Did you know that the LAFD had a total of 163 horses in 1911? This is the most horses the department would ever have. That year three new fire houses were opened (Engine 23, 24 and 25) for a total of 32. These were the last houses built specifically for fire horses. I’m not sure how many of those 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 in 1967. It was one of those stations that had a hay loft. It is still there and remodeled and in use by a private organization. 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, high spirited horses racing to alarms pulling the LAFD hose and chemical wagons, steamers, hook and ladder trucks and chief’s buggies. There was always a strong bond between the firemen and their horses, and of course, many stories by the firemen who trained them for duty and tricks. Horses were purchased from established breeders in midwestern and southern states where bloodlines and forage were known throughout the fire service for producing the highest quality horses. Cost was not the main consideration that precluded the purchase of purebred Morgans and Percherons, the two bloodlines most desired by fire departments. Breeding the purebred stallions with crossbreed mares, known as grade draft horses, produced colts with qualities that made them ideal for fire duty. Crossbreeds were smaller, lighter, faster, heartier, cheaper and less expensive to feed and maintain than purebreds.
The department would purchase horses between three and six years of age and already trained by the breeders to wearing a harness and responding to the driver’s reins. They would then be shipped by rail and corralled at the LAFD’s yard on Pasadena Avenue between Ave. 19 and 20 (later to become the LAFD Division of Supply and Maintenance). 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. Smaller than crossbred Percherons, they were usually assigned to lightweight chemical and hose companies and to pull chief’s buggies. The crossbred Percherons were black or gray (which turned snow white as they grew older), 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. The horses were given one or two syllable names like Bob, Sam, Izzy, Rock, Rufus and Pete to facilitate the horse’s response when the driver (a rated position) called an order. Firefighters sometimes named horses to appropriately signify specific traits. Among those was “Searchlight,” a chief’s buggy horse, who, the story goes, had an uncanny knack, especially at night, 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 resulting indentation was filled in with the number in silver or gold paint. Another humane consideration was a rule against over-use of whips while urging horses to speed. Breaking that rule was cause for dismissal of the driver.
A great part of our LAFD history was created by the fire horses. Fortunately there were many stories recorded about them and photos taken so that we can all enjoy this era that lasted from the late 1800’s to 1921 when the last horse “Blackie” was retired to Griffith Park. 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 Rules & Regs also stated that the horses shall be fed not more than four quarts of grain and about 20 pounds of hay daily, and twice a week fed a bran mash. 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 shown as Jerry on the official roster, but was better known as the “Fire Eater.” The firemen claimed that Jerry was mostly self taught, starting with his first assignment at Engine 9 at 9th and Santee Streets. Jerry stood in his stall rails to beg for tobacco, whether or not it was lit. Jerry often snorted smoke and could sense snuff and chewing tobacco which he would nuzzle out of the firemen’s pockets. By the time Jerry was transferred to Engine 10, located in 1910 at 16th and Hill Streets, he had added to his bag of tricks by 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. Joe Sepulveda, Jerry’s driver, said the horse could smell apples or 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. While Jerry was performing, the firemen made certain that the chains across the other horse stalls were securely fastened. Jerry insisted upon center stage!
There were many Rules about the care of horses and many stories about them especially of the characters like Jerry. Part 3 of this series will be about “Blackie” the last fire horse and the beginning of the LAFD motorized vehicles.
MEMORIES – Blackie the Last Fire Horse by Captain Harry J. Griffin, Retired
This article appeared in the March 15, 1937 issue of THE FIREMAN’S GRAPEVINE. Harry Griffin came on the Department during the era of horses and drove a hose wagon. Harry became a captain and was a Medal of Valor recipient. His son Dr. Pat Griffin donated a large amount of memorabilia from his father’s collection to our Museum.
“Blackie” is my name, to me belongs the honor of being the last fire horse. Today I am at home in Griffith Park, whetting my appetite on green grass with hay and oats as dessert. Just a life of ease for me, no more do I race and sweat down hardened highways pulling fire apparatus with clanging bells ringing in my ears, but my memory lingers on, of days when in a clean stall in a fire station called the marble palace I spent many happy hours, bedded down at night for a rest in clean hay with a breakfast of oats and drink of cooling water, and a valet to comb my sleek coat of hair, wash my mouth, clean my feet and attend my every need. If I felt ill a doctor gave me the best of his skill to put me in the pink of condition. By a standing chain in front of my stall, I was ready to spring into action at the toll of the bell, taking my place under harness, where my pals in blue dropped a leather suit on me, jerked a collar around my neck, snapped reins to my bridle, as out into the street I ran, pulling behind me a shiny red wagon, with smoke eaters hanging on the sides. Down dry, wet or slippery streets in the dead of night or in bright sunshine I ran with all my strength, I had a duty to perform, maybe it was saving a life or someone’s home. I must get the men to the fire quickly. People used to stop and look as I passed by, and as I stopped at the fire, white with sweat, would offer me something dainty to eat, but I had to get my breath first, but, alas, my driver would spoil it all, drive me away back from the fire, hitch me to a post, and cover me with a blanket, thinking I might catch cold. Sometimes my shoes that were of steel and rubber came loose from my feet, but never did I stop, just running on in my bare feet. Of course I have been injured, many a fall have I taken cutting my flesh, breaking bones, and was I nervous and anxious to get on duty when my superiors made me rest up from an injury? Yes, I used to look with angry eyes when one of those steel gasoline autos passed me by, and tears came to my eyes as my comrades in the station whispered into my ear, “It looks like Blackie will soon be no more, the new gasoline fire apparatus will retire you.” Yes, I can still feel the tug at the reins my driver R. J. Scott gave to me, and many who are now officers in the Department rode upon the shiny red wagon which I was proud to pull. And can I remember the day they took me away from the home and comrades I loved dearly, I saw tears in the eyes of many, as the boys said when the new apparatus took my place. “Well” it may be faster and more modern, but they never can fill the place of our human pals, the fire horses.
Soon I will be gone to my place in horse heaven, where all my pals have gone long ago. I just stand and look at the green hills, occasionally petted by a passing man or woman and dream and dream of memories of long ago. Sometimes I am honored by being taken to the noise and bustle of the City, where I am afraid of the speed of traffic, and hear some child ask it’s Mother as I pass, “Mother” what is a FIRE HORSE?” could the younger generation have seen and heard the praise, “Oh, those human beasts look so beautiful as they rear and tear to a fire.” You don’t hear it now-a-days as a steel thing goes past with a siren sounding, they are not as sweet as the bells of long ago.
Of course I am grateful that those that I served so faithful have given me a life of ease. But could I live again those days of old, my sleek coat of hair has grown to be long and shaggy, my teeth are not as sharp, no one to play valet to me now, but the Honor is still mine, “BLACKIE” the only living fire horse of the City of Angels. I hope some day that a statue will rest in a City Park to remind the children of tomorrow of the Human Heroes of yesterday. The FIRE HORSES. The deeds of which is history.