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Old Chester, PA: Biographical Sketches
Ralph K. Chew
Times Photograph from the Felton Fire Company's 100th Anniversary book
The following story is
reprinted from the Chester Times,
CHESTER - RALPH K. CHEW hadn't been foreman of Felton Fire Co. very long when he came up against his biggest fire fighting test.
His test came in February, 1904 during the disastrous fire at Baltimore, Md. The mammoth blaze, referred to as a "hell on earth," destroyed a fifth of the city's area with a loss of $125,000,000.
Chew, now 78 and Felton's senior living member, will be honored tomorrow night at the 75th anniversary banquet of Felton Fire Co. The senior ranking fireman has been a Felton member for 60 years. The diamond jubilee celebration will be at Columbus Center.
A retired railroader, Chew remembers the Baltimore blaze vividly. Felton and Hanley fire company members were rushed to the scene after an emergency call was put out to all fire brigades along the East Coast.
The fire broke out Feb. 7 and leveled everything in its path. Chester firemen who volunteered to join the battle were transported to Baltimore by rail. "We and our equipment were loaded on a train at the 12th and Madison station," said Chew. "Our fire apparatus was placed on flat cars and the men were put in coaches on a Sunday night."
Twenty men of Felton volunteered for the duty. Felton dispatched a steamer and a hose wagon. "We didn't have to take our horses because they informed us that they had plenty of horses available there," said Chew.
When they arrived in Baltimore they were escorted to a position in the waterfront section. Chew said he has never witnessed such a scene of disaster, adding: "The smoke was thicker than any I have ever seen. Sparks showered everywhere and explosions occurred from time to time."
He said Feltonís hose wagon was brand new at the time. "A couple of times we almost lost her," he recalled. "Several times we were driven back by flames and had to abandon our equipment."
Chew was injured during the course of the fiery nightmare when sparks were blown in his eyes. "I was blinded temporarily and was treated at the scene by a doctor," he said. "He wanted me to leave the area but I didn't want to be separated from my company. He treated my eyes and used his silk handkerchief to bandage one eye. I still have the handkerchief and would not part with it."
"In my opinion it was the Lord that helped put out that blaze," said Chew. He said a sudden change in the direction of the wind gave a tremendous advantage to firemen. "The wind reversed its direction and kept the flames from spreading to other areas. The wind continued to blow the flames in the direction of the hot ashes and spared other portions of the city."
Until this moment firemen were barely holding their own. Factories, warehouses and other types of buildings disintegrated before the flames. Fireman ran short of water, were knocked out of action with injuries and suffered from exhaustion.
"When the fire was put out the people of Baltimore couldn't do enough for the firemen," said Chew.
A former freight conductor for the Pennsylvania Railroad Chew joined Felton May 5, 1898 when he was 17 years old. "They weren't too particular about your age in those days," he recalled. "All you had to do was show a desire to answer alarms and help with the work at the firehouse. Besides I was big for my age and they could always use a strong back."
At this time Wesley MacDowell, a former mayor of Chester, was president of Felton. Felton firehouse was located at its present site, 3rd and Yarnall, which was then in South Chester Borough.
Chew has been retired four years. He was a freight conductor for PRR for 48 years and was assigned to the Chester district. Chew says he feels well "and still could do my railroad job."
When he first joined Felton he was working at Roach Shipyard as a riveter. Chew said the work was unsteady. A friend, the late Frank Hartman, got him a job railroading and he remained for almost half a century. Hartman was Mayor Eyre's brother-in-law.
Chew never wanted a title in the fire company. He said he was assistant foreman and foreman but never had an interest for other than line duty. "They wanted me to be a trustee a couple of years ago," he said. "I have always been willing to assist the company but I never cared to hold office."
Chew attends Trinity Methodist
Church. He is a life member of Chester Lodge, F&AM. He is a 32nd Degree Mason in the Scottish Rites and holds memberships in the Keystone Club, Lulu Temple and Masonic Veterans. In addition he is a member of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and the Railroad Retirement Association.
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© 2002 John A. Bullock III.
This page last updated 02/24/07