The Columbia Volunteer Fire Department Engine Co. No. 1 that owns Station 74 at 11328 Jackson St. in Columbia, as well as three historic hose carts, two hand pump engines, and four antique internal combustion fire vehicles, is in a dispute with Columbia State Historic Park, the nonprofit organization’s president said Tuesday.

Ron Montoya, president of the group that owns, maintains and displays firefighting history dating back to the Gold Rush town’s origins in the 1850s, said they may have to vacate the state park and, if that happens, they will take their historic fire apparatus with them.

“Basically the state wants to become co-management with the engine company,” Montoya, 72, said Tuesday. “They never had a co-management role with us before. Never.”

Columbia Volunteer Fire Department Engine Co. No. 1 is not to be confused with Columbia Fire Protection District, which rents Station 74 from the nonprofit group.

The history of organized firefighting in Columbia is as old as the town itself, which dates back to 1850. The first miners were tent dwellers who did bucket brigades when tents caught fire. By 1860, the town had at least one hose cart, the Papeete, Engine No. 452, a two-cylinder hand pump apparatus built in Boston in 1852, and at least one hose company.

Montoya says the Columbia Volunteer Fire Department Engine Co. No. 1 represents those earliest organized firefighters in the town, and their history obviously predates Columbia State Historic Park, which was founded in 1945.

“According to our stationary we were founded in 1852,” Montoya said. “For a few years when they first got started they were a bucket brigade. The hose company formed in 1855. Papeete was purchased in May 1859. We’ve always been independent. We predate the creation of the state historic park. The state park was created in the 1940s, and we remained independent from the state, and we remain independent to this day. We have worked with the state since 1945.”

In 1950, Columbia Volunteer Fire Department Engine Co. No. 1 agreed to a special concession agreement with the state for the use of the Main Street Fire House to store its historic equipment, Montoya said.

It is the only agreement the nonprofit has had with the state since 1950, Montoya said.

“They put it to us a couple weeks ago that if we don’t re-negotiate with the state, they will terminate the 1950 agreement,” Montoya said. “The way we interpret this is they will kick us out of the state park. This is the way we are taking it.”

The Main Street Fire House is the one building the nonprofit group now uses in the state park, Montoya said. If they are forced to vacate that building, he said they will have to pull the Papeete and Monumental hand pump engines out.

Montoya said they would likely store Papeete at Station 74, located at Bigler and Jackson streets, but they still haven’t figured out what they would do with the Monumental due to its size.

Efforts to reach Danielle Gerhart, superintendent of Columbia State Historic Park, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Montoya says that, since 1950, the state has attempted to revisit terms of the 1950 agreement between the nonprofit and the state. Sporadically, the state has come to Columbia Volunteer Fire Department Engine Co. No. 1 to try to renegotiate details, but no updated terms have ever been agreed to, Montoya said.

“The 1950 agreement is still the only binding agreement we have with the state,” Montoya said Tuesday. “We do not want to enter into any partnership with the state. We never had them in there, we still don’t need to have them in there, and we don’t trust them. We remain solvent. We are not asking the state for financial support. We never will.”

The state sent the nonprofit Columbia Volunteer Fire Department Engine Co. No. 1 a 50-page letter, Montoya said.

“We’ve been doing fine,” Montoya said. “We don’t see a reason to co-manage with the state or anybody else because we’re doing fine, and we have been for a long time.”

Columbia Volunteer Fire Department Engine Co. No. 1 remains independent and self-supporting by raising about $10,000 annually, when they can, Montoya said. 

The nonprofit receives rent for leasing Station 74 to Columbia Fire Protection District, and its members also receive money from the county Roads Department for placing and removing traffic barriers from time to time in Columbia.

They also sell T-shirts to raise a couple thousand dollars a year, and they share some of their proceeds with autistic youngsters, and members afflicted with disease or fighting cancer, Montoya said.

“We haven’t been out for a couple years due to the virus and this year looks kind of doubtful,” Montoya said. “We like to bring in $10,000 a year to break even, but I don’t think we’ve made that the past couple years. But we’re still solvent. We’re independent. We’re a nonprofit organization. We try to give away $100 a meeting to the local crisis center, to local students with autism, and we raise funds from time to time for members who become ill, including cancer.”

The bottom line, Montoya said, is the nonprofit Columbia Volunteer Fire Department Engine Co. No. 1 is not interested in partnering with the state.

We did fine before the state came around,” he said. “We’ve been doing fine since the state took over the park. We’re fine on our own. We’re independent.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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