By Nathan L. Rannells
La Jolla had no fire protection until 1907, and as James A. Wilson had the largest building in town, the new Cabrillo Hotel, he was worried about it.
“Squire” Wilson, as we called him, came over to the livery stable
which we ran, and asked me if I would be captain of a volunteer fire
company, if we could organize one. I agreed, and on March 25 about thirty of us met in his office. We prepared a petition to the Board of Fire Commissioners and to Chief Richard A. Shute, asking that we be recognized as a part of the San Diego Fire Department, and stating that we now were ready to accept the chemical engine and the fire bell which were available for our use. The City Council already had told Chief Shute to let us have any old equipment that was of no use to them.
They gave us a little ladder outfit and an old chemical engine and the big fire-bell which Bryant Howard had presented to one of the old volunteer companies back in 1885. With the various parts we built a little fire engine that we could pull by hand.
We housed the engine in the little Old Red Schoolhouse at Herschel and Wall Streets, just opposite the present Fire Station. We used the old Pavilion, down in the park, for dances and entertainments for the benefit of the Fire Company; we rented it from the railroad company for $5 a month, and used to rent it out to other groups when we weren’t using it, at $1.50 an afternoon or $3 an evening. The city, of course, furnished some of our equipment and supplies; the company’s faded old Minute Book shows that on July 28 we requisitioned 200 feet of 1-inch hose from the Fire Commissioners. There is a letter dated Dec. 3, 1907, which states that the Commissioners had that day ordered for us 100 pounds of bi-carbonate of soda and 2 gallons of sulphuric acid for the chemical tank “. . . as per your request of Nov. 19.” It is signed by Chief Eugene Donnely, who ha succeeded Chief Shute, and who used the unusual title of “Chief and Secretary, Fire Department.”
Fire drills were held at the engine house on Monday evenings. At 7:15 p.m. there was one stroke on the big bell as a warning; and fifteen minutes later there were two strokes which called the members of La Jolla No. 1 to order.
If the bell rang at any other time, every able-bodied man in La Jolla would run to the engine house to help man the drag-ropes of the little engine. Then we would go clattering off to the fire, with our little chemical tank and our 200 feet of hose, just hoping that there would be a hydrant close enough to use.
Of course, there were times when we didn’t have to haul the engine by hand; As soon as we overtook a grocery wagon, or some other such vehicle with horses, we’d hook on behind, and the driver would haul us to the fire. On those occasions I had it easy, riding to the fire as I sat in the little seat up in front, to operate the brake when it was needed. Then they got to hooking on behind automobiles, which wasn’t really safe. Why that little, high-wheeled rig didn’t upset, rolling along at 20 or 25 miles an hour, I’ll never know.
We had lots of volunteer firemen, but I had the distinction not only of being captain, but also being the only police officer (a special policeman) north of Mission Valley. My regular work, of course, was at the livery stable. By 1914 livery stables had had their day, and so had old La Jolla No. 1. They had a regular fire company now, Engine 13 of the San Diego Fire Department. The big fire bell remained at La Jolla for some time2 and the engine was in storage for years at various fire stations — when someone wasn’t borrowing it for a parade. In 1915 I was appointed Postmaster at La Jolla, which officially closed my career as a fireman and policeman. Now the bell and the engine are to ether again, as a part of the permanent display at the Junipero Serra Museum.
1. Wheels and frame of this venerable “rig” are from the famous old Hart Hook & Ladder Company of San Diego’s volunteer department; the company dates back to 1886, and was located at Kearny Avenue and Twenty-fourth (now Dewey) Street. About the time of the 1935 Exposition someone with more zeal than accuracy re-painted La Jolla No. I and changed its name-plate to read “Hart Hook & Ladder — 1886.” The original name and number have since been restored.
2. At one time earmarked for the Firemen’s plot in the cemetery, the bell eventually wound up in a dark corner of the City Shops at Twentieth and B Streets — where a Los Angeles “junkie” almost succeeded in getting it for scrap metal. Fire Chief George E. Courser took care of that situation, and quickly. Getting this magnificent, 1000-pound bell up to the museum without damaging the lawn was an engineering feat of no small proportions, but the city took it in its stride. The bell was cast in San Francisco, at the famous brass-foundry of Senator W. T. Garratt.