Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

Several early models cost
the lives of firefighters who scaled their unsafe ladders.

T he staff of Travel Town had stared long enough at a building full of antique Los Angeles Fire Department apparatus; in late 1987 we began seriously researching the equipment's history, with an eye towards putting together an exciting exhibit on the LAFD. Our first step was to ask some LAFD historians to survey our collection and give us the groundwork from which to begin.

What those gentlemen told us was a pleasant surprise: all Travel Town's fire apparatus are important pieces, and the "big lumbering, horsedrawn thing," previously of unknown origin, is the most significant piece of all.

"It's a Hayes aerial," we were told. "It was the first successful aerial hook and ladder truck invented--only three were thought to exist--it could be the truck bought in the 1880's for the L.A. Volunteer Fire Department!"

This truck had sat anonymously at Travel Town for 20 or 30 years, waiting, like the fairy-tale frog price, for its true identity to be revealed. The task ahead of us was to discover the history of the truck, and the reasons for its importance, and to share that with Travel Town's visitors.

Handicapped by the lack of records on where the truck came from or when it was donated to Travel Town, we had no choice but to begin at the beginning in our research--with the inventor of the truck himself, Daniel D. Hayes.

In 1866, the Amoskeag Company of Manchester, New Hampshire, received an order for five steam-powered fire pumpers from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors--San Francisco was preparing for the inception of their paid fire department. Daniel D. Hayes, a native New Yorker with experience as a volunteer firefighter, was working as a machinist for Amoskeag at the time. He was selected to deliver the steam pumpers and to train San Francisco firefighters in the operation and maintenance of the equipment.

This training period lasted several months, and when Hayes was ready to return to New Hampshire, the San Francisco Fire Department offered him the position of Superintendent of Steamers. In December of 1866, he accepted the position and began a 14-year career with the S.F.F.D.

Hayes and his fellow big-city firefighters were faced with a particular challenge: some of the most damaging fires experienced in American cities in the mid-Nineteenth Century were in multi-story buildings. For many years inventors had tried to develop a hook and ladder truck that would effectively reach the upper levels of contemporary buildings, but initial attempts at aerial ladder trucks were often disastrous. Too heavy or too unstable, these horsedrawn trucks were either unable to reach fires in a timely manner or did not function well at the scene of a fire. In several cases, these early models cost the lives of firefighters who scaled their unsafe ladders. Then, in 1868, Daniel Hayes developed a truck with an aerial ladder that could extend as much as 85 feet in height. Four to six men could fully raise the telescopic ladder in less than 40 seconds by turning a crank. The aerial was mounted on a turntable, so the ladder could be swung around to the desired direction. Hayes had designed, and then built himself, the first practical and safe horsedrawn aerial ladder truck. The truck was named after its inventor: the Hayes Extension Hook and Ladder Truck and Fire Escape.

Hayes sold his first truck to the S.F.F.D. a year later, in 1869 for $3,000. But Chief Whitney, of the S.F.F.D., was skeptical as to the effectiveness of the truck and refused to use it in actual service. His was a typical sentiment; after a disaster in New York where several firefighters were killed in a demonstration of an aerial hook and ladder truck, few chiefs were willing to risk lives on an unknown truck. It wasn't until Independence Day, 1871, that Hayes was able to prove the value of his invention.

A local fire department was a popular entry in any civic parade, and the San Francisco Fire Department brought out a full contingent of equipment, including the Hayes Aerial, for July 4th, 1871 celebrations. During the parade, a fire alarm was sounded from Box 17. According to one version of the story, Hayes saw this as the opportunity to prove the worth of his aerial hook and ladder truck. He jumped into the driver's seat, raced the horses to the burning multi-story building, and proceeded to operate the aerial ladder with great proficiency. So effective and dramatic was his display that the department was finally convinced that the Hayes aerial hook and ladder could serve the S.F.F.D. well. A less dramatic, but probably more accurate, account claims that a new S.F.F.D. fire chief decided to use the Hayes truck simply because it was already out of the station to be in the parade. This fire chief found the innovative aerial hook and ladder very useful in fighting the blaze and was willing to allow it into regular service.

Using local manufactures, Hayes produced trucks for sale to the S.F.F.D. and other West Coast fire departments. But demand increased as word of the practicality and reliability of Hayes' aerial ladder truck design spread across the U.S. In 1884, Hayes sold his patent to the New York-based LaFrance Company (soon to become American La-France). A number of sizes were developed to meet the distinctive needs of various cities' fire departments; models ranged from a "first class" truck with an 85 foot extension ladder to the small "fourth class" truck featuring a 40 or 45 foot extension ladder. Hayes also continued to build trucks in his own shop in Oakland. By the early years of the 20th century, when new advancements in technology made the original Hayes aerial design obsolete, more than 20 Hayes-design trucks had been sold.

This article appeared in the April 1989 issue of The Firemen's Grapevine.

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