Fire Horses – Heroes of the Past
December 10, 2008
In this modern age, few folks are still alive who remember fire horses and the role they played in American history in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But play a role they did, and it was a most important one. Wooden buildings and the prevalence of coal oil lamps were a dangerous combination, and more than one town was completely lost to the menace of fire, a huge threat that was always present. Every community of any size had a fire company, usually volunteer at first, and they prided themselves on their fast horses and speedy response time. It is reported that proficient teams could make ready and leave the firehouse in half a minute or less, an amazing feat when you consider what is involved. These well-trained men and their teams of remarkable horses were considered the guardians and protectors of their communities and both were treated with great respect.
Before horses were recruited to pull fire equipment, fires were fought by bucket brigades, sometimes involving not only men, but women and children of the town. Citizens were required to keep buckets and ladders at the ready, and they would form two lines, one passing buckets of water to the fire, and the other passing the empties back to the water source, often a nearby river or lake. Eventually some cities purchased manual hand pumpers, which held their own reservoir of water and could produce a steady stream on the fire. These, along with hose carts, were pulled to fires by teams of volunteers, and several units were needed at any one fire.
This arrangement worked well for small towns, but by the mid-1800s, times were changing. Cities and towns had grown larger, and, with the advent of steel framing and elevators, buildings were taller. Insurance companies were reluctant to insure a building if there were no means of fighting a fire inside it. With the incentive of helping their downtown centers grow, city governments began acquiring more technologically advanced fire equipment. Steam-powered water pumping systems were becoming available for the first time, and they could shoot a stream of water much faster and farther than the hand pumpers. But the equipment was much heavier ” steam engines could weigh up to four tons and hook and ladders up to five ” and it was determined that it would be cheaper to maintain a stable of horses rather than pay all the men that would have been required to pull them.
Enter the fire horse. Beginning in the 1860s, city-owned firehouses were common in the larger cities from coast to coast, and as firefighting became a profession, volunteers were replaced by paid personnel and top of the line horses. However, smaller towns, especially those on the western frontier, still relied mostly on volunteers to maintain the firehouse and the complement of horses stabled there, up to the turn of the century. My grandfather was the first paid fire chief in El Reno, Oklahoma Territory, a frontier town newly established after the Land Run of 1889. His fire company didn’t even get a team of horses until 1896, and they used them well into the 1900s. At its zenith, the El Reno Fire Company was considered the best in the Southwest, although the citizens of other towns claimed the same title for their own.
Fire horses had to possess a unique blend of athleticism, including strength, speed, stamina and a special temperament to deal with the stresses of their job. Not all equine applicants made the cut, but those who did were highly prized and received the best of care ” quality feed, daily grooming, regular veterinary care and shoeing ” not to mention the love and admiration of the firefighters, as well as the public they served. Dogs, cats, and occasionally, goats kept the equines company during idle hours. This is when the famous Dalmation dogs became popular and they have remained so ever since. They could run fast to keep up with the horses and frequently nipped at their heels if they lagged.
There was strict control of when the horses were fed and how much. They were fed hay in the evening and small rations of oats throughout the day. It wouldn’t do to give them a heavy feeding and then expect them to run to a fire. Most of the horses used were of a draft breed, such as Percheron, which had been crossed with Thoroughbreds or Morgans to produce a light draft animal weighing 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. In some cases, mammoth mules were brought into service. It’s hard to imagine how the feet and legs of such large animals survived the pounding they took on hard-packed (and sometimes paved) city streets.
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Speed was the name of the game, just as it is today. Every motion, every piece of equipment was tailored to cut down on the time it took to get out of the firehouse and to the scene of the fire. One team of two or three fire horses was usually kept inside the firehouse in a central stall, some of which were equipped with special flooring that eliminated the horses’ waste. They wore their bridles while in the stall, and most appear in old photos to have O-ring snaffle bits on those bridles. At the sound of the alarm, the horses were trained to move into position in front of the wagon. As soon as the driver reached his seat, the special lightweight, stripped-down harness, which was suspended from the ceiling, was dropped onto the horses’ backs, metal collars were fastened, reins were snapped onto the bits, the crew climbed aboard, and away they would go. All in 30 seconds or less! Amazing!
Needless to say, fire horses enjoyed immensely this chance to get out and run full blast down the street. It is reported that some experienced fire horses could race to the scene of the fire without direction, just by following the smell of smoke! Once at the scene the teams, foamy with sweat, were unhitched, led to a safe place out of the way, and held there until time to return to the firehouse and await the next alarm. In the larger cities, they didn’t have long to wait, as most averaged a call a day, but smaller, rural companies, like my grandfather’s, responded to a fire maybe once a week. The record for his team, however, was three fires in 12 hours ” an unusual day. In his fire log of 1899, most of the fires my grandfather recorded were caused by exploding coal oil lamps, faulty flues, or by children playing with matches.
Fire companies from each station competed at annual tournaments with other districts within the state to determine the team with the fastest response time. Winners were highly acclaimed and received fancy award ribbons denoting their accomplishments. The state winners would then go on to national competition. Several of these ribbons won by my grandfather’s fire company are now in my possession, and I’ve often wondered who was “minding the store” while they were away competing! (I just wish I’d had the chance to ask him, but he died before I was born.)
Into the 20th century, as mechanization and the age of the automobile began transforming our culture, fire companies everywhere turned to gasoline-powered vehicles. At first, the vehicles were not dependable, sometimes refusing to start, a drawback rarely experienced with horses (although one horse reportedly refused to leave the station in the rain!). In fact, in the earliest years, horse companies would race the mechanized companies, and the horse companies always got to the fire quicker. But, as usual, economics ruled the day, and it was determined that the yearly bill for horse feed was more costly than gasoline, and the once invaluable fire horses gradually became a relic of the past. One by one, fire horses across the country were retired amid much fanfare and ceremony, attesting to the high regard in which they were held.
The saying is, “Once a fire horse, always a fire horse.” And for good reason: Fire horses never forgot. If they were sold at auction upon retirement, the unwitting buyer who tried to use the animal to pull his milk wagon or junk wagon might unexpectedly find himself racing to a fire like a bat out of hell. Eventually, more retirees were turned out to pasture instead and allowed to live out their lives in leisure. It is said the L.A. Fire Department turned 20 of theirs loose in Griffith Park, where they roamed free for years.
An era was past, but hopefully it won’t be forgotten. The firefighters of today, who carry on this tradition of excellence through their exemplary service and camaraderie, owe much to the men and horses who preceded them, as they pioneered a calling only the bravest choose to follow.