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

Chapter X

In looking back over the old days, varied are the/impressions that come before the mind of one who was seasoned in the harness and learned to know and understand the horses about which these stories are told.  Quite a number of subjects suggest themselves, and though not entirely correlated, they are so specifically of their time, and they furnished such a large part of our daily existence, that it seems they should be recounted.  In most cases, the firehorse holds a prominent place in the theme, and tonight as I sit in the engine house and tilt my chair against the alarm stand, a warm rain is falling outside.  The alarm bell has just ceased its clamor, which bodes a bit of rest for the Department.  My gaze wanders out to the apparatus floor where a squat thousand-gallon gasoline pumping engine stands, gleaming, near the back of the room.

Yes, I still remember the horses, even in this gasoline tainted air.  I can picture the old fire house with the Chiefs rig out in front, the hose wagon in the center of the house, and the old tea kettle in the rear; and the horses in their stalls on the sides.  I can almost hear the faint hissing of steam that used to sing in the boiler.

These reveries are shattered by the clamor of the bell—1-2-2-4 1-2-2-4.   Inside, we roll!  Men come crowding through the partition.  The roar of a powerful motor leaps to life.  The scream of the siren!  The rocketing of the bell as the outfit roars out of the door in a cloud of exhaust.  Some difference from the "old days."   Yes, sir, a mighty difference.

Gone are the Joes and Jerrys, the Mushes and the Brownies.  Good horses—fine, big fellows who knew the fire business.  What a sight they made as they galloped along over the cobbled streets, dragging the heavy steamer with its long white plume of smoke pouring from the polished stack as the engineer threw in the coal and the fiery wake of glowing coals that dropped from the ash pan as the hose tender followed with its black helmeted crew.

Efficiency is now the great watch word.  The world has changed and the Fire Department with it.  The motor pumpers are the last word in efficiency.  They can throw more water than the horse-drawn engines, and they move much faster.  But even so, it strikes me we could throw a might stream in those days with the old steam and had more fun doing it.

To a fireman, who has driven the three-horse hitch and handled the beloved Fritz, Mush and Pup, who remembers the old race-for-the-hydrant days, the thrill is gone.  The fire game lost its picturesque appeal with the passing of the horse.  Motor trucks just don't seem to inspire affection.

No longer does the driver curry his horses or feed them carefully proportioned allowances of grain.  He feeds his pumper gasoline and oil.  He doesn't speak of fast turnouts anymore; he checks his battery.  But when on a long pull, wet, slippery streets loom up ahead and cars skid perilously close to the outfit, I'm kind of glad the horses we knew in another day are gone.

The Chiefs now roll to fires in little red couples, the big Chief in his high-powered sedan.  No longer does one see the polished rig spinning its rubber tires behind a fast trotting sorrel or the smoke-belching steamer with its three white or dapple gray pullers or ladder trucks wending their tortuous ways between lines of drays and carriages.

The clatter of hoofs has given way to the squeal of rubber.  Oil lanterns to powerful electric search-lights, and oats to gasoline.

No friendly whinny greets the man going on Watch; no warm muzzle to be thrust into his coat pocket to explore for the expected lump of sugar or carrot; no stamping of horses; feet breaks the lonely vigil of the "two to eight" watch.  Instead of the old warmth and sound, there is just an inanimate piece of machinery poised for sudden flight.

They say this thing has one hundred horse power.  Horse power!  Well, perhaps, some kind of horse power, but no FIREHORSE POWER.  Not the kind we old timers remember—the grip on the reins, the swing and rock of the engine on a curve, the broad backs of the three straining horses out in front.

These recollections bring me the intense satisfaction of having "rolled" in the days when the horse was "king," and so the memory of my earlier years in the San Francisco Fire Department are fraught with the interweaving of these stories of our four-footed allies in the business of fire fighting.  To those intelligent horses of the Department, a belated tribute is surely due.  The word "intelligent" is used advisedly.  The shrewdness at times almost humanly demonstrated by the horses made us even suspect them of an equine ability to think logically and constructively.

It was always amusing to note how little interest the horses showed when the gong sounded for their daily exercise.  They were never once deceived into believing it to be a fire signal nor could they be made to take it seriously.  With calm sedateness they walked out to their several positions under the harness which was ever in readiness to drop onto their broad backs.  Tolerantly, with mildly amused contempt showing in the side long looks given the men, they expressed their complete understanding of the necessity for the routine, while their unhurried gait expressed boredom—"no thrill," no kick in this cut-and-dried stuff, their manifest indifference said.  They had to be urged if speed were wanted, or mildly driven, or even some times addressed in language realistic, which was not always technically related to fires.

But, the clamor of the fire is gone.   The appearance of the significant red light—ah!  That was something else.  The red glare lighting up the sky or horizon was the challenge.  Then it would take all the driver's strength and skill to hold them.  In some instances, the true facts of the case were that the horses could not be held when under the stress of official business.  They set their own pace and were only amenable to guidance.

Perhaps, you can understand how the firemen can miss the horses, and how the firehouse lacks that pulsing, spirited eagerness they use to lend.  The big gasoline truck exhales no living warm breath as it disports its amazing possibilities from time to time on a record sprint to some fire.

In January, 1912 there were in service:

4 Batteries, with  3 Horses
13 Chemical Companies 26 Horses
10 Chiefs Buggies 10 Horses
43 Engine Companies 215 Horses
11 Truck Companies 33 Horses
1 Water Tower 3 Horses
Relief and Others 108 Horses
Total  398 Horses

When we consider the suffering that the horses were necessarily subjected to, due to hard runs and unavoidable accidents, as well as the unnatural manner of life demanded of these great will beasts, it is not hard to bring ourselves to the resignation of enjoying them solely "in memory."

"There his hoof is one the mantlepiece;
his bridle on the wall,
For better never bent unto a rein,
Still with all my love and care, I've
an empty stall to spare,
I shall never drive my gallant steed again."


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