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The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Spring 1989, Volume 35, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

“Going into fires and eating that smoke; people used to pride themselves on being able to take it.”

Bert Shankland, November 24, 1972

In the 1880s, fire protection in the City of San Diego left something to be desired. Poorly equipped volunteer firemen, sometimes pulling their wagons by hand, were expected to quell all fires. With the economic “boom of the 80s,” when San Diego’s population swelled from less than three thousand in 1880 to over thirty thousand by 1887, adequate protection in the form of trained firefighters, became a critical necessity.

In May 1889, a new city constitution, the “Freeholder’s Charter,” established San Diego’s modern form of municipal government. Included among the charter’s provisions, was the formation of a paid, professional fire department.

This photographic essay illustrates some highlights in the history of the San Diego Fire Department—an agency that has now served San Diego for one hundred years.

horsedrawn steamer races to a fire  
With fireman Al Lambla at the reins, a turn of the century horsedrawn steamer races to a fire.

John Valentine Mumford  
A volunteer fire chief from the early days, John Valentine Mumford, proudly poses with the accoutrements of his office: helmet, ceremonial white sash, and a silver trumpet.

chief Alexander B. Cairnes  
The city’s first professional fireman, chief Alexander B. Cairnes had all the requisite qualifications—including, “the ability to swear for five minutes without using the same word twice.”

fire hose cart  
This fire hose cart was used at the Hotel del Coronado in the 1890s.

Early fire extinguishers  
Early fire extinguishers were primitive, ineffective, and sometimes dangerous. Glass bulb “water grenades” [c.1910] were designed to be thrown at a blaze, breaking the glass and releasing fire dousing “vaporizing liquid.” The bulbs contained carbon tetrachloride, a hazardous chemical outlawed by the state in 1962. Tube fire extinguishers hung on walls, ready to be grabbed in emergencies. When pulled from their wall hooks, the tubes opened and dispensed fire suffocating powder, “guaranteed never to cake harden.”

aerial ladder truck  
Chief Alex Cairnes invented this aerial ladder truck in 1895. The patented device was used for the next fifteen years by the San Diego Fire Department.

aerial ladder truck  
Chief Alex Cairnes invented this aerial ladder truck in 1895. The patented device was used for the next fifteen years by the San Diego Fire Department.

Standard Oil Company fire  
San Diego’s first major industrial fire occurred when the tank farm of the Standard Oil Company at 26th and Schley streets exploded on October 5, 1913. Burning oil spilled into neighboring lumber yards and the fire spread. For three days and nights, firemen from six companies battled the blaze and spectators from all over San Diego came to view the inferno.

Firemen relax in front of their station house  
Firemen relax in front of their station house in 1910. John E.Parrish [top left] became Fire Chief twenty-five years later.

new steamer fire engine is tested  
A new steamer fire engine is tested before the county courthouse in 1906. A department veteran named Clarence Woodson described an early fire engine: “The steamer was kept about at boiling point in the station by a gas burner in the floor beneath it. When an alarm came in, the fire started with excelsior and pine kindling, ignited by a little vial of acid broken as the steamer left the firehouse door. We got up steam, 140 pounds, while we were running to the fire.”

Brunswig Drug Company fire  
The Brunswig Drug Company building burned in 1915. At the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and J Street, Brunswig Drug had been in business since 1902.

engine overturned at Fourth and C sts  
“Most of the streets were unpaved, making it easier for the horses to get a footing. On pavement the animals were likely to fall on turns. They did fall and tip the engine over at Fourth and C sts.” — Clarence Woodson. [1913].

chief in the early days had a white horse  
“The chief in the early days had a white horse named Josh; he was so anxious to run, the chief had to handle him carefully to prevent a runaway.” —Clarence Woodson.

readying the horses at Fire Company No. 1  
Firemen readying the horses at Fire Company No. 1.

The Passing of the Fire Horse  
“The Passing of the Fire Horse.” An era was ending when the introduction of mechanized equipment forced the fire horses out of business. The last horses were used in 1917.

motorized fire truck of 1914  
A motorized fire truck of 1914.

Chief's horse and fire truck  
Horses no longer pulled fire engines in the time of this photograph, however, the Chief’s horse, Josh, was still at work (far left).

Chief Louis Almgren and aviator Ovar Meyerhoffer in the cockpit  
In 1917, Chief Louis Almgren and aviator Ovar Meyerhoffer pose in the cockpit of the 120-horsepower plane that was expected to become an integral part of the San Diego Fire Department. The “flying boat,” equipped to drop chemical fire retardants, never saw action in a real fire.

Wobblies demonstrate for labor reform  
In the winter of 1912, political activists from the Industrial Workers of the World [Wobblies] demonstrated for labor reform in San Diego. Nervous local businessmen and politicians quickly passed a city council ordinance that banned the street corner harangues.

police and firemen hosing down the agitators  
The “Free Speech Fight” ended with police and firemen hosing down the agitators.

Civic Auditorium in Balboa Park  
The “most coincidental” fire in San Diego history occurred on Thanksgiving Eve, the night of the 16th Annual Firemen’s Ball. Dressed in gold-buttoned finery, the firemen and their ladies arrived at the site of the ball, the Civic Auditorium in Balboa Park, just as a faulty heater ignited a fire. Instead of dinner and dancing, the firemen spent their evening fighting flames. [The burned building was originally the Southern California Counties Building, built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.] The old site of the auditorium is now occupied by the Natural History Museum.

fireboat Bill Kettner  
Named after a popular San Diego Congressman, the fireboat Bill Kettner was designed by Chief Almgren in 1914, and built by the firemen themselves. Launched in 1919, the 59-foot, gasoline powered boat was used until 1961.

black firemen in San Diego  
In 1920, black firemen in San Diego worked from a station in Logan Heights. From left to right, firemen J.G. Smith, J.A. Gross, Sandy Baker, and T.E. Williams.

Central Fire Alarm Station  
Opened in 1928, the Central Fire Alarm Station in Balboa Park Contained the “mechanical nerve system which guarded the city, day and night, against the fire demon.” When fires were signalled from pull boxes located throughout the city, batteries of telegraphs in the station automatically recorded the calls on coded paper ribbon. Operators then telegraphed the information to the proper fire companies. The department used the Central Alarm Station and telegraph system until 1971.

female firefighter poses  
In 1930, a female “firefighter” posed aboard a hook and ladder truck. Nearly fifty years would pass before the Fire Department hired its first Woman firefighter.

Whitney Department Store Fire  
The Whitney Department Store Fire of October 21, 1936, was “just the kind of fire where everyone could have a ringside seat.” Three miles of hose in 35 lines were used to fight the blaze that engulfed an entire city block on 5th and 6th avenues between Broadway and E St. It was the biggest fire to date for the San Diego Fire Department.

Whitney Department Store Fire  
The Whitney Department Store Fire of October 21, 1936, was “just the kind of fire where everyone could have a ringside seat.” Three miles of hose in 35 lines were used to fight the blaze that engulfed an entire city block on 5th and 6th avenues between Broadway and E St. It was the biggest fire to date for the San Diego Fire Department.

Brush fires in San Diego's Canyon areas  
Brush fires in San Diego’s Canyon areas are difficult to fight and often highly destructive of property. A twelve acre blaze in Kensington Park damaged twenty-five homes along a canyon rim in 1956.

Normal Heights fire  
The fast moving Normal Heights fire of 1985 destroyed about seventy homes.

Caliente Race Track fire  
When fire erupted in the forty-two year old grandstand of the Caliente Race Track on August 5, 1971, firefighters from San Diego joined Tijuana firemen in battling the blaze. Water had to be trucked in from more than a mile away. The loss of the uninsured grandstand was placed between $10-15 million and cost 3,500 jobs at the racetrack.

women entered the firefighters training academy  
Amid howls of protest from firemen’s wives, these five women entered the firefighters training academy at Kearny Mesa on August 30, 1974—the first women hired by the San Diego Fire Department. Standing left to right are: Madelyn Tillory, Patti Barbee, Kathleen Carey, Michele McDougal, and Carol Tyler.

Six weeks later, all five were fired. The department cited general lack of physical strength as the reason for the dismissals. The women complained of harassment by firemen and department officials. Fire Chief Leonard Bell promised renewed efforts to place qualified women on the force. The first successful female applicant was hired in September 1977.

Electric Building fire in Balboa Park  
On the night of February 22, 1978, an arson fire swept through the old Electric Building in Balboa Park. The fire completely destroyed the Aero-Space Museum and its historic collections of antique planes and memorabilia. Two weeks later a similar fire burned the Old Globe Theatre. Both structures have been rebuilt. On the site of the original Electric Building is the Casa de Balboa, home of the San Diego History Center.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS for this essay are from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.


Richard Crawford is Archivist/Historian for the San Diego History Center.