By Frederick J. Bowlen,
Battalion Chief San Francisco Fire Department 1938
When horses were purchased for the Fire Department each was assigned a number which was recorded in a book kept for that purpose by the Superintendent of the Stables. In this book was also recorded the history of each animal. Had the Department tried to name each horse and record the names, the Toms, Dicks, Jerrys and Marys would soon become so numerous as to cause no little confusion. There would also have been much difficulty in locating the individual record of each horse over a period of years.
Horse No. 742 on the books of the Department, was a beautiful and well shaped satin-coated brown horse called Jimmie and his care and treatment more than spoke for themselves. Jimmie was a well-known trotter with a widespread reputation.
Soon after his purchase he fell and dislocated a hip. For three months he was kept in a sling to ease the weight off his feet. Six months after the first accident Jimmie broke his other hip and went for a second time to the hospital to undergo a repetition of the first treatment. In later years, he showed no signs of his accidents, nor was he ever seen to limp.
There were many occurrences in the days of horses that would convince the most skeptical that the horses knew when an alarm was received which was a "go" for them. For instance, Truck Company No. 1 was located on O'Farrell Street near Grant Avenue. Almost all the boxes in that section were two-numbered boxes. Box 25 was in Chinatown and came in very often. When this box was tapped in, the horses would go to their harness and stand close to the collars waiting to be hooked up and they would show decidedly by their actions that they were ready to go.
If a three-numbered box were received, which constituted as many as twenty-one strokes of the bell, say Box 498, which would indicate one of the outlying districts, the horses would go to the harness until the bell would stop striking. Then they would glance around awaiting the signal from the driver for them to return to their stalls.
The companies located adjacent to and in Chinatown could always tell when there was a fire in that locality even before the alarm was sent in. The Chinese all carried police whistles in those days and when a fire was discovered one of the Chinese would blow his whistle. It seemed that hoses and legions of his Celestial countrymen would take up the alarm and pass it along, each blowing for all he was worth. The horses would begin to prance and snort, sure then that there was something doing and were more than ready to go by the time the alarm came in.
For those person who are not familiar with the routine of a firehouse, I will mention some of the more practical phases and while to the public the firemen seem to have an easy existence, a few minutes of meditation and consideration of their manner of response and coordination at all times, while on duty, would likely discourage many a tired business man and make him feel that his busiest moments were ones of great freedom in comparison.
The captain of the Company assigns the men to different watches. The watch means that a certain man in each house is held responsible at all times for what takes place in that house while he is on "watch." He answers telephone calls, makes notations in the company journal, pegs up alarms. In fact, his work might be termed supervision of his firehouse under the immediate and personal direction of the Captain.
All fire departments are of a semi-military nature and the discipline and routine governing them subjects the men to strictest observance of all rules. There is no such thing as doing your work in a careless manner.
The harness was as carefully tended as the horses themselves, and was always kept in the best of condition by a daily cleansing with pure castile soap and warm water and at regular intervals all harness was treated with Neat's-foot Oil. The harness maker would visit quarters and inspect the harness at frequent intervals. His inspection consisted of pulling straps from their keepers to test for any accumulation of hair or dirt. All metal parts of the harness had to be kept constantly polished and oiled.
The regular allowance of cooked grain was set aside by the driver each day for the horses. At about one A.M. the assistant house watchman was required to pour boiling water over the grain in a bucket provided for that purpose and then fix the cover on tightly so as to prevent the escape of steam.
On feeding the first allowance to the horses, another batch was immediately prepared. When feeding the horses oats, we were required to throw in a handful of salt while the oats were steaming. Should we forget this seasoning, we heard about it for the horses would refuse to eat. This happened to me more than once and I heard of it not only from the horses, but from the Captain and the driver, who wanted to know why it was that the feeding as so late, etc.
At 5 A.M. horses were given a full bucket of water and at 5:30 A.M. steamed oats.
At 11 A.M. the horses were watered, and at 12 noon they were again fed their regular allowance of prepared grain. At 6 P.M. water was again given them. Then they were bedded down with clean straw and given an allowance of hay and occasionally a few carrots. They were then ready for a good night's sleep. This they rarely if ever had the good fortune to obtain for the reason that every time an alarm was received anywhere in the city, all the horses in the entire Department were released at the first stroke of the bell and they would remain in their respective stations under the harness until they were either hooked up, if the alarm should be in their districts, or until the signal to return to their stalls was given, if it were outside their district.
On returning to his stall, a horse would often go out of his way to get into the stall of another. When the rightful owner of the stall attempted to drive the intruder out there would not only be a scuffle, but a real fight, biting, pawing, neighing and speaking in a real horse language until the driver would shout at the top of his voice; "What in the h— is the matter with you? Get out of there." Then they would scamper away to where they belonged.
In wet weather exercising was done between showers when possible. In good weather during the spring and summer months, the horses were permitted to stand outside their engine houses, hooked up to the apparatus, from 9:45 until 11 A.M.
In case of sickness or injury to any horse, it was promptly reported to the Superintendent of Horses and measures immediately taken for his relief. Any horse that failed to eat, or showed any signs of being sick or lame, was at once attended to and a relief horse provided in his stead. The same applied to any horse losing a shoe.
Teasing or annoying the horses, or teaching them any tricks, as well as unnecessarily or severely punishing them, was strictly condemned. No gas or electric lights were allowed to be placed or kept lighted in from of the horses' eyes at night. Muzzles on horses were strictly prohibited between the hours of six at night and six in the morning except when standing on the street at a fire. Horses were never fed while they were hot. After a run, their mouths and nostrils were sponged with cold water, and they were never given more than three swallows of water at such times.
After returning from exercise or an alarm, the horses' feet were washed and examined for nails, loose shoes, etc. They were then rubbed down and if warm, they were blanketed. The rear door of the engine houses had to be kept closed and no drafts allowed to sweep through. In cold weather the chill had to be taken off their drinking water, otherwise only a very little at a time was given. On cold or stormy nights when it was necessary to remain at a fire for any length of time, the driver was required to blanket his horses well and exercise them every half hour for ten minutes, by leading them up and down the streets. While at a fire, the horses were unhitched from the engines and taken to a safe distance if the fire warranted such precaution necessary for their safety.
Rain, sweat and mud had to be removed immediately on returning to quarters, first with a scraper and then with a wad of straw or flannel cloth. Years ago, before the paved streets that now cover almost the entire city were built, the streets were mostly of crushed red rock which in the winter became marshes. On returning from a run in wet weather, there would be four men to a horse scraping and rubbing the animal down as fast as they could. These faithful horses received lots of attention which was well deserved and which more than repaid their sponsors and attendants.
In dry weather their hoofs were given extra care and occasionally a poultice of flaxseed was applied to prevent any infection or possible cracking of the hoofs. Musty or over dried hay or moldy food of any kind was always rejected should it be sent to quarters by those under contract to supply forage. The manes of the horses were kept clipped close at all times to prevent them from becoming entangled in the collars and harness. The fetlocks of the horses' legs were also clipped close for cleanliness.
At unannounced times the Assistant Chief would make the rounds of the engine houses and look over the horses. His method was to pull a white silk handkerchief from his coat pocket and rub it over the back, neck and sides of each horse to see if he were clean and free from dandruff. For each driver knew if there should be any complaint about his horses he was good for a fine of at least ten days or more, and without much ado about it either. Those were the happy days! Maybe a little tough, too, looking back. Never were horses more zealously tended, scrupulously fed, groomed and cared for generally.
Six A.M. was the rising hour for all the firemen and each fireman had his allotted task to perform. Upon arising the driver of each firehouse curried and brushed his horses, while another man scrubbed down the stalls with boiling water and a third man took care of the harness. At ten o'clock every morning there was uniform inspection and inspection of company quarters, houses, horses and apparatus. During these morning inspections the men stood at attention in full regulation uniform while the Captain of the Company carried out the inspection. If all was satisfactory, the men were saluted and then permitted to go at will about quarters for the rest of the day pending the alarms.
Under the old system, when we worked twenty-four hours a day, and only received one day off duty in each month, the hours were long and tedious. The driver had the day watch from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M.; the Lieutenant from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M. Then the night watch was given over to regular firemen whose watches ran from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M. and 2 A.M. to 6 A.M. There was always an officer or man on watch on the apparatus floor whose special duty was to watch out for the horses and attend to the alarm system. Sometimes these watchmen who were on the midnight watch would doze off to sleep in a chair, which was strictly against the rules. However, they knew if a stranger opened the door to the engine house, which was always unlocked, the horses would make such a disturbance at the approach of a stranger at night that the watchman would be awakened. There was no danger of the man on watch dozing in a chair or anywhere else about the firehouse at 5 A.M. The horses knew the time and commenced pawing their stalls right on the minute. They wanted their breakfast.
I have gone somewhat into detail regarding the care and handling of these firehorses. This same care, however, was given all the firehorses in most of the fire departments throughout the entire country, and the world for that matter, as there was a universal rule as to the care of firehorses that was recognized and practiced everywhere.
In the early days of the horses in the Department, the stables were located on a square known as “Alamo Square" which was bounded by Steiner, Scott, Fulton and Hayes Streets. This was about July 1, 1879. This unit was used as a branch of the Corporation Yard Stables which was located in the vicinity of Sacramento and Drumm Streets and served for the general repair and requirements of the Fire Department.
Alamo Square had effected considerable savings to the city, as it was sometimes necessary to put sick horses out to board on ranches before this square was used. Ned O'Neill was in charge. Later, as the demands grew, the stables were moved to larger quarters in an old car barn, with corrals adjacent, at Valencia and 16th Streets. From there they were moved to Jack Dalton's barn on Waller Street, near Fillmore. Then there was another transfer of the stables to a location in the rear of Engine House No. 27, on Herman Street. Finally it was decided to construct permanent stables which would efficiently fill the needs of the Department at Division, 10th and 11th Streets.
The various superintendents in charge of the stables were Charles Lyons, Bob Harris, William Tobin, Patrick O'Connell, Edward Attridge and William O'Connor.
The Fire Department stables which served finally as headquarters for the firehorses occupied almost all of one square block at Division, 10th and 11th Streets. The stables were large, well-ventilated and immaculately clean, and were spacious enough to allow a thorough circulation of air and sunshine throughout. The main building consisted of the offices of the superintendent and the veterinary surgeon's quarters.
Dr. Peter Burns was the first veterinary surgeon of the San Francisco Fire Department. His work was faithfully carried on for about twenty-three years until his death in 1894. He was succeeded by Dr. Wm. P. Egan, who retained his office as veterinarian until the last of the firehorses was disposed of in 1921.
For twenty-seven years Dr. Egan was the loving and loved friend of the firehorses, (all of them) and he used to speak of them as "friends" almost a one would human acquaintances, while he juggled cubes of sugar which he never failed to find in his coat pocket. Most of the horses knew where to put their noses and muzzle to the best advantage when the doctor was within reaching distance. His sympathy for horses is a beautiful thing as revealed in the anecdotes which have come so readily to mind, and are herein told. The doctor's motto was:
"Never punish a horse. They want to understand. They want to obey. Often your impatience confuses them—your irritability excites them and you angry tones call out instant resentment."
In the stables proper there were stalls for seventy horses and each stall was wide, clean and comfortable. In connection with this was a complete surgery, a rat-proof room for whole grain, and one for rolled oats. The second story of the building was always filled with bales of sweet, clean hay. Big corrals and sheds for shelter from the hot sun, or a wind too cold, adjoined the building and within these enclosures the animals were allowed to roam or rest, as they pleased, during fair weather.
The stables were provided with completely equipped shops for horseshoeing and clipping, and for the horses that would not permit themselves to be clipped without protest, or shod unless super-persuasion was resorted to, there was a special harness equipment by which they might be elevated a few inches from the ground. In this way the men were able to work on them without interference as most of the horses in the Fire Department were shod approximately every four weeks. It might be of interest to the reader to know a few of the details regarding this almost obsolete performance. The method used in the Fire Department was as follows:
The first part of the shoe placed on the horse's feet was a rubber and leather non-skid sole. The leather covered the top of the shoe and was placed next to the hoof, the rubber form in a suction cup and tread piece, which extended across the back of the leather pad, was then applied to insure a firm hold when on slippery streets, and on top of these the regular iron shoe was nailed.
Horses' feet, like those of humans, were all sizes and shapes, and all shoes were selected with the greatest care and consideration of the horses to be shod. The smiths in charge of shoeing were all skilled workmen and especially trained for their work. Several of them were on duty at all times at the stables and, if necessary, a horse might be shod any hour of the day or night. After shoeing a horse the smiths made a notation of the number of the horse, the size of the inner pads used, as well as the size and shape of the shoes. Entries were made each night in the record book kept for this purpose in the superintendent's office.
The horses of the Department were allowed between five and six hundred pounds of hay a month; two hundred and fifty to three hundred pounds of oats each month and two bales of straw for bedding. All rations were sent to the firehouses in evenly measured quantities and the exact amount required given to each horse daily. Those in charge of the distribution could tell to the pound the amount on hand at any one of the firehouses in the city at any time.
The stables were also the headquarters for relief horses, change horses and sick horses. In fact, they almost represented a complete world in being so well equipped and adequately adapted for the handling of that particular phase of public service.
The kind treatment and care given the horses by the superintendent at the stables were well demonstrated in the case of a big blaze-faced horse which belonged to Engine No. 6. On two different occasions he left his firehouse and made his way back to the Department Stables at twelve o'clock at night. The weather was warm so the doors of the engine house had been left open and the animal had no difficulty in making his escape. Later the men at the stables heard a disturbance out in front and got up to investigate. They opened the stable doors and finding the horse let him in and waited to see what he would do. The horse then went straight to his old stall and seemed to be quite happy to be at home again.
Any person who for any reason cared to see and know these animals was extended a cordial invitation to visit the stables. There the men in charge would courteously answer all questions and the visitor would leave with a feeling of satisfaction that there existed such a home for the firehorses.
In the year 1900 three were about 305 horses in the San Francisco Fire service. They were big, 1500 pound fellows and ranged from six to fifteen years of age. Perfect in wind and limb and sound as a dollar from the ends of their flowing tails to the tips of their small, erect ears, they were tremendously powerful, eager and absolutely gentle, with rare exceptions; great, reliable and lovable beasts that used to tear through the streets like a hurricane, but who were as meek and docile as kittens during the uncertain intervals between those wild spurts and rushes.
The firehorse was no common brute. He was the best that could be found and day and night for weeks, months and years, as long as nature and good fortune permitted, the firehorse went on doing his duty. Rushing to fires at an instant's notice, dragging ponderous engines along slippery thoroughfares, and then alternating these wild flights with hours of patient waiting, standing quietly amid the glare of flames and the frightful noise of the engines, working on until perhaps an accident or tired nature intervened, the faithful animal was led or carried out to the horse hospital to be patched up, to recuperate in a sand lot, or to be pronounced "unfit" for further service.
Sometimes this journey across town to the hospital came after a month in the service. Sometimes it did not come until five, ten or almost fifteen years after, so sturdy, so strong, so marvelously coordinated were these beautiful and equally able horses upon which so much depended. Careful grooming, systematic feeding, regular and irregular exercise and, in every way the very best care possible were the elements which combined to prolong the life of the firehorse.
When a sick horse had lost his appetite, he was tempted to eat by offering him such food as would be enticing to him. It was given frequently and in small quantities but was not forced on him. Food was often taken if offered from the hand, when it would not be eaten otherwise.
Food was never given horses from buckets or feed bags, but the cooked grain was placed on the clean floor before him and the buckets used for watering the horses were scaled out each day.
The nursing of sick horses was greatly appreciated by them. However, indifferent a horse might be to caressing or kind attention during health, when ill he certainly appreciated both and when in pain would often apparently endeavor to attract notice and seek relief from those with whom he was familiar.
There were other horses that would for no apparent reason be "off their feed." This usually indicated that the horse was ill. Another peculiar symptom was that when given water at the five A.M. period, they would drink ravenously, but when offered their rations of steamed oats, they would again refuse to eat and coaxing would be of no avail. The only answer when coaxed was usually a turning of the head from side to side as if to say, "I don't want any, I'm sick."
Another horse, Copenhagen, as he was called, was a remarkable horse belonging to Engine No. 27. He was gifted with a wonderful degree of intelligence. He was taken ill one day and moved to the department stables and confined there several months under the immediate care of the superintendent. It was during the last days of his existence that he refused all food except that prepared by the hands of his affectionate master. The trial was made in the presence of many persons, including the veterinary surgeon, over and over again, when another hand used the same ingredients with the same care in the same proportions. Yet the poor animal could detect it.
Occasionally an equine attachment exhibits itself in a light as exalted and creditable as that of the human mind, and a person can learn to love a horse as he would a human being.
In the month of May 1873, an epidemic known as "epizootic cellulitis" or "equine influenza" attacked the forty-seven horses then in the Fire Department and in its malignant form was characterized by derangement of the nervous and vascular systems, and a catarrh of the mucous membrane, and horses that appeared to have recovered still remained carriers of the disease. In its malignant form death usually came within seven days.
It was something like the severe form of influenza which affected the people of America during the late war. So rapid was the spread of the disease that in less than one week all the horses of the Department were more or less affected and many died. An appeal was made by the officials of the Fire Department to all public institutions under control of the city government, as well as private firms owning large, heavy horses, to hold in readiness all the spare horses at their command.
Owing to the prevalence of the disease among their own horses, it was impossible to replace the horses of the Fire Department which had died of this disease. Some of the fire apparatus was entirely without horses and volunteers with ropes in readiness and attached to the engines were ready to haul the apparatus and respond to the signal for help. With these preparations the Department was prepared for the worst but thanks to an all-ruling providence, no serious conflagration occurred during the extremity and they had been favored with an unusual exemption from active service during that period.
Sometimes, a sudden fall on a slippery turn, while racing with the big engine to a fire; a chill and cold from exposure; a strain while pulling at head-long speed; a nail or a bit of gravel in the foot, accidentally picked up while on duty; and any one of a number of constitutional or organic troubles (which might result from hard work immediately after eating or the gradual wear and tear of the vigorous service) were the many things that retired firehorses from active service. From some troubles they recovered in the hospital and were quickly returned to duty. From wear and tear they revived more slowly, sometimes a week or ten days, by moping and rolling and resting; but from a broken leg there was no recovery. Some other injuries were equally as fatal but the horse was always taken tenderly to the hospital in the horse ambulance. This was a great covered low bed, truck-like affair, fitted with large extra-strong bandages in which the injured animal could be suspended by the body.
On arriving at the hospital, he was stood alongside a great operating table which was tilted on edge. By another system of straps he was secured by body and limb to the table. The table was then tilted back into place and the veterinarian's work began.
On To Chapter IV
Back to the Top