Los Angeles Fire Department
"Remember how old Jack horse would lie down after he'd get to the fire?" . . . "That Turner Oil fire really loomed up-- I wasn't sure this was the job I wanted about that time! . . . "Remember what the knots stood for on the strings in the fishpond?"
On April 2, 1955, Engine 17's celebrated their 50th year of service with an Open House. Cards were sent to over 350 retired members, inviting them to attend. The response was very gratifying with well over 150 people attending throughout the day, many lingering to spin yarns and relive old experiences again when the locomotion of the fire apparatus was strictly horses. Coffee, cake and do-nuts were served in the kitchen to one and all. Picture displays on the ground floor gave the younger generation a look at how things were done in the old days. The recreation room was turned into a movie theater. A newsreel of the 1905 era was shown, together with a number of other films depicting the old horse-drawn equipment in action, including a Thomas Edison film, "The Life of an American Fireman" produced in 1902.
The company's first journal was on display in the recreation room. Some of its entries seem quite humorous today: "Six sacks of coal received," "20 bales hay received," "Engine team shoed and wagon teams shoes re-set." Some of the entries were very short and to the point: "Nothing doing."
Art Franck presented the Engine Company with a cake commemorating the occasion, which the Engine generously shared with the Truck.
On April 1, 1905, Engine 17's house faced Seventh Street on the southeast corner at Santa Fe. The streets were dirt and the neighborhood mostly residential. Industry was not long in coming, however, and along with it the big fires. One of the first big fires was the ice house on Mesquite and Seventh. Volumes of flame were not present, the fire just kept eating through the sawdust-filled walls until two days later there was nothing left but the ice. The Dinsmore-Stabler oil fire in April of 1906 lasted three days and attracted people from as far as Pomona. This was the first of many big oil fires for 17's. Most of the oil refineries were located in this district until more rigid regulations were enacted, which drove them out of the city. Since then the various oil companies have exceeded even these regulations for safety.
Of the original crew only Tom Carmichael, the first engineer, is still living. Tom was one of the leaders in the Relief Association and carried it for many years. Tom was a young feller of 28 when he reported for duty at 17's. He was the co-inventor of the fire starter adopted by the department. This consisted of a ladle hooked up inside the fire box of the steam engine and filled with potassium and sugar. A small vial of sulphuric acid was inserted into the ladle. When the vial was broken by a spring and plunger arrangement, the acid hit the potassium an flame filled the firebox. touching off the tinder. This was only one of the many things Tom did to help improve the department.
Besides the numerous fires in their own district, 17's responded to every big fire in the downtown area--L. A. Pacific Building, Times Building, Bryan Building, etc. Ret. Asst. Chief R. E. Carson, when recalling his experiences at 17's, stated that he fought more fire in his four years there than in all the rest of his 30 years on the job. The experience gained while serving at 17's equipped many of the men for more responsible positions on the department, namely Ret. Asst. Chief T. Stembridge, Ret. Asst. Chief J. G. Johnson, Ret. Asst. Chief R. E. Carson, Asst. Chief W. H. Augustine, Batt. Chief J. C. Roeder, and many more of recent years.
Many tales were spun and laughs renewed as the old-timers regathered. Mike Devlin solved the mystery of the knotted strings in the old fishpond. The pond was located on the east side of the old engine house along with a lath house and trees for shade to cool the lawn around the pond in the summer time. The house was covered with ivy, and all in all it took on a very homey atmosphere. And home it was back in 1905, for the men spent most of their lives at the engine house. Twenty-four hours off a week and one hour three times a day for meals, plus a fourteen-day vacation, was the only official time off with pay for the Los Angeles fireman in that era. For all his time spent on duty the fireman received $60 per month, making $80 in three yearly steps. Of course, the Chief Engineer was only taking home $250 at that time.
Due to the many hours spent together, jokes and pranks were frequently indulged in by the men. The sports activities were about the same as now--cards, pool, handball, baseball, etc. However, all was not play at 17's by any means. The fires were bigger and there were more of them, and the housework covered a larger field. The fire men did all the painting of the engine house, the engineer handled the plumbing jobs, and if there was a carpenter in the house he did the cabinet work or a carpenter was detailed in from another house to do it. Every Friday was wall-washing day. This was necessary to keep ahead of the flies which were attracted by the horses. The stalls were cleaned every morning by the drivers and the horses fed, exercised and rubbed down by 7:00 A.M. When the house came under the command of Ret. Asst. Chief J. G. Johnson, then a Captain, another activity was added--that of studying. He has a record he might well be proud of for every man stationed under him in 1911 except two made Captain, and one of those made Engineer.
The equipment got into action about as fast as the present day equipment upon the receipt of an alarm. When a box came in the chains across the stalls dropped, the horses came out and stood under the harness, and it took about three to six seconds to hook them up. As the equipment left the engine house the engineer touched off the fire and had steam up a block from the house.
Engine 17 ran with a Nott steam engine until 1921 when they were motorized, being one of the last companies to be changed over. The Nott was a 2nd size, rated at 750 Gpm. The pump was a positive displacement piston type, the only limit on pressure being the hose or the strength of the pump cylinder. Here are the results of a pumping test in 1910 which will give the reader an idea of the steam pressure and rpm used:
The first horses on the engine were Krueger, Bill and Rody, and the wagon was drawn by Kem and Motozsky. Kruger was the center horse on the engine team and if, when turning a corner, the inside horse didn't get around fast enough to suit him, Krueger would bite him on the neck. The horses would get playful now and then and act up. One time the whole bunch ran out of the house and down to the Santa Fe Freight Station, about a block and half away on Santa Fe. The boys had to hustle down and round them up before the next alarm.
We'll have to agree with the old-timers that when the horses left the department they left a vacancy that cannot be completely filled by the motorized equipment. The horses in some respects were close to human. They had individual personalities and quirks just like the men they worked with. The following poem by an unknown author expresses some of the feelings of the firemen when the horses were replaced.
Every man took pride in the team that drew his company. Although racing was prohibited, it was not unknown. If the opportunity presented itself, the race was on.
Down through the years 17's has responded to over 13,000 alarms and laid over 275 miles of hose. Many companies have responded to more alarms, but few, if any, have laid more hose or worked more hours than 17's.
of Engine and Truck 17 would like to take this opportunity to thank
those who helped make our Open House a success and for the interest
shown by those attending.
This article appeared in the May 1955 issue of THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE.
Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved.