LAFD HISTORY – The Beginning of the Los Angeles Fire Department – 1886

January 31, 2018

132 Years of Service
This month the LAFD celebrates 132 years of service to the people of Los Angeles. Our history is being preserved by the LAFD Historical Society for everyone and for future generations to come. The following is the story of how the LAFD started and about the great LAFD horses from those early days.

In 1886, Los Angeles encompassed an area of approximately 30 square miles. Six years before the start of the LAFD, the City’s population was 11,183. Four years after the LAFD went into service, it soared to more than 50,000. The Old Plaza Fire Station 1, which is a museum today in downtown Los Angeles and operated by the Box 15 Club of Los Angeles volunteers, went from a volunteer station, to one of the first LAFD stations. Los Angeles was growing rapidly, and the Fire Department was not able to keep up with an antiquated alarm system. Cognizant of the growth and escalating fire problems, the LAFD fortunately had strong friends in the City Council, notably Jacob Kuhrts (Past L.A.Volunteer Chief Engineer) who lobbied hard to prioritize fire protection improvements.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department went into service on February 1, 1886. It started with Mayor Spence signing Ordinance No. 205 into law, creating the new department. First came the appointment of three Fire Commissioners with the responsibility to perform all acts necessary to manage the fire department. The City Council was to decide on who would be the Chief Engineer. The ordinance brought four of the city’s six volunteer companies into the LAFD. At the time the department became paid, all the stations were rented. Engine rosters for “Original 38’s” and “Confidence 2” were set at one engineer, one engine driver, one cart driver and four hosemen for each of the two steam fire engines. Hook & Ladder “Vigilance” Company No. 1 was to be manned by a driver, a tillerman, a foreman and four laddermen. Hose Company “Park Hose” No.1’s crew was held to a driver, a foreman and four hosemen. Prospective LAFD members had to apply to the Fire Commission for consideration of their qualifications. They had to be at least 21 years of age, a U.S citizen, a permanent resident of the city of L.A. and able to converse understandably in English.

Augmenting the permanent force were 24 reserve firemen. These “callmen” were required to answer all alarms in their station’s district, large fires anywhere in the City and drill with their respective outfits at least twice monthly. Walter S. Moore was appointed to be the first Chief Engineer of the newly created LAFD. His monthly salary was $125. In January 1886, the Fire Commission came up with the first set of 32 Rules and Regulations. Among them were: Rule 18 – Cautioned engine, hose and hook and ladder truck drivers not to drive out of a trot in going to or returning from fires and alarms and further, racing was strictly prohibited; Rule 1 – The engine and hook and ladder houses shall be closed on Sundays. No loud or boisterous talking, profane or obscene language shall be permitted in or about the houses of the department. Intoxicating liquors must not be kept or allowed to be drunk in any of the stations and gambling is strictly prohibited; Rule 23 – Stipulated that destruction of property by water at fires was inefficient firemanship.

On April 12, 1886, the commision authorized the purchase of a horse and buggy for Chief Moore. The barn in which they were stored was outfitted with a swinging drop harness for the quick hitch of the horse by a callman who slept in the barn and drove Chief Moore to fires. It would become traditional to often name horses according to their temperament. Chief Moore’s horse, Cyclone, had a stormy disposition and was soon replaced by a more well-mannered animal.

LAFD HISTORY – Fire Horses

Fire horses were a great part of department history. They served from the late 1800 to 1921, when the last horse “Blackie” was retired. In 1911, there were a total of 163 horses in the LAFD. This is the most number of horses the department would ever have. That year three new fire houses were opened (Engine 23, 24 and 25) for a total of 32. I’m not sure how many of the old stations still exist except old 23’s at 225 E. 5th St., old 22’s at 4352 So. Main St. and old 18’s at 2616 So. Hobart, where I worked as an engineer. The year 1911 would be the last year that all 25-horse drawn steam fire engines remained in service. This was to be the first year of motorized apparatus on the LAFD and the beginning of the end for our great fire horses.

Back in those days there was no more memorable street scene than the traffic stopping spectacle of highly trained horses racing to alarms pulling the LAFD hose apparatus.
Horses were purchased from established breeders in midwestern and southern states where bloodlines were known throughout the fire service for producing the highest quality horses. Purebred Morgan and Percheron were the two bloodlines most desired by fire departments. Breeding the purebred stallions with crossbreed mares, produced colts with qualities that made them ideal for fire duty. Crossbreeds were smaller, lighter, faster, and less expensive to feed and maintain than purebreds.

The department would purchase horses between three and six years of age. They would then be shipped by rail and corralled at the LAFD’s yard on Pasadena Avenue. Crossbred Morgans were usually black or various hues of brown. Weighing between 1000 and 1300 pounds, they stood between 15 and 16 hands (around five feet) as measured from their shoulders to their hooves. A Morgan was usually assigned to lightweight chemical and hose companies, and to pull chief’s buggies. The crossbred Percherons were black or gray and weighed up to 1500 pounds and stood about 17 hands. These huskier horses were ideal for pulling the heavier rigs like the 1887 Amoskeg steamer and the 1905 Gorter water tower in our museum in Hollywood. The horses were given one or two syllable names like Bob, Sam, and Izzy to facilitate the horses’ response when the driver called an order. Firefighters sometimes named horses to signify specific traits. Among those was “Searchlight,” a chief’s buggy horse, who, the story goes, had an uncanny knack for seeking out shortcuts through alleys and streets while answering downtown alarms.

Officially, each horse was known by its assigned number which was branded on its skin. On May 12, 1910, the fire commission ruled that branding on the horses flank was cruel. Thereafter, numbers were branded on the horse’s right front hoof. The rule restricting the use of a whip to encourage speed was another humane consideration enacted. Breaking that rule was cause for dismissal of the driver.

The “Glory Days” of horses were not altogether glorious for the firemen. Drivers had to arise at dawn to fill the horses’ water buckets. Rule 13 of the LAFD Rules and Regulations required a 30-minute wait after watering before the horses were fed at 6:30 a.m. The horses were then exercised for not less than 30 minutes every morning followed by a thorough grooming. According to the Rules, horses were required to be thoroughly washed and scrubbed at least once a month, weather permitting.

Although teaching the horses tricks was a violation of Rule 13, Section 5, many horses somehow learned tricks that included opening gates and water spigots, and kneeling and shaking hands. Among the LAFD’s famous tricksters was a horse named Jerry, better known as the “Fire Eater.” He would often stand on his stall rails to beg for tobacco. Jerry often snorted smoke and could sense tobacco in the firemen’s pockets. By the time Jerry was transferred to Engine 10, he was dancing in his stall, and shaking hands with his hoof. He would entertain visitors by elongating his lower lip, baring his teeth, lowering an ear, cocking an eye and leering. Jerry’s Driver, Joe Sepulveda, said the horse could smell apples and oranges the instant they were brought into the station and he would paw the floor until he got one. Engine 10 firemen learned that Jerry disliked sharing audiences with other horses and would jealously snort and otherwise protest if visitors looked at other horses.

Submitted by Frank Borden

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