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Long Beach Fire Department History - The Early Years

On March 16,1897, a group, of citizens realized that the increasing number of total losses of properties involved by fire called for some action to form a Volunteer Fire Department. So, on this date, 28 charter members signed up as volunteer firemen and elected Brewster C. Kenyon, Captain; John McPherson, (a carpenter), First Lieutenant; William (Billie) Craig, son of William M Craig, proprietor of the Iowa Villa, First Street and Pine Avenue was elected Second Lieutenant. Funds were appropriated by the Board of Trustees for a hand drawn ladder truck, which carried leather buckets, axes, etc. This apparatus was housed in a building in the alley between Ocean Avenue and First Street, Pine and Pacific Avenues. Several types of entertainment were held to raise funds for the purchase of helmets, shirts, belts, etc., for the members.

Brewster Kenyon resigned in the spring of 1898 to accept a commission in the U.S. Army for the Spanish-American War. Several other members also resigned to enter the Armed Services, which caused this group to disband in favor of the war.

From 1900 to 1907 the following Board of Trustees were in office: C.J. Walker, President of the Board (Mayor); George Sanford, T.A. Stephens, C.H. Henderson, and R.S. Oakford. They recognized the need that some sort of a more permanent firefighting organization was mandatory. On May 27, 1902, the Board of Trustees, called a citizens' meeting at City Hall, with Mr. Jacob Kuhrts, an experienced Fire Commissioner from Los Angeles, as the principal speaker. From his expert knowledge of the necessity of organizing a trained group for the purpose of combating fires, the Trustees gave the go ahead signal to organize the first Fire Department since Long Beach had become a City. Mr. Kuhrts was voted an Honorary Member of the new organization. J.F. Corbet was elected Chief with H.D. Wilson as Assistant Chief. Business commitments soon caused the resignation of Mr. Corbet as well as that of H.D. Wilson. Under a reorganization plan J.E. Shrewsbury, was elected Chief and N.C. Lollich as Assistant Chief; Hugh Wilson, Secretary; and F.C. Foote as Treasurer. G.C. Craw was named Foreman of Hose Company No.1, with J. Robertson his assistant. J.H. Morgan was Foreman of Hose Company No.2, with E.J. Fisher his assistant. The hook and ladder had E.O. Dorsett, as Foreman and G. Gaylord as assistant.

All the apparatus was hand drawn at this time and housed in a building at the rear of and connected to City Hall. A large bell had recently been purchased and placed on a tower near the fire station. When a fire occurred, this bell would be tolled to call out the volunteers. Later, an agreement was made with several transfer company men who operated horse drawn wagons, that upon hearing the fire bell, the first one reaching the hose cart or ladder truck, would be permitted to haul them to the fire and receive compensation for this work. This was the forerunner of the horse drawn apparatus.


In addition to the aforementioned officers, here are a few of the names that appeared on the roster of the Volunteers: F. Lightburn, C. Robinson, F. Mendenhall, J. Teel, G. Stevens, H. Phillips, R. Shanklin, G. Hargis, S. Newkirk, A. Newkirk, F. Varney, C. Virgin, J. Buchanan, B. Martin, J. Taylor, J. Richardson, A. Harworth, P. Benson, C. Benson, C. Wilson, G. Wilson, M. Irvine, Mr. Brakeman, and many others whose names have been lost with the passage of time.


A complete set of Rules and Regulations for the Volunteers was formulated and adopted.


Fire apparatus bonds in the amount of $30,000 were sold to provide the building of a central fire station in the vicinity of 3rd. Street and Pacific Avenue. Also to be used to purchase fire alarm boxes, equipment, a steam fire engine, a hose wagon, and ladder truck.


The Central Station was built at 210 West 3rd. Street. Seven horses were purchased and housed in stalls at the rear of each piece of apparatus. The harnesses for the horses were suspended from the ceiling with the collars open. Two men were assigned to be in position at each apparatus so that they could snap the collars shut and hook the leather lines to the horses bridles. The horses were trained to eat with the bridle on and the bit in their mouth. The drivers were responsible for the feeding and care of the two horses. The station was placed in service with Chief J. Shrewsbury and Assistant Chief G. Craw together with a few hired men to be trained as firemen. These regular firemen were placed on continuous duty for five days and nights with the sixth day off. The men were allowed to have three meals a day at home, but were required to respond to all alarms. These regulars were assisted with what became known as "Call Firemen". The call firemen dropped their business activities when an alarm was sounded, and raced to the fire station or to the fire, and each received compensation for each fire answered. The large bell that had been in the tower at the rear of the City Hall was placed high in the hose tower of the new station and was connected to the new alarm system. A large hammer-like taper was operated electrically, striking out the number of any fire alarm box pulled. This was accomplished by the use of a telegraph key to send the electric impulses. The bell could be heard in nearly all parts of the City at the time. The first fire alarm received over the new box system came from Box # 23, which was located at 3rd. Street and Olive Avenue. Two more pieces of apparatus were also purchased during this period to better serve the 16,000 citizens.


Long Beach had the distinction of operating the first piece of motorized fire equipment on the Pacific Coast. A horse drawn ladder truck was placed in service as were two Rambler Motor driven units with 40-gallon chemical tanks and 500 feet of hose for each. Station #2 was opened at 526 East Anaheim Street, and Station #3 at 1929 Appleton Street to increase the fire protection for the 20,000 population of the City.


The population increased to 23,000 this year. The Fire Department, together with the Police Department, were placed under Civil Service Rules.


Station #4 was placed in service at 411 Loma Avenue with one of the Rambler Chemical Trucks. A new Mitchell Chemical Truck had been placed in service at Station #1, releasing the Rambler for service in the new station.


The first motor driven pumper (A Robinson) was purchased, also a Seagrave air-cooled motor tractor to motorize the ladder truck.


Available figures show that the population of the City had grown to 30,000.


The largest pumper built at this time an 1100 G.P.M. Gorham motor driven pumper was purchased for use in the City.


This year saw the department completely motorized. A Seagrave Hose Wagon was purchased to pull the steamer. The purchase of the hose wagon marked the departure of the horses from the department. Only one horse was kept to service fire hydrants, all the others namely Prince, King, Barney, Tom and Jerry, were pensioned off to pasture. The men on the department worked twenty-four hours every day with one day off in every eight.


At the time the census was taken, Long Beach had a population of 32,352 inhabitants, 13.5 square miles and an outer harbor of 18 square miles. The department had four fire stations, a chief, an assistant chief, thirty men, and the alarm system consisted of thirty - six alarm boxes.


On May 2nd, while answering a false alarm, Chief J. Shrewsbury and Mr.C. Shaw, Superintendent of the Water Dept., riding together in the Chief's "Mitchell", collided with Assistant Chief Craw and his driver G. Wright, in the Oldsmobile Chemical, at Broadway and American Avenue, killing Chief J. Shrewsbury instantly and injuring the other occupants. Captain J. Taylor was appointed Acting Chief until the return to duty of Assistant Chief Craw, who received the appointment as Chief and Taylor as Assistant Chief. Chief Shrewsbury had been Chief of the Department since his appointment in 1906 until his death.


The fiscal year ending June 30, 1917, showed 128 alarms were responded to with a total fire loss of $27,192.99. There were thirty six members that manned the four fire stations, and of this number several were about to leave to work in war industries or enlist in the military. The largest single fire loss during this fiscal year occurred in the National Potash Co. on West 7th. Street at Channel #2. The population of the City was now up to 44,865 citizens.


Because the city had grown by leaps and bounds to 53,460 population, Mr. H. Ellis a member of the department, who had previous experience on the Philadelphia Fire Department, was appointed Deputy Marshall of the newly formed Fire Prevention Bureau.


During the latter part of 1918 and the early part of this year, every effort was made to eliminate the obsolete working hours of the continuous duty of firemen. Budget appropriations were finally agreed upon to initiate the two platoon system of 10 and 14 hour shifts, with 24 hours off every two weeks on a change of shift. A slight delay occurred and the system was not placed into operation until August 1, 1919.

Another Assistant Chief, W. Minter, was appointed to head one platoon (or shift) and J. Taylor was the Assistant Chief of the other platoon. Four fire stations were in operation at this time: Central Station at 210 West 3rd. Street; Station #2 at 526 East Anaheim Street; Station #3 at 1929 Appleton; and Station #4 at 411 Loma avenue.


Approximately 25 additional men were added during the year bringing the total number of men to 60 by June 30th. Recommendations were made in the fiscal year report ending June 30, 1920, for the construction of two fire stations; one in the Harbor Area and one in the recently annexed Zaferia Area. Also that ground be purchased for two additional stations in the vicinity of Hill Street and Atlantic Avenue, and Mira Mar Avenue and Broadway. The total alarms answered during the year was 194, with a fire loss of $35,539. This shows an increase in the number of alarms but the fire loss remained low. The population of the City by this time had grown to 55,593, and was expected to go even higher in the near future.


A bond issue in the amount of $75,000 was approved for Fire Department improvements, a portion being assigned for the construction of Station #5 at Anaheim Street and Newport Avenue. This station was placed in service on May 21, 1921. The new city manager form of government was instituted during the year by the adoption of a new charter. Included in this charter was an enabling act from which a pension system for firemen and policemen became a reality a few years later.

The discovery of oil on Signal Hill on June 23, 1921, caused a terrific growth in the oil industry and large increase in the population of the city. The population grew from the 55,000 in 1920 to 75,000 at this point in time. The disregard that the oil operators had for fire safety led to a continuous series of oil fires, which kept the department busy for a number of years to come. One particular fire that lasted for three days involved eleven derricks and included three gassers in the group.

The lack of water, due to the small size of the water mains and infrequent hydrants, made this fire a difficult one to handle. Largely through the efforts of the Fire Prevention Bureau, this type of fire became less frequent with each succeeding year. The number of alarms for this period was 225 with a fire loss of $702,950.


A large part of the heavy fire loss during the previous year was due to the destruction of a large fish cannery in the harbor area where adequate fire protection was lacking. On May 4, 1922, the first City Manager, C. Hewes, placed a new fire station in service in the harbor area and was known as Station #6 at 1st. Street and Ontario Avenue. The fire loss for the fiscal year dropped to $48,180, with the number of alarms increasing only slightly. The cost of land, the construction of the building, and the purchase of equipment and apparatus for the harbor station amounted to $36,923.

Also during the year the voters again approved a Fire Department improvement bond issue in the amount of $150,000, for the purpose of installing a fire alarm system, additional stations and equipment. The personnel of the department had grown to a total of 87 members, to help provide more manpower to operate the six stations that housed 12 pieces of mobile apparatus.


In the annual report of 1922 - 1923 fiscal year, many recommendations for several Fire Department improvements were made, among these were: the construction of a new station at Walnut Avenue and State Street; one in the vicinity of San Francisco Avenue North of Anaheim Street; a drill school and station at 5th. Street and Alamitos Avenue; a station at Broadway and Belmont Avenue; purchase of apparatus and equipment for each station; formulate plans for a salt water system; and construct office space at Headquarters. These and many small items were the plans for a rapidly growing city. An 85-foot aerial ladder truck was purchased and the old one was put in reserve at Station #6 in the harbor. Station #7 was placed in service on June 26,1923, at Hill Street and Linden Avenue. Mr. C. Windham replaced C. Hewes during the year as City Manager.


Assistant Chief H. Ellis was killed in a traffic accident April 6, 1924, while responding to an alarm. His death was the second member of the department to be killed in the line of duty. Station #11 was placed in operation in leased quarters at 5339 Long Beach Blvd. on August 9, 1924, to provide immediate fire protection to the newly annexed area known as Virginia City.

A considerable number of properties were purchased in the early part of this year for future fire station sites; namely 72nd Street and Paramount, $8,500; 54th Place and East Ocean for $22,000; Market and Dairy, $8,500; the amount for this site was for materials only as the property belonged to the Water Department, Crest and Wardlow, $12,600; 3917 Long Beach Blvd, $10,000; and 1445 Peterson Avenue. This being added to the seven lots that were purchased in the summer of 1923 for $29,750, made a total of $91,350, expended for future station sites.

Fireman E. Howard attached to Station #1, received critical injuries on July 4, 1924, while lighting a home made device at the station to celebrate Independence Day. His death occurred on July 8th. Fireman J. Penhard was also injured but not seriously.


A pension system for policemen and firemen was adopted on April 18, 1925, providing for the payment of pensions. This was done by a charter amendment approved by the voters. Station #10 and the Fire Department Shop were placed in operation at 1445 Peterson Avenue on October 19, 1925.


Chief G. Craw was the first member of the department to retire on a service pension. Assistant Chief W. Minter was appointed Acting Chief on March 1, 1926. This was a result of the death of Chief J. Taylor on February 18, 1926. His widow, Cassie Taylor, became the first to receive a widows' pension from the Fire Department. Station #9 was placed in service at 229 Belmont Avenue.

On October 1, 1926, the initiative salary ordinance, voted on by the people for policemen and firemen, became effective. This ordinance established a minimum salary for the various positions named in the ordinance. The budget allowance for this was exceeded by $46,945.

To help show the growth of the City the following information is listed for the ten year period from July 1, 1916 to June 30, 1926:

BUDGET  $43,390 $345,000
ALARMS 128  593
FIRE LOSS $27,192.99 $174,000.08

Nineteen pieces of apparatus including chiefs cars comprised the Fire Protection Equipment at this time.


On May 5, 1928, Acting Chief W. Minter received the permanent appointment as Chief, and Battalion Chief G. Jewell was appointed Assistant Chief.


In the report of June 30,1929, it was recommended that Station #2, located at 526 East Anaheim Street, be moved to a new location in the vicinity of 15th Street and Pacific Avenue, and that the property at 526 East Anaheim be sold. The reasoning for this was that the building trend was developing in a North - Westerly direction and would be a more central location for the station.

On January 9, 1929, Engine Company #11, moved into their new quarters at Market and Dairy Avenue. The cost of the station was kept at a low total due to the fact that all of the labor was done by members of the department and the property was owned by the Water Department.

Station #8 at 5365 East 2nd Street was ready for occupancy on August 1, 1929, but was not opened until later. This building was constructed as a combination fire and police Station. The police to occupied the East half of the building.

In December 1929, the old 10 and 14 hour system was replaced with the new one of 24 hours on duty and 24 hours off, with one working shift off each sixteenth calendar day. At first this new system was unpopular, but at the end of the 30-day trial period, when a vote was taken to retain or reject the system, it was unanimously approved for adoption. City Manager G. Buck, approved the change and granted the hiring of 22 men for that purpose.


The first Fire Prevention Code for the City was adopted. A Fire College Building and Training Tower were erected at 14th Street and Peterson Ave.


On March 3, 1931, a charter amendment became effective amending the Police and Fire Pension System. This provided for the payment into the fund of two percent of each member's salary and a like amount by the City. It also changed the service retirement from 20 years to 25 years of service to be eligible for a service pension. This additional five years was to affect only the new members appointed after the effective date of the amendment.


The annual report of June 30,1933, does not contain data on the earthquake of March 10th, but for the record the following highlights are quoted from the survey report of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, together with incidents from the memories of others. The initial shock and the strongest was recorded at 5:54 P.M. Pacific Standard Time and was estimated to have continued for some 11 seconds. The principal shock was followed by numerous after shocks, some severe, and some mild. It was recorded on instruments, one principal shock, 34 after shocks up to midnight (weak shocks not recorded): 30 shocks on March 11th, and 13 shocks during the ensuing five days.

At Headquarters Station most of the men were upstairs and at the time of the first shock they scrambled to get out of the building as the second floor had been sagging for some time. A representative from the City Engineers Office had made an inspection of the floor joists a few days before the quake. In the scramble to get out, Fireman P. Forker stepped out of a front window onto a small balcony just as the face of the upper floor crashed, carrying him to his death. Other members slid down the brass poles in the station and most of them dived under the heavy apparatus for protection. Lieutenant A. Stephens, who upon reaching the main floor dashed outside in time to be buried by falling bricks and heavy cornice stones. He and Fireman Forker were soon dug out of the debris and sent to the hospital were they both died from injuries. Two or three men in the rear locker room on the second floor made exit out the back windows onto the one story shop roof and were carried down through this roof when the rear wall of the station crashed, causing them to receive serious, but not critical injuries. A hasty check of the debris was made to make sure no other persons were buried.