Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

The Company That Went to Blazes

By Paul Ditzel

    Three pistol shots rang out on Main Street at 3:37 a.m., that brisk February morning in 1885.  

    The Shots--signal that a fire had broken out--awakened half a dozen members of an illustrious Los Angeles organization:  38's Engine Company No. 1.

    One of  those members, a clothing merchant named D. Desmond, dressed quickly, saddled his horse, and galloped to the brick firehouse at Los Angeles and Plaza streets.  Desmond tugged on the rope just inside the door and the bell in the belfry tolled to awaken all members of the thirty-eight-man brigade.  The first tug on the rope caused counterweights to drop the chains across the horse stalls.  Three snorting, impatient greys pranced from their stalls in the rear of the firehouse and stopped underneath the harnesses drooping from the ceiling.

    Two drivers and the engineer--the only full-time paid members of the brigade--came sliding down the brass pole.  One driver climbed into the seat of the Amoskeag steam pumper while the other pulled himself up onto the hose reel.

    Other volunteers were now arriving, snapping shut their firecoats while the engineer lit the firebox under the Amoskeag's boiler and stepped up on the tailboard.

    Desmond grabbed the collars hanging above the horses.  Pulling the hitch down,  he shut the clasps as the horses eagerly pawed the wood floor.  The driver tugged at the reins.  The harness drew tight.  The steamer driver reached up and tugged at another rope.  The big doors swung open.


    The greys bolted forward and the nickel-plated steamer wheeled from the station, its big bell clanging.  Close behind rumbled the hose reel.

    There was little need for the drivers to use their whips.  The horses seemed to be just as aware of the orange glow from the blazing hay barn far up ahead as were Desmond and the other members of the brigade.

    More than haste was involved as the steamer--smoke, sparks and red hot embers streaming from its stack, raced toward the fire.  Pride was involved, too. It was said that 38's would rather lose a building to the flames than to permit their rivals, Confidence Engine Company No. 2 over on First Street, to beat them to a fire.

    Thirty-eights barely reached the barn ahead of Confidence 2.  For a moment it appeared as if a fist fight would break out over which company would hookup first to the hydrant.  Since 38's got there first, the hydrant was rightfully theirs.

    By dawn the fire was out and 38's returned to their station.  Inside, the horses stopped when the steamer stood over the turntable.  While the horses were unhitched, the steamer was turned around until it faced the doors again.

    This blaze and many others are being recalled Fridays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. in the Old Plaza Fire Station at Los Angeles and Plaza Streets.  Easily reached from the downtown freeway interchange, the firehouse has been rebuilt almost exactly as it was when thirty-eight business and civic leaders joined to fight fires after the city's first volunteer brigade quit in a fit of anger.

    The red hot coals strewn along the hard-packed dirt streets are only a memory, but today's visitor to the Old Plaza Fire Station can still hear the clanging of the huge brass fire gong.  He can still watch as the chains across the horse stalls fall away automatically as the gong strikes.  He can watch the thin paper tape spew from the fire alarm register just as it did in 1887 when the electric fire alarm system replaced--well, almost replaced, as we will shortly describe--the three pistol shots.

        Tucked away behind in the hoses stalls is a radio tuned to the Los Angeles Fire Department frequency.  In this historic setting the visitor, while looking over the horse-drawn steamer and other relics of yesterday's firefighting, can listen as fire chefs radio to pilots of borate bombers fighting brush fires.

    Most interesting of all is the shiny Amoskeag steam pumper--vintage 1892--with its leather harness hanging from the ceiling.  Visitors (more than 31,000 last year) can almost smell the smoldering coals;  the smoke curling from the stack of the steamer;  the horses impatient to be on their way;  the coffee perking on the pot-belly stove which Curator Clarence Ramsey sometimes fires up during the winter.

    A horse-drawn chemical rig sometimes substitutes for the old steamer.  Captain Robert Foster, Los Angeles Fire Department historian, says chemical wagons, typified by the one on display, played a vital role in the department's history.  Pumpers needed up to six minutes to build a head of steam before they could throw a steam of water.  The chemical wagons provided water immediately.  Arriving at a fire, the firemen tipped upside down the two fifty-gallon water tanks mounted on the chemical wagon.  Soda acid, carried on the wagon, was mixed with the water.  The resulting chemical reaction immediately sent water surging through the hoselines.  By the time the 100 gallons were expelled the steamers had reached pumping pressure.

    Upstairs in the Old Plaza Station the bedroom has been restored just as it was in the old days.  There is a large area set aside for historic memorabilia:  badges, photos, helmets, nozzles, model fire engines.  Special exhibits are keyed to the seasons.  At Christmas, for instance, cast iron toy fire engines and hook and ladders of all shapes and sizes are displayed.  The fire department is constantly looking for donations of old badges, helmets and other fire relics.

    Everywhere the sometimes violent, sometimes tragic, sometimes comic history of the Los Angeles Fire Department permeates the old fire station.

This old journal book entry was discovered:
"February 29 [sic] 1896.  
Tony ( a black horse) fell and died of a heart attack at 9:10 a.m., while responding to a fire at Fourth and Broadway.  Fire was in a carpet store owned by C. A. Judd.  Damage:  $4,000.  Tony was five years old."

    Not all of Los Angeles' fires were fought outside the firehouse.  The station itself once caught fire.  An engineer was preparing a can of brass polish powder on the stove when the bottom burned out.  The mess spilled over the stove and set fire to the floor.  There were no pistol shots that time, although there was one red-face on one red-shirted fireman.

    Faces were even redder early one morning when pistol shots roused the volunteers.  The two-horse hitch was not secured when the driver "GEE-HAWED."  Both horses lunged, but only one of them was in harness.  The other horse trotted out of the fire station and was last seen vanishing across the plaza into the pre-dawn darkness.  That night rivals beat 38's to the fire.

    Before the formation of 38's, volunteers were expected to pull the three-ton pumper by hand to the fire.  When the Common Council refused to vote money for horses the volunteers quit;  claiming that the councilmen "put a higher value on horsepower than manpower."

    The city grew, the Fire Department expanded, and the old firehouse was abandoned for larger quarters.  Over the years the building became a warehouse, a saloon, disreputable hotel (whose guest often registered under assumed names with no questions asked), and was finally deserted and condemned.

    Captain Foster, acting on a tip, did a little detective work and discovered that the old brick building was the original firehouse.  As final proof, he had workmen tear up the floor.  Sure enough there was the turntable.  It's still there today.  Captain Foster then traced the building's history back through its use as headquarters for Chemical Company 1, Engine Company 4, and finally, its original occupants, 38's Engine Company No. 1.

    The roster of 38's included prominent Los Angeles business and civic leaders.

    Today's counterpart of 38's is the Box 15 Club--made up of men who make the station their clubhouse headquarters and escort visitors.  Box 15 members never fight fires.  They are buffs.  For them the history of the fire service and the wail of today's fire siren is an irresistible lure, just as it was for 38's.  Contrary to popular opinion, dalmations are not the fireman's best friend.  Fire buffs are.  On display at the station is Firebox Number 15, from which the club took its name.  From Box 15 was sounded the first alarm for one of the city's worst harbor disasters when the oil tanker Markay blew up in 1947.

    Box 15 President Fred Allen, a safety engineer for an insurance company, says a "Duty Roster" lists those Saturdays and Sundays that members must take their turn standing "floorwatch" and assisting Curator Ramsay, himself a Box 15 member, in explaining the station's history to visitors.

    Floorwatch duty begins at noon and ends at 5:00 p.m.  These hours are sometimes shortened when the LAFD radio reports a large fire.  Duty Roster regulations provide that "Members should use discretion when greater-alarm fires necessitate slight alterations of quitting time."

    No longer do the three pistol shots call firemen to duty.  The visitor to the Old Plaza Fire Station quickly realizes that today the fire department radio broadcasts three staccato "BEEPS" calling the attention of firemen and buffs.  If the visitor is lucky, a member of the Box 15 Club might invite him along as he races out of the Old Plaza Fire Station to go to the fire.

This article appeared in the September 1964 issue of THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE.

    Paul Ditzel, author of the Westways Magazine article on the Old Plaza Fire Station, frequently writes of the activities of the Los Angeles Fire Department in national magazines.  His column, "Bells, Buffs and Blazes" has appeared for 13 years (1964)  in Fire Engineering Magazine.
    Ditzel is Contributing Editor of Fire Engineering ands serves as West Coast Editor of Coronet Magazine.
    A close friend of the LAFD, Ditzel's byline has appeared over more than 300 stories and articles published in various national and internationally-circulated magazines. 

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