There are about 200 firefighting museums in the United States, but the largest is in Phoenix. In fact, the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting is the largest firefighting museum in the world with more than 130 wheeled pieces, dating from 1725 to the present, on display. It also houses an impressive collection of badges, alarms, helmets, and gear and has a firetruck that kids can climb on. You can easily spend a few hours here since the museum is nearly the size of a Walmart, or you can combine your visit with a stop at the nearby Phoenix Zoo or Desert Botanical Garden.
History and Background
The Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting began with a Christmas gift in 1955 for the man who had just about everything, George F. Getz, Jr. Not only was Getz chairman of Globe Corp., a company his father founded in 1902, he also served as director of the Chicago Cubs; Santa Fe Industries; the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co.; and other companies. Trying to come up with the perfect gift, his wife, Olive, surprised him with a 1924 American LaFrance fire engine.
That gift sparked a passion, and Getz began collecting fire engines and artifacts from around the world. In 1961, he opened the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, near his estate in Lake Geneva, where it operated until 1970. When the family relocated to Phoenix for the warmer, drier climate, Getz brought the museum with him.
Originally, the Phoenix location consisted of just Galleries 1 and 2; today, there are five galleries in the still growing museum, plus the Hall of Heroes dedicated to those firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice. An off-limits shop repairs, restores, and maintains the engines and equipment.
What to See and Do
The museum is laid out chronologically beginning in Gallery 1 with man-powered water pumps. Unless you have kids that want to go directly to the more modern fire trucks, start your self-guided tour in the first gallery with the oldest piece: the 1725 Newsham hand pump. A few pieces down, watch for the Badger Fire Company engine used to help fight the Great Chicago Fire.
Many of the hand- and horse-drawn pieces in Gallery 1 were paraded through their towns and neighboring communities, and as a result, they feature elaborate designs, intricate paint jobs, and plenty of polished chrome. Other highlights in this gallery include the display of fire marks—plaques mounted to a building in the 18th century to prove it was insured against fire—along the back wall and an early Japanese firefighter’s uniform.
The exhibits continue in Gallery 2 with motorized engines, including the 1924 American LaFrance that Getz received that Christmas. Kids will want to spend a little more time in this section, not only because the vehicles here look more like what they would expect but because they can board a 1952 fire truck.
The National Firefighting Hall of Heroes, located behind the 1952 fire truck, is a moving tribute to the men and women who gave their lives in the line of duty. One panel is dedicated to the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona and another to those who perished on 9/11.
Special Events and Programs
In addition to school and adult group tours, Hall of Flame host several special events throughout the year. Every year on 9/11, the museum commemorates the heroes that fell that day by reading their names out loud against the backdrop of FDNY Rescue 4, a truck which responded to the World Trade Center that day.
The museum also sponsors an open house in the fall with free admission, rides on a museum fire engine, and photos with Smokey Bear. Local fire departments join in on the fun, bringing their trucks and equipment to the museum. Be prepared for crowds, though. The open houses are extremely popular and usually attract more than 1,000 visitors.
Exit the Hall of Heroes through the theater, if a movie isn’t playing, to see the extensive collection of fire helmets located inside the theater. You’ll have to back track through Gallery 1 to get to Galleries 3 and 4 from there. Both galleries feature more motorized engines, but Gallery 4 also has a children’s play area with pint-sized helmets and jackets. Back in the corner, near the children’s play area, the Wildland Firefighting Gallery details what it takes to fight fires in the remote wilderness.
Hall of Flame is located just minutes from the Phoenix Zoo, Desert Botanical Garden, and Papago Park. Finding the entrance to the museum can be a little tricky, though, because it doesn’t sit directly on Van Buren Street. Instead, it is off of Project Drive.
To get to the museum, navigate to the Loop 202 (also known as the Red Mountain Freeway) through Tempe and exit at Priest Drive. Head north to Center Parkway. Turn right. Take the first left onto Project Drive and continue to almost to Mill Avenue. The museum will be on the left. Free parking is readily available in the museum’s parking lot.
Hall of Flame is also easily accessible by Valley Metro Light Rail. Take the light rail to the Washington Street / Priest Drive station and walk 0.3 miles north on Priest Drive to Center Parkway. Turn right on Center, then left on Project Drive, and continue to the museum’s entrance.
Tips for Visiting
- Since there’s minimal signage throughout the museum, make sure to pick up a binder detailing the exhibits before you begin. You could spend hours in the museum if you read everything on each piece, so pick and choose what interests you the most.
- Many on staff are retired firefighters who will be happy to answer any questions you have and maybe even regale you with a tale or two about their experiences fighting fires.
- The museum doesn’t have a snack bar or restaurant, so time your visit accordingly. Bring bottled water to stay hydrated.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes. The museum has cement floors, and although there are benches scattered throughout, you’ll be on your feet much of the visit.
- The museum has an excellent gift shop that sells everything from t-shirts to children’s books and Christmas ornaments.
- You can combine a visit to the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting with a visit to either the Phoenix Zoo or Desert Botanical Garden, but it will make for a very long day. If you’re a local and especially if you have young kids, limit yourself to one attraction per day.