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By Frederick J. Bowlen, Battalion Chief San Francisco Fire Department 1938

Chapter I

The first steam fire engine ever built was in London, England, in 1829, and on account of its enormous weight was so arranged and constructed that it could be drawn by horses.  This is the first record we have where horses were used for drawing fire apparatus to fires. (Ref: "Our Firemen" Hist, of the New York Fire Dept. Vol, and Paid, by Augustine E. Costello 1887 - p. 991.)  The first record we have of horse-drawn fire apparatus in America was during the prevalence of the epidemic of Cholera in 1832 in the city of New York when the working forces of the fire department was much weakened by reason of sickness and death.  Very often not enough men could be mustered to drag the hand-engines to the scene of the conflagration.  Horses had to be brought into requisition, as is attested by the fact that in November, 1832, the city authorities were authorized to pay the bill of James Gulick for eight hundred and sixty-three dollars and seventy-five cents, for horses "to drag the Engines and Hook and Ladder Trucks to the fires."  (Ref: "Our Firemen" Hist, of the New York Fire Dept. Vol. and Paid by Augustine E. Costello - 1887 -p. 94.)

In the year 1865, the fire department of New York City was reorganized and many of the hand-drawn fire engines and hook and ladder trucks were altered so as to be drawn by horses.  (Ref: "Our Firemen" by Augustine E. Costello - 1887 - p. 94.)

The use of horses in the San Francisco Volunteer Fire Department in the pioneer days was restricted to such occasions as parades and celebrations.  In the picture is shown the St. Francis Hook and Ladder Company with its ladders pyramided, the horses being led by the firemen and the apparatus followed by the members of the company with fire axes over their shoulders in the parade of July 4, 1851.  This was the first time that horses were ever used in the San Francisco Fire Department.

All the apparatus in use had been especially designed and constructed to be drawn by hand.  The substitution of horse power for man power in the department would have required so few men that the social and political features of the fire department would have been weakened.  There would also have been a heavy expense involved as new apparatus would have to be purchased and appropriations made for the construction of stables, as well as to defray the cost of remodeling the houses, and the cost of feed and harnesses.  As the expenses of the Volunteer Fire Department were in most part borne by contributions from various merchants and men of means, who had their own and their city's welfare in view, there had been no definite budget upon which to depend, now any other practical way by which the expenses of the Volunteer Department might be assured.

It was not until August 19, 1863 that Pennsylvania Engine Company No. 12 received a new steam fire engine from the East that was built and designed to be drawn by horses exclusively that horses were used.  In the evening of the same day three black horses were harnessed to the fine steam fire engine (one leader and two wheel horses, known as a spike team) and trotted through the streets performing in an entirely satisfactory manner to the company.  The house was then remodeled and stalls constructed for the reception of the horses; this took about two months during which time the engine was thoroughly gone over and put in perfect working order under the superintendency of a competent engineer, who had been in charge of a "steamer" in Washington belonging to the Government.  The other Volunteer companies resented this very much and continued to draw their apparatus by hand.

The Volunteers with their hand pumps had done well in zealously caring for the needs of a small community, principally of wooden construction.  They were at first loathe to relinquish the prestige and showmanship which accompanied their calling. However, in a short while after horse-drawn engines were adopted all classes looked upon the change with a feeling of civic pride and as the Volunteer Fire Companies had served their day, the change was inevitable just as the firehorses had to step out of his role as hero and give place to the automobile with the demand for progress and ever increasing speed.

The first alarm of fire ever responded to by horse-drawn apparatus in San Francisco was on October 14, 1863, by Pennsylvania Engine Company No. 12, for a fire in a box factory at 12 'clock noon in the vicinity of Fremont and Market Streets, and quite a sensation was caused as the "steamer" passed along the streets.

In the year 1866 the State Legislature passed a bill to reorganize the San Francisco Fire Department.  This bill provided for a Paid Fire Department with modern steam fire engines to be horse-drawn.  The Bill went into effect on December 3, 1866 and at that time the Old Volunteer Fire Department, which had been in operation since 1850, went out of existence.  It marked the transition from the old hand-drawn and hand-operated apparatus to the horse-drawn steam-operated engines.

On July 16, 1866, Mr. Torrey, a member of the Committee from the Paid department, reported that one of the four steam fire engines purchased in the East would arrive by the next steamer and that all of the engines ordered would be in San Francisco by the first of September.  He then recommended that horses be purchased so that they might be in readiness upon arrival of the engines.

The old house of Crescent Engine Company No. 10 was ordered fitted up for the reception of one of the new engines and for the required number of horses; also stalls for horses were built in the old Exempt Firehouse then on the south side of Jackson Street near Montgomery, formerly the old house of Manhattan No. 2, and on August 27, 1866, the new steamer San Francisco No. 1 was placed in service there temporarily pending the installation of a paid department several months later.

Pennsylvania Engine Company No. 12 automatically became San Francisco Engine Company No. 6 under the reorganization plan of December 3, 1966, and it was a coincident that the last alarm of fire responded to by horse-drawn engines was a "still-alarm" which was responded to by Engine  Company No. 6, drawn by three black horses on August 19, 1921, (horses were first installed August 19, 1863) at 4:15 P.M. for a small fire on the north side of Jessie Street, between Seventh and Eighth Streets. At 5:30 P.M. just one hour and fifteen minutes later, this same company was motorized.

On August 29, 1921, at 9 o'clock A.M. the last five magnificent and faithful horses left the quarters of Engine Company No. 33, and were retired from active service, but they were not the last to respond to an alarm of fire.  The last firehorse left the department stables on December 31, 1921, when the Department Stables were officially closed.

The Last Firehorse

"Mike" was a large black horse with a white forehead and white fetlocks.  He was the last horse purchased by the Fire Department.  This was in 1911 and at that time he was four years old.  In 1919 he was turned over to be used on light work in the gardens of Golden Gate Park.  On April 3, 1934 he was sent to pasture at Martinez, California.  He died there August 29, 1934 he was the last of his noble and useful kind in San Francisco.

The firemen miss the horses and the firehouses seem bleak and cold with a piece of inanimate machinery on the floor, but the recollections of the suffering of the animals on the long hard runs and the unnatural mode of life for the faithful beasts were factors in making the automobile a welcome change.  It is interesting to note certain dates that occur in this chapter.


First horse in the department August 19, 1863
Last run to a fire August 19, 1921
First alarm responded to with three black horses.  
Last alarm responded to with three black horses.  
Last horse left the department August 29, 1921
Last horse died  August 29, 1934

Mike was the last horse purchased by the Fire Department. Mike was the last horse to die - age 27 years.

Men who were about to be appointed drivers had to take a test for driving at the Department stables before they could obtain a certificate for their fitness in handling the position desired.

One such driver went to the stables with a letter from the Fire Department Office to receive a test.  He was quite put out because of the reflection on his ability when a driving test was required of him after he had driven so many kinds of horses for so many years.  However, the superintendent explained to him it was merely a matter of form and that if he wanted his certificate he would have to submit.  The stablemen were told to hitch up a certain team of old experienced horses no longer in active service.  These were hitched up for this driver's tryout to what was termed a breaking cart which in reality was a heavy vehicle made from an old engine wheels, axle and pole, with only a seat for the driver.

When the prospective driver stepped into the cart and took the reins, he asked why he had not been given a good team to use and he made sure to remind them that he was no green hand.  The stablemen, ever ready to please, said, "All right, we'll hitch up Shag Rock and
McKiever," a pair of horses really worth drawing to.  The change was made and when the driver again took the reins, the horses sprang into immediate action and were out of the stable doors in one jump, but he held them.  With very few seconds for thought, they went from a trot into a gallop and the driver was advised that galloping was not permitted except under extraordinary emergencies or circumstances, but somehow they continued to gallop until the superintendent took the lines and pulled them down to a trot.  After driving them at this pace for a few blocks, he returned the reins to the driver.

He was told to drive by a certain engine house so they might deliver a message, but on nearing the place he was not able to stop them so the superintendent lent his assistance.  On the way back to the stables, the horses were even more eager for a run and so the ambitions of the new driver were somewhat dampened by his lack of success.  However, he afterwards explained to his friends that the men at the stables tried to job him by giving him a runaway team.

In truth, this team had never been known to run away.  It simply took an expert driver to handle them and they had many such throughout the Fire Department.  In fact, they were constantly under test and proved good.

There was another case where a Corporation Yard Driver complained that he had been given a slow team and as he was hitching them to his wagon something frightened them and they plunged.  In so doing, the harness was kicked off and onto the ground but the driver failed to complain about this.

One day, Dr. Egan, the Veterinarian for the horses, was called by a stableman to see a horse that he had what the stableman termed the "kicking colic."  When he responded he found the animal had been treated to some "high life" so the boys were reprimanded and told not to repeat the joke.

In this group of men and horses there were naturally variations of temperament, as may be found in all diversified groups of whatever genus and among the horses there were some times found horses that were termed "Outlaw" horses.  These usually hated all men, but they invariably became magnificent firehorses with which the Department was very loath to part once they became gentled.

This is not intended for boasting, but just as a simple narrative of Dr. Egan's part in the "gentled" process. He would walk in and stroll around the stall with the manner of a casual inspection and then almost absentmindedly his hand with the ubiquitous lumps of sugar would pass under the horse's nose.  It seemed the sixth sense of the discerning horse felt first the soothing influence of the big man's presence and forthwith responded to that irresistible call of friend to friend.  The Doctor always staunchly maintained that they merely followed the sugar.

There was another difficult horse that consistently refused to back up.  Every known device, as well as a great deal of persuasion was employed with unfruitful results.  It was surmised that progress was his slogan and he considered backing up a reactionary movement.  When the firemen repeatedly attempted to hitch him up with another horse and effect the drill necessary for his education on this point, it usually only resulted in terms of insult to the horse's morals, habits, hide and ancestry from the firemen but the same consistent determination from the horse.

Dr. Egan suggested that he be given the horse to take home and promised that he would back up in a week.  "How will you make him do it?" asked one skeptic. "Just how would you or anybody else go about making such a dashed and double-dashed horse back up?" "Patience," replied the Doctor, and he made good.  But then he always did.  He took the horse for a week and the horse liked it and him.  On the day before he was to return the horse to its engine house, the Doctor called around to see the firemen and going inside the engine house he drove the horse right through the length of the stable until his nose was against the back well. "Now, old chap," the Doctor invited, "back out."  And it seemed to be one way of putting him into reverse.  Perhaps the only one as the stable driveway was narrow and deep.  There was just one way to get out and that was by backing.  We judge the horse wanted to get out so he backed out.  This simple process was repeated several times and after that the horse was never known to refuse to "back up" again.  A good backing horse was an asset in the Fire Department as it was almost impossible for the driver to stop the horses at exactly the proper distance from the hydrant so the suction hose might be connected.

Those who live in San Francisco and those who have visited our city are, no doubt, familiar with its topography.

The summits of the city of seven hills were closely built up with fine residences and these, likewise, were as susceptible to the flames as the smaller and less pretentious homes.  The Fire apparatus drawn by two horses in the early days, and in later years by three, had to pull up these steep grades and the teams never failed.

I will illustrate with the grade on Pine Street from Grant Avenue to Stockton Street, a 16% grade. Years ago, this street was paved with "niggerhead" cobblestones and Truck No. 1 would start at Grant Avenue with the heavy hook and ladder truck and by zigzagging would make the top of the hill with six stops to wind the horses.  This was done once a week unless, meantime, alarms were received calling the apparatus to this vicinity.  Also, to reach the top of Telegraph Hill in the vicinity of Filbert and Montgomery Streets, the team of Engine No. 5 would drive up Union Montgomery Street once a week, and other companies in the hilly sections of the city would do likewise in these districts.

Engine No. 31, located on Green near Leavenworth Street, with Driver Dave Levy, would drive down Leavenworth Street between Union and Filbert Streets, a grade of 20%. All of these streets were either paved, of basalt blocks or cobblestones.

Engine No. 3 years ago, was located on the north side of (1317) California Street, between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets.  It responded to all first alarms in Chinatown.  Howard Holmes was the driver of that company and if an alarm was received in that district he would drive his team over California to Powell Street and then drive his three-horse hitch with a 6,500 pound steam fire engine down the California Street incline, a 16% grade, to Stockton Street, then to Grant Avenue.  He would not bring his team back the same way but would follow a more gradual route returning to quarters.  Driver Homes knew his horses and they understood what their driver wanted.

Engine No. 5, on (1219) Stockton Street, at one time had a horse no driver could hold.  This horse, a magnificent chestnut, was possessed of super-equine strength and speed.  He certainly had ideas quite his own in responding to a fire on Russian Hill, one of San Francisco's steepest, and the one so dear to Bohemians.

On the night of the fire on Russian Hill this dauntless and uncontrollable animal tore madly along.  No slack in speed as he dashed headlong up the nearly perpendicular hill of Union Street to Hyde.  This feat made possible the outdistancing of every other piece of fire apparatus and the astonished and very likely gratified hosemen were able to extinguish the fire before any of the other engines arrived.

This was one of the horses that during the time of his service, which covered a period of several years, was never subjected to complete control.  While never exactly abusing his superb power and strength he most generally used and demonstrated it to his own liking and seemed only to hold in reserve a condescending tolerance for the puny human strength which was so inferior to his own.  He remained a splendid spectacular beast, strutting his stuff, for many years.  He finally became so unmanageable that it was necessary to have him shot.

This action was questioned and challenged by firemen and officers who had appreciated the cooperation of such unfailing and intelligent servant during his years of service.  They felt it an unworthy end for so game a "thoroughbred."  The plea was that he could be sold instead of being killed, but the final answer was given with the argument that whoever might purchase the horse would surely be endangered as well as other lives and public property.

Then there was a horse called Fritz, a large, pure white, Haggin horse.  So fast that it was thought he would make an excellent Chiefs buggy horse.  Though he was hard to hold, he would never break from a trot to a gallop, having been bred with thoroughbred trotting stock.  The Superintendent of the Stables, Pat O'Connel, who drove him, got special reins that were extra heavy and strong, and a double twisted wire bit that he thought surely would be able to withstand any pull.  He also conceived the idea of giving Fritz long runs in order to tire and thus steady him.

One day the Superintendent and another good horseman, who had been taken along to help relieve the strain of holding this hard-pulling horse, made the rounds of several of the firehouses in the Richmond and Sea Cliff Districts, but when they were returning by way of Ocean Boulevard a long freight train was seen to be approaching an intersection ahead of them.  Both men began seriously to pull on the lines to keep Fritz from dashing headlong into the train.  He refused to slacken his speed and it seemed that they must inevitably crash into the train.  The only alternative was the change of crashing into the fence to the side, which they did and this saved them.

It was about this time that a space had been set aside for a proposed aviation field near Baden, in San Mateo County. The opening was held on a holiday. The Superintendent and his assistant drove Fritz down to the exercises and on arrival there tied the horse to a strong pole and blanketed him.  When they were ready to leave, Pat removed the blanket from Fritz and told his assistant to mount and take the reins while he untied the horse.  Fritz was in his usual hurry and bolted out like a stream with the assistant at the reins and circled the field in record time, leaving Pat at the hitching post.  The driver was nonplussed, but Pat was equal to the situation and when they came around the second time the Superintendent made a quick jump and caught the bridle, pulling Fritz to a stop.  He then mounted and drove home without further mishap.

As Fritz was quieting down somewhat, a Chief who had heard of the well nigh uncontrollable speed of the horse, came to the stables while Fritz was there to be shod and with his assistant declared they had come to drive that fast horse with the reputation for such hard pulling.  So Fritz was hitched up and the Chief and his assistant started on their way out Potrero Avenue.  Pat, who knew just how hard the horse could pull, had the presence of mind to follow them in another buggy.  Near the San Francisco Hospital he saw the horse and the two ambitious drivers but Fritz had the best of the situation by far.  They were coming in fast.  The horse was apparently out of control though both the drivers were clinging desperately to the lines.

Pat quickly turned his horse about and started in the same direction in which they were headed. He then motioned to the Chief to bring the horse's head close in behind his buggy, which was done, and they returned to the stables in that order.  The Chief had had his proof and was more than satisfied.

Another driver of the Department had never seen a horse he could not hold and asked permission to drive Fritz.  This request was granted but the Superintendent decided he would go along this time.  He gave the reins to the driver, who after a short proof was also satisfied and became a little more reticent about boasting of his ability.

When it was finally evident that Fritz would never make a safe Chiefs horse, he was placed out in center of a three-horse hitch of a Hook and Ladder Truck. He worked there satisfactorily where he was steadied and held down by two other horses. He remained with the truck until the Department was motorized, after which he was sent with a number of other horses to the City's ranch in the vicinity of Hetch Hetchy for general duty.

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