Sonora was lucky in the beginning, with only one small fire in 1849. But in 1852 it had its greatest fire, beginning at 1 AM at a hotel at the south end of Washington Street, apparently the result of a guest falling asleep while smoking a cigar. The fire spread up Washington Street, burning nearly every building in its path, to about where the fire museum is now standing.
As a result of the fire, the streets crossing Washington--narrow alleys--were widened, as was Washington Street itself, eliminating a Mexican-style central plaza at the south end.
After the fire, the City of Sonora organized a Fire Department. After a smaller fire in 1854, the city fire department was replaced with four independent fire companies. This was chaotic because a merchant would have to pay a fee to all four companies to insure that a fire at his business would be put out. Later, state law, in response to extortion and arson involving over-competitive fire companies, reduced the number of fire companies allowed in small cities.
Unlike Columbia, which purchased hand-operated pump engines that it used to pump water from underground cisterns, Sonora was well-supplied by a system of pipes from several reservoirs in the hills above the city.
By the 1870s, however, there continued to be fires in the hills at or above the level of the reservoirs that could not be fought by the gravity-flow of water. A new fire company was formed, the Eureka Engine Company No. 1, and the hand pumper in the fire museum here today was bought from a manufacturer in Waterford, New York, shipped around Cape Horn, and put into service in 1876.
There was also a second fire company, the Independent Hose and Chemical Company No. 2. These two independent fire companies served Sonora for over a century.
When a fire was recognized, someone would find one of the red boxes mounted on poles around the city, open the door, and pull a lever, signaling the fire station. This would result in the ringing of the large bell on top of the building, and the volunteer firemen would arrive and look for smoke.
Just north of the fire museum is a small hand cart with a soda-acid fire extinguisher.