Michael Ratcliffe says that among the numerous photographs in his newly released book, Trenton Firefighting, he is mostly fascinated by the old images of horse-drawn engines and steamers.
“It’s hard to imagine how (the firemen) did what they did,” says the journalist-turned-professional Lawrence Township fireman. “The firefighters of the 19th and early 20th century were supermen.
They did incredible things with limited resources. It’s a romantic image—steam and horses running, and the risks they took and fires they fought. It must have been something to see.”
Ratcliffe, a Lawrence Township resident, says the work on the book goes back some 20 years when he was a Times of Trenton city desk reporter covering crimes and fires and developed a collegial relationship with the Trenton Fire Department.
Ratcliffe said the city’s fire department was participating in a celebratory parade at the start of the millennium, and then-fire chief Dennis Keenan asked him to write a history of the department.
Ratcliffe says he agreed and started collecting and preparing information. But when the event was canceled, the Lawrenceville resident says, “All that research got boxed up and sat up in my attic and gathered dust.”
While out of sight, it wasn’t out of mind, and Ratcliffe says Keenan frequently asked about the information and said it should be put to use.
Ratcliffe says that talk turned to action in late 2018 after he accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of the Meredith Havens Fire Museum, located in the Trenton Fire Department’s headquarters building on Perry Street.
“(Keenan) showed me the archive room at the museum, and I was fascinated. It’s a treasure trove of materials, and you never know what you’re going to find. I got myself interested in the history book again,” Ratcliffe says.
Then in early 2019, he says, “I really started getting into it seriously. That involved going through a lot of the archives in the firehouse and my priority was to get (information) scanned. I started visiting the Trentoniana collection in the Trenton Free Public Library and met (archivist) Laura Poll.” — who introduced Ratcliffe to the library’s collection of fire department records and historic photographs.
“For almost an entire year I would go there Tuesday nights and Saturdays. It was amazing that I was holding documents detailing the fires they had back then. It was fascinating.
“Then COVID-19 hit. It made researching harder, and I thought that it was time to get the book done. It took 18 months of research and six months editing and production.”
The son of a Metuchen volunteer fire department captain says his interest in firefighting “is something that has been around my entire life. Some of my earliest memories are at the firehouse. I was allowed to explore the engine room and climb on the fire trucks. That was my playground. It was always something in my life. I remember the firehouse picnics.”
He says his interest got stronger when after he graduated St. Joseph’s High School and moved to Lawrence to attend Rider University in 1992, and became a volunteer with the Lawrence Fire Department. “That fire service and history has always been with me,” he says, adding, “I came to Lawrence and never left.”
A communications major on a full scholarship, Ratcliffe says he was also attracted to Rider because of the college’s semester abroad program and went to London to study. He also connected with a fire department in East London that welcomed him and allowed him to participate in fire calls.
When he returned to Rider and was continuing to meet his requirements, he mentioned his London firefighter experience to Rider journalism professor Tom Simonet.
Simonet had a close working connection to the editors of the Times of Trenton and encouraged Ratcliffe to write about that experience and offer it to them.
The result was that the editors were interested in a young writer with firefighting experience who could follow the police scanners.
“They put me on the crime beat and got me to cover fires. I got a great appreciation for the Trenton firefighters and wanted to see more. So when nothing was going on at the paper I would go through the microfilm files and start learning about all the larger-than-life-firefighters.”
Ratcliffe’s tenure spans from the summer of 1994 to January of 2009, when the paper began downsizing and offer staff buyouts. “It was a rough time at the end,” he says. “I freelanced for a while and got a job as an editor at the Lawrenceville Patch and got lucky enough to get a full-time job as a firefighter.”
When he returned to researching the book, Ratcliffe says the digitization of information was a great help, but he still needed to depend on old-fashioned detective work and find multiple sources to “pin down” information.
He says between the time he started gathering information in the late 1990s and 2018, when he got serious about creating the book, research became easier, and a combination of digital technology and old fashioned detective work helped him verify facts — like fire department staff changes — through multiple sources.
Starting with the fact that firefighting in Trenton started before there was a United States and even a City of Trenton, the book uses mainly photographs grouped into eras to tell the story of Trenton’s firefighters.
“I could have taken a different tack and done something other than a chronological approach. But I wanted to give a comprehensive history as space would allow. I had limitations on how much text to use on a page, but I wanted to provide a comprehensive overview of important events and fill out the background of people involved.”
He said it was also important to pay tribute to “the early era of firefighting and guys coming on as paid staff. They were on duty all the time. They would live at the firehouse and go to fires, get beat up putting out fires, go back to the firehouse, and then do it all over. It is a testament to their endurance.”
He also wanted to present the dramatic moments of Trenton firefighting history. If one fire can show the drama of Trenton firefighting it is the 1915 Roebling Factory fire — suspected of being part of a pre-World War I German sabotage effort (after the Roebling Company received a U.S. military-related contract).
“It is said to be the worst fire in Trenton’s history,” says Ratcliffe. “From the descriptions in the newspapers, you could see how these guys were behind the eight-ball. It was a wonder they didn’t lose more of the buildings so close to them. There were many fires at the Roebling plant — fires and Roebling went hand-to-hand.”
Ratcliffe says he approached Arcadia Publishing — the company known for its images of America series — because he seen several of their other books on firefighting and thought it would be a good fit.
Looking ahead to the potential of another book, Ratcliffe says, “There is more than enough material to do another volume on Trenton. There are more than enough stories to tell. And maybe I’ll do something on Metuchen, and there is a thought of doing a similar work with Lawrence Township. I can see myself doing another book. My interest is there, and there is more to find.”
The current book is being sold with proceeds going to the Meredith Havens Fire Museum and the Trentoniana Collection.
“Trenton Firefighting,” by Michael Ratcliffe, 128 pages, $21.95, Arcadia Press.