by Candace Brown
Announced by the fire engine’s whistle and bell, a team of three strong horses thundered out of the night, pulling the steamer up to the blaze. Flames consumed the frame of a building, and an entire wall crashed to the ground with a thud, launching sparks into the smoky air. Someone screamed. Firemen shouted over the din, dragging hoses and spraying water.
There, in the midst of the commotion and terrible heat, the horses stood by, awaiting a human command. Although they might have tossed their manes and snorted through flared nostrils when hot cinders or water rained down on them, they never balked. They were trained to ignore their inborn and ancient survival instincts to meet their masters’ needs.
Hundreds of stories of brave and intelligent fire horses, including the imagined scene here, pay homage to these amazing animals. Such accounts remain among the most poignant and moving in the history of firefighting, and few know that history better than Matthew “Matt” Lee. He has written seven books and numerous magazine articles about fire engines and has owned 25 of his own over the years. The Smithsonian Institution, The History Channel, and Automobile Quarterly have all consulted him for his expertise.
“Horse-drawn steamers were gaining popularity just prior to the Civil War,” Lee said. “Before that time, hand-drawn and hand-pumped fire engines were the norm. A full complement of men was needed to operate the hand tub pumper and pass the buckets, as well as the complement of ladder men, hose men, and the bag man to go into the dwelling or story to try to save the valuables.”
To assure the availability of adequate manpower for operating a hand pumper, a department in a big city might require a complement of 75 men working in shifts, Lee explained. The Civil War had depleted the ranks, and a horse-drawn steamer could reduce the number of men needed by more than half.
Long before any horse-drawn fire apparatus existed, the perfect horse for the job already did. The history of horse breeding in the former province of France called Le Perche (now part of Normandy) was ancient by the time horses from that region first arrived in the United States in the mid-19th century. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary states that the word “Percheron” came into use in 1875 to described these horses, which, according to Lee, became the favorites of fire departments. Originally bred as war horses, they offered strength, intelligence, and a good disposition.
“They were especially bred to pull heavy armaments for a relatively short distance to aid the troops,” Lee said. “This was close to what the perfect steamer horse would be.”
Regardless of these qualifications, not every horse met the requirements of the job. A multi-phase selection process began with such basic observations as size, weight, and even the way the eyes were set in the head, which could indicate both the level of intelligence and possible vision problems, in the opinion of Chief Joseph Shea. Shea served as the official veterinarian for the New York Fire Dept. at the combination stables, training facility, and veterinary hospital on West Ninety-ninth Street and shared his insights in an article titled “Making a Brain for a Gallant Fire Horse,” published in the Sunday Edition of the New York Times on March 6, 1904.
“Thirty days’ trial we require before deciding whether we are going to accept or reject a beast,” he said. “A horse’s disposition, his aptness to learn, his grit and his nerve, his common sense and his habits must all be taken into consideration.”
New York’s typical steam engines weighed four-and-a-half tons, according to Shea, and were pulled by three horses harnessed abreast. The trainee would be placed in between two veteran horses, which steadied him as he tried to run from the startlingly unfamiliar loud noise behind him. Also, in that position, the engine’s dead weight was most keenly felt, testing his mettle. This training, up and down the block, went on for two or three hours or until the rookie’s exhaustion made him decide to cooperate with his mates as a team. Eventually, the horses became interested in and excited by their work.
“The strongest horse was always on the crown of the road to keep the steamer from veering to the low ground of the gutter,” Lee explained. “He was aided in this task by the gutter horse, whose job it was to steer away from pot holes and washouts. The dumb horse was the center horse. ‘Center horse’ gradually became the moniker for the new man on the department.”
The horses’ endurance and ability to maneuver mattered, but speed of departure did, too. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Firefighter Charles E. Berry’s invention, in 1873, of a suspended swinging harness—attached to a hinged collar with quick-locking hardware—reduced harnessing time from as much as three minutes to under 30 seconds. However, getting the horses accustomed to it took time and patience, applying it gently at first, then more heavily, until the horse did not mind “… the tangle of leather straps and buckles as they flounder full force from above,” as Shea said. They soon learned to run to their assigned spots under their harnesses at the first sound of the alarm.
“These steeds were good for three to five years in service, depending on the type of roads, the amount of snow, the amount of runs and any hills that might have to be traversed,” Lee said. “Smart departments built their station on the high spot in town so each run was a downhill run.”
Upon arriving at their assigned stations, newly trained horses went to work immediately as part of the company, and their work was both hard and dangerous. Each year, in New York alone, more than 100 were brought to the hospital at the training center, and each year 70 to 80 additional horses underwent training at the adjacent facility to replace the 60 or so that died doing their duty or were condemned as unfit. Many suffered horrific burns. A 1910 newspaper clipping from the Wenatchee (Washington) Daily World reported on the sad condition of a fire horse named Fly after a terrible mill fire, saying, “The skin is peeling off in large patches from the side which was close to the blaze.”
Accidents occurred frequently, and urban environments presented unique hazards for horses running at full speed. If a vehicle or pedestrians appeared in the way of the rushing horses, and there was no other choice, the driver would drive them over or into an obstacle, such as an elevated railroad pillar, in order to save human lives. The increasing number of automobiles presented more danger. The Oct. 30, 1916, edition of the Seattle (Washington) Star printed the headline “Pat, Popular Fire Horse, Dies After Auto Struck Him.” When fire horses suffered injury or death, the firefighters who loved them suffered, too. They had risked their lives together and formed deep bonds.
Each horse came to be known for his or her unique personality traits and quirks, sometimes reflected in the names given to them. Certain fire horses liked to chew tobacco and learned to steal it from their handlers’ pockets. Although departments objected to teaching them tricks, many horses learned to shake hands, paw the ground in communication, or make faces that showed their teeth. One enjoyed eating flowers, including those on ladies’ hats. Children doted on them. Entire cities knew them by name.
Probably no one loved the noble fire horse more than Chief Shea, the veterinarian, who expressed his feelings eloquently in the 1904 article. After speaking of the rewards of caring for animals in general, he said, “But when it comes to a great big intelligent fire horse that fairly speaks to you with his eyes, that comes to know you when you bring him relief, and that seems all but human, then you feel you are doing something in the world.”
Times were changing, however. Even during the first decade of the 20th century, departments began to let the horses go in favor of motorized apparatus that cost much less to maintain, needed far less space and attention, lasted longer, and moved faster.
“Horses could physically only make so many runs a day, so really busy engine houses often had an extra set of horses,” Lee said. “And if it was a slow day, all the horses had to be taken out and exercised. They also needed to be fed and groomed.”
Fire department administrators and city officials might have wanted the change, but the horses themselves seemed to believe in a lifetime commitment.
“The sound of the alarm bell meant action,” Lee said. “Some horses would still get excited long after retirement if they heard the sound of the alarm gong or the clang of a fire bell. Out the door they went, for seven decades, until the coming of the motorized apparatus.”
An editorial published in the Seattle Star newspaper on April 29, 1912, spoke of how auto apparatus was driving the beloved beasts from the department. The author’s words bid farewell not only to a favorite old Seattle fire horse named Caesar, but to an era now memorialized in faded black-and-white images and mostly forgotten stories.
He wrote, “And Caesar will be hitched to a dirt cart, never again to answer the gong, never again to take the hills with thundering hooves, never again to race through the night, straining and plunging, lion-hearted, striving to reach in time the mounting flames which paint the sky.”