Horses in Fire Service

Just like the Dalmatians, the fire horses also faded with the use of motorized fire apparatus.

In 1923, on a Monday morning in Chicago on February 6th, Fire alarm box 846 at State and Chicago Avenue was pulled at 12:40 p.m. With the horses scrubbed and groomed, the old steamer rolled out of the swinging doors at Fire Engine 11 for the last time. Buck, Beauty, Dan and Teddy galloped out of the fire station at 10 E. Hubbard St. with their coach and the firefighters riding on the engine. Their Dalmatian escort led them to a False Alarm. It was their last response.

The alarm was pulled at a box at Chicago Avenue and State Street as part of a planned event to mark the retirement of the horse drawn engines and firefighting equipment in the City of Chicago. It was the first department in the United States with more than 500,000 residences to serve, to become completely motorized.

While they were gone the new motor apparatus was backed into place, and the motorization of the Chicago Fire Department was an accomplished fact. The drivers took a cheer from the crowd on the return to the firehouse. Then the horses were taken to the House of Correction to be sold.

For generations, thundering hooves carried firefighters and their equipment to every blaze. It seemed the fire horse would remain a vital part of the fire department forever.

The era of the fire horse lasted roughly fifty years stretching from the end of the Civil War until the end of 1915. More time and expense was incurred buying one fire horse than ten firefighters.

Fire horses came in three classifications:

  • The lightweight: 1,100 pound horses that were used on the hose wagons,
  • The middleweight: 1,400 pound horses that were used on the steamers, and
  • The large, 1,700 pound horses were used to pull the hook and ladders as well as other heavy equipment

Fire horses required much stamina, strength, and natural ability. One expert of the time said it was usually a one-in-a-hundred selection. Their training took between one and two years. The City of Detroit actually had a horse college where many of Toledo’s horses were trained.

Fire horse Fred pulled the New Bern fire hose wagon from 1908 to 1925. Endemic with so many heroic pets and animals, Fred was beloved by the firefighters and the townspeople. He died in the harness pulling the crew to a false alarm.

In gratitude, the men of Atlantic Company had Fred's head stuffed, and put in the Fireman's Museum when it was built in 1957. Fred's head is still on exhibit, stuffed and mounted in its own handsome display case. There is nothing much else there some vintage fire trucks, wagons, and old Pepsi bottles.


Painting of Jim the Fire Horse Found!

After 25 years of searching, Mike Tressler, writer for the Toledo Blade, and Toledo Fire Department historian, Bill O'Connor, have located the famous painting of Jim the Fire Horse. "We received an e-mail recently from Mrs. Molly Cowan, Sylvania, OH, who inherited the portrait from her mother." The painting has been in her family for many years, originally having belonged to her grandfather, Harry J. Smith. Jim's portrait has lovingly hung in Mrs. Cowan's home and someday may eventually find itself at home in the museum in the special stall reserved for him.

Jim, the most handsome, strongest, best trained, and most responsive, dependable horse on the department, was Toledo's most distinguished specimen of equine intelligence and fidelity; and, he was the unending pride of Engine House #3. Such an ideal fire horse he was, that he was in the process of having his portrait painted by the artist, H.C.N Crandall, for exposition on the wall at the Museum of Art.

It was the exemplary 'Jim' who always responded first to 'alarms' and ran with unerring accuracy, in his lead position of the three horse hitched on the large steamer at headquarters. It was after such an alert response to the ninth alarm of the day, that his driver, Charles Harrison, clasping the heavy harness about Jim's massive neck, observed the horse was standing unflinchingly at his post of duty upon three legs, and that his left hind leg hung helplessly from his body. Hurried examination proved the valuable animal's leg was broken and he was taken from his central place in the engine trio forever.

Toledo's finest veterinary surgeons were called, but it was declared that the horse could not be saved and he was killed by a new modern method of injecting positive poison in the jugular vein.

When and how Jim's leg was broken is a mystery. He had responded to eight calls during the day and was willing to respond to the ninth.

The horse was only seven and a half years old, and had only served the fire department for two years, but in that short time had proved himself to be the finest and most accurately trained. He also had the honor of being the most perfect specimen of equine beauty and symmetry of the city's lot of exceptional horses. He was a very large dapple gray, beautifully marked, and was valued by many to be worth as much as $400.00

Detroit Fire Dept. horses dash into history

The Detroit Fire Department acquired the first motorized fire engine in the world, a Packard. Objections by firefighters and Detroiters over the replacement of their beloved horses continued for years. The horse, it was argued, was much more reliable. Motorized vehicles started with difficulty and broke down frequently.

The firemen joked about the ridiculous purchase, nicknaming it the "Hustle Buggy."

Over the years, some 500 horses served the Detroit Fire Department, with an average working life of four or five years. Pounding hard city pavement at high speeds took a heavy toll on the animals. Always, after dousing a blaze, the firefighters cared first for their hard-working horses.

Inevitably, the reign of the horse ended as engineering improved on automobiles.

On April 10, 1922, more than 50,000 people gathered to witness the historic last run by Detroit Fire Department horses. The last five -- Peter, Jim, Tom, Babe and Rusty -- dashed down Woodward Avenue on a symbolic final emergency as a fake alarm sounded at the National Bank Building. Nostalgic spectators lined Woodward from Grand Circus Park to Cadillac Square, cheering while the fire department's band played Auld Lang Syne. Many in the crowd, according to The Detroit News, cried as the horses passed.These last five hooved firefighters retired to an "Equine Elysium" in Rouge Park.

It was the economy and efficency that dictated the change. In Chicago it began in 1917 under the direction of John F. Cullerton, the fire departments business manager. Horses sold for approximately 265.00 and cost an additional 3,621.00 on an average per year to feed and care for. Motorized vehicles cost about 1,000.00 per year to maintain. The savings in fire losses alone were estimated at about one million annually. This was a direct result of the speed and efficiency in responding.

But, just as in Detroit, progress was relentless throughout the United States. In April of 1921, the Chicago Fire Department still had 350 horse drawn fire apparatus. Committees were sent to other cities to see how the motorized engines and equipment were working. When they returned, they were ecstatic. The manager, Cullerton, rattled off figures to demonstrate how the gas guzzling engines would serve the city better than the horse drawn carts.

Not everyone supported this change. One of the drivers, Willaim Moir from Engine Company 105 wept as his horses were retired from service in 1922. "I never abused you, but I made you get over the ground," he told them as they were led away. "I feel like I've lost my best friends." Moir was twice decorated for saving lives in the line of duty. He joined the department because of his love of horses. He announced that he would quit the day his two "black beauties" were sent out to the pasture.

Still, tales of smart horses abounded. Babe at Engine Company # 106 was said to have stolen tobacco from firemens pockets and oats from the feed box by learning to pick the lock with his teeth. One of the horses actually led a lost driver not only to the fire, but also to the closets hydrant, this with the help of the Dalmatian.

But on that historic day in February 6th., 1923, Chicago's Mayor Bill Thompson joined other dignitaries, the Chicago Fire Department's band, Fire Chiefs, firemen and their families, as well as thousands of spectators to watch the horses respond to their last fire bell. Buck, Beauty, Dan and Teddy answered their false alarm as if it were the real thing. They never returned to the station...

Buck and Beauty were sold to a country pastor. The fates of Teddy and Dan were not documented. However, seven months later, an ex-fire horse named Ted was hit by a speeding auto while pulling a milk wagon. The accident took place at 47th Street and Michigan Avenue. None of the drivers were hurt, just Ted.

Thrown to the ground with his leg and hip broken, Ted lay still as peolpe gathered and a police patrol car sped to the scene. As the police unit approached with its bell clanging, Ted, conditioned to respond to the bell, pulled himself off the ground. He rose to three legs, plunged ahead a few feet and collapsed.

A vetrinarian, with tears in his eyes, ended Ted's misery with a bullet.

That was his last alarm...