Professionalizing the “Fire Laddies”

Never heard the phrase “fire laddie” until I saw a reference in some historic newspapers. Apparently it was a common term throughout the United States to describe firefighters in the nineteenth century.

“The Fire Laddies” was the headline of an article in the San Diego Union on Wednesday, June 5, 1889 about a meeting of the city’s fire commission set for that evening.

“Some important business will come before the commission,” read the article’s first paragraph, “such as the adoption of rules and regulations by which the department will be governed, the selection of a Chief Engineer [today called Fire Chief] and two assistants, and a full quota of men to make up the department.”

Much of the rest of the article focused on candidates for Chief and some assistant positions. But near the end one of the commissioners, J. K. Hamilton, gave a revealing quote on the state of the fire department at that time.

“The new rules and regulations,” Hamilton told the Union, “have been so arranged that they can cover either a paid or a volunteer department. Mr. Rockfellow [another commissioner] and myself are in favor of having at least a partially paid force of firemen.”

The city’s population had swelled from 3,000 in 1880 to 30,000 in 1887. An amendment to the city charter in 1889 set up the fire commission and began the transformation of what had been a volunteer operation into a paid profession.

According to a department history on the city’s website, “The department started with forty-one men, eleven horses, two steam fire engines, one hose wagon, two hose carts, one hook and ladder, and four thousand feet of hose.”

The first Chief Engineer appointed under the reorganization was A. B. Cairnes, who’d been a New York City firefighter before coming to San Diego just three years previously.

That first pay structure ranged from $100 a month for the Chief to $75 per month for engine and hose carriage drivers, and $10 for rank-and-file firemen.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the city of San Diego’s website and the book, An Illustrated History of Southern California, published in 1890 by the Lewis Publishing Company.

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