From the Archives…

Tucson’s first fire chief also a utility pioneer! 

Many local firefighters know that Frank E. “Red” Russell was the city’s first fire chief, elected in 1898 to oversee the newly formed Tucson Volunteer Fire Department. What is less known was that he was also general manager of the Tucson Gas, Electric, Light and Power Co. – the precursor of today’s Tucson Electric Power (TEP).

Russell, a native Englishman who owned a local machinery repair and bicycle shop, was also manager of Tucson Rapid Transit Co. The 19th century transit company, now known as Sun Tran, oversaw operations of the city’s streetcar system on Congress Street (which, in the early 1900s, became rather infamous for frequent tramcar derailments.)

Details of Chief Russell’s life and work can be found in the online archives of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation. The collection of historic documents has been compiled by Al Ring, a local historian, former volunteer firefighter and friend of the Tucson Fire Department.

By piecing together various documents, photos, newspaper articles and other items from the archives, one learns that Tucson’s first fire chief helped establish Armory Park and the Temple of Music and Art, generated funding to build the city’s first sewage system, and invented a “gas pressure device” following a local gas plant explosion. You’ll also find a 1905 legal document exempting him (as a charter member of the volunteer fire department) from military service, and from paying poll, road or street taxes.

In 1912, Russell – by then a retired fire chief – was tasked with procuring a deed for the department’s first business headquarters from engineer Fritz Hesse and his wife, Catherine Collier Hesse. The online archive includes a hand-drawn map of the planned construction site, located on the northeast quadrant of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street.

Particularly interesting is the former chief’s 1916 letter to the city council, advising them to sell off outdated equipment (four horses and a hose cart) in order to be able to pay firefighters.

Archived newspaper articles reveal even more details: After working on the crew of a 19th century sailing ship and weathering a particularly rough crossing, Russell decided to give up the life of a mariner for “safer” work – as a laborer at a San Francisco gas plant. He became a post-hole digger for Western Union Telegraph Co., was transferred westward, and ended up in Tucson in 1892. When

When Russell died in 1923, Tucson flags were lowered to half staff, and his pallbearers included civic leaders Harry A. Drachman and Albert Steinfeld. Russell is buried in Block 16 at Tucson Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.

The entire Tucson Fire Department historic archive is available at archive.

For more on Chief Russell, click on the Honor Roll and Membership Information link.

– Bryn Bailer

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