Los Angeles Fire Department
COMPARING the present day fire station with that of the time when the horse had his day brings out a great contrast, to say the least.
Nowadays the fire house, with its motor apparatus, its clean floor, spotless
walls and its sanitary dormitories with the clean beds, make it hard to realize what the
station used to be in the days only a few years back.
My earliest recollection is when the new station at Main and First was opened about 1887 and Engine Co. No.2 was installed. This was a gala event and gave the city two real steam fire engines. These same pieces of fire apparatus served the city well for over forty years, in their later years being used for relief engines.
Yes, the modern-day station has more the appearance of a first class hotel
whereas the station of former days was more in the nature of a barn, with sleeping
quarters for the men upstairs, which had to be guarded by means of trap doors around the
sliding poles to keep the flies and odors from the horses below from entering the sleeping
quarters of the men above. And these same horses were quite a disturbance all night long,
with their grinding bits as they munched the hay about their feet or their bedding. Horses
are animals which do little sleeping and as fire horses were well cared for and well
bedded down each evening for the night they had plenty to munch on during their resting
hours, eating up their bedding.
My earliest recollection of the Los Angeles Fire Department was when it
boasted of one steamer. This company was commonly known as the "38s". A
company of volunteers of which there were 38 members was organized in the
early seventies and was known as the "38s" owing to its having 38 members in
the company. Therefore, although this steamer should have been properly
known as Engine Co.No.1 it was commonly known as the "38s". It was located
in the Plaza district and was finally permanently located at 237 Aliso
street and became known as Engine Co.No.4.
When Engine Co.No.2 was installed at Main street just south of First about 1887, it was a great event and there was much pride in the city when we could boast of two engine companies. The system was mostly volunteer and the regular men were on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days in the year, except the annual 10-day vacation. When a man wanted to lay off he had to pay his substitute at the rate of $50. per month while he was off. This was the rate of firemen's pay.
Engine Co.No.3 was later installed on Third street between Main and Spring later being removed to Hill near Fourth street, and finally being located in its own house, Hill street south of Second. No.2 was moved out to Sixteenth and Hope and was known as "Confidence" No.1, and as the city grew No.1 was located at Avenue 19 and Pasadena, and No.2 was moved to East First near Chicago where its fire bell, located on the roof, notified the volunteer "callmen" whenever the company was called out. Engine 6, which is located at Temple and Edgeware, was the first company to boast a 2-horse, 4-wheel hose reel, the other companies being equipped with 1-horse, 2-wheel hose reels. Reels were used in picking up hose until the hose wagons came in where the hose was laid in, doing away with reeling. As the motor apparatus replaced the horse the method of taking up hose remained the same. It was some job to take up the hose after a fire in those days as it had to be "broken" or disconnected at each length of fifty feet to let the water out, then re-connected and rolled up.
The first hook and ladder company was manufactured by the city and was a heavy affair. It was located with Engine 4 on Aliso street.
It is not necessary for me to go into detail as to the installation of the different companies. It is only the earlier ones that were of interest.
After the fire department became a regular full paid one the apparatus and new stations were added in rapid succession and caused no particular amount of interest. I am sure that none caused more interest than the installation of No.2 at First and Main streets and of which I have already mentioned.
One of the outstanding events in the life of this engine company was the death of the engineer, Tom Conway, and there never was in the history of the city a fireman's funeral which caused such wide interest, and which was so well attended. Tom was very popular and his death was keenly felt by his friends and the city in general. As the funeral passed the fire station the old bell in the tower above the engine house was tolled.
In the way of fire alarm bells there was installed in the City Hall tower a
large bell, the sound of which could be heard a long distance, and every time an alarm was
turned in it was automatically struck off on this bell. It was later moved to the top of
First and Hill and located in a tower built on the hill opposite First above Hill. (First
street was not cut through then, having its source at Hill street). This bell was the
source of great annoyance to the telephone operator, as each time an alarm was sounded the
operator was besieged by anxious citizens who would phone in to ascertain where the fire
was. This bell was later done away with and sold to St. Vincent church.
In February of 1900 several Los Angeles firemen accompanied the aerial truck on a visit to Riverside to take part in a celebration. Los Angeles was at that time the only city in Southern California owning an aerial ladder truck. It was quite an event to view an exhibition given by the crew with this truck and people came for many miles around to take advantage of the opportunity. Likewise it was a gala day for our boys who made the trip. False alarms were made many that day.
An event of great interest in the eighties was the Firemen's Picnic which took place at Santa Monica. This picnic attracted about all the population that could get away and the railroad company had some difficulty in providing sufficient cars to carry the populace to the beach. This was only overcome by utilizing common flat cars upon which boards were laid and used for benches. This method of transportation would not do in the present day with its speed craze.
It has often been said that firemen do things by instinct upon being gotten up at night by the alarm for a fire. I will cite, for instance, a certain engine driver as a good example. This man was stationed at Fourth and Towne with Engine 5. The alarm came in during the night and was announced by the Captain as "Third and Alameda." The hose wagon responded and turned east upon leaving quarters. The engine driver responded to the call and heard the announcement of "Third and Alameda." He took his seat on the engine and left quarters, but instead of following the hose wagon he turned west upon leaving quarters. The engineer on the rear of the apparatus yelled to the driver and asked where he was going, only to be answered with "Third and Alameda." The driver after going west for a short distance turned north to Third street where he turned west, still answering the engineer's challenge with "Third and Alameda." Coming east on Third from his quarters was the Assistant Chief and it was not until the engine driver met the Chief that he came to himself and realized that he was going in the wrong direction.
The case of Captain Thomas Home is one of the mysteries of the
fire department that will never be solved. The boys of Engine 5 were
awakened early one morning by the loud stamping of one of the horses. Upon
investigation they found the body of Captain Home at the bottom of the
sliding pole down which the men were required to slide when responding to an
alarm of fire. It was surmised that Captain Home had responded to an
imaginary alarm while asleep and had fallen to the floor through the pole
If you were to visit any of the two story houses you would note the sliding pole. Around this pole on the second floor you would find an iron railing. This railing was made necessary owing to the recurrence of accidents in which men have fallen through the pole hole and sustained painful and even fatal injuries. The modern bungalow one story house has done away with the sliding pole.
Athletics have received a big boost in the department and are greatly encouraged, as they should be. In the days of the single shift the men were required to put in all their time around the fire station with the exception of meal hours and their annual ten-day vacation and even on their meal hours they were required to "answer in" on all alarms and for their services they received the munificent salary of $50 per month, with $75 for drivers and $100 for engineers. This was later changed to a scale for hosemen of $60 to $80, drivers $80 and $85, lieutenant $90, engineer $115 and $120, and captain $120 and $125, being first and second class. The distinction in class for drivers was in two horse and three horse hitches. The three horse hitch was used on the steamer and the driver received $5 a month over the driver of the two horse hitch as used on the hose wagon. The distinction in class for engineer and captain was in the location of the fire station, the down town stations being designated as first class and the outlaying stations being second class houses.
The hours of duty were also changed with the salary, the men being allowed time off for meals, also two days a month or 24 hours every 15 days. The $60 to $80 for hosemen was for first, second and third year of service, an increase of $10 annually being allowed for each of the three years until he became a full paid man. Hosemen were allowed to take a lieutenant's examination after six months of service, that is, they could go up for promotion any time after they had served six months as hoseman. They were also allowed to take the examination for driver at any time and many were the hosemen who were anxious to take the driver's examination and get the increase in pay as a first year hoseman at $60 a month who was successful in obtaining a driver's job would be increased to $80 a month. In 1906 the Battalion Chief was added to the department, two being appointed in the persons of Captains Chas. B. Casey and John G. Todd. The salary was fixed at $150 a month, while the Assistant Chief received $175 a month. Quite a contrast with the present day salary in which a Captain receives the same salary as the Chief did at that time and a new man joining the department starts at a salary which is within $5 a month of what the Assistant Chief received at that time.
These days we also have in the department the grades of Deputy Chief and Assistant Chiefs, the beauty of it being that all grades of promotion are under civil service, making it possible for subordinates to gain increase in rank and salary and giving them an incentive to work for.
Speaking of athletics, I wanted to bring out the benefit to the men
participating. Under the old single shift system the only exercise the men got was maybe
in horseshoes and such, and with being required to be on duty nearly all the time they
were usually in poor physical condition which now, under the two platoon system they have
more time and are glad to take part in nearly all forms of athletics, even giving their
time off for the purpose. Athletics have formed a finer class of men and they are better
fit to cope with the duties of a fireman when they are called into action.
There used to be a character known only as "Shorty" who was accustomed to hang around one of the fire stations looking for a job as a regular fireman. One day while the Captain was temporarily away the men put Shorty "to work," telling him he was permanently employed and his duties were to keep the floor clean. Shorty was diligently sweeping around the horses stalls when the Captain came back and being let in on the joke he quickly "fired" him. Needless to say, he was never seen around the station again.'
The boys in the neighborhood of a certain station used to furnish much amusement of an evening by taking an old black sock, filling it with cotton and giving it much the appearance of a big rat. This was attached to a strong string and in the semi-darkness of evening one of the boys would stand at some distance and pull the string when a lone pedestrian passed by. Many a person chased that "rat" around the block trying to kill it only to be laughed at when he discovered the trick. A big Negro chased that rat with a cane for many blocks until the boy with the string gave out, but he said he "never could get close enough to kill it."
There was a horse attached to Engine 6 which seemed to delight in stamping in his stall in the early hours of the morning, much to the annoyance of the men sleeping above. To cure him of this habit a barrel hoop with a lot of tin cans was rigged over his stall in such a way that it would be raised and lowered by means of a small rope from above. When Mr. Horse started his usual stamping this hoop was dropped and raised suddenly, giving him such a scare that he was soon broken of the habit.
The intelligence of fire horses was really wonderful and we have had horses which showed almost human intelligence. There was the big dapple gray "Eddie" of Engine 16 who delighted, when he was led out each morning for his hour of exercise, to break away from his master and run down the street for a block and look back as much as to say "Come and get me." About the time the driver would get up to Eddie and reach out for his rope, the horse would break away and make a dash back for a block or so when he would stand and wait for the driver to come and get him.
Horses were great pets among the men sometimes and nothing seemed to delight them more than to be given a lump of sugar or an apple. There was a roan horse attached to one of the companies who seemed to have a contempt for paved streets and each time he was driven up on a paved street he would politely lay down in his harness. He was sold to the Chinese vegetable man.
One of the worst smoke scares in the history of the Los Angeles Fire Department was the Byrnes building at Third and Broadway. The fire, although confined to the first floor and basement of the corner store, made such a terrific smoke that a general alarm was turned in, bringing all the apparatus of the city to the downtown district.
The Van Nuns Broadway hotel on Christmas eve of 1905 was one of the biggest hotel fires. The building was of brick and wood construction and the fire started in the basement, burning its way up to the roof despite all the fire department could do to check it. The building was totally destroyed but fortunately no lives were lost.
One of the worst smoke scares in the history of the Los Angeles
Fire Department was the Byrnes building at Third and Broadway. The fire,
although confined to the first floor and basement of the corner store, made
such a terrific smoke that a general alarm was turned in, bringing all the
apparatus of the city to the downtown district.
The Capital Mills fire in 1901 was a fire which destroyed much grain and totally burned the big mills at Alameda and Commercial streets.
About the heaviest man for his size was Lieutenant Lewis. Lewis was about the best ticket seller in the department. No matter what the occasion all we had to do was to give Lewis a bunch of tickets and he would go out and dispose of them. For one of our balls he sold 1,400 tickets.
Another good ticket seller was Henry. On one occasion when the department was
giving a grand annual ball N___ and J___ went out selling tickets. One evening the two had
some settlement in which J___ made his pay check over to N___. After N___ left the engine
house and J___ had retired I happened to find J___'s pay warrant where he had dropped it
under a chair. Shortly afterward N___ came into the station covered with perspiration and
asked me if I had seen any papers lying around. Not knowing that he was referring to
J___'s pay warrant I answered that I had not. Up stairs rushed N___ to awaken J___ and
together they came down and searched around, both in and out of the house, to no avail. It
then dawned on me about J___'s warrant and taking it out I asked, "Is this what you
fellows are looking for?" It happened to be the very thing and there was one happy
fellow when N___ espied the pay check.
Of all friendships formed among animals I believe none is stranger
than that between horses and dogs. A new team of horses had been purchased
for use by the department and by their appearance they had come from some
farm. This team was sent out to Engine 21 to be broken in for service. About
three days after the arrival of these horses there came to quarters a half
starved dog which had the appearance of having come a long way. This dog
attached himself to quarters and would be constantly with or near one of the
new horses as though they had been together before. We surmised that they
had both been on the same ranch and when the horses were taken away the dog
determined to find his friends, so started out and finally located them in
our fire station.
The faithfulness of the fire horse to duty was really wonderful. In one
instance of a fire in a store building where the heat was terrific, owing to
the nearness of the fire to the street and the narrowness of the
thoroughfare the engine driver was forced to drive his team past the fire in
order to reach the fire hydrant. The faithful animals dashed through the
heat and brought the engine safe to the hydrant. The paint on the engine was
scorched and the near horse received burns about the head which, though not
severe, showed evidence of the heat through which the faithful animal passed
New horses when bought for fire department purposes had to be taught their duty the same way a new fireman and the way these animals learned was sometimes almost unbelievable.
There were only two places for the fire horse. One was in his stall and the other was under the harness. A new horse was placed in his stall and then at a tap of the gong the chain in front of him, and which held him in his stall, was dropped and the horse led to his place under the harness. There were only three snaps to a set of harness necessary to make the hitch. One was in the collar and the other two were at the end of the reins which were then snapped into the bit which the horse was required to have in his mouth at all times (except when eating his grain). The snapping of the collar around the horse's neck automatically dropped the harness upon his back and the snapping of the reins into the bit completed the harnessing of the team to the apparatus. In teaching new horses, the horse was led from his stall to his place under the harness, then by means of a rope tied to the wagon tongue and the other end to the edge of the stall, the horse would be urged from the rear when the gong was tapped and the chain dropped. The animal would soon learn to take his place and it would be but a short time before he was broken to his duties.
Dogs were great pets around the fire stations on account of their intelligence and partly for their friendliness for men and horses, and these animals would live for years in a station, but cats have proven a failure around a fire station. Owing to their desire for warmth they would usually find a spot to sleep under the engine boiler in which steam was kept up at all times, they being provided with a cozy resting place. Unfortunately for the cat, however, when the engine was driven out in response to an alarm the cat would be too slow in getting form under and would be crushed by the heavy wheels of the apparatus.
This article appeared in the February 1956 issue of THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE.
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