Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

In Memory of
Captain J. Clinton Johnson
Engine Company 8
Appointed Callman, May 1, 1887
Promoted to Foreman, October 1, 1887
Promoted to Driver, August, 1887
Promoted to Lieutenant, Second Class, January 31, 1900
Died February 12, 1905
Died of overexertion at greater alarm fire.
Alameda and Commercial Streets

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J. Clinton Johnson as Lieutenant of Hose Company 4
Source: Los Angeles Fire Department Illustrated
December 1900

Engine Company No. 8
Hoover street near Washington street

Source: Los Angeles Fire Department Photo Album Collection
Circa 1900



    Capt. J. Clinton-Johnson of the No. 8 Engine Company Succumbs to Disease Caused by Exposure Incident to His Duties as a Fire Fighter.

    Capt. J. Clinton Johnson of the No.8 engine company, one of the best men in the Los Angeles fire department, died at 8:30 o'clock last night at his home, No. 2630 Peabody avenue, after an illness of many months, directly due to exposure to which he was subjected in his line of duty.
    Had he lived until next May he would have been eighteen years a member of the department,, and during that period  he has seen it grow from a small beginning to one of the best equipped and most efficient in the West, and he has helped to conquer some of the most serious fires which ever broke out in the city.
   The illness of Capt. Johnson dated from the tragic fire on Commercial and Alameda streets six years ago, when the plant of the Los Angeles Farming and Milling Company was destroyed and four men lost their lives.  He was on duty for forty hours without rest and when relieved he had to take to his bed.  At the big Standard Oil Company fire he was overcome by the fumes of burning oil, but after he revived he insisted upon remaining at his post until all danger of a spread of the fire  was over. His health was never as good after that, and the effect upon his lungs of the fumes of the burning oil ultimately resulted in the disease which caused his death.  He was in many a serious fire after that, and was to be found where most needed.
    Unlike many of his fellow-firemen, Capt. Johnson spent much of his leisure time in studying to make his service more efficient.  He read everything he could find which told of the proper manner to fight fires, and in the knowledge of his life work he had no superiors in the department.  Nor did he parade his knowledge, but when necessity arose he led his men to such points that their efforts would do the most good, always unmindful of danger, but never ordering one of his men to go where he would not go himself.  During the past year his friends became aware that he would not long be with them, but although he was at times very sick, he remained on duty as long as he could.  The ravages of the "great white plague" upon him were slow, but none the less certain, and only a few weeks ago he left the engine house at Washington and Hoover streets and went home, his friends knew, to die.  He leaves a widow and three children, the oldest a daughter of 14 and a son of 7 and a son of nearly 4.
    Capt. Johnson was a native of Somerset, O., and was in his thirty-eight year.  He became a member of the Los Angeles fire department in May, 1887, when he was appointed as callman.  Two years latter he became a regular fireman and  in 1891 was appointed driver of the No. 5 engine company.  Two years later he was transferred to the No. 8 engine company, then the headquarters company.  He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant of the second class January 31, 1900, and assigned to the No. 4 hose company.  His commission as lieutenant of the first class dates from January 1, 1902, and in September of that year he was appointed to the position of captain and assigned to the No.8 engine company. He was a member of West End Lodge, No. 389, I.O.O.F., and the members of that lodge will have charge of the funeral, the arrangements for which have not been made.

Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1905






Captain J. Clinton Johnson

Chief Engineer Moore was in his headquarters office at the Hill Street station when he heard the six strokes of the alarm gong, followed by a pause, then four more clangs.  Knowing the district and fearing the worst, Moore ran for his buggy and left with the first alarm companies. Turning right from Hill onto First Street, Moore saw a solid column of smoke and flames.  What he has been expecting for years was now happening.  He whipped his horse to greater speed.  Assistant Chief Smith also saw the rapidly-worsening loomup as he answered the alarm.
    Moore found the situation was worse than he imagined it would be. The planing mill, lumber yard and out-buildings were well -involved and flames were igniting the flour mill.  He sent in a second alarm from Box 64 at 1:34 and followed it five minutes later with a general alarm calling out 14 companies, including eight steam pumpers, four chemical companies and the Babcock and Hayes aerial ladders.
    First-arriving engines were greatly-handicapped by the area's water supply:  four-inch mains of hollowed wood logs joined together and no doubt dating from the city's earliest days.  There was an eight-inch main along Los Angeles Street to the east and a supply from a nearby zanja.  Firefighters would have to make-do with that because the best hydrant supply in the area was at Alameda and Commercial Streets.  But heat was so intense the firefighters could not get close enough to use it.  Some 13,000 feet of hose was laid as firefighters perimetered the fire while taking a fearsome beating along Alameda Street.  Wind from the west pushed heat and smoke directly at them.  Radiant heat shattered windows in industrial and commercial occupancies across the street and behind them.  As flames took almost complete involvement of the flour and grain mill, hundreds of pigeons, which had nested there for years, circled above the smoke and flames and gradually fell into the fire.  A new threat was quickly discovered as the wind wafted great chunks of firebrands and seeded fires on wood roofs of cottages and the Maier & Zebelein Brewery.  The value of chemical engines once again proved themselves during the next hours as they snuffed the brewery flames while darting among cottages in a huge area as far east as the Los Angeles River.  Chemical Company firefighters laddered the cottages and while operating streams on the spot fires, helped citizens who were beating out fires with wet blankets and wetting roofs with garden hoses.  Chemical Engine 5 was credited with knocking down incipient fires on cottage roofs at 447, 449 and 452 Ducommun Street.  
    Sparks ignited the roof of Lou Simpson's cottage at 430 Aliso Street, three blocks from the main fire.  When Chemical 3 arrived, the firefighters were attacked by Mrs. Simpson who told them: "Don't you fool fellows know no better that to monkey with my things.  I will have you know I'm insured."  Ignoring her, the firefighters laddered the roof of the cottage which was not well-involved.  Firefighter H. A. Springer fell 18 feet through the fire-weakened roof and suffered severe sprains.
    When the wind slackened, the exposure problem diminished as the fire, together with the thousands of gallons of water from streams being lobbed into the flames, enabled Moore to declare the fire controlled at 3:00 p.m.  Three engines remained throughout the night while firefighters wet down ruins which would smolder for days.  The fire, with damages exceeding $250,000, was the most destructive the city had ever seen.  It also was one of the most exhausting the firefighters ever fought.  Captain J. Clinton Johnson of Engine Company 8, worked 40 hours without relief before collapsing from overexertion.  He never recovered and died, February 12, 1905.

Source: "A Century of Service"
by Paul Ditzel

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