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Historical Review:

San Francisco Fire Department
Historical Review
Part I

The Volunteer Department - 1849 - 1866

The first great fire in San Francisco originated on Christmas Eve, 1849 at Dennison's exchange on Kearny between Clay and Jackson Streets.  Before a bucket brigade could be formed the fire was through the roof and spreading to surrounding buildings.  By the time it burned itself out; fifty buildings were gone at a loss of $1,500,000.

The destructive blaze awakened the people to the great danger the City was exposed to from fire.  The Town Council held a special called meeting that afternoon and passed a resolution to organize a fire department.  The resolution states, in part, “Therefore…..to protect the town against another such calamity by organizing fire companies”, and the San Francisco Fire Department was born.

The resolution continued: “Resolved, that the Alcalde be authorized to send to the hospital, or provide in the most ready and suitable manner to afford immediate aid with proper medical attendance, to those individuals, who, in their praise worthy exertions during the recent Fire, received any bodily injury”, signed H.L. Dodge, secretary.  This section of the resolution, to care for injured firemen, was the seed that provides for today's health and pension benefits.

On Christmas night several citizens who had been firemen in the East met and formed fire companies.  Heading the group was Frederick D. Kohler who was chosen as the first Chief, and David C. Broderick, later to be slain by Supreme Court Justice Terry in the most famous duel of the West. Their actions had the support of the Town Council, which met on January 28th, 1850 and formally elected Kohler as the first Chief Engineer of the San Francisco Volunteer Fire Department.

Three hand pump fire engines, which had been brought around Cape Horn from the East, formed the equipment of the new department. The first three companies were called The San Francisco, The Empire, and The Protection Company. The San Francisco, a small engine, was originally owned by President Martin Van Buren who used it to pump water on his New York estate.

An early report shows the strength of the Department consisted of ninety volunteers assigned to the three engine companies and an additional forty volunteers to man a hook and ladder company that had been newly formed.

While these first companies proved adequate in controlling many small fires, it was to take a second and third great fire to bring home to the citizens the need for an expanded and properly organized department.

On May 4, 1850 the second great fire broke out in a saloon erected on the exact site of the first fire. Spreading explosively through the flimsy building construction the fire quickly engulfed the entire block bounded by Kearny, Clay, Montgomery and Washington Streets.  The fire jumped Kearny Street and was destroying Washington Street across from Portsmouth Square, when the gathering crowd, led by Mayor-elect John W. Geary, performed a feat that would be impossible with our modern construction.  They tore down by hand every house on Dupont (now Grant Avenue) between Washington and Jackson Streets. That stopped the flames from going up the hill, but the lack of water was the greatest difficulty, and the fire ended when it had burned itself out at the boundaries where buildings had either been blown up or torn down.  The loss was $4,000,000, three hundred buildings had been consumed and one man and two children were burned to death.

This was the center of town and contained the most valuable land, so rebuilding was quickly started.  The next day a hotel under a tent was running full blast on its burned out site.  The El Dorado gambling house moved two blocks and rented another building at $6,000 a month. Within weeks the entire area was rebuilt.

Chief Kohler complained bitterly of the lack of water and the Council now ordered construction of a twelve thousand gallon cistern in Portsmouth Square.  Artesian wells were dug in various parts of the City and an ordinance was passed ordering all householders to have six water buckets kept in readiness for fires.

But these preventive measures were not taken in time.  On the morning of June 14th, little more than a month since the last fire, the third great fire occurred.

This fire was the most destructive of all, the loss being $5,000,000 and three hundred buildings destroyed.  The fire devastated the area between Clay, California and Kearney Streets down to the edge of the bay.

Again the ruined area was rebuilt.  The lessons had been learned however, and now the type of construction was of a more sturdy nature, with more thought being given to safety.  Three disastrous fires with a total loss of $10,500,000 had made an impression.

The newly formed department was having a hard time keeping up with proper fire protection of a booming town.  More fire companies needed to be formed and the necessary apparatus had to be ordered and shipped from the east coast.

On June 24, 1850 an ordinance to reorganize the fire department was passed by the Board of Aldermen and Mayor Geary signed it on July 1, 1850.  Now the Department was to be run on strict business lines, having its first rules and regulations adopted at this time.  Two months later, on September 9, 1850, California was admitted into our Nation as the 31st State.

Three more great fires occurred all within the next nine months, each serving to strengthen the resolve of the people to build a greater and safer city.

The fourth fire occurred on September 17, 1850 and destroyed one hundred and twenty-five buildings, but it was the fifth fire that made a much more lasting impression on the populace.  It occurred on May 4, 1851, the anniversary of the second great fire.  Aided by a high wind the fire spread rapidly, and in a few hours, the entire business section was one mass of flames.  Even the sidewalks contributed to the holocaust.  Consisting of heavy planking, the hollow spaces beneath them acted as blowpipes and spread the fire from street to street.  In less than ten hours more than eighteen blocks lay smoldering, at a loss of over $12,000,000.

Incendiarism was rife during this early period of the City's history and this fire too was laid to the arsonists activities.  For years afterwards, the anniversary of the "Great Fire" of May 1851 was viewed with apprehension and fear.  As the day neared, extraordinary precautions were taken by the Fire Department to prevent a reoccurrence.  The apparatus was placed in the street in readiness, and several men remained on watch all night in each of the engine houses.

Yet a scant six weeks later on June 22, 1851 the City was again racked by fire which was also believed to be of incendiary origin.  It originated on Pacific near Powell Street and spread rapidly in a south east direction.  This fire razed the area between Powell and Sansome Streets, from Clay to Broadway.  The loss was over three million dollars, and the section of the City destroyed was one that had been spared in the earlier fires.

After these last fires a great improvement was made in the strength and fire resistance of the new buildings.  Solid brick walls, two and three feet thick, double shutters and doors of iron characterized the new buildings.  But this superior construction was confined to the central business section, where many business concerns had suffered losses in each of the great fires.

On the fringes and in the residential sections, the buildings still continued to be of wood frame construction.  Although several more cisterns were installed, shortage of water continued to plague the fire department.  (Hydrants were not installed until 1858.)

The first equipment that the Fire Department had to combat the numerous fires in the growing city was poor indeed by today's standards.  The engines, until steamers came into use, were pulled to the fire by the men and had to be pumped by hand to develop the pressure necessary for fire streams.  This was called "manning the brakes," and the effort to keep one of these engines pumping was tremendous. Even the strongest of men were soon exhausted by the strenuous labor; their best energies being already expended in dragging the machine to the fire.

The early hook and ladder was an awkward and cumbersome affair that was drawn by ropes through the streets as fast as the "vamps" could run.  After using their ladders to rescue any trapped persons from upper floors, the crew would assist in the firefighting.  If no water was nearby and the fire was spreading to other buildings, the men would set their hooks on the roofs of the exposed frame buildings and with all hands tugging on the ropes, the walls would be ripped out dropping the roof and floors to the ground.  Powder was also carried to be used on the more sturdy buildings, but the firemen realized that their greatest need was adequate water and the means to convey it to the fires.

In 1850 the fire hose was made of buffalo hide and was riveted along the seams.  It weighed about sixty pounds to each fifty foot length, excluding couplings, and cost $1.25 per foot.

In 1868 the Department began using what was termed "gum" hose, being mostly rubber.  This type of hose lasted only to 1871, when cotton rubber-lined hose came into use.  In 1900 the size was increased to 2 ¾ inches, and this hose had the basic construction of the type still in use today. (1974).  The need for this improved hose was made necessary by the advent of the steam fire engine, which provided too much pressure for the gum and leather hose.

The introduction of the "steamers" with their great weight soon led to the necessity of providing horses for motive power.  Although horses were used to pull apparatus in parades as early as July 4, 1851, it was not until 1863 that firehorses were used for emergency response in San Francisco.  On this date, Pennsylvania Engine Company No. 12 received a new steam fire engine that was designed to be drawn by horses.

The first response of the horse drawn company was to a still alarm on August 19, 1863.  The smoking steamer dashing thru the streets, being pulled by three black horses, was a great sensation.  In the reorganization of 1866, Pennsylvania Company became Engine Company No. 6. Fifty-five years later on August 19, 1921, Engine Company No. 6 responded to the last fire in which horses were used in the San Francisco Fire Department.  Again the engine was drawn by three horses, all black.  An hour and fifteen minutes after this fire, the company was motorized.

During the formation of the Volunteer Department, the companies paid for their own apparatus and even provided their own houses, but as soon as enabling ordinances could be passed, the City assumed all expenses that were incurred.

The city ordinance of July 1850 authorizing the reorganization of the volunteer department also provided for the method of selecting succeeding Chief Engineers.  This was accomplished by conducting an election among the membership of the Department, who also voted for two Assistant Chief Engineers.

Chief Kohler held office until September 20th of 1850, when he resigned.  As a result of an election held among the members of the volunteer department, Chief Kohler was returned to office by popular vote and served until August 25, 1851.  His resignation at that time disclosed that he had been appointed Adjutant General of the State.

Chief Kohler was succeeded in office by the following Volunteer Chiefs: Franklin E.R. Whitney, George H. Hossefross, Charles P. Duane, James E. Nuttman, Franklin E.R. Whitney (second term), and David Scannell.

The men comprising the first volunteers of the Fire Department consisted of some of the most influential men of the community.  None were so high in office or so proud of position that he was not honored by a membership in the early fire brigade.

Their loyalty to their individual companies was exceeded only by their fierce competitive spirit.  The sound of the alarm bell always meant a race challenge to beat the other engines to the fire and put “first water" on the blaze.  This keen competition led to many physical combats, and some of the fights reached riot proportions.  But whenever a really big fire was on, all individual bickering was lost in a unanimous resolve that all do their utmost to preserve the safety of life and property.

As the City was in constant danger from fire and therefore so dependent upon the efficiency of the Fire Department, it was natural that the volunteer firemen should be regarded with particular favor and affection by the populace.  One of the early citizens who held the Department in such high regard was Lillie Hitchcock, a woman of personage in her own right.

Lillie Hitchcock was the daughter of a doctor and a valued member of society.  From the first day she helped pull Knickerbocker Engine Company 5 to a fire she caught the spirit of the volunteers.  She gloried in the excitement of a big blaze, and there never was a gala parade in which Lillie was not seen atop Knickerbocker #5, embowered with flags and flowers.  She became literally the patroness of all firemen of her city.

When Mrs. Hitchcock Coit died on July 22, 1929 at age 86, she left one third of her fortune to the City "to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the City which I have always loved".  Two memorials were erected as a result of her generosity.  One, Coit Memorial Tower, is surely a significant symbol to the memory of one of such colorful individuality.  The second, unveiled in Washington Square on December 3, 1933, is a memorial tribute to the San Francisco Firemen.  It is a sculptured block representing a life sized group of three firemen, one of them carrying a child in his arms.

The valuable service performed by the early volunteers was recognized by an act passed by the State Legislature on March 25, 1853, exempting members of the fire departments throughout the State from military service and from jury duty.  Later members of the Department who availed themselves of this privilege formed an "Exempt Fire Company."  This was largely a social organization, although long after the Paid Fire Department came into existence the members voluntarily rendered yeoman aid to the new Department whenever needed.  At its height, the Exempt Company consisted of 1,226 members.  There could be no recruitment under the law, and when each member passed on, his vacated place was left unfilled, until in time, all were gone.

San Francisco had its first fire bell in 1851.  It was purchased at the request of the Chief Engineer, and soon after, each firehouse had a bell atop its roof to sound the alarm.

Whenever a fire was discovered the bell on the nearest firehouse would begin to clang and the alarm was taken up and sounded by the other houses.  It became very confusing to determine the actual fire location, so in 1852 the City was divided into fire districts, numbered one to eight and the bells then signaled the number of the district concerned.

This system, supplemented by whistles, continued until 1865 when the first electrically operated fire alarm system was inaugurated.  The system was authorized on October 1864 and in January of 1865 the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution to spend $24,000 for the installation.  The new fire alarm system was completed on April 13, 1865 when official tests were made.  The first alarm over the new system was from Box 47, Powell and Market Streets on April 26th.  It was a false alarm.

The year 1866 saw the passing of the old volunteer department which had grown in size to comprise fourteen engine companies, three hook and ladder companies, and five independent hose companies.  Four of the engine companies had steam fire engines, and one of these, Pennsylvania No. 12 had its engine drawn by horses; all of the others were worked by hand.  The active volunteers at this time numbered 775 members.

During the last year of the volunteers the Department had responded to 220 alarms.  Two hundred of these alarms were actual fires, thirty-three of which were of incendiary origin.  There were 448 hydrants, 42 cisterns in good order, and eight cisterns in poor condition.  The Department had 10,800 feet of hose.

On the morning of December 2, 1866 the daily papers appeared with a notification signed by David Scannell, the Chief Engineer of the retiring volunteers, stating that the Paid Fire Department would go into operation on Sunday night December 2, at 12 O'clock, and informing the members of the Volunteer Fire Department that after that time their services would no longer be required.

The days of the volunteers were over, they had done valiant work.  It had been a Department upon whose existence and growth the City had relied for many years.  The intelligence of the men who started far back in the pioneer days, to build a Department had much to do with the success of the Department today.  It had great leaders and vigorous and courageous members, all dedicated to their common purpose, to keep their city and its people safe from harm.

Continue to PART II - The Paid Department

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