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

January 31, 2019

Franks Note: We should all be proud of our heritage – Those retired and those LAFD members on active duty. As each February comes up, I write an article about our great history. It is important for those active and retired to learn about where we came from and how we got to be one of the finest fire departments in the world today. This month’s story is how we started from a mix of volunteers in Los Angeles to a fully paid full time department. As the city was rapidly growing so was the need for a fire department to protect it.

Our Department has gone through decades of growth, change and innovation. This story covers the early days in the `1800’s and early 1900’s. Two centuries ago. Each decade from this time period on is interesting in its own way. The 1920’s, 30’s the war years of the 40’s and on. More of that history in future articles.

The LAFD Historical Society would like to get approval from Chief Terrazas to give our recruits in the drill tower a briefing on the history of the LAFD.

This month, the LAFD celebrates 133 years of service and sacrifice to the people of Los Angeles. Countless numbers of lives and properties have been saved, some at the cost of a firefighter’s life. Active and retired members should be proud of our heritage. Our history is being preserved by the LAFD Historical Society for everyone and future generations to come. The following is the story of how the LAFD started.

In 1886, Los Angeles 30 square miles roughly encompassed an area of structural density only as far north as Ord Street and south to 7th street. The easternmost area of building concentration did not extend much past Los Angeles Street and Olive Street on the west. Six years before the start of the LAFD, the city’s population was 11,183. Four years after the LAFD went into service, population soared to more than 50,000. The Old Plaza Fire Station 1, which is a museum today in downtown Los Angeles and staffed by the Box 15 Club of Los Angeles volunteers, went from a volunteer station with eight members to one of the first LAFD fire stations. Los Angeles was growing rapidly in population and the number of new structures with a water supply and fire department that was not able to keep up and an antiquated alarm system. There were major fears of catastrophic fires that could devastate the city. Cognizant of the growth and escalating fire problems, the LAFD fortunately had strong friends in the City Council, notably Jacob Kuhrts, who lobbied hard to prioritize fire protection improvements.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department went into service on February 1, 1886 after many years as a group of volunteer departments. It started with L.A. Mayor Spence signing Ordinance No. 205 into law and creating the Los Angeles Fire Department. First came the appointment of three Fire Commissioners with the responsibility to perform all acts necessary to prepare and 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, changed their names to numbers and absorbed all the station’s equipment into the paid department. At the time the department became paid, all the stations were rented. That situation was to continue for some time. 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. They were most likely former volunteers who were starting on February 1, to be paid a small honorarium. These “callmen,” apportioned among the fire companies, 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. Chief Moore’s monthly salary was $125. He too was a volunteer fireman and Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department and like many of our early volunteers, came from San Francisco to join the LAFD. 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 19: 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 houses of the department and gambling is strictly prohibited. Rule 23: Stipulated that destruction of property by water at fires was inefficient firemanship.

To enable the Chief Engineer to get to fires faster, the commission on April 12, 1886, authorized the purchase of a horse and buggy to be kept at night in a barn behind Chief Moore’s house. Chief Moore lived on the outskirts of the city at Figueroa and Pico. The barn 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.

On Monday, February 1, 1886 the Los Angeles Fire Department officially went into service with four stations, two steam powered 750 gpm pumpers (“steamers”), each housed with a two wheeled hose reel, a hook and ladder truck, a hose wagon and 11 horses. On that day the City began to pay 31 firemen, including a Chief Engineer and an Assistant Chief, for a service, which for 15 years, had been provided virtually without pay by 380 members of the Los Angeles Volunteer Fire Department. Most of the paid, or permanent men as they were officially designated, were former volunteers who took over the existing stations and equipment. Augmenting the permanent force were 24 reserve firemen. They were most likely former volunteers who were starting on February 1, to be paid a small honorarium. These callmen, apportioned among the fire companies, 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.

Prior to 1886 when the LAFD became a fire department, the volunteer fire departments protecting the city had a few steam fire engines. On October 18, 1886, the LAFD ordered its first fire engine, an Amoskeag steam pumper which was named Jacob Kuhrts Engine Company No. 3. Kuhrts was a former volunteer fire chief and at this time a city councilman who pushed hard to improve fire protection in the growing city. Although the 700 gallon per minute pumper was similar to the earlier engines, it had the latest pumping and maneuverability features. The engine, which arrived in early 1887, stood nearly 8 1/2-feet tall, was 23 feet 7 inches in overall length, six feet wide and weighed 7,800 pounds. More than 1000 people including Mayor Workman, Kuhrts and other councilmen watched the acceptance tests at the Beaudry Water Works. Steam was raised in four minutes and 5 seconds. Drafting through 20 feet of suction hose, the engine delivered a vertical stream at least 300 feet through 150 feet of two and one half inch hose. The crowd cheered that feat as well as Driver Si Lyons’ demonstration of how the horses from a standing start, could turn the rig around completely in only 20 feet. The new engine was assigned to the Plaza Fire House and its Amoskeag was moved to a newly rented firehouse at 114 West 3rd Street. The “Kurtz Steamer” is on display at the Hollywood Fire Museum.

The J. Kuhrts Engine remained in LAFD after it was retired from service and was restored and made to pump again by a volunteer group of LAFD members in 1986 for the LAFD’s Centennial celebration. The members included Tony Zar, Lane Kemper, Larry Horner, and Mort Schuman. The LAFD Historical Society is very fortunate to have this treasure on display in the Hollywood Museum at Old 27s. Tony Zar is now a member of our Historical Society Board and is still certified to operate the steamer. One of his many goals is to do some restoration work on the steamer as a volunteer.

Soon after, the LAFD officially started the Fire Commission who voted to have inspections of all stations, personnel, equipment, and horses. The first inspection was scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on July 5, 1886. Early inspection parties consisted of the Mayor, the Council President, a Councilmember, the Chief engineer and Assistant Chief Engineer, newspaper reporters, and interested citizens. The first stop was Engine 1’s Old Plaza Fire Station. After a thorough inspection of the station, Chief Moore ordered Foreman Henry Scherer to “Hook up the horses”. Warning the inspection party to stand clear, he pulled the gong rope. The clang caused the engine horses Tom and Joe to bolt from their stalls and dash to their positions under the harnesses suspended from the ceiling. Ned, a large sorrel, similarly hurried to the front of the hose reel. The horses stood quietly waiting for the drivers to tug on the ropes that dropped their harnesses down. Other firemen quickly fastened the harnesses and the rigs were ready for response – all in under one minute. Foreman Scherer lightened the formality of the occasion by ordering Ned to show them a trick. The horse fetched a bucket and, with his teeth, turned on a spigot. When the bucket was filled, he drank. The inspection party commended the firemen for their efficiency and station maintenance and I’m sure they were impressed with Ned.

1886 was certainly a year of a new start, growth and a pride by the LAFD members that would endure through time.133 years of service to the people of Los Angeles with continuous improvements and progress to become a true “Class 1” Fire Department in the United States. From a small city of 30 square miles and a few thousand people to a metropolis of 470 square miles and over 4 million people the LAFD has served and sacrificed for generations. The LAFD motto of “Serving with Courage, Integrity and Pride” will continue for many years to come.

Submitted by Frank Borden

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