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Forged in Fire Safety: The First Santa Ana Fire Department

Hook and Ladder Volunteer Firemen of Santa Ana, May 1, 1888
Photo by B. F. Conaway; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 8.5 x 5 ¼ in.
Gift of John Luxembourger

Sunny Santa Ana California

William H. Spurgeon and his wife spent a few years in the early 1860s living in Los Angeles until she passed away. Heartbroken, he moved back to the East to recover. But California has a certain magnetism and our sunshine has a healing factor that other sunshine does not. So, on a return trip in 1869 Spurgeon semi-spontaneously decided to purchase 76 acres of land from the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana and founded the city of Santa Ana. As this year marks the 150th anniversary of that founding, on the first Thursday of every month for rest of 2019 the Blog will dedicate a post to telling or retelling some of the greatest stories that the Bowers has to offer on early Santa Ana history. Today’s post begins the series with maybe the most-loved public servants, taking a close look at the early Santa Ana Fire Department.

Receipt for Firefighting Equipment, 1883
A.F. Spawn; San Francisco, California
Paper and ink
Gift of Mrs. Walter R. Fine

Through the Fire, Through the Flames

The very first Santa Ana volunteer fire department was formed on November 1, 1883, just three years before the city officially incorporated. William H. Spurgeon himself was a signee of the certificate and an honorary member of the crew. Wanting to ensure that the very first firefighting team was fully equipped, Spurgeon and the City of Santa Ana paid the modern-day equivalent of $36,000.00 to A.F. Spawn, Climax Fire Extinguisher, Fire Apparatus and Fire Department Supplies in San Francisco to procure all the basic supplies required to fight fires. At this point the method used in Santa Ana was still a relatively manual one, with water hand-pulled from private wells and cisterns in buckets. Ultimately though, a lack of fires that in most instances would never constitute a problem led to the abolition of this first iteration of the department in 1885.

Lithograph of William Spurgeon, honorary member of the Volunteer Fire Department and founder of the town of Santa Ana.

Ablaze with Change

Of course, as long as humans use fire there will be fires that get out of control. Santa Ana is one of the outlier cases in which proper emergency action steps were taken prior to an incident. In this instance, actually, it is the introduction of the Santa Ana gas company in 1886 that first re-sparked concerns about a lack of firefighters. By 1888 a new crew was formed using the same equipment as the old team, but now with the added development of the precursor to hydrants placed across the city. This meant that the on-foot teams only needed to wheel hoses and later use horse-drawn carts to wheel hoses to these water access points. This new method relied on the grid’s water pressure to meet certain minimums. The trouble was that when there was a fire, home usage of water throughout the town caused the pressure to fall low enough that it could not be sprayed at a blaze. A law was put on the city’s books that it was illegal for citizens to use water while a fire was in progress.

Santa Ana Fire Department, 1915
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 8 x 10 in.
Gift of Mr. Stanley E. Goode, Jr.

Hot Wheels

The first modern firetruck was invented in San Francisco in 1868 but it would not be until the 1910s that the growing city had the budget and the need to purchase its first vehicle to use in fighting fires. Sources vary on the actual first vehicles owned by the Santa Ana Fire Department (SAFD), either 1921 Seagrave fire engine or the two White Motor Company firetrucks that are pictured above. This photographic evidence including the very first Santa Ana fire truck driver, Monte Jackson, who went on to be the first paid staff member of the SAFD as he was eventually promoted to be the city’s fire chief.

Fire Hose Nozzle, c. 1884
Allen Fire Department Supply Co.; Providence, Rhode Island
Metal, brass and cord; 36 x 6 in.
Gift of W.D. Wilson

The Town Blowhard

The above hose nozzle is one of the original pieces of SAFD equipment. Used between 1888 and 1932, this nozzle could be attached to a longer hose to help direct the flow of water to where it was most-needed. The 28-inch nozzle has a detachable tip made of brass as are the hand grips and female union. We can see that even in 1915, when the photograph of the SAFD and their two fire trucks were taken that the nozzle was in use, secured in place at the rear of one of the city’s two fire engines. The Bowers has thousands of similar artifacts, photographs, and documents in our collections. In the coming year we hope to share as many of these wonderful stories as possible.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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