Wo/Men at Work: Firefighters Battling a Blaze, Los Angeles, March 1917

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Los Angeles Fire Department can trace its origins back to volunteer fire companies on the last day of September 1871, when common (city) council member, George M. Fall, organized Engine Company #1.  Sadly, Fall was accused of using the hose from the company to try and flush out Chinese men barricaded in the Coronel Block near the Plaza during the heinous Chinese Massacre that took place just a few weeks later.

In April 1874, Engine Company #1 reorganized into the Thirty-Eights #1, a member of which was Elijah Hook Workman, nephew of William Workman, whose middle name was prescient when the company received a hook-and-ladder vehicle!  The second volunteer company, the Confidence Engine Company, formed in May 1875, with the additional force needed because of the growing city’s leap in population and developed area during the region’s first boom.

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Elijah Hook Workman (1835-1906), William Workman’s nephew, was a saddler by profession, but became a volunteer firefighter with Los Angeles’ first fire company in the 1870s.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, there were three more volunteer fire companies in the area close to today’s Pershing Square, in East Los Angeles (now Lincoln Heights) and the last in an area east of today’s Los Angeles Convention Center.  Finally, employees of the Southern Pacific Railroad formed a company north of downtown near the railroad’s depot.  In all, near 400 men volunteered for the several companies.

Professionalism came to the city’s firefighting efforts on 1 February 1886 with the creation of the Los Angeles Fire Department.  It operated out of four stations with some thirty paid firefighters and a couple dozen reserves on call.

Formed just in time for the massive Boom of the 1880s, which ensued that year and continued for a few years, the department grew dramatically.  Eleven companies existed within seven years, with some differentiation, including seven engine, two chemical, one horse and a truck company.

By the end of the century, there were eighteen companies and over 120 paid full-time firefighters supplemented by 80 horses.  As the automobile and truck became dominant in succeeding years, the force of more than 160 horses, the last purchased in 1915, were retired by the early 1920s.

Photo Of Downtown Los Angeles Fire 2011.303.1.1
This snapshot from the museum’s collection shows firefighters from the Los Angeles Fire Department at the scene of a large fire in the Wilson Block and Occidental Hotel, which took place on 13 March 1917.

The Homestead’s collection has a dramatic snapshot of the LAFD in action at a 13 March 1917 blaze that erupted at the Wilson Building and Occidental Hotel, which was a rare example of a building that ran through an entire block between Hill Street and Broadway between 4th and 5th streets.

The image shows quite a few uniformed department members and bystanders near the structure, which is at the left where ladders are leaning against the engulfed structure.  At least four vehicles, including one automotive, another with a horse-team harnessed to it, and two others (one blowing out dark black smoke) are in the image.  Finally, check out all the hoses scattered about on Broadway.

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The first page of coverage of the Wilson Block fire from the Los Angeles Times, 14 March 1917.

The incident was covered extensively in the next day’s Los Angeles Times, which attributed the case to an employee of a company on the Broadway side of the structure who “attempted to clean some hair with gasoline in the basement” when the gas exploded.

The fire spread quickly, aided by an abundance of wood, paper and other combustible material in a densely occupied commercial building.  The Times noted that there were many injuries among employees in such businesses as the Pin Ton Confectionery Shop, to the right of the hotel in the photo, Hoffman’s millinery adjacent to Pin Ton, the Weaver Jackson Company which is where the blaze began, and others.

The paper printed the names of twenty firefighters who were injured by such causes as smoke inhalation, scalding from water heated by the fire, cuts from flying glass, being hit by a writhing hose, and burns.  One firefighter had his feet run over by a truck while leaving the Hill Street station and another was hit on the head by a falling beam and then fell unconscious into two feet of water in the basement and nearly drowned.

As for damage to seven of the building’s occupant businesses, the losses ranged from $3,000 to $60,000, with the largest amount involving the local Woolworth’s five-and-dime store, the hotel taking on $30,000 in damage, and the Weaver Jackson business being hit for $25,000.  The Wilson Block also sustained $30,000 in damage beyond what was in the individual businesses.

The second page of the Times article.

The building’s owner, architect Frank Young, expected, based on comments by the department’s chief, Archibald Eley, that new fire walls and a complete sprinkler system would be needed if the existing structure was to be repaired, to rebuild if the damage was severe enough.  He observed that the worst of the fire’s impacts were on the Broadway side, which is that depicted in the photograph.

It is interesting to note the end of the article, which stated “by 4 o’clock p m films of the fire were being shown at the Superba Theatre by the Times Universal Animated Weekly”, a service of the newspaper.  The theater, also known as Quinn’s Superba, opened three years before, and was located a block south of the scene of the fire on Broadway.

The Homestead has other Los Angeles Fire Department-related material that will appear here in the future, so look for those.

The site of the fire is now a two-story building, which can be viewed in this Google Maps street view link.  For some interesting history of the early volunteer fire companies, check out this LAFire.com link.  The same site has material on the early professional department through this link.

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