Photo credits: The Chambersburg Public Opinion
Joseph Winters was born at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1816 to a Shawnee Indian mother and a Black American bricklayer who worked at the local government arsenal. Betsy Cross raised Winters in Waterford, Virginia, as his grandmother.
When he was fourteen years old, he moved to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. It is unknown whether he accomplished it by himself or with his grandma. During his time in Chambersburg, a city known for its Quaker abolitionist operations, Winters was active in the Underground Railroad. His friends called him “Indian Dick” because of his mixed heritage. In his now-lost memoirs, Winters claimed to have met and worked with Frederick Douglass just before the famous John Brown Raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, but Douglass identifies someone else in his own book.
After the Civil War, Winters started his career as an inventor, for which he is most known. Winters observed that when buildings got taller in the 1870s, firemen had to remove ladders from their horse-drawn fire wagons in order to reach windows, rescue people, and extinguish fires. He said that they should have elevated ladders that were already installed on fire engines. In order for fire vehicles to navigate corners in narrow streets and alleys, the ladders had to be collapsible or foldable. On May 7, 1878, Winters received a patent for a fire truck with a foldable ladder for his hometown of Chambersburg. He was granted a second patent for an improved design on April 8, 1879.
Three years later, in 1882, Winters secured a patent for a fire escape ladder that could be attached to structures. All of Winters’s suggestions saved lives and made firefighting and building evacuation more effective. For his discoveries, he supposedly received a great deal of recognition but little compensation. Therefore, he unsuccessfully attempted to discover oil in the Chambersburg area. Winters also tried his hand at politics, penning a campaign song for the Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896.
It is unknown if Winters had a wife or any children. The inventor passed away in Chambersburg in 1916.