The museum's artifacts, some of which date back to the 19th century, take you back to a time before flame-retardant uniforms and hydraulic ladders. In one corner a rusted, antique ladder stands next to a picture of such a ladder in use. In it, a firefighter hooks the ladder onto a second story window and climbs up. When he reached the window sill he would then unhook the ladder from below and hook it on the next story's window, and so on. The feat looks blood-chillingly dangerous in and of itself - never mind that the man in the picture is climbing into a building being consumed with flames.
Other exhibits, like the horse drawn 1903 Metropolitan model fire engine, similarly transport you back to the early days of firefighting. The display near a 1900 hand-drawn hose reel says that in the early 20th century, firefighters were like celebrity ball players. People would pack the streets to see their heroes compete in drills and contests.
As you leave, notice the Fallen Firefighters' Memorial and take a moment to reflect upon the sacrifices of the firefighters whose names are on the wall. They were killed in the line of duty, protecting ordinary people. Today, we don't often pile into the streets to cheer our firefighters on; they are often taken for granted. The Columbia Fire Department Museum's simple, engaging storytelling manages to give the visitor renewed respect for firefighters' heroism and sacrifice.
The museum is located at the entrance of the Columbia Fire Department Headquarters at 1800 Laurel St. It is open weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m and on weekends by appoinment. Admission is free.