Wo/men at Work: Firefighters at Engine Company Number 20, Los Angeles, 9 February 1918

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, only about 4% of fire department runs nationwide are actually related to blazes, while almost two-thirds of calls are for EMS (Emergency Medical Services) and rescues. This is a far cry from not long over a century ago, when the pair of cabinet card photographs that are the highlighted objects from the Museum’s collection for this post, comprising views of crew and vehicles for the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Engine Company Number 20 were taken.

The date was 9 February 1918 and the half-dozen men who staffed the firehouse proudly posed, inside and outside the structure, next to the tractor and the engine they used to make their calls. There was clearly a much higher percentage of calls for fires, especially as there were a great many more buildings, residential and commercial, that were made of wood or otherwise had flammable material in them.

Los Angeles Herald, 12 July 1907.

Notably, while the department’s historical archive happens to have these images in its collection, courtesy of a gift from the widow of Captain (and later Battalion Chief) George R. Walker, the ones in the Homestead’s holdings were once owned by another member of the crew at Engine Company 20, Alfred W. Byer. Byer, a native of Hallettsville, Texas, roughly halfway between Houston and San Antonio, appears to have joined the LAFD around the time the station opened on Sunset Boulevard at Mohawk Street, just northwest of Echo Park, in July 1907.

He was residing there with four colleagues, including Walker, when the 1910 census was taken, with the quintet of firefighters—the others including William A. Bursis, Henry Watson and Henry F. Guest—all being in their twenties. Walker was divorced, Byer was single and the others were married within the last couple of years. All were born outside California, except Walker, whose father, James, a native of Taunton, Massachusetts, was a teenage Gold Rush ’49er, migrated to the Los Angeles in the early fifties, and was long an employee of the first saddler in the Angel City, Samuel C. Foy, continuing in the trade until his death in 1901.

Los Angeles Times, 29 August 1907.

George Walker was an apprentice machinist as a young man before joining the LAFD and he was said to have directed a crew, likely that of Engine Company 20, that worked to douse the massive blaze caused by the domestic terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in October 1910. He remained at the station into the Roaring Twenties and was battalion chief early in the decade. While he retired in 1939, Walker, who was a president of the Native Sons of the Golden West and a Boy Scouts of America official, returned to service three years later because of LAFD staff shortages during World War II. He was on the job at a station in San Pedro when, in September 1945, he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 61.

Byer, meanwhile, continued working with the LAFD into the 1920s, though he may have transferred to another station. After residing in East Hollywood/Los Feliz, not far from Engine Company 20, he built a house on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. For a short time, he was a cotton farmer in Madera County, northwest of Fresno, but he returned to Los Angeles and his Studio City house. He was a film studio carpenter and an aerospace worker during the World War II years and died in 1948.

The five members of Engine Company 20 as enumerated in the 1910 federal census.

With respect to the first decade or so after Engine Company 20 was established, there were occasional newspaper references to it and its personnel. For example, just days after its opening, the crew was sent to battle a brush fire “back of Elysian park” and it was reported by the Los Angeles Herald that, during the prolonged effort, George Savage “took several drinks of water from an old tomato can.” At a nearby boarding house later in the day, he enjoyed “a hearty meal . . . the chief dish of which was a meat stew,” but “he began suffering intense agony” and was rushed to the hospital with ptomaine poisoning with doctors working a half-hour to save Savage’s life.

Just nine days after that, on 21 July, Savage’s colleague, B.F. Anderson, was thrown from a horse-drawn hose wagon he was driving while the company was responding to a brush fire call in Angelino Heights, east of Echo Park. Anderson, a seven-year veteran of the LAFD suffered a concussion and internal injuries, but after treatment at a hospital, he was sent home in the belief he would not survive. A 17-year old boy purported deliberately started the blaze off Sunset Boulevard, close to where Dodger Stadium is now and it was expected he would be arrested.

Times, 27 January 1908.

These distressing incidents were leavened somewhat by a late August report that, when Engine Company 20 Lieutenant Samuel Dodd married Juanita Cayce of Santa Ana and the couple embarked on their honeymoon to Coronado and then Orange County’s Trabuco Canyon, Dodd’s colleagues at the station decided to decorate the newly acquired Dodd residence directly across Sunset from the engine house. As expressed by the Los Angeles Times of 29 August 1907:

The cottage is festooned with shoes—shoes of all sizes and kinds, men’s shoes, ladies’ shoes, babies’ shoes and boots. It’s a starting sight. But this is not all. It is also covered with signs—and such signs!

“Sam, beware of race suicide!”

“Don’t worry, watch our family grow.”

“Look in papa’s eyes and say goo-goo.”

“Compliments of Engine Company No. 20”

In an era of intense anti-Japanese sentiment, it would appear that the “race suicide” statement, coined in 1900 by a eugenicist regarding declining birthrates and the presumed eventual dying out of that race, was an admonition for the newlyweds to start having children to propagate the white “race,” though this is a supposition. The paper added that, as the Dodds got off the streetcar in front of their house and walked towards it, “the entire membership of the engine company was at hand” along with a cadre of neighbors.

Times, 4 February 1908.

While it was wondered whether Dodd would “tear down the signs in a rage” and “throw the old shoes into the street,” the article recorded that Juanita burst out laughing and “it won the hearts of Engine Company No. 20 on the spot.” As for the firefighter, he stated “you see, when I was single I used to have a little fun that way myself” so he acknowledged that, for his colleagues, “it’s only getting square.” Incidentally, the location of the Dodd residence is now the Cosmic Vinyl café and records store.

Another notable element of the engine company’s early, pre-automotive, years concerned some issues with using horses in an area of the city with some steep streets. In late January 1908, for example, a gasoline stove exploded in a house on Scott Avenue, several blocks northeast of the station, and the Times noted that “Engine Company No. 20 responded to an alarm, and in climbing Scott street [sic] hill, above Echo Park [and just west of Elysian Park], it was necessary to hitch an extra team of horses to the engine,” so the crew could make it. Notably, the house on the site now was built in 1908, so, while the damage was estimated at $200 and involved the destruction of the kitchen and rear of the cottage, it was obviously decided to build a new dwelling.

Times, 18 April 1912.

A little over a week later, the paper ran an article titled “Fire Horse’s Costly Balks,” which reported that “on a balky horse in the fire department is laid the blame for two considerable losses of property at recent blazes in the northwest part of the city.” The animal concerned was part of the team at Engine Company 20 and it was added that “the streets in that section are hilly and it is asserted that the horse is too light for the heavy engine.”

In addition to the Scott Avenue conflagration, the Times observed that, the previous week, “a house on Montana street, only three blocks from the engine-house [and one block south of Scott], was damaged extensively because the engine failed to get there promptly.” Moreover, it was stated that “residents of that section say that the drivers treat the balky horse brutally” and this spurred the superintendent of the local animal cruelty preservation society to be “called to the engine-house to investigate the charges.”

Los Angeles Express, 14 March 1912.

Other personnel issues occurring during these early years included hoseman Harry E. Snyder being called to appear before the city’s Fire Commission and make his case for why he should not be fired as Captain W.F. O’Malley and Lieutenant Dodd preferred charges against Snyder whose over-imbibing led him to request a day off from duty because he was sick. When O’Malley refused to grant the leave, Snyder grabbed his clothes and said he was leaving the department, while Dodd added that he was the target of abusive language from the hungover Snyder. As temporary replacement, the commission selected Walker.

In its 10 February 1909 edition, the Los Angeles Herald reported that the company’s Harry Buckingham, who was hospitalized for a month, died of rheumatic fever affecting his heart. Survived by a wife and two children, Buckingham was buried under the auspices of the Firemen’s Relief Fund, which long has provided financial assistance and other services to department personnel and their families and which is now the Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Association.

Los Angeles Record, 14 February 1913.

One of the more prominent fires fought by Engine Company 20 in its early years involved that of the Mountain View Inn, a prominent Hollywood hostelry. The Los Angeles Express of 14 March 1912 reported that the much of the second and the entirety of the third floors of the structure were consumed by the conflagration. With the company among the firefighters engaged in trying to contain the damage, it was noted that Lieutenant Harry Watson was on the roof when the floor of the third level collapsed “precipitating him from the roof through the skylight to the floor.” Both of Watson’s legs were broken and he suffered other injuries, though it is remarkable that he survived the incident.

Another injury to a firefighter at the station took place in April when hoseman J.T. Voll “was leading one of the steamer horses out of the house for exercise when an alarm” was sounded for a fire at Grand Avenue and Alpine Street near today’s Chinatown section. As the bell rang, “the animal wheeled on his hind legs and dashed for his position in front of the steamer” and, in so doing, kicked Voll on the side causing internal injuries.

A freak injury at the station house took place not quite two years later, as the 13 February 1914 edition of the Los Angeles Record recorded that P.W. Fordice “was in such a hurry to answer a call at engine company 20 that he broke a rib in sliding down the pole.” The paper thought it worthwhile to ask the reader that, if they were a firefighter and used a pole, as found in all station houses, only to break a rib in a fall and then, moreover, found that it was false alarm, “wouldn’t it make you believe in the influence” of a Friday the 13th as an unlucky day?

A strange little incident that took place just after New Year’s Day 1913 was reported by the Express and concerned a small fire in a house, which still stands, on Burtz (now Park View) Street south of Temple Street. When the owner raced to grab his garden hose and turned the faucet, a little water came out, but then it stopped. He called Engine Company 20 to come out to quench the blaze, but it was learned that a cold snap actually caused the water in the pipes to freeze and the paper ran a photo of a fire hydrant at Broadway and 1st that had an icicle hanging from it!

One more notable incident to mention came from September 1914, likely during a dry, Santa Ana condition, and reported by the Hollywood Citizen, in which a “fire started by a careless lot owner in the Griffith Park Foothill Scenic Villa Place,” a new subdivision centered along Commonwealth Avenue north of Los Feliz Boulevard, blasted through some 700 acres of the park, including the old zoo in Spring Canyon to the northeast. Among the 200 or so firefighters working to save the menagerie of animals were personnel from Engine Company 20.

As for the photos, they are remarkable visual records of the early years of the station, which stood until 1953 when the current structure was erected, including the vehicles (long replacing those “balky” horses), firefighters, and the inside and outside of the original building. Certainly much has changed with the LAFD in the more than a century since the photos were taken and these documents are useful in showing what stations and their personnel and equipment were like.

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