Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

History of Los Angeles Fire Department
Secretary, Los Angeles Fireman's Relief Association, Inc.

Trials and Tribulations of Horse Drawn Apparatus


    Little did the councilmen of 1873 and 1874 realize that horses would be of secondary importance in the fire department within the short space of forty years after their flat refusal to purchase one team of horses to draw the only steam fire engine i n the city of Los Angeles.  The only organized fire fighting organization in the city disbanded as a result of that decision.  Within three years, however, new volunteer fire companies were organized and horses were adopted as the means of pulling all fire apparatus, excepting hand hose reels.  By the time the paid department was organized in 1886 they were considered part of fire department equipment and their care provided for in the department's RULES AND REGULATIONS adopted at the board meeting of January 21, 1886.  There we find Sections 5, 6, 7, 9, 18 and 19 pertain to care, driving and harnessing of horses.  Feeding them at city expense was recognized as legal when the board on January 28, 1886 authorized for purchase five tons of hay, forty sacks of rolled barley, and six sacks of bran.  Horses, therefore, have played a very important part in the development of the Los Angeles Fire Department.  Transportation facilities for the chief engineer were considered by the board in April, 1886, and a horse and buggy were purchased immediately for his convenience.  The latter event took place only twelve years after the memorable action of the council in refusing to consider horses as imperative accessories to fire service. Two sets of horses, referred to as the "White Angels" and the "Reindeers," received considerable attention in the early parades and were known by all the townspeople. The "Reindeers" were turned over to the corporation yard for lighter duty in August, 1893.  It was a common event for horses not properly hitched along the street to run away because they became frightened at the noise of galloping fire horses and clanging bells of fire engines responding to fire alarms.  To avoid criticism the chief and the commission ordered drivers of fire engines to abide by the rules and not to drive faster than a trot while responding to or returning from alarms of fire.  To further assist in handling the "traffic" problem, the commission requested the chief of police to enforce the ordinances requiring that all horses be hitched on principal streets of the city.

    The fire department also has its horse problems, for the nature of the work required strong, spirited horses as lame and lazy animals were a liability. With instincts similar to other animals, the temperament of horses reflected to a great extent their care.  Some became gentle and others became dangerous to handle. In one instance, the board approved the sale of a horse called "Cyclone", which it had purchased but a few months before for Chief Engineer Walter Moore.  Although no reason was advanced for the sale of the horse, it is presumed, as the name indicates, that he had an unruly disposition, or was in the habit of running away. In another instance, a horse named "Spider Kelly," a name familiar along Main Street, was given to the street department, as he was incapacitated for further fire duty, and another horse by the name of "Judge" fell dead in his traces while responding to a fire.  One is led to believe, from these and other familiar names, that all the horses were appropriately named, according to character and temperament.

 In February, 1888, the board of fire commissioners concluded that assistant chief engineer D. A. Moriarty who was also assigned the duty of fire marshal, should have a horse to properly perform his work, and thereupon authorized the purchase of a horse and buggy for his use.  No evidence is available whether this or another horse was responsible for a serious accident which occurred several years later, but while responding to a fire on September 12, 1891, assistant chief Moriarty was thrown from his buggy and painfully injured;  in fact his left ankle was so seriously shattered that amputation of the foot was necessary.  

    Numerous other accidents are recorded wherein firemen were killed or seriously injured by impulsive fire horses during drills or while caring for them.  In other instances, fire horses broke out of corrals or were permitted to graze and, in so doing occasionally wandered into nearby wheat fields. orchards, neighborhood corrals or stables.  Many times indignant owners charged the commission fees for damaged done on recovery of the horses, whereupon the board, assuming the members were negligent or careless, levied fines to pay the cost.  One instance, in particular, was noted where the electrician was instructed to see that his hose was properly watched when turned out to graze.

    In compliance with the rule of many years ago that horses be exercised nearly every day in the week except Sunday, one can easily visualize some of the difficulties encountered by fire companies when drills were held on rainy days, in view of the fact that streets in those days were in very poor condition and cement streets were unknown.  The Daily Journal of old "Chemical Company No. 4" records a two-weeks period as "plenty of mud," and again "special attraction today, exercising in mud."  The plight of the firemen may be appreciated by the fact that it was necessary after each drill to dry both horse and apparatus.  As no one was detailed to take care of city horses corralled at the corporation yard, the board recommended that the council create a position and authorize appointment immediately.  The position was filled by appointment by the board of fire commissioners.  Evidently departmental budgets, if annual estimates in those days may be referred to as such, were poorly supervised as to amounts expended as well as merchandise purchased, for it is noted that the board recommended the purchase of sixty tons of hay, as the street department had consumed the largest part of the fire department's hay supply.  A "Horse Department" section in old annual reports listed all the horses owned by the department.  The largest number of horses owned by the department at any one time was in 1912 when, just prior to purchase of automotive equipment in that and succeeding years, 163 horses were used to pull fire apparatus.

    Recognizing that the increased inventory of horses, fire equipment and apparatus should be properly maintained, Chief Walter Lips in 1905 recommended that a position of carriage blacksmith and wheelwright be created.  A blacksmith was appointed in November, 1906, and a horseshoer and assistant horseshoer in April, 1907, by civil service.  Horseshoeing had formerly been done by contract. The horseshoeing positions were in the fire department personnel ordinance as late as 1921, due to the fact that motorization of the department had not been completed.  A veterinary surgeon was appointed by the board in June, 1907 to care for both fire and park department horses.  He resigned on April 8, 1909.

    A singular achievement, and worthy of mention this study, was the "hanging harness" idea designed and built by Edward R. Smith, a driver in the department, about 1886.  The equipment proved so successful that it was adopted by the department and in a short time "hanging harness" procedure was a routine part of fire drills, as it expedited all necessary motions incident to the "hitch" to get horses and apparatus under way.  A few years later, in 1898, Edward R. Smith was elected to the office of assistant chief engineer.

   This article appeared in the September 1946 issue of THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE.

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