Guardians of The City SFFD Home Page - San Francisco Fire Department Museum SFFD HomeBack to GuardiansofTheCity.org Home Page
Firehorses:
 

Firehorses
FAREWELL, GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANTS!

By Frederick J. Bowlen, Battalion Chief San Francisco Fire Department 1938

Chapter V
Peculiarities of Horses

The firemen had exceptional opportunities to watch and study the horses as no other class of men have had.  Asleep or awake, the telephone bell could ring, or the clock strike out the hours, or the church bell ring, and not one ear of the horses would be raised, but let just one blow be sounded on the fire gong and instantly their ears were erect, their nostrils swelled, their eyes lighted up, and every muscle tightened for a spirited dash forward to their places under the harness.

During the days of horse-drawn vehicles, there were many stable fires—large stables where maybe as many as a hundred horses were kept for draying or trucking and for livery purposes.  These were terrible fires to fight.  The highly inflammable nature of the feed and hay, as well as the type of structure for this purpose, usually made for hopeless and entire destruction.

When we would pull up in front of one of these raging infernos, the pitiful cries of the entrapped animals with, sure to be roasted alive if the fire had gained headway, never failed to strike a hearty response in the firemen and it would seem that our teams would become almost beside themselves answering the neighing and shrieking of the doomed animals.  The firehorses attached to the various engines would become almost frantic and it was only in this type of fire that they were in any way hard to manage.  At any other kind of fire, regardless of size or intensity, they were always as docile as though they were in their stalls.

There was one horse that was a real "Black Beauty" but an especially unattractive characteristic was his vicious habit of kicking at large.  He was most expert at it and would kick anything or anyone that was within range of his hoofs.  His driver was a very patient and understanding man and would always excuse this "four-year old colt" by explaining that he had not cut his "bridle tooth" yet.  This "bridle tooth" is a tooth that comes in both the lower and upper jaws of a horse at about five years of age, and the driver assured all that he would break the horse of this habit.

We were all anxious to see the method used in the breaking.  I will confess that most of us had selfishly motivated reasons for wishing him success.  His method was very simple and was none other than holding a strong broom to the horse's hind quarters and letting him kick until he tired of it.  The contest went well for some time but apparently the horse lost for before long he did not seem to mind dispensing with his former exercise and favorite pastime and later on he was one of the favorite pets of the firehouse.

Another story is told which bears out a private conviction that a horse is capable of thought put into action.

In the rear quarters of Engine 25, where this horse was stationed was a grassy lot.  The horses were allowed to go about the lot at will.  The assistant fire chief chanced one day to stop at this engine house and noticed a horse sunning himself in the lot.  The chief questioned the order of the horse being out of his accustomed place.  Upon being told that the horse fully understood the signals and would go to his place promptly on an alarm signal, or when called, he seemed to doubt it.   So, to prove the statement the chief was told to step aside while the fire bell was rung.  At the sound of the bell the horse ran for his position under the harness so quickly that the chief, who had not side stepped in time, received several cuts and bruises as a result of being knocked down in the rush.

In one company the driver would arise half an hour earlier than the rest of the men each morning to attend to the feeding of the horses.  This was not as much approved of by the men as it was by the horses.  As soon as the driver walked across the floor of the dormitory the horses (housed just under the dormitory) would set up such a neighing and whinnying and make so much of the attention anticipated that there was no more sleep for the men.  They solved the problem by turning the clock back just half an hour.  The odd part of it was that any other man might walk across the floor of the dormitory at the same hour and there would not be a single response from the horses.

An amusing incident was of a horse that stole out of his stall one night and into the office where he ate up the Company's record book while the watchman was engaged in some other duty.

In the earlier days the hours of the men and horses in the fire stations were long and monotonous and, naturally, both became bored at times.  The men were not penned in one particular stop like the horses and could relieve the tedium by strolling through the engine house and chatting with one another, but the horses, penned in their stalls, grew restless from time to time and were sometimes intolerant of restrain and inaction.

Thinking now of the plans for escape that their own ingenuity devised, we old-timers pay respectful tribute, in memory, to the clever intelligence of these horses.  They were not long in learning that by kicking the sides of theirs stalls they could release the "let-go" which dropped the guard chains at the entrance of their stalls.  When they were reproved or punished for this prank and the chain replaced, they would subside but only for a time.  Patience and persistence would seem to become the silent order of these animals confined to those vigils and periods of inactivity.

Even with the daily exercising the horses bided their time and soon again would fall into their old tricks and other tricks equally as disrupting to the serenity of the order of the firehouse.  The general run of excitement and exercise afforded the horses in their daily routine did not seem to suffice for the complete expression of their several and individual horse personalities.  On many occasions some of these sagacious brutes were known to kneel down and crawl, often with great discomfort and difficulty, under the imprisoning chain hung across the front of the stall.  Their objective was to slip out doors into freedom to a clear green field not too far distant for a good healthy horse frolic.

Irritable neighing accompanied by an accusing look or a pleading whinny would be protest against being led back to the narrow confines of their stalls.  For a long time it was a question in the minds of the firemen whether a horse could go upstairs or not. Jerry, a horse in the service of Truck Company No. 3 proved it could be done but to get him down again required the use of a block and tackle.

One afternoon when the firemen were not busy they conceived a plan to obtain a small donkey from the neighbor and lead it upstairs to the dormitory where two of the men, who would be on night watch, were taking their rest. This they did and placing the donkey so that his head was close to that of one of the sleepers, they called in a loud voice "inside box."  The sleeping firemen, jumping up quickly at the well known signal to be gone and no delay about it, looked full into the face of the donkey.  The animal was more frightened than the firemen.  He reared and plunged and over went beds and chairs and by the time his rear hoofs went through the door of a clothes locker, he had sent the entire crew of practical jokers in all directions.  He was finally caught and led downstairs.

Many people used to visit the firehouses to admire and inspect the beautiful animals.  Most of the visitors delighted in feeding them sugar and other sweetmeats, the while stroking their warm velvety noses and petting them.

One evening at Truck No. 4, on Pacific Avenue near Polk Street, a young lady accompanied by her fiancée, entered the quarters to see the horses. She was wearing a large 'picture" hat, adorned with bunches of artificial fruit, which was considered very "chic" in those days.   While she was feeding sugar to one of the horses, another horse in an adjoining stall availed himself of the cherries on her hat for his treat.

Another horse attached to Engine Company No. 41 never laid down from the day he entered the Engine house.  He would doze off standing up and many times fell to his knees in his sleep only to jump up with fright.  The boys of this station devised a means whereby the horse could sleep sitting down.  They had the harness maker construct a very wide and strong piece of canvas reinforced with leather with large iron rings at the ends.  The rings were fastened to hooks at the side of the stalls and at the rear of the horse.  It did not take the horse long to realize what it was intended for as he soon accustomed himself to backing up, resting his haunches upon it, and going to sleep sitting down.   This contraption was placed in position each night after feeding time and many a visitor to the engine house got a great laugh at seeing the horse sleeping sitting down.

It was necessary to keep several carpenters constantly at work repairing the floors of the stalls in the engine houses.  Due to the continual stamping and pawing, the stall floors would be intact, but a short while between repairs.  Some of the horses had the habit of weaving from side to side and lifting first one foot and then the other.  In time, this alone was known to wear two round holes completely through the two-inch flooring.

Others, through nervousness or restlessness, would keep biting and gnawing at the flooring until they somehow managed to tear up a small sliver of wood.  After this we would usually hear a "squeak", then a "crackety-crack" and a whole strip would be torn and pulled from the floor.  The same unvarying procedure always followed this type of self-expression.  The firemen first told the horse just what they thought of him and then sent for the carpenter.  Who could blame them? Certainly not the men, who sympathized and understood the natural rebellion incurred by endless hours in monotony and confinement, as the days were long when there were no fires to roll out to.

I can well remember a team of white horses that was in Engine Company No. 4. Their regular driver knew and understood them, but in the times when the working day was twenty-four hours, and only one day off in a month, it was necessary to have relief drivers in each firehouse to allow the regular drivers to go to their meals.

The center horse of these three would not respond to whip unless one was acquainted with just the small and particular spot she preferred.   If you snapped her a crack any where else she would slow down, but if the tip of the switch were applied ever so lightly over her left hip bone, she would make a mad spring forward and this method never failed to produce speed a plenty whenever desired, so that was something for the relief drivers to remember.

There was another horse in the Department that had a rather reverse idea of response from most horses.  Very few drivers cared to handle him.  When a tight rein was held on him he would stretch and straighten out his neck until the muscles would appear to be almost at the bursting point.  He would lift and hold his head so high in the air that no driver was ever known to be able to hold him down.  On giving him a slack rein, he would be as agreeable as one would want, and would trot or gallop, and was generally easy to handle.

On the morning of April 18, 1906, just about a half hour after the first shock of the earthquake, Engine Company No. 14, 1051 McAllister Street, was working at a fire on the northwest corner of Hayes and Laguna Streets.  This location was several blocks from where Engine Company No. 19 was quartered at 1421 Market Street, at Polk Street.

During the excitement of the quake, three bay horses of Engine Company No. 19 bolted through the open doors of the engine house and went wandering about in the neighborhood.

However, as Engine Company No. 14 was pumping away at full steam, making the usual familiar sound of a working engine, and as the flames licked and the smoke poured forth, who should walk up along side of the working engine but the three bays.  They looked a bit sheepish, as though they felt they had shirked their duty in this little escapade.  They were thanked politely for the proffered assistance and returned to their own company.  Other horses that had broken away during the excitement had the good sense to go to the still remembered department stables.  They seemed to be able to remember where good treatment was to be had.

Another high-spirited animal belonging to an engine house rather far out in the Mission broke away, and in his fear, on this same morning, ran three miles to the quarters of another engine house on Waller Street near Stanyan, close to Golden Gate Park.  On arrival at the engine house, he was foaming at the mouth, covered with perspiration, and trembling all over.  He was practically a nervous wreck when returned to his regular quarters.

Gold Brick tall, long and slender and originally bought for the purpose of being used in a chief's buggy was tried out many times with different chiefs but none could hold him.  He was next put in a breaking-cart at the Department stables and while there ran away with the cart and the driver several times.

He was then put in a hose wagon with another horse of about his same build and tried out on the nigh side for several weeks.  He was sluggish in his work on that side and was moved to the off side of the team.  It did not take long for the driver to find out that Gold Brick was in his proper place and raring to go at all times as long as he was on the "offside" whether exercising or responding to an alarm of fire.  This horse alone would pull the hose wagon along with the other horse, which was his running mate, without any effort.  He was powerful and fast as lightening and appeared to love his work.

But, he had many peculiarities which made it hard for the firemen to determine whether or not the name of Gold Brick was a fitting one for him.  He must have had some good breed in him for he could gallop or trot faster than any other horse in the Fire Department.

Gold Brick never made friends with anyone, regardless of who it was, or what kindness was shown him, and he hated all strangers who entered the engine house.  A young man who lived in the neighborhood dropped into the engine house one summer afternoon wearing a new Panama straw hat and in passing Gold Brick hesitated and spoke to the horse.  In a flash Gold Brick had the straw hat in his mouth, chewing it to pieces and not one of the firemen dared to try to take it away from him.

I think this horse had more peculiar characteristics than any horse I ever knew.  It was not an uncommon thing for horses to turn around in their stalls for only a few moments and then turn back again, but Gold Brick was the dandy of them all.

About ten o'clock each night, after having finished his portion of rich, fresh hay, he would turn around in his stall, lay down, and watch the men playing cards at the table at the rear of his stall, and never go to sleep while the men were so engaged in their card game.  When the men retired he would close his eyes and doze off to sleep.

At the first sound of the alarm bell, he would be up on his feet in a flash, turn around a quickly and be out of his stall and under the harness as soon as any of the other horses.  While responding to alarms of fire this horse would never step on the iron plates of the "man-holes" in the center of the crossings of the streets, but would jump completely over them, and in the night time if there was a shadow of a telegraph pole reflecting on the street, he would also jump over it or try to pull to one side.

As far as performing actual and efficient fire service, this horse could not be excelled, and while standing in the vicinity of a fire he could always be trusted to stay wherever he was left. He was a good horse as far as fire duty was concerned.

He was only in the Department about five years when he contracted pneumonia and died.

Speaking of Gold Brick never stepping on iron plates of man holes and of dodging the shadows of telephone poles at night reminds me of another horse, Engine No. 7 who was called "The Steeplechaser."

One night toward the wee small hours of the morning, while men lay abed asleep and the horses dozed afoot, a weird, wild clash of the gong rent the stillness like the trumpet of Judgment Day.  Like the snap of a gigantic spring all was life!  The resounding clang!  Clang!  Of the gong, the sharp, startling tattoo of a score of steel shod feet on the concrete, the ghostlike slide of dusky, half-clad forms down the brass sliding poles and the groan of the big front doors thrown wide apart.  That was the first time The Steeplechaser "ran" with his mates.  With the note of the big bell he caught the excitement and ran to his place at the pole, where the watchman grabbed him and backed him into place.  However, the alarm proved to be for a neighboring company.  Within two minutes everything in the magic house was steeped in quiet.

It took The Steeplechaser ten days to learn his place under the harness, but it was two weeks before he became used to the interruptions of sleep, to eating and sleeping and working with a broken-bit in his mouth, and to eating from the floor instead of out of a manger.  It was longer than a month before he ceased to jump at the ear-splitting shrieks of whistles, the rattle and bank and clatter of fire apparatus, the hiss and snort of steam and the thump, thump of his own engine at a hydrant.  Solely by kindness and patience he learned all this as he learned to obey implicitly the man on the seat.  Though fiery coals sputtered out of the fire boxes of the engines ahead he galloped.  On a dead run he and his mates could come down the crowded thoroughfares, aim into mazes of trucks, street cars and wagons, trusting to bell, whistle, and police to clear the road.  But a firehorse, like a fireman, must learn to think for himself.  More, an intelligent horse like an expert driver gathered his own experiences.  The Steeplechaser nearly broke his neck gathering his.

A depression in the pavement in the vicinity of Sixteenth and Guerrero Streets was flooded by a rain storm with gray-brown puddles of mud and water.  Whistles screeching, bell banging, and smoke belching out of the short, black stack, the engine came pell-mell down the street, racing the hose wagon.  A puddle that proved a five inch deep hole, chopped for repairs, was in front of the horse. He jumped into it, forefeet first, went headlong onto his knees and face, was pushed fifty feet by the frightful impetus of the five tons behind, and scrambled to his feet. The hose wagon swerved by a hair from piling the team, wagon, and men into the rear of the engine.

That night, after the engine had been backed into place and the horses had dug into well earned oats, the Captain visited The Steeplechaser in his stall and patted the scratched face and the skinned knees, while the driver applied salve. This horse never trusted puddles again.  He jumped them.  Free and easy as he used to take brooks and creeks on the farm, he cleared every puddle he came across.  It was one thing, however, to gallop through a field and take a ditch at leisure at one's own pace.  It was very much another thing to be harnessed to 10,000 mad-whirling pounds, between two giants and a pair of banging, battering poles that angered and excited and made good aim impossible.  Yet one night The Steeplechaser made a phenomenal jump—one of two that was to be long remembered in the company.

One night Engine No. 7 was ripping down Mission Street at a pretty good clip.  The road was clear, far as could be seen, and the team was let out a bit.  The driver had his eyes a block ahead, looking at the crossings, when, suddenly, right in the middle of Fourteenth Street, not twenty-five feet away, stuck in an open manhole of a sewer and dead ahead of The Steeplechaser, was a great big barrel.  It looked as big as a house.  The driver couldn't stop in time and it would have upset the engine to try to pull to one side.  There was nothing to do but to tell The Steeplechaser it was up to him.  The driver gave him his head and he went to it.  Up he reared, sat in the breeching and between the jump and racing five tons, cleared it clean as a whistle.  The next second the barrel was knocked to kindling.

The second jump got the three big firehorses into the newspapers, and was even more spectacular.  Like most narrow escapes, this happened at night, when streets were clear, when horses were urged at top speed, when poles and buildings cast treacherous shadows, and when nothing but a pair of dim red lamps marked a breakneck danger spot.  The wheels of the engine were in the street car tracks.  The driver had drawn his whip and let it down on the backs of the team, and the three angered horses were heading like mad up the dusky street.  The driver scanned the dark road; never saw two puny danger signals which marked a three-foot wide ditch thrown clear across the track.  None except the horses knew of the danger until it was past, not even the driver.  Suddenly his lines slackened.  The great, broad backs of his beasts rose together as if one.  A dim red speck flashed by him on either side.  With a violent jerk the horses landed back into their collars.  They had taken the ditch and so had the engine—running smoothly across on the bridging car tracks.  The other horses had learned The Steeplechaser's trick.

There are those persons who would scoff at the intelligence and mental capacity of a horse, but I would be willing to wager they had never paid a visit to the quarters of "Fighting 4's" station, south of Market Street.

If the promise that it took brains to dream were granted, all who had witnessed the bay mare, Fanny during her sleeping hours would have had to admit she must have a head like a statesman.  Fanny was ten years old.  There was no guessing about this or any other statement made about her.  Far be it known and attested here, that the firemen watched over her like good shepherds.  They knew her life's story, her tastes and eccentricities, of which dreaming were about the most pronounced.

Everybody in San Francisco who was at all interested in "Horse and Buggy Days" had seen Fanny or heard of her.  Hundreds of times during each year the big engine had thundered over the down town pavements with the plucky mare on the off side of the traces.  She ran with such wonderful energy and with a seeming enthusiasm and zest for her work that no one who saw the team would or could fail to notice Fanny.  She was fifteen and a half hands high. Her markings were four white legs and a white stripe on her face. She had been seven years in the service with "Fighting 4" and she knew the rules as well as the streets like any seasoned fireman of the outfit.

In the engine house the usual routine was for the men to go to bed at about 10 o'clock and leave 'watch" on the apparatus floor.  If there were no alarms, the man on "watch" had a rather lonely time of it.  Not even the horses kept him company, for they used to lie down in their stalls when the lights were dimmed.

It would be usually shortly before one o'clock in the morning when Fanny would begin to show her mind.  It seemed that she would dream over what she had experienced during the day.  The first signs of the forthcoming activities would be the silence of the night broken by a snort.  Fanny would begin to steadily paw the air with her forefeet just as if she were running.  As she pawed more and more rapidly, her nostrils would dilate and she would breathe fast and hard.  Her dreams usually lasted but a few minutes and during the few minutes Fanny's eyes would be wide open and staring.  In every respect she would look the exact counterpart of a horse running to a fire or under stress of excitement.

For a year before the horses were replaced by the motor apparatus scarcely a night passed that the mare did not have an imaginary run to a blaze.  The strange part of it was that though her eyes would be wide open, she never appeared to be able to see anything at all about her.  Any one of the regular firemen could tiptoe up to her and watch her during one of her dreams, but an unfamiliar step would awaken her at once.  Fanny's dreams increased in excitement as time passed and one night she kicked so hard in her sleep that the firemen were afraid she might injure herself so they widened her stall next day.  The Captain of the outfit thought that these "nightmares" really did the animal an injury in over­straining her nerves and he looked upon the peculiarity as a disease, but whether disease or habit, or the result of a peculiarly active intellect, certain it was that the spells constantly became worse and whenever Fanny had worked harder than usual in any one day her torture was usually more prolonged that night.

Early one morning when an attack was worse than any of the others had been, the firemen recalled that they had four hard runs that day and Fanny returned from the last one a little slower than usual.  That night the dream came on her about the usual time, but the unusual divergence was that while panting and snorting in her scamper, Fanny suddenly jumped to her feet and ran out into her place beneath the harness, only to come to her senses with a long drawn-out sigh.  She seemed to become at once aware of the ridiculous situation for her head dropped down quickly and her ears drooped.  She made straight for her stall as quickly as she could when the watchman slapped her good naturedly on the flank.

It was not an uncommon thing for horses to show signs that they were dreaming.  Some dreams were expressive of pleasure and even mirth when the animal would open its mouth and move both upper and lower lips as if in laughter.  While other dreams would be accompanied with a long drawn-out sigh, a whinny or a neigh, and sometimes a sound like a moan which we took to represent sadness or pain.

Still other dreams must have been terrifying in the extreme, judging from the accompanying contortions the animals would go through.  At other times, suddenly leaping to their feet, they would start to kick and bray, and then would look around them with sheepish expressions on their faces when they had awakened themselves with the undue commotion.

Pay Day, a 1200 pound gelding, was so called for the reason that his registered number "888" was the same number as the signal which struck over the alarm system to notify the officers and men that it was "pay day."  When Pay Day was purchased, it was intended that he should be used for a buggy horse, but owing to some unruly characteristics he was placed in a three-horse hitch, where he occupied center place.   All in all, he did not last long in the Fire Department.

He was tried out on the nigh side of the team on several occasions and most decidedly did not like this position.  His method of showing his dislike was most effective.  Immediately on being released from his stall at the sound of an alarm, he would back up with his hind quarters close to the brass sliding pole and when the men tried to descend by the pole he would whinny loudly and kick menacingly at them.

The men at the Department stables had so much trouble with him that they were never anxious to have him as a lodger over night.  When the time came for Pay Day to be re shod he seemed to know it even better than the men.  He would remind them by pawing and kicking in his stall from early in the morning until the time for him to be taken to the stables.  He was as radical in his views about being shod as he was about almost every other rule of discipline in his life.

The stable boy, who used to call for the horses with a two-wheeled cart and take them to the stables to be shod, had his troubles with Pay Day too.  When he would try to lead Pay Day behind the cart, this notorious rebel would insist on backing up while the horse pulling the cart was trying to go forward.

It seemed that no matter what you wanted Pay Day to do, he did just the opposite, not because of a lack of understanding, but just to be perverse or obstinate.  When his feeding time came, he was always docile as a lamb.  However that too depended a great deal on whether or not it was entirely to his liking.

One winter morning about 5 o'clock this horse was being given his usual amount of water.  There was no doubt of it being a cold morning and the water icy cold; true also, the firemen should have taken the chill off the water before giving it to him, according to the rules, but the feeding was a little behind schedule and the men thought they would slip one over on Pay Day this time, but that didn't work with him.  Just one taste of the water in the bucket and he gave it a forward kick, smashed the bucket, and scattered three gallons of icy water over things in general, and completely drenched the recording tape of the alarm register.

One day Pay Day was taken ill, so he was removed to the stables, where he was placed in a corral and there tied to a heavy hitching post.  He was left alone only for a short time, but when the stableman returned he was dead.  He had virtually battered his head against an iron snubbing post and lay in a tangled mass with the rope around his neck, in this way having hanged himself by his halter.

Coincident with the sad ending of Pay Day was a fact noticed by the firemen to the effect that the day on which he was taken to the stables the three-eights had just struck in for their pay.

Let us not be too ready to judge this unfortunate animal.  In spite of his behavior he was never abused and it might have been possible that he had a mental or physical disability but was not able to explain it.

On To Chapter VI
Back to the Top