One of Little Rock’s lesser-known museums is also one of the most comfortable and user-friendly. That’s partly because its century-old building also houses an overnight hostel.
The Firehouse Hostel & Museum occupies a craftsman-style structure on the edge of MacArthur Park, next to the construction site of the Arkansas Fine Arts Center. Built in 1917 as Fire Station 2, it served this purpose until 1960, when the new generation of fire engines became too large to fit inside.
Visitors are welcome to visit the free museum, which shares the first floor of the two-story site with the hostel’s kitchen, breakfast, lounge and work areas. There is usually a staff member or two on hand to answer questions. On advance notice, guided tours by retired firefighters can be arranged.
The link between the dual vocation of the building is literally spelled out on the 23 steps between the two floors. Each step leading to the sleeping areas is marked with the name and address of a Little Rock fire station. Another link, in the breakfast room, are two tables made from the original fire station doors.
The museum’s exhibits echo the evolving history of firefighting in Little Rock, which began in 1839 when the fledgling state capital purchased a fire truck with a $5,000 loan. $ and organized a volunteer fire department. Urban fires were rampant in the 19th century, which eventually saw the establishment of Little Rock’s first full-time paid fire department in 1882. A few museum exhibits date back to this time.
Fire engines were motorized in 1917, when Fire Station No. 2 opened with a large porch that provided access to the station’s two parking areas. The porch, later closed, is now the location of the inn’s kitchen. Artifacts from the museum decorate the space, with a fire hydrant still in place in one corner.
One table holds a playful display of miniature figures with firefighter designs. Objects include teddy bears with firefighter hats, a scaled-down fire truck, a small Dalmatian and a roly-poly firefighter.
On the other hand, a sign reminds visitors of the dangers inherent in the actual work of fighting fires. It lists some of the highest death tolls suffered by US firefighters in a single event. At the top of the tally, unsurprisingly, are the 343 firefighters lost in the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center on 9/11.
These are the next four highest death totals: 78 in a 1910 wildfire in Idaho; 29 in a 1910 stockyard fire in Chicago; 28 in a 1947 ship fire and explosion in Texas City, Texas; and 19 in a 2013 wildfire near Yarnell Springs, Arizona.
Another reminder of the dangers of firefighting is a small model of the Arkansas Fallen Firefighters Memorial that stands on the grounds of the state Capitol. The monument honors the 122 deaths suffered in the line of duty, including two women.
Dating from 1890, an engraved loudspeaker trumpet of the type used at the time to help amplify a fire commander’s orders at the noisy scene of a fire. Among the newer devices is a combination fire alarm and automatic sprinklers donated by Dr. Dean Kumpuris, a Little Rock town manager.
After the opening of a larger Fire Station #2 in 1960 at Ninth and Sherman Streets, the old building survived for a turbulent half-century before the Inn and Museum opened.
It has been used many times for activities by groups such as the Council on Aging and Meals on Wheels. The Discovery Museum’s predecessor used it as a warehouse until 1997, when the city’s Parks and Recreation Department took over management.
After the structure was damaged by the tornado that hit downtown Little Rock in January 1999, the city spent $75,000 on repairs. In 2006, use of the building was donated to the nonprofit Hostelling Arkansas Inc. It took a decade of fundraising and other challenges before opening in 2016. The hostel and museum remain largely unknown to the general public.
Youth hostel and fire station museum
- Address: 1201 Commerce Street, Little Rock
- Admission: Free
- Hours: Open during the day when a member of staff is present
- Information: firehousehostel.org; (501) 476-0294