Los Angeles Fire Department
The Sunday afternoon traffic graciously detoured around me as I stood in the middle of Los Angeles Street taking a picture of what my wife described as "that dumpy old building." At the first glance perhaps you will say the same thing, but, like my wife, when you hear the story behind the building, you'll pause and look, and maybe conjure up an old scene or two yourself.
There are many well-used piles of masonry in Los Angeles as rich in history as California was in gold. If the bricks in this former engine house could speak, they would add a volume to the history of the Los Angles Fire Department.
Let's step into the past about 71 years to the Los Angles of 1884, when the well dressed man wears a bowler and his pants seem very tight. Women's dresses cover them from their chins to just below the tops of their high-button shoes. Fire alarms are still being turned in by pistol and bell. Most of the streets are mired in mud in the winter time and choked with dust during the summer. The population has doubled in the past ten years--25,000 people now call Los Angeles "home." Many improvements are coming through by this time. Just a year ago, 1883, the first electric street light cast its reassuring glow over the corner of Main and Commercial Streets. This is no ordinary street light. Three lights totaling 9,000 candlepower are set atop a 150 foot pole. It is claimed to give a practical light up to a mile away and covers a ten-square-mile area with light. So much for conditions of this growing community and its people--let's head down Main Street toward the Plaza. That's where we'll find the building we're looking for.
Here at the corner of Plaza and Main Streets is the Pico House. This hostelry is destined to run the gamut of Los Angeles society from its focal point at the center of the social circle to its darkest outermost circumference. The Merced Theater is just back down the street a door or two, reputed to be the first theater in Los Angles.
The engine house is to our right down Plaza Street. We'll have to cross Sanchez. Let's see, 22, 24, 26--No. 26 Plaza Street. Here we are, not that it could be missed with that new coat of paint on all the trim glistening in the sun. Another tell-tale mark is the men in red shirts with the double row of white buttons down the front, and black pants held up by shiny black patent leather belts. Their's is the uniform of the 38's Engine Company No. 1, so named because there were 38 members in the Company when it reorganized in 1874 (the first Company disabled when the Common Council refused to supply them horses to draw the engine). They have just moved into the new quarters from their old house on Spring near Franklin. Franklin runs on an angle from Spring to Fort Street (Broadway) about half way between Temple and First.
The 38's have a variety of views from their new and modern quarters. The doors open onto the green and pleasant Plaza. The adobe on the west side of the engine house was once the residence of Pio Pico, the last governor of California under Mexican rule. The east side of the house borders on Negro Alley, infamously remembered for the Chinese Massacre in the 70's. The sturdy 8x8 protruding from that side of the building is used to lift the hay to the loft in the rear of the engine house.
The second floor of the
two-story brick building serves as the recreation room and meeting place for the
volunteers. The balcony affords not only a pleasant place to view
the Plaza and the surrounding country to the northeast, but also an enjoyable
place for the "fire laddies" to
sit and relax during the hot summer days while reliving past fires and fights--possibly
the fight mentioned in the following excerpt from the city's first newspaper, the Los
The plaza engine house was modern in every respect and so when the two engine companies, 38's and Confidence No. 2, the one hose company, Park Hose, and the Vigilance Hook and Ladder Company went on a paid basis in 1886, the Plaza engine house came right along. Cleveland had taken over as President of the United States the year before. John L. Sullivan's pugilistic career was regaining momentum after he'd sworn off John Barleycorn and got down to training. Three years later he beat Jake Kilrain after 75 rounds and became the last bare knuckles champion of the world.
The Chief Engineer of the newly instituted paid Fire Department took home $150 to $175 per month. A fireman was paid $50, but apparently didn't have much time to take it home. This excerpt from a newspaper article written in late 1886 will give you an idea how much free time the fireman of that day had:
Engine No. 1 in the same article was
accounted the "crack Company of the Fire Department." They remained in the
Plaza house until 1887. This year saw the Fire Department double the number of steam
fire engines, bringing the total to four. Engine Company No.1 moved to the east side
of town, and the "Walter S. Moore Engine Company No.4" named in honor of the
first Chief of the paid Fire Department, took over the premises. Their engine was a
new Ahrens 2nd size. The boys of 4's were justly proud of this equipment, and the
brass engine shone like gold teeth in a gaping mouth when the big doors of the house were
The lights of the Plaza House flickered and were about to die when new life came in the form of Chemical Company No.1, equipped with a newly purchased Champion Chemical Engine drawn by two fleet horses. A new five year lease was signed by the city and the Company responded from No. 26 Plaza Street until the lease expired.
The lights of the old engine house were finally dimmed on October 1, 1897. From the one-time pride of the Los Angeles Fire Department it was to be relegated to the menial task of everyday living. Gone was its shiny brass gong, gone were the lights that sprung it into life in the middle of the night, illuminating the two windows in front like two eyes piercing into the black night searching out the loomup, gone was its crowning bell atop her roof that summoned the call men to ride the equipment forth from the yawning mouth to quell the blaze. Her identity was to be all but lost in the ensuing years.
The building stands today (June 1956) on the corner of Plaza and Los Angeles Streets, a little worse for wear, but much the same as it stood in 1884. A large plate glass window fills the place where once the doors swung easy on their hinges, and the northeast corner of the first floor has been removed and a door fitted for access to the building.
All is not lost for the old Plaza House, however. The State of California Division of Beaches and Parks has purchased the Plaza and plans to restore the buildings as they looked back in the 80's and 90's. So the Plaza House will once again regain some of her former glory when she housed Los Angeles' finest.
If you happen to be in the vicinity of the Plaza, stop
off and take a look at some of the buildings which have watched Los Angeles grow.
They are not all pretty, but a little imagination can restore them to the days when
Los Angeles was young.
This article appeared in the June, 1956 issue of THE FIREMAN'S GRAPEVINE.
Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved.