Running on Horsepower: the Chincoteague Fire Department
by Sam Serio
One of the biggest dangers facing any island community is that of fire. It was because of two fires that the legendary Chincoteague Island ponies and the Chincoteague Fire Department forged a bond in 1925 which has lasted to this day.
Until 1922, the only way to reach or leave our Island was by boat. Chincoteague, like many early 20th century small towns, consisted of wooden structures and narrow streets. Aware of their vulnerability, the townspeople in 1905 voted to purchase a small hand pump and fire engine. The fire engine saw use in July of the following year, when the town playhouse and pier both burned.
Chincoteague's fire fighters were still an unorganized group of volunteers on September 5, 1920, when at 1:00 AM fire broke out in Doughty's Ice Cream Parlor on Church Street and quickly spread through much of the town's eastern business district. The fire engine failed to work, and more than a dozen buildings burned, including the magnificent Atlantic Hotel with its all-glass annex and colored windows.
Fire struck again at 9:00 PM February 25, 1924, in a barrel factory on North Main in the western part of the business district. A snowstorm hindered the volunteer fire department's efforts, and within three hours, the fire had destroyed the barrel factory, the railroad dock, the town's ice cream house, the Whealton Oyster Company dock and office, and the Whealton Mercantile Company,
Following the second fire, the town decided to start collecting funds to properly organize and equip the volunteer fire department, and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department was born. But the new Fire Department needed to raise a significant amount of money in a relatively short time, so they turned for help to the most precious of the islandís resources, its wild ponies.
With the help of the townspeople, the Fire Department organized a Firemen's Carnival complete with a Pony Penning and Auction for the last week of July, 1925. During the inaugural auction, the firemen sold more than fifteen pony foals and began the tradition that now sees crowds approaching 50,000, who come each July to bid on the ponies. Between 1999 and 2008, the Chincoteague Fire Department has earned well in excess of $2,000,000 from the Pony Auction alone.
In 1947, the Chincoteague Fire Department assumed ownership of the ponies which now graze at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island. They have introduced both mustangs and purebred Arabians into the herd to bolster its genetic lines. They also use part of the money from the auctions to examine the herd twice a year and provide it with supplemental feed and medical treatment.
The collaboration of humans and ponies means that The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department has had a stately brick firehouse on Main Street since 1930, where it houses four pumper engines, a 75-foot ladder, two state-of-the-art ambulances, and a rescue truck. And all of them are run on "horsepower!"