Joseph McArdle (far right) was one of the first firefighters in Kansas City.

Heroic Firefighters of Early KCFD History: The Story of the McArdles 

Joe McArdle’s story is a reminder of the unrelenting bravery of First Responders.

By Diane Euston

  September conjures up somber feelings about First responders who have sacrificed their lives in order to save others. September 11, 2001 claimed the lives of 343 paramedics and firemen; in addition, 60 New York police and Port Authority officers didn’t make it out.

  These men and women rushed into the building – into imminent danger – while others rushed out. 

  Kansas City has lost its fair share of First Responders over the years. The KCPD recognizes 121 fallen officers, while the Kansas City Fire Department pays tribute to 116 deaths of firemen. 

  The sixth fireman killed in the line of duty early in the department’s history is a man named Joseph McArdle. His journey is one of numerous sacrifices and undeniable bravery – a man who faced adversity head-on while watching a small town grow into a metropolis.

Joseph McArdle (c.1837-1893)

Joe McArdle’s First Fire Experience 

  Born about 1837 in County Armagh, Ireland, Joe McArdle emigrated with his family to New York City when he was about 10 years old. Little is known about his childhood, but when he arrived in America, he was trained as a silversmith and worked in that industry for about nine years.

  Like so many Irish-born emigrants, Joe McArdle congregated with fellow Irish Catholics in a packed New York City. While living on the island of Manhattan, Joe found that volunteering as a fireman at Niagara Engine No. 4 was quite fulfilling. 

  New York City’s fire departments at the time were all volunteer and had been since as early as 1731. These volunteer departments, including Joe’s at 220 Mercer St., required the manpower of strong, young men. The New York Fire Museum explains, “Fire apparatus at this time – hand pumpers, hook and ladder trucks, and hose reels – were all hand drawn.” 

  In about 1855, Joe McArdle married Ireland-born Kate Byrne and welcomed their only child, William, in 1856.

The Byrne Family

  The story of the Byrne family is quite similar to so many Irish emigrants who eventually landed in Kansas City. Michael Byrne (c. 1791-c.1859) and his wife, Mary Bow (1797-1871) emigrated with at least six of their children – including Kate –  in 1851. They settled first in New York City.

   The second oldest, Daniel (c. 1822-1868), married his wife, Bridget (1822-1899) back in Ireland and brought with them their two young children. In 1852, a son named Nicholas was born to them.

  As Joe McArdle continued working as a silversmith and volunteer fireman, his wife, Kate and his son, William lived with her mother-in-law, Mary and her children. By the mid-1850s, Daniel and Bridget Byrne decided to uproot and move to Kansas City – and they left their children in New York City.

  It could have been thought to be temporary, as there was a call by Fr. Bernard Donnelly (c. 1810-1880) – a Catholic priest and trained civil engineer – to recruit 300 Irishman from the East to help the city with some pretty important labor. As the city grew from the riverfront, one of the biggest obstacles was carving out passable streets. These Irishmen made streets, added curbs and constructed sewers. By the late 1850s, even more Irish-born immigrants arrived in Kansas City.

  Daniel Byrne could have seen the possibilities of more money and a better life for his family. By 1860, they had purchased property in McGee’s Addition at 20th and Broadway and built their home there. 

  While Daniel and Bridget lived in Kansas City, their son Nicholas was left in the hands of his grandmother, Mary and his aunt and uncle, Joe and Kate McArdle at their home at 297 Mott. The Byrne family was split between crowded New York City and a newly-incorporated Kansas City until the end of the Civil War.

Private Charles T. Hoffman of the 163rd New York Infantry Regiment and 73rd New York Infantry Regiment in chasseur uniform worn by the Second Fire Zouaves, the same regiments McArdle served in. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Civil War Service

  When the “wild enthusiasm of war aroused [New York City], [Joe McArdle] threw down his fireman’s helmet” and chose to fight for the Union. In August 1862, Joe McArdle left his young family and enlisted as a private in the 73rd New York Infantry. This wasn’t a usual volunteer infantry; it was composed of many volunteer firemen recruited from their firehouses and had nicknames that included the Fire Brigade and the Second Fire Zouaves.

  The Zouaves started in France in the 1830s, and this style of soldiering was known for wearing a colorful uniform and conducting “a quick spirited drill.” During the Civil War, some regiments were recruited by local men who would then provide uniforms and weapons. They modeled themselves after the Zouaves, dressing in unique clothing. Joe McArdle, a member of the Second Fire Zouaves, sported red trousers and special weapons as part of the unit.

  Joe was badly wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia on May 3, 1863. While the remainder of his regiment marched to Gettysburg in July 1863 and fought valiantly, Joe may have still been injured and absent.

  One of the most interesting of the monuments erected at Gettysburg honors the Second Fire Zouaves. This memorial to the 73rd New York Infantry has stood since 1897 and depicts a fireman standing next to a soldier. The regiment lost 51 enlisted men over the three-day battle. 

  After just over two years of service, Joe McArdle returned to his wife, Kate and son, William in New York City. Likely inspired by the life built by Kate’s brother, Daniel in Kansas City, the family decided to leave in 1864 and settle in the Midwest.

  Joining them on their journey was Kate’s mother, Mary and her 12-year-old nephew, Nick Byrne.

  Joe wasn’t quite finished with the Civil War. In April 1865, Joe enlisted in the 51st Missouri Volunteer Infantry and was promoted to sergeant. Interestingly, he enlisted under the alias “Joseph Byrne,” possibly because he was unsure of his discharge status in New York. He served until September when he returned to Kansas City.

The monument at Gettysburg, erected in 1897 in honor of the 73rd New York Infantry, the Second Fire Zouaves.

From Volunteer to Full-Blown Fireman

  In 1869, Joe McArdle helped launch the first ladder company in Kansas City. He certainly used his skills gained as a volunteer fireman in New York when he helped recruit volunteers to assist in the new organization. Known as McGee Hook and Ladder No. 1 after former mayor Elijah Milton McGee, the volunteer department included Joe’s nephew, Nick Byrne.

  In addition to his volunteer duties, Joe was very involved in maintaining Irish pride and supporting Democratic politics. In 1871, he was appointed as an “Irish Patriot” where members of the Irish community would “give a fitting reception to distinguished champions and fearless advocates of human rights and Irish freedom in particular.” The following year, he was assigned to “look over the welfare of the Democratic Party in the 5thWard.”

  As the city grew, fire hazards were regular, and current events spawned Kansas City to take action. The Great Chicago Fire in October 1871 killed around 300 people and destroyed a large portion of the city. An earlier fire in Kansas City in July 1871 destroyed a row of buildings at 6th and Main.

  Under city charter, a new fire department was organized in 1872 and was supervised by Captain J.M. Silvers. The first paid fireman on record was Joe McArdle, hoseman, followed by George C. Hale, engineer. 

  Not too far behind these two men was Nick Byrne who was hired to be the other hoseman with his Uncle Joe. “The engine was an old-fashioned one, bought in 1866,” Nick Byrne recalled in the Kansas City Star in 1909. “It was called the ‘John Campbell’ engine because John Campbell, who was an alderman at the time, gave $500 toward the purchase price.”

  According to the Kansas City Fire Historical Society, the new Kansas City Fire Department had obtained three steamers, one hook and ladder, one chemical engine and had 36 paid firemen by the end of 1872. They were paid $60 a month.

  The force was divided in half into a northern and southern group. The southern half housed the engine “John Campbell” and a brand-new engine house, “fitted up in first-class style,” was built largely by fire department labor at 12th and Walnut. There, Captain Silvers, fire chief, Joe McArdle, foreman, and “nine first-class men” formed the southern group. Joe, his wife, Kate and son William lived above the engine house along with Nick Byrne and his young family.

  In the old engine house on 6th St., Assistant Chief A.K. Ridenour held his post with nine additional men “well organized and vigilant, ready to respond at a moment’s call, night or day.” 

  A year after the KCFD expanded, Joe McArdle’s son, William joined the force.

An 1889 photograph of the Kansas City Fire Department taken in front of the Fire Department headquarters building and Hook & Ladder No.1. Chief George C. Hale appears second from left, and Joe McArdle stands third from the left. Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.

An Early Fire Story and Fire Innovations

  In March 1873, the German Union Savings Bank in Vaughan’s Diamond Building (at “the Junction” at 9th St. and Delaware and Main) was robbed. The culprits then set a fire to the collector’s office where stamps totaling $28,000 were destroyed or possibly stolen.

  The bank’s vault was opened. $800 in cash was stolen along with about $500 in gold. The robbers took a pile of valuable papers inside, set them on fire and closed the bank and vault doors.

  Smoke plumed from the collector’s office inside the bank. “The firemen were obliged to lay flat upon the floor to be able to direct the medicated water upon the burning papers and desk,” the Kansas City Times reported.

  When the flames were controlled in this space, it was discovered the vault was also on fire. Present outside of the building was a bank employee whose father was “a heavy depositer” at the bank. Inside the vault was a tin box full of notes that concerned his father’s business. He cried out, “Fifty dollars reward to the man who saves that tin box!”  

  That’s all it took. Joe McArdle “rushed into the fiery vault and seized upon the tin box indicated, and so saved between forty and fifty thousand dollars worth of bonds, securities and private notes which would otherwise have been lost.”

  When George C. Hale (1850-1923) was made chief of the KCFD in 1882, Joe McArdle was elected assistant chief. Many innovations in fire history were made under the leadership of Captain Hale. “Among his inventions was the Hale Swinging Harness that allowed horses to be harnessed to the fire wagon within seconds,” historian Susan Jezak Ford wrote. “Hale also invented the water  tower,  an  immense  contraption  pulled  by  three  horses that was capable of shooting 5 1/2 tons of water per minute, and the automatic fire alarm, which alerted a city’s central fire station to a fire’s location.”

  According to an 1893 article, women were also employed at some capacity at the KCFD. Fireman Alex Henderson’s wife served as a guard at the station on Walnut, and William McArdle’s wife, Cora, also guarded a fire station near 14th and Pennsylvania. Both women would close the doors after the men were called from the station and would watch over it until the firemen returned. They were paid $10 per month.

  In 1883, Joe McArdle started the Fireman’s Relief Fund. The objective of the organization was “to provide relief for disabled firemen.”

This photo from 1873 identifies the four companies of firemen that existed: Engine House No. 1, Engine House No. 2, Kansas City No. 3 and McGee Hook & Ladder No. 1. Joe McArdle is to the far left in No. 3.

Tragedies for the McArdle Family

  By 1888, there were nine fire stations in Kansas City. William McArdle, the 33-year-old son of Joe and Kate, was foreman at Hose Company No. 9 at 901 Southwest Blvd – a station that still stands today. 

  On November 1, 1888, the Kansas City Star reported that fireman Billy McArdle “was dangerously ill with an abscess in the lungs.” One day later, William McArdle passed away; he had been sick for three months. 

  William’s death was counted as the second fireman killed in the line of duty in Kansas City because physicians surmised that the abscess was received to his chest while working. When hitching up horses in response to an alarm, the horse collar struck him in the chest, creating the abscess that proved fatal.

  The Kansas City Star wrote, “He was recognized as one of the most experienced and daring firemen in the department.” 

  The death of their only child was tragic for both Joe and Kate McArdle. Kate had not fully recovered from this loss when tragedy struck yet again four years later.

  On February 7, 1893, assistant chief Joe McArdle responded to a fire at 1417 St. Louis Ave. where a fire in the West Bottoms was raging at McLean’s Hide Warehouse. 

  Joe searched in the dark for the cause of the fire without his “protective rubber coat” when a powerful stream of water hit him directly in the chest. Regardless of the cold and the intense pressure of the water, Joe McArdle continued his work.

  He continued to another fire on W. 8th St., still sporting his soaking-wet clothing. He remained there two hours before finally going home for the evening. Four days later, Joe fell gravely ill.

  Diagnosed with pneumonia, Joe was conscious until a few hours before his death. Delirious, Joe “imagined himself at a fire and issued orders to imaginary fireman.” He rose up, stating emphatically that there was a fire at 7th and Delaware. Clutching bed covers in his hands, he demanded the people attending to him open the doors so he could get to the fire.

  At 4:25 AM on February 21, 1893, Joe’s wife and close friends watched as he took his last breath. 

  Like his son who died four years earlier, Joe’s death was deemed an accident in the line of duty. Assistant chief Joe McArdle was the sixth death in KCFD history.

A drawing in the Kansas City Star in 1895 shows the impressive monument erected for Joseph McArdle.

The Funeral and Fitting Memorial

  Kate McArdle was in no position to arrange her husband’s funeral, so the planning fell on Chief Hale. On February 24, friends lined up three and a half hours early to attend the funeral at the Cathedral. It was said to have been one of the largest funerals ever attended in Kansas City history, and “no man in public life could have had more friends and fewer enemies than Joseph McArdle.” 

  Fr. Glennon spoke at his funeral. “The record of your deceased friend brings to our mind the great fact that he was never backward in defending a noble cause, that in earlier years his sword was drawn to defend his country’s banner, and that when this was accomplished he still continued humanity’s fight in preserving our hearths and homes from an enemy as insidious and as heartless in its havoc as ever war itself. That fight he continued to the end and we can veritably say that he has died on the field of battle.”

  A simple headstone, erected by the Fireman & Citizen Friends, was placed at his gravesite at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, and an ordinance by the city council agreed to pay Joe’s widow, Kate, half of his salary for one year.

Kansas City Star in 1895

  On Memorial Day two years later, hundreds gathered at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery to dedicate an impressive monument for Joseph McArdle. The monument, made of sandstone and 14 feet tall, depicts a shattered tree trunk wrapped in a fire hose – one end with a nozzle and the other end springing roots of a tree. 

  They chose Memorial Day, a fitting tribute to a man’s life that included bravery on the battlefield. Fireman William Warner spoke at the event, stating, “It is fitting that on Memorial Day. . . [we] dedicate this monument to his memory, a memory full of lessons of loyalty and patriotism, lessons that alone should be taught on this day, a day dedicated to the patriot and to the patriot’s God.”

  He continued, “As a soldier amid shot and shell, as a fireman amid smoke and flames, he led the fighting; the dangers to be met, the hardships to be endured, he willingly shared with his subordinates.”

  Kate McArdle struggled to make ends meet after her husband passed away, but the KCFD community did what they could. In December 1895 and 1896, they hosted balls at fire headquarters to help her financially. She passed away at Little Sisters of the Poor in February 1914, 21 years after her husband’s tragic death. She is buried alongside him.

Joe McArdle’s monument today at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery

  Joe McArdle’s story is a reminder of the unrelenting bravery of First Responders. Injuries from their jobs can occur days, weeks, months or years later. The First Responders to the World Trade Center who survived September 11 did not emerge unscathed. Those who have died of rare cancers and diseases in the years following now almost equal the number of men and women who died the day of the attack. 

  In his early years, Joe McArdle gave his life for his country as a soldier. In his last 20 years, he gave his life to his city as a valiant member of the Kansas City Fire Department.

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: