Fire Alarm Telegraph -
St. Paul and Minneapolis


St. Paul's Telegraph System -- | -- Minneapolis' Telegraph System
Fire Alarm Telegraph Links

How do you report a fire? Simple, call 911. Well, true today. Everyone has a telephone nearby, or is even carrying a cell phone... it's easy. But put yourself back to the late 1800's or even the early 1900's. Very few telephones even existed, and those available were not accessible to the general public. So how did you report a fire then? You could stand on the street corner and yell, "Fire!", and sometimes that worked, but it was not very efficient.

Or, you could walk up the nearest FIRE ALARM BOX and transmit the alarm of fire directly to the fire department. The fire alarm telegraph box worked on a direct current electrical circuit connected to a central office, which monitored the activity of all boxes in a city. The fire alarm box, when activated, transmitted a coded number that identified the boxes location. It could not tell the fire department what was burning, or anything else about the nature of the alarm, it could simply report a location.

Here is a link to a bit about the basics of the fire alarm telegraph. Telegraph seems kind of antiquated by todays standards, but it's only in the last 25 years that most cities began to remove their fire alarm telegraph systems. A few cities still use their FAT systems, and some still swear by them. Here's some great history of the original fire alarm telegraph in Boston, MA, which is still in use today.

We had some questions on the origins of the two FAT systems in our St. Paul and Minneapolis fire departments. Our resident FAT expert, and club member Ron Pearson replyed to those inqiries, and struck out on his own to fill in a bit of missing history. Here is what he discoved so far.

In an email of 6/19/2002:

The fire alarm telegraph system was installed in St. Paul in 1873 beginning with a total of 15 boxes, all in the "downtown" or high value district of the city at that time. The cost of the installation was $6,500.00.

The fire alarm telegraph system was installed in Minneapolis (West Division) in October 1874 and expanded to the (East Division) in 1877. The East and West Divisions were amalgamated in 1878 into the Minneapolis Fire Department under one chief officer and command structure. It isn't until 1884 that the title of "Superintendent of Fire Alarm" appears ... The number of boxes in the initial installation is not stated in the reference material currently at hand. This information would have to be researched in old city council records which are not immediately available and would take some time.

Both Minneapolis and Saint Paul systems were GAMEWELL. Both cities abandoned the street telegraph box system in the late 1950's and early 1960's.

In an email of 6/20/2002:

You've peaked my interest and so I went digging. The Minneapolis Municipal Library had city council records back only to 1875 - no luck there.

The Minneapolis Public Library, Special Collections Section, had some clippings, bit-n-pieces, that I looked at and lo-n-behold I found it! The initial installation of fire alarm boxes in Minneapolis consisted of 14 boxes (October 7, 1874).

In some fire related articles in their files I found information to draw the assumption that the systems installed in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul at that time were of the Moses G. Farmer "Village System" patent -- boxes, automatic repeater, and either bell-striking or whistle-blowing machine -- no operators.

Both departments of that time period were "Volunteer". From an article based on the diary of the Minneapolis Volunteer Fire Chief recalling the early days, it stated that: 'At first bells and gongs sounded the fire alarm but in 1874 a Steam Whistle was placed on the paper mill, which Chief Brackett says, "proved very satisfactory, not only awakening the members of the fire department, but everyone else in town."

So there you have it:
Saint Paul installed 15 boxes in 1873 at a cost of $6,500 for the system Minneapolis installed 14 boxes in 1874, no cost figure found Both systems sold by Gamewell.


Part of the (second) St. Paul Fire Alarm Office located at Station 8, which was then at 8th Street and Minnesota (circa 1900).

Source: Minnesota Historical Society

St. Paul's Fire Alarm Telegraph


From Ron Pearson's further research on the origins
of the St. Paul Fire Alarm Telegraph:

From the "St. Paul Dispatch", Thursday, April 3, 1873

The Fire Alarm Telegraph
     All the machinery of the fire alarm telegraph was put into position to-day, and everything is now ready for business. The apparatus will be tested to-morrow at two o'clock, and a number of the City Council of Minneapolis and the heads of the Fire Department of that city have been invited to attend and witness the exhibition. The chief signal office is established in the private room of the Chief of Police at Police headquarters in the City Hall, and Mr. E.B. Birge the Engineer of Trout Brook steamer, is to be the operator

From the "St. Paul Dispatch", Saturday, April 5, 1873

Location of the Boxes and Distribution of Keys - The Signal made by Each Alarm - How to Read the Signals

The fire alarm having been subjected to a test with results in every was satisfactory to all concerned, having been accepted by the city, and being now relied upon for all alarms of fire, we give below the exact location of the alarm boxes the distribution of the keys, and the reading of the several signals.

Keys are carried by the Fire Department and police, and by the patrolmen of the police force, while for each box there is one key located as mentioned below.

We have heretofore mentioned that the boxes are not numbered in succession, to provide for additional boxes being put on new circuits when the system shall be more thoroughly extended over the entire city, while some numbers are necessarily omitted to avoid confusion of signals. The several boxes are located as follows:

  • No. 5. - Front of No. 3 engine house, corner of Ramsey and Fort streets. Key at the engine houses. Signal - five strokes. Then a pause and signal repeated with intervening pauses between each repetition.
  • No. 6. - Corner of Summit avenue, Third street, near the junction of Dayton avenue. Key at Dr. Mann's house. Signal - six strokes. Then a pause and signal repeated with intervening pauses between each repetition.
  • No. 7. - Corner of Third and Fort streets, Seven Corners. Key in Angier's drug store. Signal - seven strokes. Pauses and repetition as at boxes 5 and 6.
  • No. 12. - Corner of Third and Washington streets. Key at Metropolitan Hotel office, Signal - one stroke - pause - two strokes. Then a longer pause than the preceding one and then whole signal repeated.
  • No. 13. - Front of No. 1 engine house, St. Peter street near Seventh. Key at engine house. Signal - one stroke - pause- three strokes. Half minute pause and repetition as before.
  • No. 14. - Corner of Summit avenue and St. Peter street. Key at office of Park Place Hotel. Signal - one stroke - pause - four strokes, Half minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 15. - Corner of Wabashaw and Exchange streets. Key with janitor or night watchman at the Capitol. Signal - one stroke - pause - five strokes. Half minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 16. - Corner of Wabashaw and Third streets. Keys at Greenleaf's store and bridge office. Signal - one stroke - pause- six strokes. Half minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 21. - Corner of Robert and Eighth streets. Key at Tremont House office. Signal - two strokes - pause one stroke. Half a minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 23. - Corner of Robert and Twelfth streets. Key at John Wagner's store. Signal - two strokes - pause - three strokes. Half minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 24. - Corner of Jackson and Third streets. Key at office of Merchants Hotel. Signal - two strokes - pause - four strokes. Half a minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 25. - Front of No. 2 engine house, Seventh street near Wacouta. Key at engine house. Signal - two strokes - pause - five strokes. Half a minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 31. - Front of No. 4 engine house, Broadway, near Tenth street. Key at engine house. Signal - three strokes - pause - one stroke. Half a minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 32. - Corner of Mississippi and Nash streets. Key at Dana White's residence. Signal - three strokes - pause - two strokes. Half a minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 34. - Lafayette street, near junction of Westminster. Key at Horace Thompson's residence. Signal - three strokes - pause - four strokes. Half a minute pause and the whole signal repeated.
  • No. 35. - (Ordered but not yet put up.) Will be at the corner of Willius and Seventh streets. Signal - three strokes - pause - five strokes. Half a minute pause and the whole signal repeated.

Bear in mind that every alarm is repeated five times. In other cities the apparatus is constructed for but three repetitions, and this fact has led to mistakes in describing the working of the alarm here. Between each repetition there is a pause of over half a minute, while the pause between the two parts of any double signal is about a quarter of a minute.


If the bell strikes five, six or seven times, the alarm will be read as units and understood as from the box so numbered. But if the bell strikes one, two or three, and after a short pause commences another number, the first number should be read as tens and the second as units. Thus from box 12 the alarm would sound one stroke, meaning ten, and after a short pause two strokes for units, making 12. Box 21 would sound 2 strokes to be read as two tens or twenty and then, after a short pause, one stroke, making 21. Box 32 will sound 3 strokes to be read as thirty and then, after the pause, two strokes, making 32.


It should be borne in mind that all that is required to give an alarm is, when the outside door of the box is opened, to pull the knob projecting through a slit in the inner door down to the bottom of the slit. Nothing more is necessary and until the alarm is finished any further movement of the knob has no effect.

From the "St. Paul Dispatch", Wednesday, April 16, 1873


Regulations and Instructions by the Committee on Fire Department.

The Committee on Fire Department of the city Council yesterday adopted rules in regard to signals as follows:


The city is divided into two districts. No. 1 is that part of the city west of Wabashaw street and includes all the alarm boxes numbered from 21 to 35 inclusive. No. 2 is that part of the city east of Wabashaw street and includes the boxes numbered from 5 to 16 inclusive. If an alarm is sounded from either district the general alarm will be rung on the fire bells in that district while the bells in the other district will only sound the number of the alarm given. The firemen and engines in the district from which the alarm is given will come out for service, while in the other district they will merely be held ready for a second. If a second alarm is then made, all the bells in both districts will ring the general alarm and all the firemen will proceed with their apparatus to the location of the fire as indicated by the number of the alarm.


For the purpose of testing whether the apparatus is in working order, seven strokes will be sounded at 7 A.M. and twelve strokes at 12 P.M. each day. Two strokes, twice repeated, (22) at any time, will be a call for the Superintendent of the Fire Alarm. One stroke, twice repeated, (11) at any time, will be a call for the Chief Engineer of the Fire Department. At nine o'clock each evening, the Chief Engineer will call each engine house by the number of its engine, 1, 2, 3, and 4. If the engine is in working order the engineer will reply by giving the same number.

Note: In the descriptions of the systems to go into both cities, "Keys", are described. This refers to the fact that in these early fire alarm telegraphs the person wishing to turn in a fire alarm had to go to a nearby location and obtain a key to physically open the door to the fire alarm box in order to pull the alarm. The need to obtain the "key" would quickly be found not very practical.

Further research from our expert Ron Pearson:
"Finding no other reports of fires in either St. Paul newspapers between the time the Fire Alarm Telegraph system was activated on April 4th and the 7th of May 1873, I believe this to be the first alarm of fire transmitted by the Fire Alarm Telegraph in St. Paul from Box 12."

From the "St. Paul Dispatch", Thursday, May 8, 1873

The First Alarm Transmitted

Fire on Third Street.

Last night a fire was discovered by officer Putzier of the police force, in the basement of the house No. 308 Third street, directly under the clothing house of Goodmen & Lyon. Being unable to effect an entrance through the front door, owing to the intense smoke, he gave the alarm and forced an entrance through the rear, where he saw a number of empty boxes blazing briskly. The alarm was given from box twelve, and then a general alarm, and in a few minutes the entire department arrived on the spot. Meanwhile the fire had been kept in check by the hose belonging to the Metropolitan, which had been brought to bear on it by Mr. Dutcher and the engineer of the hotel. All danger was soon at end by the copious streams poured in from the engines, and the alarm quickly subsided. A few dollars will repair damages. About a year ago a fire broke out in the same place and burned a drug store.

From the "St. Paul Pioneer Press", Thursday, May 8, 1873

Fire Last Night. - About 11 o'clock last night an alarm of fire was given, though quite imperfectly. The alarm was occasioned by a very small fire discovered in the cellar of the store occupied by Messrs. Goodman & Lion, in the Brown block, adjoining the Metropolitan Hotel. Last fall this store was occupied as a drug store, and at that time was burned out. It is now devoted to gents' furnishing goods, hats, caps. The fire was in the rear part of the cellar, and the loss was very small, as the steamers were there in a moment and poured in water till in a few minutes there was at least two feet in the cellar. Loss very little.

A view in 1966 of the St. Paul Fire Alarm Office. Visible are the Gamewell Registers (front), the radio tranmitter console (left), the Gamewell box transmitter (rear, and below in photo), and the telephone switchboard (right).



Minneapolis Fire Alarm Telegraph


And... From Ron Pearson's further research on the origins
of the Minneapolis Fire Alarm Telegraph:

From the "Minneapolis Tribune", Friday, September 25, 1874


The New System Tested Yesterday and Found Perfect

It will be Ready for Service Tomorrow The Bell Tower to be Raised

The new fire alarm telegraph, ordered by the City Council of Gamewell & Co. of Chicago, having been put up under the supervision of Mr. D.B. Firman, Northwestern agent of the company, was examined and tested yesterday by the Committee on Fire Department of the City Council. The committee, consisting of Ald. Hardenberg, Grimshaw, Townsend and Bassett, met Mr. Firman and Chief Engineer Brackett at the City Hall and in company with representatives of the press, started on the grand rounds.

The alarm was given from all the different boxes about the city, and the line was found to be in perfect order, the bell at the Washington school building and the gongs in the different engine houses all striking the numbers correctly and at the same time. It was discovered, however, that as the bell tower now stands at the Washington school, it was impossible to hear the bell at any great distance from it. The tower is so low that the school house prevents the sound from being heard in the northern part of the city. Indeed, yesterday afternoon, the committee were able to hear the bell only in three places, viz: at the City Hall, at the corner of Hennepin avenue and Sixth street, and at the corner of Second street and Sixth avenue south. In North Minneapolis and along the upper portion of Tenth street, nothing could be heard at all, though the bell was rung as loudly as ever it was, by the alarm telegraph. It is a good bell and weighs 5,000 pounds, but stands too low.

The committee gave the whole system a thorough investigation, and decided to accept it as perfect. They will, however, make an urgent appeal to the Council to raise the bell tower at the Washington school twenty feet, and that at once. In its present condition it is almost useless.

The alarm will not be put in service until tomorrow as some little improvements are to be made before it will be entirely ready for use. Today, keys to the boxes will be distributed by the Chief Engineer. Each policeman will receive one and also some of the watchmen at the mills. Keys will also be placed with one or two parties living in the vicinity of each box, to whom application must be made to procure the key if there is a fire in the vicinity. A card will be placed on each box giving the names and residences of the parties having the keys. After the alarm is struck the bell in the tower and the gongs in the engine houses will each strike the number of the box four times so that it will be sure to be heard.


We present again the numbers and location of the boxes, which should be kept for reference. By hearing the number of the box, the exact location of a fire can be ascertained:

  • No. 12 - City Hall.
  • No. 13 - First National Hotel, corner of Washington avenue and Second avenue south
  • No. 14 - Central School House, corner of Third avenue south and Fifth street.
  • No. 15 - Corner of sixth avenue south and Second street.
  • No. 21 - Oil Works, corner of Tenth avenue south and Washington avenue.
  • No. 23 - Court House, corner of Eighth avenue south and Fourth street.
  • No. 24 - Corner of Sixth avenue south and Seventh street.
  • No. 31 - Corner of Fourth avenue south and Tenth street.
  • No. 32 - Corner of Hennepin avenue and Tenth street.
  • No. 34 - Corner of Hennepin avenue and Sixth street.
  • No. 41 - St. Paul & Pacific depot, corner of Washington avenue and Fourth avenue north.
  • No. 42 - Corner of Eighth avenue north and Washington avenue.
  • No. 43 - Corner of Plymouth avenue and First street.


If the bell strikes 1 - 11, the number is 12 - City Hall; if 1111 - 1, the number is 41 - St. Paul & Pacific Depot.


If a fire is discovered, go to the nearest box to the fire, pull the hook down once and let go. If possible, wait at the box, so as to direct the firemen to the fire.

1st. - Be careful that there is a fire before giving the alarm.
2nd. - Never pull the hook down when the bell in the box is striking.
3rd. - Never give the alarm for a fire seen at a distance or in the East Division.
4th. - Never open the box except in case of fire.
5th. - Be sure your box is locked before leaving it.
6th. - Never let the key go out of your possession until called for by the chief or assistant engineer and your receipt returned.
7th. - If you remove from your house or place of business, return the key to the chief engineer. Don't leave it with the new tenant.


A code of signals is being established for signals of "fire out", "more pressure," "fire in the East Division," calling the Department in the West Division, etc., which is given entirely by the engineer, and will be published as soon as the alarm is put in service.

From the "Minneapolis Tribune", Sunday, September 27, 1874


It Was Put in Service Last Evening - The Keys Distributed and the System Accepted

Yesterday the committee on the fire department of the City Council notified Mr. D.B. Firman, agent of Gamewell & Co., that they accepted the fire alarm telegraph and accordingly the system was put in service last evening. Most of the keys were distributed by the Chief Engineer and the public may now expect when they hear the alarm bell, in the Washington school tower, ring, that there is a fire, excepting of course, when it rings for school hours. The keys will all be distributed on Monday, and then the whole system will be ready for service. The value of this important addition to the arrangements for fire protection in the city cannot be over estimated, and the committee referred to above and the Chief Engineer are entitled to great credit for the attention which they shown in getting the alarm telegraph adopted and put up.

From the "Minneapolis Tribune", Thursday, October 8,, 1874

(The First Alarm through the system)

Loss Less than $1,000 - Mr. J.H. Heisser the Loser - A Stupid Fellow Gives the Alarm From the Wrong Box

Yesterday morning at about quarter past three o'clock and alarm of fire was struck from box thirteen, (First National Hotel). The Fire Department turned out at once, but could find no fire in the vicinity of that box. In a few moments, however, an alarm was rung from box twenty-four, (Seventh street and Sixth avenue south) and the firemen went up beyond Seventh street to find the fire on Park avenue, corner of Fifteenth street. The fire originated in a dwelling house recently built by J.H. Heisser, catching in the kitchen and speedily communicating to other parts of the house. Mr. Heisser with some difficulty removed his family from the upper portion of the building, and neighbors being aroused aid was rendered, and much of the furniture was saved, though in a damaged condition.

Mr. Heisser estimates his loss on building, (which he had but just completed) at $550; his loss on clothing and furniture at $200. Insurance, with the New York Underwriter's Agency in sums as follows: on building, $400; on furniture $150; on clothing, $350. It is thought that the fire originated from some defect of the flue.


It was nothing but sheer stupidity that caused the alarm to be rung from box 13. It seems that one of the boarders in the First National Hotel woke and saw the reflection of the flames, and without stopping to investigate, rushed down and told the clerk that there was a fire in the back yard. The clerk, without stopping to see if such was the fact, went out and rung the alarm, when in reality, the fire was more than a mile away.

It does seem strange that people cannot get it through their heads that the fire alarm is to be rung from the box nearest the fire, not nearest the person who happens to see the fire. The strokes of the alarm bell, as rung by the telegraph, designate the number of the box from which it is rung, and the firemen hearing it go immediately to that box. If a man sees a fire in North Minneapolis, it will do no good to give the alarm from the box at City Hall, as the firemen will come right to City Hall and not go to North Minneapolis. To get them to North Minneapolis, the alarm must be given from the box in that part of the city, and the bell will indicate exactly where the alarm has been given and in what vicinity the fire is.

Some of the directions of the Chief Engineer will be instructive reading for those people who don't understand this fire alarm system yet. We give them:

If a fire is discovered, go to the nearest box to the fire, pull the hook down once and let it go.
If possible, wait at the box, so as to direct the firemen to the fire.
Be careful that there is a fire before giving the alarm.
Never pull the hook when the bell in the box is striking.
Never give the alarm for a fire seen at a distance or in the East Division.



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