Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

Famous Names on Early Department Rosters

Joseph D. Lynch, writing in the Los Angeles Herald of June 25, 1905, tells of some of the celebrities who "ran with the machine" in the "Thirty-Eights" and "Confidence No. 2".

HE present pretentious and effective paid fire department of Los Angeles had a worthy predecessor in the old volunteer department.  Thirty years and more ago a popular and ambitious organization, known as the "Thirty-Eights" attended to the city's wants in that time.  It took its name from the number of its members, who comprised most of the young bloods of the town, many of whom are now living in Los Angeles.

    At first it consisted of a simple hose service, but an engine was added a year or so after its organization.  It took up its quarters in one of the 'dobe buildings which stood on the spot where the Phillips block now stands.  That long row of 'dobes was the then official center of the town, containing, besides the hose company and its equipments, the city and county jail, and the Star office, with the court house immediately opposite, where the Bullard block now stands. 

    Major Ben C. Truman, the founder editor of the Star, was a member and one of the first trustees of the "Thirty-eights."  George Tiffany and John Paynter, the founders and proprietors of the Express were also members of the "Thirty-Eights."  Pretty much everybody who was anybody in those budding days of Los Angeles was a member of the volunteer fire department.  Tom Temple of the Temple & Workman bank and Joe Huber of the Farmers and Merchants bank took pride in running with the machine.  If I mistake not, ex-Mayor Toberman was included in the fire laddies.  Charles E. Miles, Jake Kuhrts, Sidney Lacey, W. J. Brodrick, Chris Fluhr, Tom Rowan, Aaron Smith, "Old Man" Carpentre, Tom Strohm, Col. Albert M. Johnson, Walter Moore and many others, some of whom are living, were identified with the early fire department experiences of Los Angeles City.

    As the town grew another company was felt to be needed and Confidence Engine Company No. 2 was formed.  Its headquarters were in a narrow two-story brick building near the Childs opera house, a door or two from the corner of Main and First streets.  Walter S. Moore, for many years chief of the paid fire department, was a leading factor in the organization of the second company.

    Even in the days of the old "Thirty-Eights" it was hard for a fire to make any headway in Los Angeles.  The members of the department were young and athletic. They were nearly all members of lodges, Free Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights Pythias and what not, and were always around of nights.  From that day to this Los Angeles has been singularly free from great fires.  For the last thirty years or so this has been remarkably the case in San Francisco.  The insurance companies have probably had to pay out less money in recouping losses than in any communities of similar size in America.

    The fact is there has never been a large fire in Los Angeles-that is to say, any which the department has had any real difficulty in handling.  This immunity is probably not owing entirely to the vigilance, dash and skill of the fire fighting forces of the city, though much of it is surely referable to those grounds.  Two other causes may be assigned for this immunity.  The first is the absence of night winds, both in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and most of the fires everywhere start in the night time.  The second is the liberal use of redwood in building operations.  A fire will make more headway in a city in a section built of granite than of redwood.

    In this old volunteer fire department there were many highly interesting characters.  Take Jake Kuhrts, for instance.  This gentleman has kept up his interest in fire matters to the present day, and as fire commissioner his advice has been invaluable to the body of which he is a member.  Many a time has Jake stretched his long legs in racing to fires as a member of the old "Thirty-Eights," setting a pace which many a shorter limbed man had much ado to keep up.  Jake is of German birth and began life as a sailor.  He is rich and has a rightful claim to be a man of leisure.  He is a compound of Nimrod and Izaak Walton, and with gun and rod he puts in his time right pleasantly, keeping an eye on the closed seasons on land and water, and seeing to it that everything goes well with the fire laddies.

    Thomas E. Rowan, one of the original "Thirty-Eights," whose recent and premature death cast a gloom over Los Angeles, was one of the best known and best liked men who ever lived in this city.  He was popular with the "boys" and with all classes.  He had tiptop qualifications as a club man and was popular as a politician and mayor.  He was well qualified to run with the machine, as he was a great gymnast.  His sudden death surprised everyone, as almost to a year or two before his death, he could try a handspring and walk across a floor in the old California club on his hands, with his heels toward the ceiling.  Tom Rowan was full of bonhomie and left a couple of sons who have made some mark in the world, a widow, and a daughter.  His going hence has left a social gap which may not soon be filled.  As a fireman and citizen he was of the best.

    As a fireman, Charles E. Miles was of the order of the superlative. "Charley," as he was known all over Southern California by his friends, who were in truth legion, came to Los Angeles from Baltimore and was a type of the Maryland good fellow--none better.  No one who knew him in his bright, halcyon days would ever have dreamed that he would have such a sad ending.  He was a civil engineer by profession, and was connected with the Los Angeles Water Company in its early days.  Starting out as a member, afterwards captain of the "Thirty-Eights," Miles became chief of the Los Angeles fire department.  Unfortunately for him he entered politics, a role in which he was surprisingly popular.  He had every qualification for politics but one, he could not for the life of him say no.

The mainspring in the creating and in the career of Los Angeles Engine Company No. 2 was undoubtedly Walter S. Moore.  He came here from Philadelphia about thirty years ago.  I do not know whether Walter had the benefit of the instructions of the Hon. Billy McMullen of that city, or of association with the Moyamensing engine boys, but certain it is that he reached here a full fledged fire laddie--one to "the manner born."  He ranked high from the start as a fireman, and when Los Angeles had progressed to the metropolitan status he was for years chief of the paid fire department.

    He might be filling that post of chief still if it were not for certain differences with the controlling authorities about the price, quality and quantities of hay which was fed to the horses of the department, and which led to the retirement of the redoubtable Walter, as to the details of which I refrain.

    Walter will always loom large in the annals of the fire department of Los Angeles. He was identified with it in its infancy, and he had a personality which will not be lightly forgotten.  In addition to being a fireman of renown, he was a politician of a unique sort, and his Oro Finos were well capable of making the Republican Rome howl.  He was once nominated for secretary of state and achieved at the polls what the French call a debacle, that may be rendered in English a "smashup."  While he was popular with the "boys" he was down way deep in the books of what are irreverently called the "long hairs," who made him run appallingly behind his ticket.

    The versatile Moore tells a good story of himself in that campaign.  He had placarded Los Angeles with flaming posters telling the people to "vote for Walter S. Moore for secretary of state."  He was ranged in line to vote in his own precinct.  Two citizens were ranged in front of him, whom he did not know and who did not know him.  One of them happened to look up and caught sight of Walter's flaming placard.

    "Oh," he said to the man behind him.  "I forgot something.  I intended to scratch that blank be blanked---."

    "Me too, Tom Platt," said the other, and the virile fireman lost two votes through his anxiety to make the art preservative do him some good.

    Tom Strohm, the predecessor of Chief Lips, was also a member of the old Thirty-Eights.  He came here from St. Louis as instructor of the Turnverin Germania, and as a resolute and skillful fire fighter he is without a superior.  His advocacy of Mayor Snyder at the last election cast him a position which he had filled with marked ability.

    While, as I have said, Los Angeles and San Francisco have been singularly free from fires during the past thirty years, the latter city in its earliest days had some notable conflagrations.  Her first great fire on December 24, 1849, destroyed property valued at $1,000,000.  There were four fires in 1850, that on May 4 disposing of property valued at $3,500,000.  June 4, $3,000,000 went up the spout.  September 17 there was a $450,000 loss, and on December 14 there was a round million flare up.  The big fire of May 3, 1851, wiped out $12,000,000, and $3,000,000 followed June 22 of the same year.  November 2, 1852, Sacramento had a fire which destroyed $10,000,000 worth of property.  Stockton lost $3,000,000 by fire May 6, 1851, and Sonora $2,500,000 in June 1852.

    No doubt the paid fire department of today would have cut these losses short.  The system as it exists now is a miracle of efficiency.

    The great skill with which fires have always been handled in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the past thirty years has no doubt been owing to the fact that the fire departments of both cities have been made up of people who have run with the machines in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and other eastern cities.  The members of the old Thirty-Eights and Confidence No. 2 were made up largely of such an element.

    In rounding up this I may mention that the old Thirty-Eights' engine until recently was lodged in a house down on the Plaza, which has been recently torn down, and that it has been occasionally trotted out to do fire service of late years.

Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.