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Firehorses:
 

Firehorses
FAREWELL, GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANTS!

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

Chapter II
Buying and Training Horses

San Francisco destined to be the foremost City of the world in cosmopolitan variety of population, in public sympathy and generosity, in extensive and well-equipped fire fighting capabilities, boasted the finest firehorses of any city in the Western Hemisphere.

In no city in the Union was greater care taken in the selection of Fire Department horses.  Many of them were in almost constant use for more than fifteen years, and this was an extraordinary period of time when we consider the enormously responsible and difficult work required of them.

Because San Francisco was a city of wooden buildings, situated on a Peninsula spread out over seven hills, and because of its almost complete isolation from other land, the possible assistance from other Fire Departments was not thought of nor depended upon.

Even the most cool-minded persons, or those who did not know the difference between cart and carriage horses, were impelled to a deep sense of admiration for the magnificent animals who, with full speed ahead, pulled the heavy engines and trucks.  One misstep, one slip over the side of a wet cobble, and one of these horses would be thrown down and run over by a six thousand pound engine.

Big, powerful and swift horses were needed to draw the ponderous engines up the steep streets and get them into position in the shortest possible time in a business where seconds counted.  Every local condition was favorable for a sweeping conflagration and, sadly enough, it had been brought to the consciousness of San Franciscans on numerous occasions that every device and equipment known to modern times must be employed for the control and extinguishing of fires.

In the year 1900, Ex-Chief Regan of Boston, Massachusetts, who visited in San Francisco on a tour of the world after forty-four years of efficient service, stated that San Francisco had the finest set of fire fighting tools and appliances of any city in the world.  Fire Chief Shaw of New York and Fire Chief Joiner of Atlanta, Georgia, and other experts, gave similar praise to the Fire Department of this renowned city of the West.  All of them particularly admired San Francisco firehorses.

Whenever the Fire Department needed horses the Fire Commissioners requested the Supervisors to allow them to buy the needed number.  The request was usually granted and the details referred to the Fire Department Committee.  The price usually averaged $300.00 each, but having received permission to buy, it was not always easy even then to find a horse fitting the requirements for special or first inspection.

When a horse was located that apparently filled the primary requirements, he was hitched up with a trained horse to a heavy engine and given a strong, heavy pull up the hills.  If the horse stood up under this test without an immediate breakdown, he was then turned over still hot and panting to the veterinary surgeon of the Department.  The veterinarian would then sound him from top to toe, from muzzle to tail and gauge every point with precise care.  Then his lungs were examined.  The proportion of the body to the legs was sized up and the muscles were tested.  If the horse was found to be satisfactory so far, he was put to work on trial for a month.  If he could not pass this last severe ordeal he was then rejected as "unfit."

If the horse was found perfect in all parts and could be easily trained to the work, if he were of good speed, and quick in action, showing no disposition to stumble, and otherwise satisfied the severest critics as to his existing usefulness, he was incorporated into the horse department of the Fire Department.  This consisted regularly of several hundred of the finest animals of their kind found together in any part of the world, magnificent fellows, sixteen and seventeen hands high, weighing 1300 to 1400 pounds each and combining speed, action, endurance and intelligence and the noblest horse traits.

Great and wide chested they were, with tight skins, compact and solid muscles and well proportioned limbs, full of life, activity, suppleness, strength.  San Francisco could be well be proud of them.  Too large for carriage horses, too small for draft horses, those selected for the Fire Department were exceptional in every way and seemed to have been born for no other purpose.

The heavy horses, such as the three grays, Pup, Much and Bob, of Engine No. 2, were "PERCHERON" horses.  Those for buggies, such as Fritz, the hard pulling horse, were trotting bred.  Some of the Chemical and Hose Wagon horses were halfbred, that is, by a thoroughbred racing stallion from large, strong, active California mares.

At one time horses were purchased from dealers who would give secret, sealed bids to the Board of Fire Commissioners, the lowest bidder getting the contract.  One year the bids were all so high that they were all thrown out and it appeared that the dealers had combined to keep up the prices. This led to the centering of all buying of firehorses from one dependable market.

James B. Haggin and Lloyd Tevis were owners of thousands of acres of land near Bakersfield, Kern County California, and specialized in raising cattle and pure bred horses.  Arrangements were made with them to sell to the city, green young horses, at a price of some $250.00 per head of lower, which was the limit that could be paid without competitive bids.  The horses obtained from them were mostly unbroken four-year old colts and before a purchase was made they were placed in a corral and inspected for soundness.  They were then run a sufficient distance to test their wind after which they were put on the scales and weighed.  They were then accepted or rejected.

The firehorses were all spirited animals and had to be watched, for when untamed, they were wild and sometimes dangerous.  All horse breaking was done at the Fire Department Stables and when broken the new horses were given to the best drivers in the Department.

Haggin & Tevis had several hundred horses, mostly pure bred PERCHERON stallions and mares, thoroughbred English steeplechase stallions, and standard bred American Trotting stallions.  For half-bred horses, they picked out large, active, well-formed California mares to be bred to thoroughbreds, or standard bred stallions.  The understanding was that the Fire Department officials could select or reject any horse they wished, without comment of the sellers, all at the same price.

After putting many horses to the test, we retained in stables those we passed, and turned out to pasture those rejected, except for holding a few more than were needed for the next day's inspection and weighing.  Horses weighed less on the day following the test, owing to the worry and excitement of the test and from being tied up in the stables over night.  Dr. Egan, the veterinary of our Department, told me that he remembered weighing a horse in the stable before a test and weighing the same horse the next day and a weight loss of sixty pounds was shown.  Horses were also held over for a day or so when buying them to look for lameness or stiffness which would not show in the excitement of testing.

One horse in particular, on arrival at the Engine House, kicked the telephone off the wall, wrecked the alarm system, and did several hundred dollars worth of damage before he was subdued.  In three days, however, this horse was broken into harness, taught to come out of the stall on the sound of the "gong", slip his neck close into the swinging collar and gallop away to the midnight blaze just as any "old timer."  He was one of the last horses to leave the Department when the apparatus was motorized.

There were a few very simple common sense rules which we followed in training horses that commended themselves to the horse as well as to the driver who was to break him into firehouse routine and we always kept them in mind:

First - To always feel kindly towards a horse, no matter what he did to us, and consequently we never showed "temper," at the same time remembering that the horse knew instinctively how we felt.
Second - To never go near a horse if you were afraid of him.  The horse would know it, before you acknowledged it yourself.
Third - To never undertake anything with a horse that you did not know you could carry out.
Fourth - To "make haste slowly" teaching the animal what you wanted of him, being sure that he knew each simple thing before you attempted to teach another; and to repeat lessons often.
Fifth - To reward each effort to do as you wished, whether the horse meant it or did it accidentally.

By following these rules we were able to make the horses do almost anything if they had not been spoiled before we got them.

When horses were first introduced into the Fire Department the harnesses were kept on them continually and when an alarm was sounded they were untied by hand and led from their stalls to the apparatus and the traces hooked up to the doubletrees.  This method was slow and very unsatisfactory; it tired and wore out the horses and did much damage to the harnesses.

On December 19, 1875, Mr. Edward O'Sullivan, who was a member of Engine Company No. 11 of the San Francisco Fire Department, patented and demonstrated his patent swinging harness which consisted of four straps suspended from the ceiling of the engine house at the four corners of the square. These straps supported the harness and weights of varying sizes and were attached to the tackles which regulated the harness at the proper height.  The test was made at the house of Hose Company No. 2, located on the south side of Post, between Webster and Fillmore Streets.

The pattern was made by having the horse stand beneath the suspended harness which was held by a ring and hook at the collar and at the breech strap.  The most important part of the arrangement was the collar, which was hinged at the top and open at the bottom, just the reverse of the ordinary horse collar.  An automatic locking device locked itself when the collar was snapped closed.  When the horses left their stalls they were trained to place their necks close to the collars and their haunches close into the breech straps.

The men who hooked up the horses simply snapped the collar together and as it closed it automatically released a trip lever about the collar which dropped all parts of the harness snugly over the horse's back and the hangers were automatically drawn to the ceiling.  No belly straps were used on firehorses.

This type of swinging harness was later adopted in Brooklyn and New York City.  Cleveland, Ohio, purchased several sets on March 18, 1877, and Jersey City equipped its department with them on March 19, 1879.  This patent swinging harness was used universally throughout the world wherever there was horse drawn fire apparatus and was in vogue up to the time of motorization of fire engines with very little change, if any, outside of the fact that some collars were made of light weight metal instead of leather.

A weekly inspection was also held at which time the Battalion Chief of the District would hold a stop watch and check on the time it took to hook up a team.  If it took more than twelve seconds at the most for the men to harness up and be at the curb line of the street, it was considered poor time.  I might say here that we rolled out of quarters quicker with the horses than we do now with the motor apparatus, but, of course, with the motorized equipment we make up the time on the road.

You may be interested to know how it was possible to hitch up three horses and be outside the quarters in less than twelve seconds.  Well, first of all, there were about ten or twelve men to each company.  The driver on the sound of the alarm would dash to his seat and strap himself in to be in readiness by the time the team was hooked up.  The bits were always kept in the horse's mouths except at feeding times.  The bridle snaps at the end of the reins were carefully hung on the open collars accessible in a second for snapping on to the bit rings.  Each man had a certain horse to hook up.  In the case of a three-horse hitch, three men were at their posts immediately on the first sound of the alarm.  Each snapped a collar over the neck of one of the waiting animals.  Then, grabbing the two hanging rein snaps, one in each hand, they hooked them into the large rings of the bit, after which driver, men and horses were on their way.

The reputation of every driver was inseparably linked with that of his team.  He shared with them the glory of a great run, or the humiliation of a poor showing.  How men and horses worked together perfectly, achieving the maximum of results in the minimum of time, is pleasant to recall in these mechanical and comparatively effortless days.

A competitive, or speed test, was held Saturday April 22, 1893, to ascertain the exact time in which one man could dress, harness the horses, and have the engine in the street from the moment the gong sounded.  At this time Lenuel Rudolph, of Engine, No. 7, carried off the prize which was a twelve-pound molded silver eagle for making a hitch in twenty-five and one-half seconds.  John Brophy, who many stated should have received the silver eagle, won the second prize for Engine No. 14.

At the first sound of the alarm Brophy was out of bed and dressing.  In less than half a minute, to be exact — in twenty-six seconds — he was dressed, had his three horses hitched, and was in the driver's seat and had driven the engine thirty odd feet into the street.  There were no sliding poles in the quarters at that time and Brophy had to make the distance by stairs from the dormitory to the main floor.  The descent amounted to twenty-seven steps.

On September 14, 1904 the Battalion Chief of the District timed the men from the first stroke of the bell, and the following report was made:
Time required on apparatus floor to hitch up three horses - seven and one-half seconds.

Three horses standing at the poles were hitched in four seconds.  In this, Firehouse horses were in stalls eighteen feet from the apparatus.

On To Chapter III
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