Retired fire chief pens book about Fire Department

In his 32 and a half years with the Alpena Fire Department, retired Fire Chief Frank Matthews saw his share of destructive fires. The worst one he ever experienced took the lives of two young children on Minor and 10th streets.

“That one bothered me the most in my whole career, primarily because we couldn’t get into them,” Matthews said. “I believe the fire was started by a kid playing with gasoline that was ignited by a water heater.”

The biggest fire Matthews remembers happened in 1993 when an act of arson resulted in a fire in the former Master’s Men’s Store on Chisholm Street that then spread to three other businesses in downtown Alpena.

“That one did quite a bit of damage,” he said. “Luckily no one got hurt.”

Matthews has compiled his recollections of different fires and a history of the department into a recently published 106-page book called, “The History of the Alpena Fire Department as I know It.”

“It’s something I had in mind to do for a long time,” said Matthews, who joined the department as a fire fighter in 1969 under former Chief Franklin “Tanky” McKim. “It’s just the old stories and the different things I experienced. It took a lot of research.”

Matthews, who retired in 2001, did his research on the Internet as well as in old records at the fire station. He combed through online editions of old Alpena newspapers, including The Alpena Argus. The rest of his content came from old stories passed along by others and his own personal experiences, which included his 26 years as fire inspector/fire marshal and his time as deputy chief, a position now called fire chief.

The book catalogs many of the fires that occurred each year in Alpena from the later 1800s through 1936, starting in 1862 with a fire that began in the woods on Fourth Street and spread to a sawmill that was under construction.

Matthews said in the early days, the city was divided into first, second and third wards.

“When a call would come from say the third ward, the whistle would blow three times signaling the location of the fire,” Matthews said in his book. “The pumpers were drawn by horse which were kept in the rear area of the Central Station on Third and River. When the Central was torn down, some of the wainscoting in that area showed signs of the horses gnawing on the wood.”

According to his book, the first steam engine used in Alpena was named the Sahgonahkato, and tradition has it that this newly purchased pumper was on board a ship headed to Alpena when it was diverted to Chicago to aid in the combating of the Great Chicago.

Today, that vintage engine is on exhibit at the Besser Museum.

His chronicles of past fires in Alpena picks up again in the 1970s and continues on year by year through 1995. Many of the later ones include the cause or origin, which was his area of specialty. Featured in the books as well are a number of historic photos of past fires. He also talks about how the ambulance service first got started in Alpena.

Matthews will do a book signing Dec. 7 from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Olivet Book and Gift. His book was published by Printers Edge in Saginaw. For more information about the book, contact Matthews at