Today, wailing sirens announce the approach of massive fire trucks, but starting around the 1830s in some American cities, it was sturdy horses that got the apparatus and firemen to the fire scenes. Up to that point, men were the only form of horsepower but with the arrival of the horses a whole new era of four legged firefighter was on the horizon.
In 1832 the New York City Mutual Hook and Ladder Company was short of men to pull their wagon due to an epidemic of yellow fever so they invested in a horse to do the job. This wasn’t a popular move and other stations made their feelings known by shaving the horse’s mane and tail and painted a white stripe down its back. The final insult was that the men beat the horse to the next fire. However, with the weighty new equipment, it was clear that more than just manpower was needed and while the horses were initially grudgingly accepted, they eventually became loved and revered by their caretakers, and the public.
Initially these New York fire horses were stabled near the station but too much time was wasted opening the stable doors and walking them over to their harnessing area. The horses were then moved right into the fire halls and their training had them in place, harnessed up within 15 to 20 seconds, and literally galloping on the spot in their eagerness to get to the fire.
The horse stabling right inside the fire stations became the norm and the stall doors opening, the horses moved into their hitching area and the harness was dropped onto them from above. In 1871 a quick hitch was created by a Massachusetts firefighter who developed a quick-locking hame and this went onto be patented as Benny Hames and Collars all over the United States.
As with every horse discipline, some horses are better suited than others at their jobs and the same held true for fire horses. First of all they had to be strong, sturdy and fearless. They had to stand quietly as the fires roared nearby and had to pull heavy equipment up and down hills at breakneck speed. Mares, geldings and stallions were carefully evaluated and trained. There were also weight requirements and the horses pulling hoses had to weigh 1100 pounds, the steamer horses had to be 1400 pounds and the hook and ladder horses 1700 pounds. They were teamed up with horses of similar colour and weight when possible.
While some horses had on the spot training, Detroit had a training facility and it was here that the horses were schooled in a makeshift fire station with apparatus, alarm bells, harnesses, hanging quick hitches, a hospital, feed room and a racetrack. The horses were graded as they progressed and over time, many of the stations complemented their facilities with horse ambulances and farriers. It is estimated that out of 100 horses only a handful might make the grade and become a fire horse.
A fire horse’s companions were both the men and the station dogs who worked with them as a complete team. Dalmatians, the quintessential fire dogs were originally used as coaching dogs by the wealthy in the British Isles who enjoyed their unusual spots and knew they could run for many miles. The breed was later adopted by the fire stations. The dogs were great company for the horses but more than that they ran ahead or beside the horses and equipment barking madly while clearing a path, getting people and other dogs out of their way. They were also invaluable as guard dogs and stood steadfast beside the horses and equipment when they arrived at the scene of a fire, or were moved away from the hot embers and smoke of the burning buildings.
Sadly, the days of the horses as fire fighters were waning. Around the 1920s, city managers began to look at their ledger books and it was clear that new mechanized equipment was cheaper to keep although, it was often pointed out by the horse lovers, it did break down frequently. This change was not popular with everybody but it was gathering momentum and when a final false alarm fire charge was created in Detroit on April 10, 1922, more than 50,000 people gathered to watch as a last charge was made. Many wept openly as Peter, Jim, Tom, Babe and Rusty dashed down Woodward Avenue. The horses never returned to their fire station but were retired.
A fire horse’s life pounding the streets took its toll and the average working life might be as short as four or five years though some were able to work longer. Many of the fire horses were sold to do other jobs as haulage horses or milk horses but they never forgot their old jobs and when they heard an alarm they were ready to race to their posts to pull a ladder truck or reel wagon. The horses were also said to be able to guide a person to any fire box located in the city.
In some cities, the fire horses arrived much later and in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the fire station got their first two horses in 1902 and others were added right up until the 1930s. The horses Bill and Doll were very popular with children and tourists and acted as mascots for the fire station. They were retired in 1938 and firefighter Hood O’Neil, who cared for them and adored them said, “Those horses even watched the men climbing the ladders, as though fearing for their safety. I never had to touch a whip – they knew what to do and almost where to go. The old fire station just isn’t the same without that pair, believe me.”