The statue on Fireman’s Fountain downtown has a storied history
He’s been on duty for 126 years, standing sentry through rain, sleet, snow and dark of night. When he began his watch, the population of Chattanooga was 29,000. Grover Cleveland was president. Who is he? He’s the statue atop Chattanooga’s Fireman’s Fountain.
June 9, 1887 was a typical summer day for the men of the Chattanooga Fire Department’s Lookout Company—until 4 p.m., when they received the alarm that would change their lives forever. The alarm sounded from Box 25—the new Standard Gas Machine & Economizer—adjacent to the Beehive General Store at the corner of 4th and Market Streets.
Chief Whiteside was in command, and firefighters Henry Iler and William “Matt” Peak went to lay a line at the rear of the store. Just as they got there, an explosion rained red-hot bricks on them. Iler was completely buried and likely died instantly; Peak was armpit-deep. He died later that night, leaving a widowed bride of only six weeks.
The Chattanooga Times newspaper donated $100 to kick off the relief fund. In two days, a plan had been formulated to honor the sacrifice of these two brave men. Chattanooga has a reputation for being a generous town, and the giving prompted by this tragedy was an early example of that. The morning of their funeral, the newspaper printed, “It has been suggested that as a monument, a large fountain be erected in a public place surmounted by a life-size figure of a fireman with a nozzle in hand from which a stream of water is pouring.”
A year to the hour after the tragedy, a parade formed at city hall, and those assembled walked to the chosen site—a triangular plot across from the courthouse, which became “Fountain Square.” Adolph Ochs, publisher of the Chattanooga Times, had traveled to New York City and contracted with the J.L. Mott Iron Company for the fountain.
It was one of the largest such companies of the day, but when they heard the purpose of the fountain, they discounted the price—from $1,800 to $1,200. Local orator Col. Tomlinson Fort, speaking at the dedication, said, “As long as this fountain shall stand, members of the Chattanooga Fire Department will be ready to risk their lives to save the lives and property of the city’s people.”
Little did any of them know that, all these years later, not only does the Fountain still stand, it has become a place for the Fire Department and citizens to pay homage and respects to Chattanooga’s Bravest. The Chattanooga Fire Department uses it annually for their remembrance ceremony, kicking off Fire Prevention Month in October. After 9/11, citizens left mementos there—a way to honor sacrifices made so near and yet so far away.
Then Chief, now County Mayor, Jim Coppinger said it best: “The word ‘hero’ is frequently overused in referring to sports stars and other celebrities, but I steadfastly reserve the word ‘hero’ for the type of people we honor here today.”