 1988. Every October a department firefighter service is held in memory of Stanley and Alex. Junior Hose Company No 3 also holds a small service each Memorial Day to remember their two fallen brother firefighters. In December of 1996, the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, A service was held at town hall. A small tree was planted to serve as a living monument to these men’s spirit. An engraved plaque was also placed at the base of the tree with a written memorial.
For more information on the history of the Lakewood Fire Department, you can check out the Unofficial Historic Lakewood Fire Department Facebook page.
DISCLAIMER: The Facebook page is not affiliated with the Lakewood Fire Department.