Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive


John C. Powell,
Captain Retired, L.A.F.D.

By R. Dale Magee

Box 15 Club of Los Angeles

When you retire are you going fishing?  Going to move to that small plot of ground you have picked out in Oregon?  Or are you going to open a little business for yourself that you have been dreaming about all through the years on the department?
    None of this for retired fire captain John C. Powell!  He spends his days in a fire station.  Not a real fire station --although it once was.  Powell is co-curator of the Old Plaza fire House, and he loves every minute of it.
    John Powell began his 38-year career with the Los Angeles Fire Department on November 20, 1925.  He really set out to be a policeman, but learned, to his dismay, that he was half-an-inch too short.  One of the city clerks with whom he was filing his application suggested that he might try the fire department instead--and he did.

Captain Powell inspects bright work on old chemical engine at the Plaza Fire House, State Historical Monument Number 730, Plaza and Los Angeles Street.

Captain John C. Powell, L.A.F.D. retired,
now co-curator of the Old Plaza house.


Old Truck 30, a 1923 Stutz city service; rig on which Powell began his service with the L.A.F.D.
Note:  This 1923 Stutz City Service Truck, SN# 196, is currently being restored by Howard Schneider, (Captain, Torrance FD) and Paul Schneider, (Engineer, LACOFD).

"On the morning of November 20, 1925, I entered the fire station at 14th and Central with an order from Chief Engineer Ralph J. Scott directing that I be assigned to Truck 11, "B" platoon,"  Powell recalls.  "Two companies were quartered at this station, Engine 30 and Truck 11.  The truck officer was Lieutenant Harry Brown.  The chief of battalion was George Kelley, " Powell explains.
    The truck was a 1923 Stutz city service, and Powell served on the high-wheeled rig until 1932, when he was promoted to Auto Fireman on Engine 30.  In 1935 he was promoted to 30's Engineer.  1937 saw Powell moved to the position of acting captain and transferred back to the Stutz, then designated as Truck 30.  Later that year he was appointed Captain, and went to Engine 14, where he worked until 1960, moving then to Engine 18.
    When John Powell went on the job there was no fire college.  He learned his profession as he went along.  "My first fire occurred on the first day I went to work," states Powell.  "A railroad box car fire in the vicinity of 9th and Alameda.  During the overhauling operations I broke my axe, being eager to show my physical ability.  Lieutenant Brown, who was observing me, said 'That axe might be on your pay check, son, --better slow down!!' I learned."
    Over the years, Captain Powell has worked at numerous greater alarms.  One of the early major fires that he recalls was the Automobile Show fire around 1927 or '28.  The automobiles were on display under tents, and over half of them were destroyed by the fire.  As a result, a city ordinance was passed prohibiting the display of automobiles under tents.

Other greater alarms over the years that Powell worked (to mention only a few) were the Topanga fire, 1938;  the lumber yard at 24th and Long Beach Boulevard, 1942;  the City Dye Works, 1945;  Sterling Paper Box Co., Goodyear Tract, 1953;  and the Bel Air fire of 1961.
    Captain John C. Powell retired on July 6, 1963.  Now, as one of the Plaza station's two curators, Powell meets the visitors at Los Angeles' first fire house, 38's Engine Company 1.  John enjoys talking to people and explaining the history and lore of the fire department.  It's a part of him, and as he puts it, "I like to tell them about the Los Angeles Fire Department.  It is the finest in the world!"  John C. Powell, Captain, L.A.F.D. retired, helped to make it that way.

Captain John C. Powell, Plaza Fire
House co-curator, explains workings
of old chemical engine to a young visitor.

This article appeared in the October 1966 issue of THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE.

Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.