Location: 407 Columbia St SW
Downtown National Historic District;  Wohleb; Diversity: African Americans; Transportation

olympia fire coOlympia Fire Co. No. 2, 1891, courtesy of Washington State Historical Society
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHarbst Tire Building today (2014), photo by Deb Ross

It is difficult to imagine that at one time, fire fighting organizations were not only organized exclusively by private organizations, but occasionally were competitors.  Firefighting in Olympia began very early on with the organization of Barnes Hook and Ladder Company by merchant George Barnes. The city’s “engine” was a converted farm wagon. In the 1860s, the first purpose-built fire engine was acquired, named the Columbia, which came around the Horn and arrived in the city to great fanfare. The volunteers manning the Columbia called themselves the Columbia No. 1 company.  The engine was housed in Columbia Hall, and both the Barnes Hook and Ladder and Columbia No. 1 called Columbia Hall their headquarters. (There was at least one other early fire fighting organization called the Squilgees that carried on a sporadic rivalry with Columbia No. 1 until the Squilgees’ engine burned.)

After the 1882 fire that destroyed the central block of Olympia’s downtown, the city acquired a new Silsby engine, which was powered by steam. At this time, another fire fighting organization was formed, called Olympia Fire Co. No. 2. Olympia Fire Co. No 2 was housed in a one-story clapboard building on Columbia St. between Fourth and Fifth, the location of this page. (This building already existed in 1879, as the Bird’s Eye View map linked below shows.)  

In 1891, the building was expanded to include a second story which had sleeping and eating accommodations for the firefighters. It also added a second bay, and another engine, locally built by blacksmith and city council member Thomas McBratney, was acquired. The photograph at above left may have been taken to commemorate this event. Among the crew of firefighters in this picture is young Jesse Mars, probably the first African American to serve as a firefighter in Olympia. He began as a firefighter at the young age of 13.  Sadly, he died of consumption (tuberculosis) only two months after this picture was taken. As Jesse was listed as a firefighter with Columbia No. 1, it may be supposed that the personnel of both crews was somewhat interchangeable.

Both Columbia Hall and Olympia Company No. 2 buildings continued to serve as fire stations until the new City Hall was built on State and Capitol and downtown fire fighting was consolidated.

Some time before 1914, the building currently on this site was erected and was the home of the Harbst Tire Company, continuing the tradition of having this part of town associated with the transportation industry. The building was remodeled in 1950 with a design by architect Joseph Wohleb. It is currently (2014) used as a restaurant. It is not on the local register nor inventoried, but is listed as “Historic Contributing” in the National Olympia Downtown Historic District listing.

National Olympia Downtown Historic District

Washington State Historical Society photographs (enter catalog number in Collections Search page): C1960.290x.5 (interior of station); C1943.2x.137

City of Olympia history of fire department, showing another view of Columbia Fire Company No. 2

Bird’s Eye View of Olympia, 1879

Sources for information on this page were compiled from  Frank Spickelmire’s “Some Moment of History of the Olympia Fire Department, ” in Olympia Washington: A People’s History, edited by Drew Crooks; from Roger Easton’s chronology of fire fighting in Olympia; photographs, maps, and news articles. The above narrative constitutes an  effort to reconcile occasional conflicting chronologies and accounts. Thank you to Ed Echtle for providing valuable insights on chronology and locations.

For more information on Jesse Mars and Thomas McBratney see the Residents (M and B) section of this website.

Copyright © 2022 Deborah Ross