A couple months ago, Captain Jim Bailie of Norfolk Fire-Rescue called us to ask about items in our collection related to Thomas Kevill. Kevill was the first paid Fire Chief in Norfolk and a Civil War veteran who served on the CSS Virginia during the Battle of Hampton Roads March 8-9, 1862 as the officer in charge of gun #9.
Thanks to the generosity of Kevill’s descendants, we have two portraits of him, his artillery belt and buckle, a certificate of his military service and a commemorative fire badge.
Kevill was born in Ireland, educated in Massachusetts, and after learning a trade in Boston he moved to Norfolk to work as a clothier. At that time, firefighting was done by volunteers who served their neighborhoods and in 1850, Kevill helped organize and then lead The United Fire Company to protect the area where his store was located.
When the governor of Virginia requested men to form militias in 1861, Kevill’s firefighters wanted to heed the call, but only if Kevill was their leader. When he agreed, the United Fire Company became the firefighter staffed United Artillery militia and shortly after Virginia succeeded from the union, Kevill joined the Confederate Army as an artillery Captain.
He stayed in the Army until after the surrender at Appomattox and saw action in multiple locations, including Fort Norfolk, Fort Sumter, Hampton Roads, Gaines Mill and Savage Station.
In 1865, Kevill returned to Norfolk to reopen his store and to return to firefighting. But tensions between volunteer and paid firefighters grew to the point where a deadly riot broke out and Norfolk leaders disbanded all the volunteer companies in 1871. Kevill was asked to take command of the firefighters as the Chief Engineer, making him the first paid Fire Chief for the city. His career would last over 40 years during which time he sustained a number of injuries in the line of duty.
And this leads us back to Captain Bailie’s request for information on Thomas Kevill. Norfolk Fire-Rescue had made the decision to name their newest fireboat after Kevill and Captain Bailie was looking for information to confirm and add to what they already knew about the Chief. He also wanted to see if we could put him in touch with Kevill’s descendants so they could hear the good news. A bit of research using the object files, a couple emails back and forth, and a few phone calls later, Captain Bailie had his information and the family had been notified.
On Commissioning Day, June 21, 2013, FireBoat 1 Thomas Kevill was put into service at 11:27 am. The 34 foot long, 10.6” wide twin engine craft officially joined the city’s FireBoat Vulcan II providing fire, search and rescue and medical support to the citizens of Norfolk and the surrounding communities and waterways.
The Thomas Kevill maneuvered out of its dock and into the harbor where it was welcomed into service in fine form. Fireboats from neighboring cities formed an arc around the Kevill, saluting the new ship and crew with their water cannons, lights, sirens and horns while a Norfolk Police boat did fast circles around the gathering. The Thomas Kevill answered their salute and fired water from the roof and bow mounted nozzles. It was a beautiful sight.
Congratulations to Norfolk Fire-Rescue and the 41 crewmembers who will serve on the Kevill. Fair winds and following seas. Thanks for all you do and stay safe out there.