The Fire Horse in America: Blazing a Trail

orking Horse in AmericaIt’s an unfortunate fact that at the turn of the century, when the general public traded horses in for mechanical horsepower, a lot of people stopped appreciating horses. As a horse lover myself, I don’t think that horses get the amount of press they deserve and it pains me when people forget about the vital roles horses have played in our nation’s history. That’s why I’m devoting today’s post to a group of my favorite horses from history—the fire horses.

Blazing a Trail

New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company In 1832, the New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company purchased what is believed to have been the first fire horse. If you’re thinking that the firefighters were thrilled with the addition to their fire department precinct, you are wrong. At the time, it was thought that horses had no place in a fire station.

It boggles my mind that it took almost thirty more years for someone to say, “Hey! Why don’t we save our backs and have horses pull our fire wagons?” Seriously, it makes me question man’s ingenuity! Prior to the Civil War, the task of pulling fire wagons and equipment was considered a job for man rather than beast. But, better late than never, I suppose. By the 1860s, fire horses were a regular sight in cities. Fire horses had their “hay day” from the 1860s to the 1820s.

Horse Power

New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company Of course, not every horse was up to the task. Veterinarians carefully evaluated the animals. Stallions and mares alike could serve as fire horses. Like other service animals, fire horses had to possess the right temperament, as well as strong physical capabilities. They needed to be obedient and fearless. They had to be calm in situations that would send most animals running. And, of course they had to be fast!

Training was intense and the cost wasn’t cheap. A single fire horse could cost as much as the annual salaries for ten firemen. That was fair, it seems to me, since a single fire horse could pull more weight than ten firemen. Training could take up to two years and an average fire horse could be on the job from four to ten years.

Detroit Horse CollegeSome cities offered on-the-job training, while others had training stables. Detroit even had its very own horse college. Each horse college graduate was guaranteed placement in one of the city’s fire stations. (If only all colleges could offer job placement for human graduates!) Cities acquired horse ambulances and horseshoeing wagons to care for the needs of their fire horses.

Detroit had weight requirements to match horses with their tasks. A lightweight horse would weigh in at 1,100 pounds and would pull a hose wagon. A middleweight horse weighed in at 1,400 pounds and pulled steam engine wagons. And, the heavyweights weighed in the neighborhood of 1,700 pounds and were responsible for pulling the hook and ladder wagons.

Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire Horses

Fire HorsesIn the early days of the fire horse era, the horses were stabled near the station. It didn’t take long to realize that firefighters were wasting valuable time fetching the horses and getting them harnessed. Horses were moved to the stations, where they were stalled near the wagons. A quick hitch was developed in 1871, which allowed for a faster response time. And, in 1873, a hanging harness with the quick-locking “Hames Collar” was designed by a Massachusetts firefighter, Charles E. Berry. The invention was such a hit that Berry left the fire department and sold his Berry Hames Collars across the country. New innovations allowed firefighters to hitch the horses to the wagons in as little as thirty seconds!

Keep the Home Fires from Burning

During the era of the fire horse, cities were largely constructed from wood, so it didn’t take more than a spark and windy day to ignite an entire town. The fire horse proved its worth, and at least once, an insufficient number of fire horses proved to be disastrous.

Boston influenzaDuring the equine influenza outbreak of 1872, fire became a major concern. In Boston alone, four out of 75 fire horses had died. Twenty-two others weren’t fit for duty. The city reverted back to using human volunteers to drag the heavy equipment to fires. On November 9, 1872, the Great Boston Fire broke out. It burned for sixteen hours—covering 65 acres and consuming 776 buildings. Twenty thousand people were left without jobs and 1,000 people became homeless. The fire is estimated to have claimed between thirteen and twenty lives. One hundred years after the Great Boston Fire, a Boston fire chief, John P. Vahey, renamed the disaster, “The Epizootic Fire,” in a book by the same name. Vahey made a logical argument that the severity of the fire was owing to the lack of healthy fire horses.

Not Your Usual Dog and Pony Show

DalmationsWhile people might not be aware of the history of fire horses, any three-year-old can tell you that Dalmatian dogs and fire trucks go together. You might be interested to learn that the status of the Dalmatian as an unofficial firefighter’s mascot dates back to the days of the fire horses. Horses often had to spend hours at the scene of a fire. There were also long hours spent waiting for a call. It was common for a Dalmatian to be brought in to each station to serve as calming companions for the high-spirited steeds—effectively serving as the horses’ pet! The Dalmatians also guarded the equipment and horses at fire scenes. Just think. Without the fire horses, the Dalmatian would never have been associated with fire stations!

Fight Fire with Fire Horses

Fire horsesEven the best of the fire horses couldn’t keep up the pace indefinitely. When the time came for a horse to retire, they were sometimes reassigned to less strenuous city positions. Sometimes they found new careers pulling wagons for junk peddlers and deliverymen. Reassignment could prove challenging. While the horses had no difficulty learning new tasks, they didn’t forget their former careers. Upon hearing a fire bell, a retired horse would often be seen running down the streets hauling a wagon!

Fire engineThe modern mechanically-driven fire engine meant the end of an era. It is said that in some cities, children cried in the streets as they said good-bye to the horses that had been such a part of their cities landscapes. I’m not ashamed to admit that, had I been alive, I would have joined them! Horsepower has its place, but let us never forget the horses that came first.

Here’s an interesting video with documentary footage of fire horses ca. 1910!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

8 Replies to “The Fire Horse in America: Blazing a Trail”

  1. Anita,

    As a firefighter, I thought I new a great deal about the history of the service and the use of men and horses to move our apparatus of days past. This was an extremely informative blog on the subject and I learned a great deal more I’m happy to say. I recall as a child being read a vintage book at bedtime about the last days of the fire horse and how they rushed back to service at the sound of the fire bell being rung. The new machines broke down or got stuck in the mud and couldn’t reach the fire but the horses saved the day where modernization failed. I wish I could remember the name of the book. Thank you for sharing the valiant service these fine horses provided to keep our ancestors safe.

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks so much, glad that you enjoyed! It’s remarkable that the early firefighters were able to tack the horses up in such a short period of time, and I was amazed to see how obedient the horses were, and how well-trained. I hope that you’ll come back to see us again, here at The Campfire Chronicle!

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