Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

By Peter Meyers 


    Again going back to the year 1905, for our glimpse into Fire Department activities of the past, we find that the automobile fire engine made its appearance on local streets about that time.  However, acceptance of this "new-fangled contraption" was not yet complete, and there were still many die-hards who allowed that the horse would never be supplanted by any horse-less equipment.

    This was also the year when Chief Thomas Strohm was removed "for the good of the service" after twenty-nine years of service, and replaced by Chief Walter Lips.  Some said that Chief Strohm refused to play politics with Mayor McAleer.  But the newspaper files of the time fail to show the real basis, if any, for the change.

    It appears that the new Chief was a go-getter, and he immediately recommended reorganization of the department and the purchase of several pieces of additional equipment.  He was always to be found on the scene of any fires, and one instance is related of how his enthusiasm outweighed judgment and almost cost him his life.  An alarm had been received from the Tony Zorb saloon at 115 South Spring Street, where smoke had been issuing between the wall of the building occupied by the saloon and the Fitzgerald Music Company's store at 113 South Spring Street.

    While the firemen who responded were endeavoring to find the cause of the smoke, Chief Lips entered the music store and asked to be conducted to the basement, as the clerks had been complaining of smelling escaping gas.  The manager of the store led Chief Lips, two gas company linemen, and one of the store's clerks to the basement.  It being dark, the store manager obligingly struck a match so the Fire Chief could see his way.  A terrific explosion occurred, throwing the group into a heap, although luckily all escaped with slight burns and bruises, and little damage was done to the building.

   The explosion in the store basement was followed by a series of heavy explosions in the electric light conduit in the street outside the music store, blowing three manhole covers high into the air, and with one of them about 200 pounds of asphalt blew to a height of twenty feet. Again, fortunately, no one was injured in these explosions.

    Chief Lips berated the store manager for striking the match, and the latter countered that he had made several vain attempts to strike the light and he should have been warned by the Chief.

    When Chief Lips took over the new job, he inherited the use of "Searchlight" who had been on the fire department for fifteen years.  "Searchlight" knew the alarms as well as any fireman on the job, and in spite of his 23 years (rated past the allotted span for a horse) he was playful as a colt.  One of "Searchlight's" methods of "gittin' thar fust" was when at night they were on a run for a fire and going pell-mell down the main street, suddenly he would wheel into an alley of his own accord, run down it for a couple of blocks and thus arrive at the fire much more quickly than if he had kept to the regular street route.  This must have been slightly disconcerting to the Chief, as it would be black as ink and "Searchlight" never slackened pace until the destination was reached.

    "When I first started to drive him," remarked the Chief, "we differed on the way to go, but I soon found that if the old boy was close enough to the gong to hear the number sounded, it was best to let him have his own way.  He remembered all the short-cuts and could skillfully dodge any traffic that might be encountered by adhering to main streets."

    One of "Searchlight's" great delights was to see the Fire Insurance Dispatch automobile while making a run down Main Street.  If it had a block lead, he was sure to pass it in six blocks, by putting on an extra burst of speed.

    If rubber gets so scarce that we do have to go back to horse-drawn equipment, many a fire laddie will wish he had "Searchlight" to guide him in the dim-out.

    The Chief felt the need of having another horse to relieve the aging "Searchlight", so he started breaking in a younger hay-burner.  On October 9, 1905, the Chief was charging up Broadway behind his new horse, in response to an alarm, and attempted to turn down Franklin street, but the horse had other ideas and headed straight for the new Zahn Building being erected at the corner of Franklin and Broadway.  The horse dragged the Chief's wagon across a ladder that was lying in front of the building and barely was stopped when right up against the wall itself.  Neither the Chief nor the horse was hurt, and although the mishap delayed his arrival at the fire for five minutes, it is reported that he got there in plenty of time.  It seems as though everything was at a slower pace in those days, so probably fires burned slower too.  Anyway, he got there safely, which was most important.

   However, all was not one bed of roses driving a spirited trio of heavy draught chargers at breakneck speed towing a heavy fire-and-smoke-belching fire engine down a busy street. Every once in a while there was a run away, and then there was a wild scamper of pedestrians and carriages to get out of the way of the charging steeds.  That there were not more causalities in those exciting periods is hard to understand.  The heavy engine, bouncing along and lurching from side to side would graze street cars, wagons and carriages until eventually the horses would slow down into a trot and be caught by a passer-by and held until the arrival of the red-faced driver and headed back toward the fire.

    If they don't junk all the old horse-drawn fire engines in the scrap drive, who knows but that we may again experience the thrill of seeing three beautiful matched dapple gray Percherons, with gleaming harness, making a run down our streets?  Let's keep hoping anyway.

This article appeared in the November, 1942 issue of The Firemen's Grape Vine.

Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved.