San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco

PART THIRD.  The Fire Department.

San Francisco Firemen.WERE the Mediterranean as great an ocean as the Pacific, no more striking resemblance could be added to the many already existing between Constantinople and San Francisco—chief among which is the number of tremendous conflagrations to which both have been liable. Neither, properly considered, have grown as great cities grow. House by house have not slowly replaced one another after years of crumbling and decay, as the atoms of a living being, gradually renewed and multiplied, cause it to increase in size and beauty. Both are embodiments of the fabled phoenix—new creations have successively had their seed in the ashes of the old—armed warriors rose from the graves of peasants. Every change was a death—the fire-cry was the call of the dread angel, at whose sound men’s hearts sank,  and a whole people mourned. The resurrections soon dispelled sorrow; but who could say which would be the final death? Even the phoenix will cease to reproduce. The reader of the history of this great city must by this time have identified it with these occurrences, though all that can be said will fail to impress him with the full sense of the awful horrors that those dread alarums created in its citizens. The three years of prosperous and healthy growth that have made San Francisco a well-formed and comely place,—and not a stunted and scarred piece of patchwork,—have been brought about by other causes than the improved style of architecture. The torch has been repeatedly lighted since June, 1851, and there have been the same high winds to fan the flames to greater fury; but, except in isolated cases, the damage done has been but trifling. More—aye, every thing, is due in this connection to the unrivalled “Fire Department.” Firemen in other cities are immensely useful in restraining conflagrations to which they are all liable; but the fire-brigade of San Francisco enters on a service of terrific danger. The enemy they have to encounter might fright a dozen armies. They are forlorn hopes, that have to storm the very batteries of the fire-fiend. Their hard-fought battles, their many victories, and the able defence and guard they exercise over their precious charge, have gained them, better than laurel or gold, the sincerest thanks and warmest attachment of their fellow-citizens. San Franciscans would laugh were it said that we flattered the fire department. Does a man praise his right arm for performing its wonderful functions? Yet the fire department is the right arm of San Francisco. At the ring of the alarm-bell, it is not alone the errand-boy, the counter clerk, or the rowdy corner loafer that start for a scene of temporary excitement. But the merchant-millionaire springs from his cushioned seat; the judge leaves court and cases; the industrious mechanic drops his tools; editors, lawyers and doctors abandon quills, briefs and pills, and with pallid cheek but nervous sinews hurry their engines to the threatened spot. They are playing for a fearful stake. Men must be daring gamblers to foil the enemy they deal with. Honor to whom honor is due. Give it freely to the fire department, and when to it, to the whole body of enlightened, public-spirited and prominent citizens. These are men prouder of their leathern capes than though they were bedecked with the toddery uniform of a militia general—men who have poured out their means with no stinting hand in the formation of the department. The volunteer system need not be abandoned for a paid fire organization. Nothing could replace the loss of an institution so highly valued. San Franciscans might get along without government—dispense with churches—abolish drinking houses and places of amusement—cease soldiering—give over reading newspapers—or see without regret their gambling saloons vanish in the clouds. Pleasures are easily done without; but home—bread—years of toil—life itself, are not coolly and caImly to be tossed into the flames.

The first steps taken towards establishing a fire department, date from Christmas, 1849, the day after the first great fire. Meetings for that purpose were held by numerous influential citizens, who had been old Atlantic firemen, among whom were Frederick D. Kohler, David C. Broderick, George H. Hossefros, George W. Green, William McKibben, Benjamin Ray, Charles W. Cornell, John A. McGlynn, and others. In January, 1850, the councils first moved, by appointing F. D. Kohler chief engineer, with instructions to proceed to permanently organize a suitable fire department. At that time, three engines were all the machinery that was to be found in the city, and those not properly provided with hose. Three companies, known as the San Francisco, Empire and Protection, were soon formed for each of these and brought into active service in the fires of May and June following. Before the last was well burned out, public notice was given for meetings to be held that very evening, to take measures properly to organize fire companies. It was evident that such conflagrations might be momentarily anticipated—and what could three imperfectly provided companies do to arrest them? As a result of these actions, the fire department was regularly organized by ordinance of councils, passed July 1st.

The government of the department was intrusted to a chief engineer and assistants, and a board of delegates, to consist of two representatives from each company, which officers were to be elected by the members. Appropriations were at the same time ordered for the construction of cisterns and the purchase of apparatus. The first election under this ordinance was held in September, and F. D. Kohler chosen Chief Engineer; Edward A. Ebbets and Thomas K. Battelle, Assistant Engineers. The companies enrolled were the Empire, Protection, Eureka, Howard, Monumental and California engine companies; Saint Francis, Howard and Sansome hook and ladder companies. Under this government things begun to assume a proper form, and so great an interest was excited in behalf of the department, that the counciIs were induced to expend the city funds liberally in procuring apparatus and locating reservoirs. From this date a regular system has prevailed in governing the department, based on that of New York.

The disasters of September, 1850, and May and June, 1851, called for the utmost exertions of the whole department, and seemed to demonstrate to puritanic folks, by their unchecked progress, that the hand of man was of little avail in protecting the doomed city. The true cause of the inefficiency of the department, was in the want of water. The few cisterns were speedily exhausted—the tide was out—and the houses built upon piles in the bay were consumed with the platforms upon which they stood, leaving only great black spaces of slime and mud. The chief attention of the officers henceforth was directed to the remedying of this deficiency.

In August, 1851, Mr. Kohler retired from his position as chief engineer, and first assistant Mr. Ebbets, being absent from the city, Mr. T. K. Battelle, the second, served as chief until the annual election, held November 3d, at which Mr. F. E. R. Whitney was elected chief engineer; Charles L. Case, first assistant; Wm. McKibbin, second assistant; and R. R. Harris, third assistant. On the 17th of the same month, Mr. Whitney was compelled to resign by ill health, and on December 6th, Mr. George H. Hossefros was chosen for the office, the duties of which he performed to the complete satisfaction and great advantage of the department. On the 7th February, 1852, Messrs. Case and Harris also resigned, in consequence of which Mr. McKibbin became first assistant, and Messrs. James A. Huntsman and Gardiner P. Kingsland were elected second and third. All of these officers devoted much time to the proper development of the system, and succeeded in raising it to its present standard.

The calamities of 1851 stimulated the department to greater exertions, and induced the councils to pass numerous ordinances for its benefit. In May, 1852, they created a board of fire wardens, consisting of the three assistants and the secretary of the board of delegates, and superintended by the chief engineer, with such police jurisdiction over the respective fire districts, as to allow them to examine all places in which fires are used, ascertain whether danger is to be apprehended from any of them, and discover and have punished any violation of the various ordinances for the prevention of future conflagrations.

At the annual election of December 6th, 1852, Mr. Hossefros was re-elected chief by a handsome majority, and Messrs. Charles P. Duane, A. R. Simons and E. A. Ebbets chosen assistants. Business calling Mr. Hossefros to the Atlantic States, he resigned his office, and as if an evidence of their regard for him was needed, every fireman and each company vied to do him honor, and present him tokens of respect on the day of his departure, with an enthusiasm seldom ever equalled. Mr. Charles P. Duane was elected chief at the ensuing election of December 5th, 1853; Messrs. Edward A. Ebbets, first assistant, Joseph Capprise, second, and Charles S. Simpson, third assistant, all of whom are yet in office.

No one any longer apprehends any danger from fire to San Francisco. With fifty large public cisterns already constructed, others under way, and numerous others built by private individuals; with thirteen powerful and well supplied engines, and three hook and ladder companies, under the control of an average of nine hundred and fifty certificate members (who are by statute exempt from jury duty while members, and after five year’s service, exempt for life), the most dangerous fire can be subdued.

In 1852, the department organized a charitable fund, which at this time exceeds $26,000, invested at good interest, and which has already afforded much relief to those who had need of its interference. It will be in place here to give a succinct history of each company.

Empire Engine Company, No. 1.—This company was one of those that took part in the organization of the department directly after the first great fire; but does not date its regular existence until June 4th, 1850. The citizens most influential in its origins were Messrs. D. C. Broderick, F. D. Kohler, Wm. McKibbin, Geo. W. Green, C. W. Cornell and John A. McGlynn. D. C. Broderick was elected the first foreman; G. W. Green, assistant; Wm. McKibbin, secretary; and James Grant, treasurer. The Empire has continued in the spirit of its motto, ‘‘onward,” a fine company, to the present date, always having a full roll, and doing active service on every regular occasion. The apparatus is a beautifully decorated New York side-lever engine, and is located on Kearny street between Sacramento and California streets. The members, early in 1851, organized a target company in the New York fashion, which parades one hundred and twenty-five muskets.

Manhattan Engine Company, No. 2, was organized very recently (January, 1854), through the exertions of Messrs. David L. Beck,  D. B. Arrowsmith, and other gentlemen, who felt a lively interest in the department. Their number, which they had obtained, because it was left blank, at the date of their formation, had been previously assigned to two companies, viz.: the Protection, 1852, and the Lady Washington, both having been disbanded, the latter very recently. The Manhattan, though young, has given proof of its strength and usefulness, and now numbers over fifty good members—all permanent citizens. The apparatus is a New York side-lever engine, with hose cart, and is located on Montgomery Street, adjoining the Metropolitan theatre.

Howard Engine Company, No. 3.—This is one of the old companies that has nobly stood the test of time. It was organized June 14th, 1850, by various citizens, who had been old Boston firemen The prime movers in the enterprise were Messrs. Franklin E. R. Whitney, John S. Eagan, Thomas K. Battelle, and G. Lewis Cook. A few days after their organization they were placed in possession of a fine Hunaman engine, which had arrived from Boston in the ship Windsor Fay, having been ordered early in 1849, on private account, by the well-known and
public-spirited citizen,  William D. M. Howard, who without delay placed the engine in the possession of this company. As a compliment to this gentleman, who had been exceedingly liberal in the expenditure of money in the formation of the department, the company resolved to adopt the name of “Howard.” Their efficiency has been repeatedly proven. The engine has no superior in the city, and is very beautifully painted. Its house, a fine brick building with stone front, is in Merchant street, between Montgomery and Sansome streets. The lower floor is appropriated as the engine room; the meeting room is in the upper story, and is very elegantly and tastefully furnished.

California Engine Company, No. 4, was organized October 10th, 1850, principally by citizens residing in Happy Valley, prominent among whom were Messrs. Moses G. Leonard, George N. Shaw, W. Neely Thompson, George J. Oakes, George M. Garwood, Caleb Hyatt, R. S. Lamott, George Endicott, and, others, of whom Mr. Garwood was elected foreman. They were supplied with the old San Francisco engine, the early contemporary of the Empire and Protection, which was, however, destroyed by the fire of May 1851. In June, 1852, the company ordered from Boston a new Hunaman-build engine, of the same class as the Howard, at a cost of $3,750, now in their possession and in active service, with a large company to run it. It occupies a fine two-story building on Market square, opposite the Oriental Hotel; and possesses a belfry and bell, which latter has often replied to the summons given from the Monumental bell, in the days of the Vigilance Committee.

Knickerbocker Engine Company, No. 5, was organized October 17th, 1850, through the exertions of James H. Cutter, Charles E. Buckingham, John Wilson, R. R. Harris, and others, and on October 25th, procured, at a cost of $3,000, a smell size, piano-box engine, Van Ness make. The first officers elected were James H. Cutter, foreman; John Wilson, assistant foreman; and Charles E. Buckingham, secretary. The company have improved daily, and are on hand at the first tap of the bell, and have no superior in ability to work at fires. The house originally occupied by the Knickerbocker, in Merchant street, was destroyed by fire on the night of November 9th, 1852. The present engine building is a two-story cut-stone edifice, in Sacramento street, between Sansome and Leidesdorff streets, begun in March, 1853, and completed in July, at a cost of $8000. It was furnished for the occupancy of the company by October 15th, at a further expense of $2,000. The very handsome mahogany piano-box engine, now in use, is of the first class, Smith’s make, and was procured December 8th, 1852, at a cost of $3,250.

Monumental Engine Companies, Nos. 6 and 7.—These companies were organized in June, 1850, consisting of three engines, on the plan of the Baltimore fire department, as an independent association. They procured the three pieces known in Baltimore as the Mechanical, Union and Franklin, which had been shipped to this city. The principal parties in this association were Messrs. George H. Hossefros, Wm. Divier, John S. Weathred, Joseph Capprise, Robert B. Hampton, W. H. Silverthorn, J. H. Ruddach, and other old Baltimorean firemen. As the city councils could not recognize independent companies, they refused to appropriate any moneys to their use. The companies hesitated to comply with their ordinance until 13th of September, when they joined the general organization as three companies and received the numbers 6, 7, and 8; thus by their delay being numbered higher than companies which had been formed later. They have always done good duty, and have as high as three hundred enrolled members. The first officers of the association under its old rules were, William Divier, president; R. H. Bennett and W. L. Bromley, vice-presidents; George H. Hossefros, chief engineer; W. H. Silverthorn and — Austin, assistant engineers; W. Lippincott, secretary; and R. B. Hampton, treasurer. In January, 1853, they resigned the number of 8, and ran two companies, 6 and 7; and at this date, April 1, 1854, they have resolved themselves into one number, 6, for the purpose of properly working a new piece of apparatus, of the largest class, built by Messrs. Rogers, of Baltimore. and shipped in February. This will be the largest engine on the Pacific, and will require a large force to work it. Mr. George H. Hossefros, late chief engineer for two years, has been elected foreman of the consolidated Monumental Company, No. 6. Their house is located in Brenham Place, facing Portsmouth Square, and is surmounted with a bell—not merely a bell, but “the bell“ of San Francisco, for who is conversant with the history of this city in 1851, that does not remember the awful tones of this bell, as it gave the signal for the assembling of the Vigilance Committee, and tolled the death-knells of four of the most accomplished villains that ever disgraced California? It was the first bell for public public purposes ever raised in the city; weighs only one hundred and eighty pounds, and cost one dollar per pound. For clearness of sound it cannot be excelled, and even now competes with the city bell.

Pacific Engine Company, No. 8, was organized September 9th, 1853, to take the number left blank from the Monumental No. 8. Benjamin Oakley, jr., Frank Gray, D. O. Brown, and other citizens in the vicinity of Pacific wharf and Broadway, were instrumental in forming it. It is located in Front street, between Jackson and Pacific streets. The company, though laboring under many disadvantages from location and want of apparatus, have done fair service, and are now making efforts to procure a proper house and engine—so much needed in that portion of the city.

Vigilant Engine Company, No. 9, was organized April 8, 1852, by Messrs. Martin R. Roberts, W. H. Bovee, J. D. Bluxome, C. S. Biden, D. L. Beck, and others. The apparatus is a New York side-lever engine, housed in a brick building on Stockton street, between Broadway and Pacific streets. At this date the company are making arrangements for the erection of a fine stone building, and have ordered a first-class engine from New York, which is expected to arrive in July.

Crescent Engine Company, No. 10, was organized November 4th, 1852, by Messrs. James P. Casey, Charles Bachman, L. M. Byrne, J. Hawes Davis, and others, and is located in Ohio street, between Pacific street and Broadway. They possess a New York engine, and for celerity and efficiency at fires cannot be excelled. In the ranks are very many old Atlantic firemen. The city is now providing for the construction of a fine building for No. 10.

Columbian Engine Company, No. 11, was organized November 4th, 1852, by Messrs. T. W. Brennan, J. Kimbal, J. D. Brower, J. H. Shepeard, Daniel N. Tucker, and others, and has proved a good company in every respect, having now a full roll of sixty-five members. The house is located in Bush street, above Kearny, and the engine is Van Ness make, piano-box style, handsomely polished and finished, with patent running gear. They work two streams of water, and at late fires have done great service.

Pennsylvania Engine Company, No. 12.—This active company was organized November 4th, 1852, by Messrs. Robert B. Quayle, P. E. Garvin, John V. McElwee, John Hanna, George R. Gluyas, H. S. Brown, E. T. Batturs, and others. The house is located in Jackson street, between Kearny and Dupont streets. The engine, known as the old Franklin, of Philadelphia, is at present in their possession. They have had built in the latter city, by Agnew, a magnificent first-class Philadelphia engine, which is expected to arrive in August, and will be a competitor of the new engine, building for the Monumental, in Baltimore. This company has been on a steady increase since its organization, and is one of the best governed in the department. Their uniforms are of the Philadelphia style, from which city many of its members have brought the spirit of enthusiasm which has so long characterized its own fire department. As an instance of the liberality of the San Franciscans towards the perfection of their department, we may add an anecdote told in Philadelphia, in connection with this very engine. The company had sent in advance $5,000 to pay for the construction of a magnificent engine, and not deeming that sum sufficient; shortly afterwards forwarded another instalment. The economic Philadelphia artisan, already at a loss how to expend upon his work the first apparently enormous sum, now applied for information as regarded the use to be made of the second amount, alleging his inability to do otherwise than pocket it. “Convert it into silver or gold and stick it on any where,” replied the members. And this same generous spirit is actuating all the companies in their desire to obtain unrivalled apparatus. An immense sum of money has been expended in New York on an engine recently constructed by order from San Francisco.

Young America Engine Company, No. 13, was the last organized, on the 1st of January, 1854, by citizens living at the Mission Dolores, for the protection of property in that neighborhood, which is between two and three miles from Portsmouth Square. Being so young, we can say no more concerning this company than to express a hope that their future will be characterized by the energy implied in the name they have chosen.

St. Francis Hook and Ladder Company, No. 1, was organized on the 14th of June, 1850, chiefly by Messrs. E. V. Joice,  Samuel H. Ward, J. C. Palmer, C. P. Duane, W. A. Woodruff, George W. Gibbs, B. G. Davis, and others. This is one of the original companies of the permanent organization, and has always maintained its position in the department. In the years 1850, ‘51 and ‘52, the principal work at conflagrations fell on the hook and ladder companies, owing to the impossibility of obtaining water for the engines. This company is located in Dupont street, between Clay and Sacramento streets, and has a fine brick building under contract for its future occupancy.

Lafayette Hook and Ladder Company, No. 2, was organized in September 19th, 1853, by Messrs. H. A. Cobb, E. Grisar, and a number of the French citizens of San Francisco. Their number formerly belonged to the Howard Hook and Ladder Company, which was organized in 1850, but disbanded in 1852. The LaFayette is established on the principle of the Parisian fire companies, and is the first on this plan in the United States. In the ranks are many old French firemen. They drill regularly and have become very perfect in their routine of duty. They are good firemen, and under the government of their present foreman, Mr. Cobb, have rendered good service at recent fires.

Sansome Hook and Ladder Company, No. 3, was organized June 14th, 1850, by Messrs. A. DeWitt, Florence Mahoney, C. L. Case, E. A. Ebbets, J. L. Van Bokkelen, George A. Hudson, William Adrain, H. A. Harrison, W. H. Hoffman, Wm. Green, F. A. Bartlett, R. L. Van Burnt, and others, residing in Sansome street and its vicinity,—adopting the name of that street as their own,—for the protection of the property on which they had chiefly organized. The truck used by this company is the largest in the State, and carries fifty-feet ladders. The company is one of the best organized in the city, and has intrusted to its charge the powder magazine, intended for blowing up buildings at fires in time of need, to use which none others are authorized. The motto borne on the truck, in celebration of the admission of California into the Union, “Though last not least,” has been well sustained. William Greene was first foreman, and was succeeded in the fall of 1850 by E. A. Ebbets, and on the appointment of the latter as assistant engineer of the department in the spring of 1851, J. L. Van Bokkelen was elected foreman, and has acted as such to this date. The company’s house is located on Montgomery street, between Jackson and Pacific streets, and is constructed with carved stone front, brick walls, two stories high, with deep basement. The entire building cost $24,000; the lot is valued at $15,000; and the furniture, as magnificent as is to be found in any private dwelling, cost over $5,000,—making in all an expense of $44,000. A large library belongs belongs to the company, which from the constant additions it is receiving, will doubtless be as extensive as any in the city.

The Sansome Hall, and the other handsome structures, which are already completed or in course of erection for the various companies, show how even a fireman’s duties may be combined with pleasure and comfort. The fire department is always one of the chief features in public processions, and yearly celebrates its own anniversary by a general turn-out on the 22d of February. The universal prosperity and harmony between the various associations, are evidences enough of the excellence of the present government and laws of the department.

Source: Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. 1855: San Francisco.

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