Firefighting Technology-Circa 1909

San Diego Steam Fire Engine, Circa 1904

“Tea kettles,” or “steamers,” were apparently nicknames firefighters used for the horse-drawn steam fire engines in San Diego in the early 1900s. In 1961, The Journal of San Diego History published an article by Clarence Woodson, a retired firefighter, in which he talked about the city fire department when he first joined in 1906. His account provides some interesting details on just how those “steamers” functioned.

The steam engine on the rig ran the pump which pumped water through the fire hoses. That required a head of steam heated in a boiler. A supply of coal and kindling was kept in a grate below the boiler, ready to be ignited when the fire alarm bell went off.

“Of course,” wrote Woodson, “it takes time to get up steam from a cold boiler, and in firefighting you don’t have much time. So the water was kept just below the boiling-point by a gas flame from a pipe which ran into the firebox.”

When the fire alarm bell rang, Woodson wrote, “you’d pull a string which shut off the gas, and yank the pope out of the firebox.” The firefighter would then pull a cord which then released “a vial of sulphuric acid, down under the grate bars.” The acid emptied into “a little iron cup full of a chemical which ignited the instant the acid hit it, igniting the coal and kindling above it.

The fire alarm also, according to Woodson “automatically released the chain in front of each horse’s stall….” Each horse was trained to trot out and take their place in a harness that was hung from an iron frame suspended from the ceiling. The horses’ collars were designed to be quickly snapped into the harness, after which a weighted pulley system yanked the frame up and clear of the rig.

If all that sounds pretty complicated, these folks had it down pat. According to Woodson, “Even if we were asleep when the alarm came in, we could get out of the station in 20 seconds.”

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“Wanted: A Drive Through the Park”

That was the headline of an item on page 3 of the San Diego Union on November 1, 1871. The park they were talking about was what we today call Balboa Park. However, it was then known as “City Park” and had been set aside as a park just a few years earlier. But it was already a popular place that people wanted to visit and enjoy, and drive through. This piece offers some historical perspective on the evolution of transportation, not to mention the evolution of road construction bonds:

“Several of our citizens who own horses and buggies suggest the propriety of opening a “drive” through the park. Certainly there is no finer piece of ground for this purpose in Southern California, and the expense of making suitable roads for fast (or slow) teams would be trifling. Two or three hundred dollars would add wonderfully in the attractiveness of our Park reserve in this respect. We hope the city fathers will take counsel together on this subject. We have a big Park, and by all means let the people have the benefit of it.”

It would be into the 1890s before some roads were built to better allow citizen enjoyment of the park. In 1910 the park would get a new name in honor of the planned Panama California Exposition commemorating the completion of the Panama Canal. That exposition, which opened in 1915, also created the buildings that helped make Balboa Park the civic gem it continues to be.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers and The Journal of San Diego History.

135 Octobers Ago: The County Fair

Headline from lead article on page 2 of San Diego Union, October 31, 1885.

The San Diego County Fair took place in late October 1885. A county agricultural association had been established just a few years previously, and like many other county fairs, San Diego’s started primarily as a display of agricultural produce, though there were some references to exhibits of the products of local carriage builders and brick makers in the San Diego Union’s coverage of the 1885 fair. But agricultural production was still the heart of the county’s economy, as the Union’s publisher obviously noted. The papers October 31, 1885 issue filled four pages with articles directly or indirectly referencing the fair, and the paper of that time was only eight pages long!

While the county was predominantly a farming and ranching area it still had a relatively low population, which was reflected in the fact that all the county fair’s exhibits were housed in one building, the Armory Hall on Second Street (now Broadway), between D and E streets.

Ten tables filled the hall with displays of produce, according to the Union. A “magnificent display made by the Julian district” included “apples, pears, grapes, dried fruit and nuts.” The reporter also commented on “the fine exhibits of raisins by G. A. Cowles and B. P. McKoon of El Cajon,” adding that “Mr. Cowles is the largest raisin producer of the county.” Cowles would later be memorialized by Cowles Mountain.

While 1885 saw the fair in San Diego, the county fair would not have a permanent home for almost five decades, being staged at venues from National City to San Diego to Escondido, until finally settling in at the then-new Del Mar Fairgrounds in 1936.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, The Journal of San Diego History and the 1994 essay, “A Brief History of the Del Mar Fair,” by Del Mar Fairgrounds Archivist Jane Spivey.

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Historic San Diego Properties

The photo below was taken June 1, 1937:

The photo was taken as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey. The survey started in December 1933 as one of the programs inaugurated during the New Deal to help relieve unemployment during the Great Depression. In this particular instance, Charles E. Peterson, an employee of the National Park Service, proposed to put unemployed architects  and draftsmen to work documenting historic buildings across the country.

When this photo was taken, the adobe house at 2745 San Diego Avenue in Old Town had been standing since at least the early 1830s, erected in what was then the Pueblo of San Diego in the then Mexican province of Alta California. It was built, according to the team’s research, by Jose Manuel Machado, a corporal stationed at the Mexican army’s presidio. He is said to have built the house as a wedding gift to his daughter Maria Antonia and her husband Jose Antonio Nicasio Silvas.

The survey described the house in detail, both its original adobe structure (“the natural soil served as floor in the first years of use…”) and briefly described additions that had been made over the years. The house was under Machado-Silvas family ownership for over a century but was in the hands of a real estate company when the survey was taken in 1937. But the survey’s work to preserve history succeeded in 1968 when the property became part of Old Town State Historic Park, where you can visit La Casa de Machado y Silvas.

The story of Casa de Machado is one of many historic San Diego County properties which history seekers can visit digitally by going to the Library of Congress website, https://www.loc.gov , clicking on “Digital Collections, then “Historic American Buildings Survey.”

Real Time-At Another Time

We now give you a short view of Chula Vista in real time. Real time as of 1922, that is:

“Chula Vista, just beyond National City on the county highway toward Tijuana, is one of the most attractive sections of San Diego County. Near enough in the days of modern rapid transit by train or automobile, or street car, to be called a suburb of the city of San Diego, it is much more than that: for, although many who work in the city have selected Chula Vista as a place of residence, it is the centre of a great citrus growing section, about 3,000 acres being devoted to that end and doing much to give San Diego County high rank among the lemon producing districts of the United States.”

From the 1922 book, City of San Diego and San Diego County: The Birthplace of California, by Clarence Alan McGrew.

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