Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

Fireman's Line-Up, 1909

In Which a Retired Fireman Reminisces of the Days When
Horse-Drawn Outfits Gave Men Thrills and Plenty of Work

By CAPT. H. J. GRIFFIN, Retired

HAVING the thought in mind that some of the new members, and old ones, would like to read a few lines from a retired smoke-eater, this article is written about the yesteryears of fire department around the years of 1909.

  I suppose the new members will say "so that's the way the boys did it years ago." To us of the years back it brings memories.

  A fireman started at the large salary of $75 a month, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the meal hours ran in three periods, as follows, dived up in shifts from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. for breakfast, and so on until supper time. You could take three one hour meals, or two one and a half ones, or one three hour meal. Anyway if you had a family you only saw them three hours a day. Hardly enough for your wife and children to know you.

  The driver of horse drawn apparatus and officers usually had the first meal hour. As the drivers arose at 5 a.m. their first duty was to water horses out of a bucket, give them a feed of rolled barley, pick up the bedding of straw from under the horses, put it in a box on rollers, wheel it outside quarters, then hit the pole or ring the bell to get up the rest of the company, who were on the apparatus floor for taps and roll call at 6 a.m. After which all the men turned to and swept the apparatus floor. In some companies the horses were hitched up and the apparatus was driven out on the street for exercise of the horses for one hours. As the driver returned he had to curry the horses all over, wash out mouths, clean teeth, hoofs and polish halters, flush out stalls, give the animals a feed of bran at noon, at night bed them down, and give them a feed of barley hay. Besides, if a run was made and horses were wet, they had to be taken out in the street and walked to cool them off. Quite a bit different than drivers of the iron steeds of today who only have to shut off the motor.

  Floor watches were stood from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The duty of the man on watch was to keep the floor of the stall where the horses stood clear of all matter, etc. As the alarm system was connected so that any fire alarm sent in from any part of the city came in to each fire station and every member had to get up or be ready to respond, you can see how many hours of night and day the officer had to call roll. It was the rule, and each time roll was called it was kept in a book. Sometimes twenty of more alarms came in at night and you did not go out. Thus a lot of sleep was lost, and written on the dash boards of some hose wagon were the words "We never sleep." Oh, yes, the firemen had to unload dirty briquettes (used to heat water and heat up quarters) then a load of hay or barley came, besides changing hose and general duties.


The engineer who rode on the rear of the steam engine had a time keeping from being thrown off in responding to alarms, as the wheels of the drawn engine had steel tires and skidded all over the streets. The driver of the engine, upon arriving at a fire, had to unhitch the horses, take them some distance from the engine and tie them up Drivers of the hose wagon and the engine were strapped to their seats. It was a thrill to see the horses plunging at full speed to a fire, giving their best, and they were beloved by the boys as the stations.

  The engineer had the duty of building fires in the fire boxes of the steam engines, which was as follows: First a layer of excelsior, then kindling, then some coal. And when an alarm came in he was to light a coaloil torch on the engine which he lighted up the fire in the fire box. Some engineers thought up a better idea. They had a contrivance under the fire box which held a mixture of sugar and potash. Near it was a bottle of acid. As the response to the alarm was made, a chain pulled by the engineer broke the bottle of acid, causing it to mix with the potash and a flame was ignited in the excelsior. In a few moments steam was raised and sometimes the engineer had the stoker or fireman shovel coal into the fire box at the fire. And did those fire boxes eat the coal. To hear the even exhaust of the engine and see sparks and smoke flying out of the stack was a thrill. When coal was needed a shrill blast on the steam whistle at the engine called the coal wagon to come. The engineer had his troubles if the boiler foamed. His eyes were on the water glass at the boiler and pressure gauge. Often, far into the night, the engineer, after returning from a fire, had to work filling the oiler, greasing and getting the engine ready.

  On pay day you went to the City Hall for the pay. Two per cent was taken out for pension, and always near the City Hall were a few loan sharks who were so willing to loan you money at a rate of interest which kept firemen in their clutches. If a fireman wanted to lay off he filled out a form, put up cash for time off, and an extra fireman was called up to work who was paid after he finished work. The Chief had a hard time getting extra men to work; their only wages was what extra work they got. Anyone could get on extra.

  Ham and eggs were 20 cents. Good meals 25 and 30 cents. A big washboard scoop (glass to you) of beer cost five cents, with free lunch thrown in.

  The nice blue flannel shirts which opened at the side, with a lot of big pearl buttons around the chest was the uniform shirt. The shirts were made to keep us from getting a cold. It was quite an honor to be a fireman, and we were proud to be a member of the fire department, but the long 24-hour day, seven days a week, was a long time to be on duty, and that strain and the constant waking up tended to break down men. So you see the firemen did not have the life of Riley.

  In 1917, as of today (written in 1944), we went to war. But there were no deferments, unless you had five years of service in the fire department. A lot of us enlisted, and I got a nice long letter while in France from the city saying that my salary would be paid while I was in the army. But later, another letter, saying the City Attorney ruled it illegal, was received.

  You young men of the department today will perhaps see fire apparatus propelled or driven by a rocket, and many new evolutions to fight fires. In time to come the lessening of fires by fire resisting material will cut your work down. Yes, we men of 1909 have lived to see rapid advances in fire work, just as you will see. So time and the world travels on. Wars there will be; until an understanding comes to peoples of the world and jealousy, hate and greed are gone. Lust for power and the laws of beating the other fellow, because some one is bigger, has more money, or prestige, will be changed. Democracy and more fellowship should bring about a peaceful life for us all the world over.


This article appeared in the June 1944 issue of THE FIREMAN'S GRAPEVINE.

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