Joseph Winters

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Joseph Richard Winters (August 29, 1816 – November 29, 1916)[1] was an African-American abolitionist and inventor who, on May 7, 1878 received U.S. Patent number 203,517 for a wagon-mounted fire escape ladder. On April 8, 1879, he received U.S. Patent number 214,224 for an "improvement" on the ladder. On May 16, 1882, he received U.S. Patent number 258,186 for a fire escape ladder that could be affixed to buildings.

It is often erroneously cited that Winters was the original inventor of the wagon mounted fire escape. Winters' version was patented 29 years after George Huttman and George Kornelio initially introduced the idea in 1849.[2] However, Winters' ladder replaced the wooden ladder with a metal frame and parallel steps. Winters' innovation was utilized by the Chambersburg, Pennsylvania fire department who mounted the ladder on a horse-drawn wagon.[3]

Joseph R. Winters was born in Leesburg, Virginia to an African-American brickmaker and a Shawnee Indian mother, who was the daughter of a noted herbalist and medical practitioner called the "Indian doctor woman."[4] The family relocated to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania around 1840. Joseph Winters worked as a farmer, and later as a mechanic for the Cumberland Valley Railroad. He was a noted fisherman and hunter; "Black and white residents long remembered him for his great nature knowledge and skills, especially in fishing and fly making."[4] He was also a poet and lyricist, who composed a song supporting the 1900 presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan, as well as another song entitled "Ten Days after the Battle of Gettysburg."[5] He also wrote an autobiography with the same title, but no copies seem to have survived.[6]

During the time Winters lived in Chambersburg, he was active in the Underground Railroad. It has been said that it was Winters who arranged the famous meeting between Frederick Douglass and John Brown before the latter's abortive attempt to take the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859.[4]

Winters died in 1916 and is buried in Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Chambersburg.

In 2005, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a historical marker honoring Winters at the Junior Hose & Truck Company #2 of Chambersburg at 130 North Second Street.[7][8]


  1. ^ Although he is on record as claiming a date of birth of August 29, 1816, census records, his death certificate and other public records suggest an 1824 date. Maurice Leonard Marrotte III and Janet Jay Pollard: Chambersburg, (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 94-95; 1860 Federal census for Borough of Chambersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, 92; Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1963. Series 11.90 (1,905 cartons). Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
  2. ^ "Fire-escape". 
  3. ^ "Stock Market News -". 
  4. ^ a b c "Waterford Historic District" Accessed September 6, 2013.
  5. ^ "Joseph R. Winters. Documents." Samuel Paley Library, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pa.
  6. ^ John M. Rudy, "Anyone Ever Seen Joseph Winters' Memoir?"
  7. ^ "Joseph Winters - Pennsylvania Historical Markers on".
  8. ^ Don Aines, "Winters Makes Historic Mark," (Chambersburg, Pa.) Herald-Mail, May 24, 2005, accessed at