Los Angeles Fire Department
HOLLYWOOD PARK RACE TRACK FIRE
May 5 & 6 1949
This Associated Press photo appeared on the front page of the Daily Breeze on May 6, 1949, the morning after the fire.
LAFD Truck 66 firemen operate a portable monitor.
Source: Captain Paul Schneider, LACoFD
Photo by Paul Shelburne
L.A. County Fire Department Engine 54
May 5th - 6 of 1949
In 1949, Call Fireman Larry Schneider worked the biggest fire of his career to date; the Hollywood Park Racetrack Fire in Inglewood. The fire was the largest conflagration in Southern California that year and possibly the largest grandstand fire in U.S. history. It broke out in the clubhouse late in the evening of May 5 and quickly enveloped the newly painted roof structure of the spectators' section. A lack of "fire curtains" allowed the fire to run the entire quarter mile length of the structure in minutes.
Chief Basil Roberts of the Inglewood Fire Department immediately requested assistance from Los Angeles City and County Fire Departments. The City dispatched Engine 57, Engine 66 and Truck 66 and the County sent Engine 54 and Engine 18.
Larry was working on Engine 54 when the alarm came in. The company, housed in Engine Company 14's quarters (at Century and Normandie) at the time waiting the completion of their new station, pulled out of the fire house and responded west on Century Blvd. Almost immediately the firemen saw a huge column of smoke billowing into the dark sky. A few minutes later they got a spectacular view of the fire as it swept the entire length of the racetrack grandstands.
Engine Company 54 quickly went to work with the LAFD companies. Tuck 66 breached a hole in the "gunite" (stucco) wall of the clubhouse. Using hammerhead picks with sledgehammers and ram bars the Truckmen worked hard breaking the opening in the wall. Engine 54 and Engine 66 then advanced 2 1/2" hoselines into the fire. County Engine 18 advanced hose lines into an area adjacent to the clubhouse.
Engine 57 drafted from one of the "Swan Ponds" located in the infield adjacent to the track and advanced hose lines from this position.
The Inglewood Fire Department set up a ladder pipe with their brand new American La France aerial ladder on the track in front of the grandstand. Unfortunately they spotted to far from the structure and the windstorm created by the fire blew their fire stream back on top of them.
Three Inglewood firemen managed to make it to the roof of the grandstand but the fire quickly swept their position. Two of the firemen managed to escape through an opening in the roof but the third, Clifford Freeman, leaped from the roof to the top of a palm tree. Freeman fell over a hundred feet to the ground below but somehow managed to use the tree to break his fall. He was seriously injured however eventually returned to duty.
Engine 54, pumping with their new General Pacific Kenworth, supplied water at maximum capacity for twelve straight hours.
The fire burned for hours and severely damaged the grandstand and clubhouse.
SIXTY-THREE YEARS IN UNIFORM
The Fire Department Career of Lawrence D. Schneider
Photo by Wallace Thompson
This 1946 photo shows the Hollywood Park racetrack as it existed before the fire. Note the stables at the upper right, the infield lakes, and the oil derricks at the upper left of the photo.
Hollywood Park in Inglewood eventually will close for good to make way for a large development.
Hollywood Park Tomorrow, as the proposal is known, will consist of a walkable, mixed-use development of homes, offices and stores. It will include a 25-acre park system complete with two lakes and a waterfall between them intended to evoke the racetrack's infield and double as a method of cleaning urban runoff.
Almost 3,000 homes, designed to house 8,000 to 10,000 residents of varying income levels, are planned.
The more than 600,000 square feet of retail space envisioned will consist not of big-box stores, but a 1,200-foot-long outdoor mall with movie theaters. That main street is anchored by civic plazas at either end, intended to provide a sense of place for residents and visitors.
When the racetrack closed in 1949, it was for a different reason: a massive $5-million-dollar fire.
It began in the clubhouse shortly after 11:00 p.m. on the night of May 5, 1949, less than two weeks before the opening of the track's spring racing session. The fire quickly became a conflagration, rapidly spreading through the grandstand and the Turf Club.
According to the Associated Press account that appeared in the Daily Breeze, thousands of spectators watched the flames shoot high into the air, snarling traffic in the area. Firefighters from the Inglewood and Los Angeles fire departments at one point were sent running for their lives when the roof and upper walls burned away, and the masonry walls began to crumble. They battled the blaze for three hours before bringing it under control, but the structures were a total loss.
Fortunately, the horses weren't harmed because the stables were located about a half-mile away from the grandstand. The swans and geese that congregated in the infield lake also were spared; the AP reported that "the fowl huddled safely in the little lakes in the infield" during the blaze.
Santa Anita Park stepped in to rescue the 1949 horse racing season from disaster by offering its facilities, where the spring meeting began right on time on May 17, 1949.
No cause was given for the blaze. The track was covered by insurance, and quickly began the rebuilding process. Slightly more than a year later, June 27, 1950, Hollywood Park reopened.
This Associated Press photo appeared on the front page of the Daily Breeze on May 6, 1949, the morning after the fire. For more pictures of the fire, visit Mary Forney's blog:
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 19, 2008
Hollywood Park and the Great Fire of 1949
by Leonard N. Wynne
Above photo used with permission of Inglewood Public Library.
In early May, 1949, the Hollywood Turf Club was in busy preparation for the upcoming Spring meeting. In its relatively short history, Hollywood Park had achieved recognition as one the preeminent venues on the national racing scene, and there was much anticipation surrounding the start of the new season.
This happy optimism, however, would soon be clouded by uncertainty. Just after 11:00 PM on May 5, 1949, a fire broke out in the grandstand and, despite the efforts of local fire companies, the entire building was soon consumed in flames. When the sun rose over Inglewood the following morning, the grandstand and clubhouse, which for the past decade had been a favorite spot of both Hollywood celebrities and racing fans alike, had been reduced to a skeleton of twisted steel and smoking debris.
While the Hollywood Park fire of 1949 would become one of the darkest days in the track's history, the days to come would highlight some of the best aspects of California racing. In a great spirit of cooperation, the Los Angeles Turf Club, with the blessings of the California Horse Racing Board, extended the invitation to Hollywood Park to conduct its Spring meeting at Santa Anita. Although there were less than two weeks left to the opening, the tireless work and dedication of many individuals made the quick transition a success. On May 17, 1949, Hollywood Park at Santa Anita launched the Spring race meeting on schedule.
With the racing meet resumed at its temporary location across town, the Hollywood Turf Club quickly began the process of rebuilding. By the following Spring, Hollywood Park, like the Phoenix, had risen anew from the ashes. Just a year after the devastating fire Hollywood Park would reclaim the position it would hold for the next three decades as a driving force in North American racing.
Hollywood Park before and after the Fire of 1949.
Photos courtesy of The Thoroughbred of California, Vol, VIII, June 1949, 504.
Leonard N. Wynne is a lifelong fan of horse racing and its history. Wynne earned a Bachelor of Arts in History from Cal Poly Pomona, and holds advanced degrees in History from Cal State Los Angeles and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently on leave from PhD program in History, UCSC. His areas of specialization include 19th Century United States with an emphasis on religion and gender and Popular Culture in the United States.
POSTED BY MARY FORNEY'S BLOG
LABELS: 1949 FIRE, HOLLYWOOD PARK, HOLLYWOOD TURF CLUB, INGLEWOOD, LOS ANGELES TURF CLUB, SANTA ANITA
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