The Washington Fire Company
The Glory Years in Atlantic City, 1954-1967
By Jack Coll
October 15, 2019
I was caught in rush-hour traffic on West Elm Street about a week or-so ago and it took about three traffic lights for me to turn onto the Matsonford Bridge. As I sat in the driver’s seat listening to Rod Stewart, I found myself staring at the Washington Fire Company building. The garage doors were open, the trucks sitting quietly in the bays and I was feeling relived that things seemed normal at the firehouse following a rough summer for the fire fighters who serve us as volunteers.
As I drifted forward waiting for my turn at the light to get on the bridge and as I continued to stare at the Washington Fire Company it triggered a memory going back to 1954 when the members of the fire company participated in the Atlantic City Firemen’s Convention Parade. Washies, along with Conshohocken Fire Company No 2, participated in the Atlantic City parade from 1954 until 1967. And man did they have stories to tell, stories that still drift in and out of the firehouse even more than a half a century later.
Below I took an excerpt from the book, “Tales of Conshohocken and Beyond” written by Jack and Brian Coll. Take a few minutes, I think you’ll love the story and perhaps for the rest of your life every time you drive past the Washington Fire Company you too, will think about the Atlantic City years.
The early firemen of the Washington Fire Company enjoyed going to parades throughout the State of Pennsylvania in the late 1800’s and would often travel to places like Allentown, Norristown, and Phoenixville to strut their stuff and bring home a trophy or two. For more than a decade, the Washington Fire Company owned the Atlantic City, New Jersey parade circuit. The Fireman’s Parade in Atlantic City started in 1954, when Atlantic City-known at the time as “America’s Playground”–was celebrating its Centennial having been incorporated in 1854.
The Washington Fire Company was invited to the celebration, and so began the love affair with the Washies of Conshohocken and the parade circuit of Atlantic City. On a fall day in September, special early morning trains left Conshohocken Pennsylvania Railroad Station on a non-stop express trip to Atlantic City. More than 250 firemen from Washies, Conshohocken Fire Company No 2, and the George Clay Fire Company of West Conshohocken participated in the parade.
The Washies had 93 members dressed in full parade uniforms carrying horns filled with bright yellow chrysanthemums. They were accompanied by 35 members of Norristown’s Verdi Band, directed by Professor Loretto Marsella. Number 2 Fire Company had 75 members dressed and also carried flower filled horns. Each Company had one fire truck in the parade. Number 2 Fire Company had three buses for its marching members and equipment and another 13 buses for spectators. Washies used the train, buses and automobiles for transportation.
The three mile long parade route along Atlantic Avenue carried 135 Fire Departments with more than 8,000 marching firemen. When the winners of the parade were announced from Steel Pier later that night, the Washington Fire Company had won six of the ten trophies presented and more than twenty five percent of the prize money, including the grand $500. For best uniformed company with apparatus, band and other components. Washies won First Prize of $100. For the best band with a fire company, New Jersey State President’s Trophy for best all-around company, City of Atlantic City Trophy for the best band with a marching unit, and First Prize for the largest uniformed company in line.
And, by-the-way, Conshohocken Fire Company No. 2 took home Second Grand Prize out of 135 participating companies, winning $200. For the second largest uniformed company with apparatus, band and other components. One hundred, two hundred and five hundred dollars might not sound like much but this was 1954, my friend, and the average income for a working family was about $3,500 per year.
When members of the Conshohocken Fire Companies reached Atlantic City in 1954, they took over the entire Louvan Hotel on Tennessee Avenue. The hotel, as you might expect, was owned and operated by Mrs. E. F. Wellhofer, a former Conshohocken resident and sister of Philip Ford who lived on Forrest Street a stone’s throw from the Washington Fire Company.
Each Conshohocken Fire Company had mascots in uniform. Jesse Stemple, seven years old, was a mascot of the Washington Fire Company and Stanley Thomas, also seven was mascot for Fire Company No. 2.
Atlantic City in 1954 was a good time for all involved, according to the late Ken Chabaud, a longtime Washies fireman who participated in a number of parades. Chabaud noted that hundreds of Conshohocken residents would be cheering along the parade route, making the firemen feel like they were in Conshohocken. Ken also noted that Sam Januzelli ran a tight ship with the Washies firemen. “No one was allowed to drink before the parade, no one.” But after the parade was a totally different story.
For years to come, members of the Washington Fire Company and Conshohocken Fire Company No 2 would party like it was 1999. Remember, Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City during the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s signified Atlantic City’s nickname, “America’s Playground.” Superstars of the day would appear on Kentucky Avenue at legendary clubs like “Grace’s Little Belmont,” “Club Harlem,” and “Wonder Gardens. Entertainers like Jackie Wilson, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Louie Armstrong, James Brown, Sam Cook, Pearl Bailey, and Nat King Cole were just of few of the performers honing their skills along Kentucky Avenue at that time.
Over the next ten years, the Washington Fire Company brought home more prize money and more trophies that any other fire company in the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Ohio despite the fact that the rules changed every year to discourage outside fire units from taking home the money.
In 1955, a new rule was installed that the President’s Trophy could only be awarded to the best all-around unit from New Jersey. That didn’t stop the Washies from winning the Grand Prize Trophy and $500 for the second year in a row, and Number 2 coming in Second Place with a $200 prize. During the heyday of the Atlantic City Parades, the Washington Fire Company had up to 120 men in uniform march—as well as up to 50 members of the Ladies Auxiliary—and won many prizes along the way.
Number 2 Fire Company had up to 85 men marching in the parade along with a Ladies Auxiliary. Both Fire Companies would march down to the train platform in Conshohocken the morning of a parade and board the trains in full dress uniform. Both companies would be led by a band, and both companies would send their trucks into Atlantic City, departing in the early morning hours.
In 1961, nearly 80,000 parade spectators jammed Atlantic City’s parade route to cheer on the more than 150 fire companies participating in the State Firemen’s Parade. For the fifth time in seven years, the Washington Fire Company took home top honors in several categories, including “Best All Around Company and the $500 prize. Of course Washies won several other categories, resulting in the need for an armored truck to haul the prize money and trophies back to Conshohocken. By the way, the two years Washies didn’t win, they took second place.
Leading the company marching unit as he had from the beginning was Drill Master Sam Januzelli, dressed in a plain navy blue regulation uniform that served as backdrop for the bright yellow chrysanthemums, the company’s official flower. Januzelli led the marchers every year Washies participated. Sam strived for perfection, and at the fire company’s peak, nearly 120 firemen marched each year during the A. C. parade.
The 1961 Washies parade contingent was led by their President, Alex Pecharo, and other company officials. The marching Washies were fronted by the 80 member American Legion Band of Bethlehem who, at the time, held the State American Legion Band Championship. Following the more than 100 marching Washies in ’61 was the Ladies Auxiliary Unit led by then President Dorothy Weidamoyer and Drill Instructor Dorothy Pishock. The Ladies Auxiliary also won First Place among Auxiliaries. The Washies Juniors were led by Vice President Tommy Barnet and Drill Master Jesse Stemple III. Mayor James “Pat” Mellon and Conshohocken Council President and onetime Washies President Joseph Burns marched the full length of the parade route which consisted of more than three miles.
By the mid 1960’s, the two Conshohocken Fire Companies had walked away with thousands of dollars in prize money and dozens of trophies. The Washington Fire Company left an impression throughout the eastern part of the United States as the best marching Fire Department and the hardest partying Fire Company in the state of Pennsylvania.
In the years following the 1954 parade victories, the Washington Fire Company spent many a convention night at the Pittsburgh Hotel, the boardwalk outside Steel Pier, and down along Kentucky Avenue. By 1967, all fire companies outside the state of New Jersey were no longer eligible for prize money or trophies at the N. J. Firemen’s State Convention Parade, effectively barring Conshohocken from winning any further prizes. Firehouse sources claimed it was the “Conshohocken Rule,” namely that parade organizers were tired of giving money to Conshohocken.
When Conshohocken stopped participating in the parades, the decline of Atlantic City was well underway. According to Turiya S. A. Raheem, who wrote a book on Atlantic City’s decline called “Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the North Side” (Available at Amazon.com) A 1968 shootout that killed a pregnant women at Club Harlem closed it down, although it did reopen from time to time until it was razed some years ago. Other clubs along the famed Kentucky Avenue had long been closed due to the drug trade and violence. Boardwalk Hotels, some more than 100 years old, had fallen into disrepair, and the crowds that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands for Firemen’s State Convention Parades had dwindled. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were not kind to Atlantic City…not until 1977 when the word CASINO appeared on the Resorts Hotel. But for the Conshohocken Fire Companies, the love affair with Atlantic City was over. The thrill was gone.
To this day, more than a half a century later, no fire company in Pennsylvania, or any other surrounding state for that matter, has ever done it as well as Sam Januzelli and he boys and girls from the Washington Fire Company.
So, when was the very first parade the Washington Fire Company of Conshohocken participated in? Well according to my research, that occurred shortly after incorporation in 1874. Members of the Washies purchased a horse-drawn water carriage from Fame Hose Company No 1 of Wilmington Delaware. In anticipation of its arrival, sixteen members of the Washies purchased special shirts, hats, and belts and became the first marching unit of the company. The unit made its very first appearance on March 28, 1874, accompanied by the Norristown Band and a delegation of the wagon’s former owners from Wilmington, Delaware. They paraded from the West Conshohocken Freight Station, across the old iron bridge and through the streets of the borough.
A large number of borough residents turned out to view the new apparatus, which stopped at First Avenue and Fayette Street to give a demonstration. The new steamer threw a stream of water through on one-and-a-quarter-inch hose over the roof of the four story Washita Hall. Following the exhibition, the apparatus was housed in an old stable belonging to George Washington Jacoby. The stable was once located on the corner of Hector and Forrest Streets, later the site of Conshohocken’s Borough Hall. You won’t believe this, but following the parade and housing ceremonies, the fireman entertained all involved with dinner and just a few drinks—I said just a FEW drinks—at Ralph Farrow’s Hotel.
Some things have changed over the years, the names change but the commitment remains, Joe Thomas, Stanley Thomas members of the Stemple family, and Costello family, Sam Januzelli, Chick McCarter, Dave Zinni and Andrew Carlin. I don’t believe we could begin to scratch the surface of the great firemen who have protected and served this community from both Conshohocken Fire Companies and their volunteers.
Conshohocken has a need for our fire companies and firefighters. Let’s just hope and pray that the commitment of our community never waivers in the support of these fine organizations.
Back in 1947, fireman Elmer White penned this little ditty known as “The Washies Theme Song,” sang to the tune of Beer Barrel Polka. Come-on, you know this:
Here comes the Washies
Marching along in their Blue
Here comes the Washies
Always known to be true
Let’s get together
Give them a hand and a cheer
Now’s the time to hail the Washies
For the gangs all here
Well that’s the story of the Washies and the Atlantic City Firemen’s Parade glory years, also the story of this community, their commitment to travel by car, bus and train to support our fire companies, man, I wish I could have been there, I’ll bet it was something to see!
Thanks for the memories!