Joseph Winters and the Fire Escape Ladder

Fire escape ladder improvement by Joseph Winters


On May 7, 1878, the fire escape ladder was patented by Joseph Winters. Joseph Winters invented a wagon-mounted fire escape ladder for the city of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

A historic marker was placed in 2005 at the Junior Hose and Truck Company #2 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania noting Winters' patents for the fire escape ladder and hose conductor and his work on the Underground Railway. It lists his dates of birth and death as 1816-1916.

Life of Joseph Winters

There are at least three different, widely varying birth years given for Joseph Winters, from 1816 to 1830 by various sources. His mother was Shawnee and his father, James, was a Black brickmaker who worked at Harpers Ferry to build the federal gun factory and arsenal.

The family's tradition said that his father was also descended Powhatan chief Opechancanough. Joseph was raised by his grandmother Betsy Cross in Waterford, Virginia, where she was known as the "Indian Doctor woman," a herbalist and healer. His later knowledge of nature may have stemmed from this time. At that time there were free Black families in the area and Quakers who were involved in the North American 19th-century Black activist movement. Winters used the nickname Indian Dick in his publications.

Joseph also later worked at Harpers Ferry sanding brick molds before the family moved to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. In Chambersburg, he was active in the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people escape to freedom. In Winters' autobiography, he claimed to have arranged the meeting between Frederick Douglass and activist John Brown at the quarry in Chambersburg before the historic Harpers Ferry raid. Douglass's autobiography credits a different person, local barber Henry Watson.

Winters wrote a song, "Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg," and also used that as the title for his lost autobiography. He also wrote a campaign song for presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who lost to William McKinley. He was noted for hunting, fishing, and fly-tying. He engaged in oil prospecting in the Chambersburg area but his wells only hit the water. He died in 1916 and is buried in Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Chambersburg.

Fire Ladder Inventions of Joseph Winters

Buildings were being built taller and taller in American cities in the late 19th century. Fire crews at that time carried ladders on their horse-drawn fire engines. These were usually normal ladders, and they couldn't be too long or the engine wouldn't be able to turn corners into narrow streets or alleys. These ladders were used to evacuate residents from burning buildings as well as to give the firemen and their hoses access.

Winters thought it would be smarter to have the ladder mounted on the fire engine and be articulated so it could be raised up from the wagon itself. He made this folding design for the city of Chambersburg and received a patent for it. He later patented improvements to this design. In 1882 he patented a fire escape that could be attached to buildings. He reportedly received much praise but little money for his inventions.

Fire Ladder Patents

  • US patent #203,517 Improvement in fire-escape ladders, granted on May 7, 1878.
  • US patent #214,224 Improvement in fire-escape ladders, granted on April 8, 1879.
  • US patent #258186 Fire escape, granted on May 16, 1882.
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Bellis, Mary. "Joseph Winters and the Fire Escape Ladder." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, July 31). Joseph Winters and the Fire Escape Ladder. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Joseph Winters and the Fire Escape Ladder." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).