Ed Uline and Larry Morse still turn up at the Union fire station pretty much every morning for coffee.
Lifelong friends who grew up only a few doors apart and close to the station, they’ve each served as company foreman and spent years in the ranks of Ballston Spa fire chiefs. At age 85, each of them brings 67 years of fire-fighting experience — with dramatic and tragic memories — to the break room table.
On April 25, they’ll be recognized at Union’s annual dinner as two of the founders of the fire company as it is today, with a modern firehouse and bays filled with shining apparatus.
“The knowledge those two guys have is irreplaceable,” said Robert Roy, the current captain at Union Fire Co., which is one of two volunteer companies that make up the Ballston Spa Fire Department.
When young, both men had family and friends who were inspirational firefighters, and they joined as soon as they turned age 18.
When Uline and Morse joined the company in 1948 it had a one-bay firehouse and a single truck, a 1944 Mack the Army sold cheap when World War II ended before it could be shipped to Italy.
Firefighter training was much different than it is today, and fires much more likely to be explosively advanced than before most homes had smoke detectors.
“When we first came in, there were no schools. They said come in and watch the older firemen and learn from them,” recalled Uline, who was the company’s head mechanic for 50 years, and still gets under a truck sometimes.
When not firefighting, Uline, a Korean War combat veteran, was a driver and vehicle mechanic for the Saratoga County Department of Public Works. Morse worked at International Paper in Corinth, and was an ambulance volunteer when not fighting fires.
That means Morse has seen a lot of things he wishes he could forget: train wrecks; children burned beyond recognition; his friend Leo Plante, a local science teacher, found dead inside his burned-out home, in a fire burning so hot police initially blocked Morse from going inside.
Both were at the Conventional Hall fire in Saratoga Springs in 1965, when embers from a big hotel fire blew across Broadway and ignited the historic Convention Hall.
Morse also remembers the Saratoga Hospital fire in September 1965, in which a Saratoga Springs firefighter died when a truck’s aerial ladder collapsed.
“I was up on the ladder for two hours,” Morse recalled. “I looked over at the (Saratoga) ladder, and suddenly it wasn’t there.”
Uline recalled how in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was no 911 system, it would be a call to the fire chief’s home that alerted the company to a fire.
“When you were chief you had to stay home and answer the fire phone,” he said. “You couldn’t go out to the car race or anything. If you wanted to go away, you had to get an assistant chief to stay home. There was a lot of sacrifice.”
The village of Ballston Spa was already well-established, but in the 1950s the surrounding countryside was still mostly farm, field and forest, and Ballston Spa firemen would respond not just to help Saratoga, but traveling as far as Galway, Malta and Jonesville. Uline was helping found the Malta Ridge Fire Co., until the state told him he could only be in one company.
It wasn’t unusual for a fire to be so advanced by the time firefighters arrived that the hot gases inside the building caused an explosion, sending wood or bricks flying. If anyone was still inside, the outcome wouldn’t be good.
“One of the best things they ever came out with was smoke detectors,” Uline said. “It saved a lot of lives.”
A family of five who died in a Front Street fire in 1981 would have been saved if there had been smoke detectors, he said.
Both men were instrumental when it came time to expand the one-bay firehouse in the 1950s. Morse, when he was company captain, convinced Mayor William Kelley to buy the building next door, then worked to acquire the land of an abandoned railroad behind the firehouse.
Uline helped fill in the railroad cut and then fence off the steep bank leading down to the Kayaderosseras Creek, and both were involved as the concrete floor for the new building was poured. Uline recalls helping set the bricks.
The fire station as it sits today on Milton Avenue had its last addition in 1970, but the frame of the original firehouse is still attached and still in use.
Though they both stopped fighting fires and driving trucks a few years ago, Morse and Uline remain active members of the company and said they’d do it all over again.
“I figure we gave three-quarters of our lives to fire protection,” Uline said. “Three-quarters of our lives.”