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The Early Years of the Fire Department
By Frederick F. Postel
Chief of Department

Delivered at the Palace Hotel during 1992 Ceremonies Marking the
125th Anniversary of the San Francisco Fire Department

This is the 125th anniversary of the San Francisco Fire Department as a paid, professional organization, and a good time to talk about the early days of this Department — between 1866, and the Great Fire of 1906.

This Department can trace its roots to Christmas Eve 1849, when the first of a series of conflagrations destroyed San Francisco.

Conflagration swept the city six times between 1850 and 1851, including one fire that destroyed three-thousand buildings.

The volunteer department of 1850 was actually a series of volunteer companies organized by Pioneers who arrived during the Gold Rush. These companies had colorful names such as Knickerbocker, Empire, Crescent and Lafayette, and were generally organized by people who came from the same area of the world or country, or were members of the same fraternal organizations.

Members of the Baltimore, New York City and Philadelphia fire departments also came West for gold and joined these companies

As San Francisco grew, the need of an organized Department became a necessity, and the state Legislature in 1866 gave the Board of Supervisors the power to create a municipal fire department.

The Board began buying new steam engines beginning in April 1866, and by December of that year, was ready to hire the firefighters necessary for the job.

The new Department went into service at midnight, December 2, 1866 and the pay for the new chief engineer was 4-thousand dollars a year. Three assistant chiefs were paid 50 dollars per month

The first chief engineer was F.E.R. Whitney, who had been a member of the New York City Fire Department before coming to San Francisco.

The second chief engineer was Charles H. Ackerson, who was in office for about a year and then David Scannell was appointed chief. Chief Scannell was unceremoniously removed from office in 1873 by the Board of Fire Commissioners and they reappointed Chief Whitney.

But there was a problem here. Whitney attempted to remove all the Scannell supporters from positions in the Department, and that caused an uproar.

A new Board of Fire Commissioners was elected in late 1873, and Chief Scannell was reappointed. But the old board refused to give up power, and for a time, in early 1874, the Department had two chiefs and two fire commissions.

Chief Whitney refused to turn over the office to Scannell, so the new board issued an arrest warrant for Chief Whitney.

This ugly situation was finally resolved by the courts, and Chief Scannell remained in office until his death on March 30, 1893. He was succeeded by Dennis T. Sullvan. In his will Chief Scannell bequeathed two-thousand dollars to the Department, and the Scannell Medal fund was founded.

Sullivan, of course, is best remembered as the Chief of Department who died as a result of injuries suffered when his fire station collapsed during the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

One of the curiosities of history is that Tom Sawyer was a member of the San Francisco Fire Department.

This is, of course, the same Tom Sawyer, whose name was immortalized by Mark Twain.

Sawyer had an interesting history.

He came West with the Gold Rush, around the Horn on the steamer “Independence” and arrived in February 1850. He was originally a firefighter in New York, and when he arrived in San Francisco, he organized the Liberty Hose Company. When Mark Twain was a reporter on one of the papers here in the city, he was a friend of Sawyers, and dedicated the book “Tom Sawyer” to him.

Dennis Sullivan, whom I spoke of a few minutes ago, is a major transitional figure in the Department’s history.

He marks the break between the old Department, and the Department of the 20th Century.

Chief Sullivan is the father of the modern High Pressure Water System. He was the chief during the disastrous Baldwin Hotel fire of 1898. The Baldwin was a huge wood-frame building located on the site of the James Flood Building at Market and Powell streets, and when it burned it exposed the weakness of the domestic water supply.

He attempted to get the Board of Supervisors to begin design of a system which would have a gravity tank on Twin Peaks, and special mains in the streets exclusively for firefighting use.

He also wanted a series of saltwater pump stations along the Bay.

He also came up with a revolutionary response concept for the Department.

Sullivan wanted to reduce the Department’s reliance on steam engines, which were cumbersome to move around the city, and were very expensive.

His concept was to place High Pressure hydrants on every street corner in the High Value District, then drive hosecarts with hose and appliances to the fires rather than steam engines. These hosecarts being cheaper and more maneuverable.

We still use that concept, in the form of hose tenders. Had that system been in service in 1906, I doubt the Great Fire would have been so destructive. Clearly, his vision helped us during the Marina Fire, where a variation of his concept was successfully used to stop that fire.

Dennis Sullivan had been chief 12 years when the Great Earthquake struck.

He was quartered at Chemical Engine 3 at 410 Bush Street, just above Kearny — where the United Way building is today.

Chief Sullivan had returned from a major fire on Bay Street a few hours before the earthquake, and was asleep on the third floor of the fire station.

The tower and chimney of the California Hotel, which was next door to the fire station, collapsed during the earthquake and plunged through all three floors of the fire station.

Chief Sullivan’s wife Margaret was sleeping in a separate room in the station, and Sullivan ran to help her. He stumbled into the hole created by falling bricks from the California Hotel, fell through to the basement and was pinned against a steam register.

Mrs. Sullvan was unhurt, but the Chief was badly scalded by hot water. The crew of the chemical engine worked to get the Chief out of the wreckage, and he was taken to the stables in St. George Alley. Then his operator took him in the Chief’s buggy to Southern Pacific Hospital at 14th and Mission.

Two days later, as the Great Fire swept into the Mission District, Chief Sullvan was moved to the Presidio Hospital, where he died four days after the earthquake.

Chief Sullivan was honored by the people of the City and County of San Francisco, and they raised several thousand dollars to build a memorial home in his memory which is still occupied by the Chief of Department.

The Great Earthquake and Fire is the most important event in the Department’s history.

It remains the greatest natural disaster in the nation’s history. The Great Fire burned for four days, and when it was finished, it had destroyed four-square miles of San Francisco.

Much of what was done after the fire to prevent future conflagrations is still with us, notably the High Pressure system which is still being expanded. In fact, a new bond issue later this year (1992) will ask the public for funds to further expand the system into the Sunset and Richmond districts, and for more cisterns.

The Department underwent a significant downsizing after the Great Fire and did not return to full strength until about 1910. 1910 was also the year that the modern work shifts began. From the beginning in 1866, San Francisco firefighters were on duty 29 out of 30 days, and they had to live within their first-alarm assignment area. Many firefighters had the tapper telegraph system installed in their homes so they could immediately respond to the nearby fire station for duty. There is still a clicker from that system in the Chief’s Residence on Bush Street. And for many years, Pacific Telephone provided free service to the homes of battalion chiefs.

The most radical change came to the Department in 1922, when motorized apparatus replaced the horsedrawn steam engines. There was great debate about horses verses engines.

To resolve the issue, a race was conducted on California Street. The horsedrawn rig got out of the house first, but by the end of the race, the motorized apparatus won, and conversion of the Department to gas-powered engines began.

Members of the Department use the term “buggy” to describe a chief’s car. Chief officers actually began using gasoline and electric automobiles as buggies before the 1906 earthquake. Acting Chief Engineer Dougherty used a Columbia Electric throughout the earthquake period, and was featured in a magazine ad endorsing the new electric automobiles.

There have been other technological changes in the Department in the past 60 or so years. Two fireboats, the High Pressure system, and the cisterns were all constructed after the Great Fire.

In the 1960s the Department experimented with the Superchief, which was a turbojet engine that was — as the manufacturer said — going to replace diesel units.

The only trouble with the jet fire engine that it got so hot, that it would set off sprinklers and was just too difficult to operate. It was dieselized, and was finally sent to the museum.

The reason the Department was founded in 1866 was underscored in 1989 during the earthquake when hundreds of firefighters returned to duty, and helped put out the Marina Fire and rescue trapped people from the rubble. It showed the courage and dedication of San Francisco firefighters. It was demonstrated again last year during our massive response to the Oakland Hills fire. Again, the men and women of the Department responded to help fellow citizens.

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