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Fighting Fires in Early-1900s L.A.

Firefighters playing checkers
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Throughout the second half of the 19th century Los Angeles scrambled to provide services that kept pace with its booming population, one that roughly doubled every decade. A public school system, hospital, bank, and library were established; a telegraph service provided communication with the rest of the nation, and the Los Angeles City Gas Company provided light to some street intersections. It was not until 1869 that citizens of Los Angeles organized its first volunteer fire company to protect themselves from fires and other disasters. Located near the historic Los Angeles Plaza, central to most residents of that time, the company was formalized as Engine Company No. 1 in 1871 with the election of foreman George M. Fall.[1] Other volunteer fire fighting companies soon followed, including the East Los Angeles Hose Company No. 7, located on Truman Street near Downey Avenue, demonstrating the need for services in the farther corners of the city.[2] In 1886, in response to the continuing growth of the city, the Los Angeles Fire Department became an official agency of the city.[3]

LAFD
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_01.

At the turn of the 20th century the Los Angeles Fire Department was keeping pace with the rapidly growing city. The 1901 Los Angeles City Directory records a fire alarm telegraph system of 150 miles of wire with 210 automatic fire alarm boxes and 660 fire hydrants in use.[4] By 1913, Los Angeles boasted 300 miles of wire with 418 fire alarm boxes and 2,969 functioning fire hydrants.[5] That year would also mark the installation of Engine Company No. 28 at 7th and Figueroa Streets, led by its chief, R.E. Dunn.  

PC 19.10
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_10.

Chief Dunn amassed a collection of photographs – now part of the California Historical Society's collections – documenting the early days of Engine Company No. 28 and a few other local companies. In one the men of Company No. 28 proudly stand in front of their fire station – one of the first in the city to be constructed of reinforced concrete and designated a Class A fire-proof building – with their portable fire extinguishers.[6] A shining steam pumper fire engine stands before dark smoke, employed to fight what is thought to be the Fraser Pier Fire of 1912, while another photograph shows the fire fighters of Engine Company No. 27, whose station was located at 1625 Cahuenga Ave., battling flames taking hold of a hotel and sporting goods shop, probably located on Spring Street.

Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_02.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_02.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_04.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_04.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_03.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_03.

A short series of photographs within the collection provides a behind the scenes look into the lives of the fire fighters inside the fire station. Taken by photographer Patterson Durston, the photographs look to be staged, depicting the men of Engine Company No. 28 in “leisure moments” – playing checkers and reading in the fire station’s recreation room – until a fire alarm rouses the men out of bed and to their fire truck, ready to speed them into the night and off to “scale the dizzy heights of a burning sky-scraper.”

Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_09.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_09.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_08.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_08.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_06.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_06.

The photographs not only capture the life-saving activities of the firefighters but also their civic engagement of the citizens of whose lives they protect. In one we see a firefighter seated with the fire station dog (not the customary Dalmatian, but instead what appears to be a sturdy bull dog) atop his fire engine, casually chatting with a man on the street. In another, the noble men of Engine Company No. 28 stand next to a car prepped for Southern California’s New Year’s Day tradition, the Rose Parade, with crossed fire axes depicted in white flowers.

Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_07.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_07.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_05.
Los Angeles Fire Department photographs, 1912-1915, courtesy California Historical Society, PC19_05.

The photographs in this collection document the pride the fire fighters took in their duty to keep the citizens of Los Angeles safe. The Engine Company No. 28 fire station closed in the 1960s, but because of its distinction as one of the city’s first Class A fire-proof buildings it was registered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Since 1989 the building has housed a restaurant named in honor of the engine company and featuring on its menu that most traditional of firehouse fare: chili.

Notes

[1] Kenneth Burton, The Volunteers, 1871 to 1855, The Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archives. Retrieved 2017-01-19.

[2] Los Angeles City Directory, 1886.

[3] Over a Century of Service, Los Angeles Fire Department. Retrieved 2017-01-19.

[4] Los Angeles City Directory, 1901.

[5] Los Angeles City Directory, 1913.

[6] Fire Station No. 28, 644 South Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, CA, Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress. Retrieved 2017-01-19.  

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