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.