The Journal of San Diego History
October 1961, Volume 7, Number 4

By Clarence Woodson

Images: page 53

My grandfather, Dr. M. C. Woodson, served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army, and a few years after the Civil War he brought my father and the rest of the family out to California from Paducah, Ky. He homesteaded land in the Ramona Valley in 1873; they called it the Santa Maria Valley in those days, and his place was at the foot of the mountain which bears his name.

After finishing school I ranched for five years, and then came in to “the big city” to get a job. My first one was shovelling coal, at the street-car company’s old power-house at the foot of Broadway. After a year of that I “up-graded” myself by going to work as engineer at the Robinson Hotel, later the Casa Loma, on Fir Street, between Third and Fourth.

In those days there was a nice little ivy-covered fire-house at the southwest corner of Fourth and Laurel, where they had a fourwheeled hose-reel and one of the old steam fire-engines. The engineer was a gruff but kind-hearted old Scotchman named Don Grant. He was a typical Scotch engineer if you ever saw one — blue eyes, steel-rimmed spectacles and a walrus mustache. We got pretty well acquainted, both being, you might say, in the steam business, and he began selling me on the idea of quitting my hotel job and joining the Fire Department.

There wasn’t any Civil Service then. If they needed a man to drive one of the pieces of apparatus, and everything was horses in those days, the Chief just went out and hired a teamster, if he didn’t have a qualified hoseman to promote into the job. If he needed an engineer or a stoker for one of the old “tea-kettles”, he got him the same way. Finally there was a vacancy as stoker. In 1909 I quit my job at the hotel, where the hours had really been long enough, and joined the Fire Department where they were a lot longer; it was 24 hours a day, with an hour off for each meal, and one day off a month.

Those old steam fire-engines were beautiful things. Wheels were red, striped in gold-leaf, and the boiler was shining black, with a fancy, nickle-plated smokestack. Most of the rest of the fittings cylinders, fly-wheels, kerosene lanterns and the rest – were nickle-plated, too. So was the big, pear-shaped air-chamber that was mounted just behind the driver’s seat.

The steam-engine, of course, ran the pump, just as the pumps today are run by the gasoline motor which takes the rig to the fire. Of course, it takes time to get up steam from a cold boiler, and in firefighting you don’t have much time. So the water was kept just below the boiling-point by a gas flame from a pipe which ran into the firebox.

When an alarm came in, you’d pull a string which shut off the gas, and yank the pipe out of the fire-box. The fire, of course, was already laid on the grate-bars. First, there was a layer of excelsior. Then there was a layer of pine kindling, and on top of that was the coal. We used the best grade of hard coal. It came in lumps about the size of your fist, and was picked out especially for Fire Department use.

The fire was lighted, just as you went out through the door, by pulling a heavy cord which broke a vial of sulphuric acid, down under the grate-bars. The acid went into a little iron cup full of a chemical which ignited the instant the acid hit it, and that set off the excelsior. The boiler had a great many, small tubes, and by the time you got to the fire you had your pressure of 140 pounds. The engine then could throw 600 gallons of water a minute, just about half of what these big pumpers do today. Of course, there were always red-hot cinders failing out through the grate-bars, and it was quite a sight to see one of those old engines pounding along the street at night, belching coal-smoke and leaving a glowing trail of sparks behind it.

The first stroke of the alarm automatically released the chain in front of each horse’s stall, and he would trot out and take his place under the harness, which hung from a light, iron frame suspended from the ceiling. The horse’s collars were split at the bottom and hinged at the top, so that all you had to do was to snap the collar around his neck, and fasten one or two of the straps, with snap-hooks. The other end of each rope which supported the frame-work for the harness was counterweighted, running up over a pulley, and when the harness was in place the frame was yanked up, out of the way. Even if we were asleep when the alarm came in, we could get out of the station in 20 seconds.

At the height of their glory, we had five steam fire-engines. They were at Second and E, Tenth and B, Fourth and Laurel, Eighth and J and Ninth and University. The engines at Second and E and Tenth and B were each pulled by a three-horse team; the others had two-horse teams. In each of these stations, of course, there was a hose-wagon in addition to the “steamer”. The company’s officer rode the hose-wagon, with the driver and the hoseman, and on the steamer were the driver, the engineer, and the stoker when you had one. At the fire, the drivers would unhitch their teams, tie them to a telephone-pole a block or so away, and put blankets over them. Then the drivers ran back to where the rest were, and became additional hosemen. If it was a big fire, they would send one of the hose-wagons back to the nearest station for several sacks of coal, to supply the engines while they were pumping.

The chief rode to the fire in a buggy pulled by a white horse named josh, and cleared the way for himself by pushing with his foot on a big, rotary gong. The engines and hose wagons and hook-and-ladder all used bells, and the steamers used their whistles, too; there weren’t any sirens or any red lights, just a kerosene lantern on each side of each rig. Most of the streets were unpaved, then, which made it a lot easier for the horses. On pavement, they were likely to slip and fall on the turns. Before I went onto the department, they upset the “steamer” at Fourth and C that way, and later I got tipped over at Second and Market.

When I joined the department in 1909, there were only six stations. Now there are five times that many, and they need even more. After eight years as stoker and engineer I was promoted to lieutenant, and four years later to captain. The last of the horses were sold off by around 1915 and they “retired” old josh, the chief’s white horse, to the City Farm. I retired after 33 years.