THE PAID DEPARTMENT
To the late William M., or, as he was familiarly known to his associates of the old volunteer days, "Pony" Denig is due the credit for first suggesting the adoption of an up-to-date paid fire department for the City of Stockton. Mr. Denig was a gentleman of no little ability and possessed a disposition both progressive and aggressive. Opportunities for observation not enjoyed by all of his fellow-citizens, convinced him early in the year 1876 that Stockton had reached a stage in its growth where, despite the recognized ability of the Volunteers, they should be replaced by a body of men paid to give their time and service to the work and who would be in readiness, at any minute of the day or night, to answer an alarm.
Mr. Denig's views, however, met with little encouragement from the Councilmen or the heavy taxpayers. With few exceptions the members of the volunteer organization also looked with disfavor on the idea, for, despite the inconvenience they were often put to and the loss of many of their "Sunday best" suit of clothes, they all enjoyed the element of danger that was ever present and were loathe to see the inauguration of a system that would deprive them of the privilege of engaging in an occasional battle with their favorite enemy--the fire fiend. On frequent occasions the Commercial Record would contain an article setting forth facts and figures to prove the superiority of a paid system, but little attention was given the matter until 1881.
Following a number of fires of incendiary origin in October of that year the following appeared in a local paper: "The public is becoming aroused by so many fires here, and the frightful theory is advanced that they are due to the rivalry among our fire companies to get 'first water;' not that our firemen are guilty of attempting to fire property, but that hoodlums, knowing the spirit of rivalry that exists, have been prompted to start the numerous fires that have been in the city during the last six weeks. However indifferent the criminal element may be to other people's rights, we are disposed to credit the vicious class with too much intelligence as to risk a term in prison for such a trivial purpose. Nevertheless the fires have occurred, and as plunder does not appear to have been the cause, the theory put forth is not, in the opinion of many, an unreasonable one.
"Our citizens are beginning to feel that the contest that has so long animated our firemen for 'first water' must stop, as its effect, although well intended, has been pernicious. There are other grave objections to the practice that are worthy of consideration. The distressing rate of speed at which the horses are driven, is under a stress of excitement, prompted by imprudent motives as well as from the desire to reach the scene of a fire at the earliest moment. Well directed promptness should be encouraged; but unnecessary injury to horses and the rack and wearing out of costly apparatus, for a childish purpose, is hardly creditable to men of mature years. Nor can we speak in more complimentary terms of the very improper practice of two engines drawing water from one small cistern when other water is within reach, the sole object being to get on 'first water.' This is entirely too boy-like a business for men to be engaged in and at the risk of fearful consequences.
"Volunteer companies of every description have always been, and will continue to be, illy governed bodies. Experience has shown that in fire, military and other departments of government, a proper degree of discipline cannot be maintained, and in the absence of which there must ever be disorder and in the long run the consequences must prove fatal. Such has been the case in the army, and in cities throughout the country where the volunteer fire system has been tried and relied on for years, a proper regard for life and property, and even the good morals of the community, forced the adoption of paid departments. On the adoption of the pay system at San Francisco, San Jose and other points in this State, bloody rows, for childish causes, among fire companies, while valuable property was being destroyed by fire, became unknown; while the decided improvement in the working of the several departments, and the marked decrease in losses, fully justified the enhanced quality of paid fire departments. While the personnel of the Stockton department is of too elevated a character to subject its fair name to be tarnished with hoodlumism, it is, nevertheless, painfully in want of that degree of discipline and of being governed and directed by officers armed with the authority that is only found in a paid department."
When the above appeared the city possessed no apparatus other than the hosecarts used by the Webers and the Eurekas and the hose. The engines and horses were owned by the volunteer companies. It was estimated that about $30,000 would be required to install a paid system and the "watchdogs of the city treasury" diligently frowned down all suggestions along that line. The emissaries of the owners of large property interests were also prominently to the fore in presenting arguments against the change. Many of the latter class had enjoyed the gratuitous service of the patriotic and liberal Volunteers so long that they has begun to think they were entitled to them as a matter of course.
Failure on the part of the Council to increase the salary of the Chief Engineer from $20 to $50 per month, as requested by the Board of Delegates in 1883, resulted in many members of the department coming out as enthusiastic supporters of the proposed new system and Councilman Eshbach, and active member of the Webers, was quoted as saying that "he believed that four-fifths of the voters of the city favored the change." In commenting on the refusal of the City Fathers to increase the Chief's salary the Stockton Record of July 7, 1883, said: "Those opposed to the proposed raise of salary made a very weak argument, the strongest point in which was that there should be no raise for the reason that $20 per month is ample compensation. This seemed to be unanswerable, at least the opposing side failed to meet it. We could with equal propriety say that $1 per month would be ample. But some one may make answer that if the services of the chief of the fire department are not worth more than $1 a month they are worth nothing, and, if so, the office should be abolished. This brings us to the starting point, namely, is there need for the office of Chief Engineer? This question is answered by another, namely, have we any use for a fire department? If we have it must, of necessity, have a chief officer? The fact that a salary of $20 a month has been allowed, clearly proves that the office should be a salaried one. If so what ought to be the compensation? The assertion of Councilman Freeman, that the office is regarded as a stepping-stone into something better, cuts no figure in the matter. With equal propriety the remark could be applied to any city or county office. Such should not be regarded as a good reason for making them all unsalaried offices. The deduction is, in our judgment, illogical and unworthy of a mind so liberally endowed.
"In fixing the salary of the Chief Engineer it should be the aim of the Council to place the office within the reach of every member of the fire department, be he laborer, mechanic or politician, and this can only be by making the compensation ample to cover, at least, the expenses that unavoidably attend such position.
"Not only a just return should be made for the services rendered, but the office should not be one that only men of means can fill. It is also the duty of the Council to keep in view the value to the department, and hence, to the city, of improving its efficiency, and consequence in public estimation, by making the chief office one of commanding influence and respectability. It tends to infuse the right kind of spirit into the department and, on the whole, whatever is just and proper will not fail to be attended with results, and a niggardly policy should not stand in the way of what is right."
Two years after the above action the Board of Delegates again passed a resolution in favor of the Council paying the Chief a salary of $100 a month. About the same time the Eurekas forwarded a petition to the Council praying that "that body arrange to submit to a popular vote the question of a paid fire department for the city." The august City Fathers with an indifference wholly unexplainable to the layman but quite characteristic of municipal governing bodies, calmly ignored the petitions, not even deigning to favor either of the volunteer bodies with a reply. 'Tis said that "the mills of the gods grind slowly," the Eurekas waited patiently for some action on the part of the Council until April, 1887, when they unanimously passed a resolution naming a committee to dispose of the company's apparatus and horses. Instructions were given the committee to first offer the apparatus to the city at a reasonable figure, but in the event of failure on its part to purchase, to sell it to the highest bidder. Other resolutions were adopted to the effect that the company was tired of serving as firemen for an unnappreciative people. The Webers also announced their intention of withdrawing from the department and Messrs. THRESHER and ESHBACH were appointed a committee to arrange for the sale of that company's apparatus.
This spirited action, coming as it did, wholly unexpected to the Council had the effect of making that body "sit up and take notice" with an alacrity that was, to say the least, amusing to those who had for years watched its "Rip Van Winkle" tactics with regard to all fire matters. A special committee of the Council was appointed to arrange a meeting with members of the Webers and Eurekas and to report back at once the best terms that could be made with the fire companies. On June 17, 1887, all arrangements having been satisfactorily completed, together with all those of the San Joaquin Engine Company No. 3 and Protection Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was purchased by the municipality. Acting Mayor WHITE and Councilmen FEE and FYFE composed the committee that acted for the city in the transfer of the property while M. S. THRESHER, Henry ESHBACH, Thomas CUNNINGHAM, Geo. A. McKENZIE, J. S. HAINES, James P. CARROLL, and James FORD signed the deeds for the various companies. Following the execution of the deeds in the office of the City Attorney the several committees of firemen went to their respective engine houses about 9 o'clock in the evening and ordered the horses hitched up for delivery to the city officers. The Council's committee then went to each engine house and formally took possession of the property purchased. Chief Engineer Louis J. WAGNER accompanied the committee, and each driver was notified by him that the property had been sold to the city. Acting Mayor WHITE then turned all the property over to Chief WAGNER with instructions to take charge of the same for the city. It had been arranged that the several companies would keep up their organizations and use the property in the protection of the city against fire until the next city election when the Council had arranged to have the people vote on the question of establishing a paid department.
The issue was carried by a healthy plurality and on Monday, January 9, 1888, the Council, at their regular weekly meeting elected the officers and members of the Stockton Paid Fire Department. M. McCANN was nominated for the office of Chief by the late John T. DOYLE; Councilman LEHE presented the name of Israel ROLF and Mr. JOHNSON nominated the late James BROWN, who was at the time Chief Engineer of the Volunteers. Owing to his private business preventing him from devoting the required time to the duties of the office Mr. Louis WAGNER declined to allow his name to be presented to the Council. Mr. BROWN withdrew his name in favor of Mr. ROLF and the ballot resulted in Mr. McCANN receiving the votes of the seven Democratic members while the five Republicans voted for Mr. ROLF. Frank CAVAGNARO, an old member of the Volunteer "Hooks," was chosen to act as assistant to the chief and the following named were selected to fill the various positions in the new department: Engine Company No. 1 - Foreman, C. J. WOLF; Engineer, Henry NASH; Engine Driver, H. WOLF; Hosecart Driver, J. O'LAUGHLIN; Extramen, H. NEISTRATH, Chas. AARON, I. G. ROBINSON, L. OSER, and J. W. BROWN.
Engine Company No. 2 - Foreman, R. R. REIBENSTEIN; Engineer, P. T. BROWN; Engine Driver, C. VANILLA; Hosecart Driver, F. LASTRETTO; Extramen, J. FRITSCH, C. COLLINS, T. TOWELL, G. GIANELLI, and Hugh M. TYE.
Chemical Company No. 1 - Foreman, W. G. HUMPHREY; Driver, J. W. SIMPSON; Extramen, E. C. BROWN and F. FINKBOHNER.
Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 - Foreman, John T. DOYLE; Driver, M. BRISCO; Extramen, F. KENDALL, G. LEIGINGER, J. K. DEMPSEY, and J. FARRELL.
Of the above named, AARON, COLLINS, KENDALL, O'LAUGHLIN, OSER, and SIMPSON are still in service - a seasoned corps of "salamanders" who, unlike the old JEFFERS engine, have never failed to perform their part when danger threatened and with whom "smoke eating" has become a habit and fire-fighting an exact science.
Chief McCANN'S first annual report showed that the new department had responded to 46 alarms. Exclusive of the Houser Harvester Works the losses for the year aggregated but $3,285, a record of which any department might well be proud. On September 23, 1890, a new LaFrance engine was secured at the cost of $4,500. It was christened "The Reibenstein" in honor of the popular gentleman who at the time occupied the Mayor's chair. The engine was held in reserve for several months after its arrival before being placed in active service. Differences of opinion as to the relative powers of the new machine and the Amoskeag of No. 1 company resulted in a wager between Fred SALBACH and a member of the other company. A test was arranged at which the LaFrance demonstrated her superiority and during the eighteen years it has been in service the engine has given general satisfaction. Previous to her purchase Chief McCANN visited San Francisco and there called on Chief Dave SCANNELL then at the head of the Bay City's department. After talking over the relative merits of the different engines then on the market, Chief SCANNELL advised McCANN to recommend the purchase of the LaFrance to his Councilmen. That body acted upon his suggestion despite much adverse criticism and the record made by the engine during its long service is another tribute to the ability and superior discernment of San Francisco's old Chief, than whom no better fire-fighter or more generous-hearted gentleman lived in this day.
Chief McCANN was succeeded in 1891 by Israel ROLF who had served as Chief of the Volunteer organization ten years previous and who had been recognized as an able fireman for many years. Under his administration the department continued to act in the same efficient manner that had marked the first three years of its existence and, with few exceptions, the personnel of the organization remained the same. Mr. ROLF held the office until July, 1899, when the duties of shaping the course of the department fell to the lot of James P. CARROLL. Mr. CARROLL filled the office in an able manner for four years when Captain Will H. KNOWLES of Chemical Company No. 1 was placed at the head. Captain KNOWLES resigned in 1905 and Mr. CARROLL was re-appointed. After sixteen years of civilian life Chief McCANN was once more called upon to assume the duties of the position. Taking charge of the office on August 21, 1907, he immediately selected Mr. M. D. MURPHY of the Chemical Company to attend to the duties of assistant chief. Mr. MURPHY has been connected with the department in various capacities for the past nine years, during which time he has on a number of occasions demonstrated his fitness for the position he now holds. A position that has added duties and responsibilities but carries no additional salary over that of the other regular paid men.
The department at present consists of the Chief, Assistant Chief, fourteen full-pay men, whose duties require their constant attendance at their respective company quarters, and seventeen "call-men" who are paid $20 per month and who, while at liberty to work at other occupations during the day are obliged to respond to every alarm and cannot leave the city limits without first notifying the Chief and engaging a substitute to act for them. For the latter purpose there are seven substitutes carried on the roll.
Have you ever been privileged to see them, reader, when the gong strikes and its tap resounds in their quarters? At night, perhaps, when all are wrapped, upstairs in their beds, in the peaceful spell of slumber. For a fireman's sleep, you must know, is an honest sleep; the sleep of the sturdy and hearty. Yet not such deep somnolence, either, but that the first faint clockwork tick of the bell awakens him instanter.
"Whir! Bang!" says the gong. "Bang!" and "Bang!" again. "Get there!" it admonishes. Turn out!" "Get there! "reverberates." This is no business for a sluggard!" Up spring all hands; up and into fire boots, the trousers folded for celerity, (time's everything now), into the tops of them. Up all, as one, with a quick clasp of the belt and down the sliding pole, each to his appointed place on the street floor of the station; for steps, you must know, are all too slow for this swift avocation. Up it is, in point of fact, out of bed; and down it is, through the trap, like an acrobatic performer. Here's life for you, friends, sure enough; life with zest and energy and action. And here we are, all hitched up and out on the street, in less time than it takes to tell it - the actual time? - why, fifteen seconds. Hardly a twinkling. Each of our own home companies, in fact, have performed the feat in time that beats the record.
Then off we go, into the stormy night, at a thundering gallop, the drivers strapped to their seats on an eight ton piece of apparatus, the horses picking their way through the darkened streets with unerring instinct and a desire to reach the scene that displays an intelligence almost human. Foremen, engineers, tillerman, hosemen, call-men, all the crews at the handrail. Into the night, dark, bleak and dreary; just the faintest glimmer of something there in the distance, but changing now, even as we look, increasing and expanding; steadily growing, tinging with a dull red, coppery glare the somber, leaden sky-line.
On, with a rush, and new burst of speed; on to an all-night job! And, more than likely, far into the day, besides. To be grilled with the heat, and stifled with smoke, drenched with cold water and steamed with hot, soaked to the very pith and marrow of the bone, till done, and properly done, done - we'll say like a hot Frankfurter sausage. Lucky, too, if returning there is nothing worse to bother than bark, or bruise, or scald. And returning to what? To rest? Ah, no, Indeed! Nothing of that sort. Not in this particular branch of the business. To curry and care for the faithful steeds that have performed their part so well. To wash hose, and hose wagons and polish engines until their brass and platings reflect as a mirror. Then to the other numerous chores. A side of the picture of which, we opine the admiring public - seeing only the heroic fire-fighting side - knows but little.
And how, as not infrequently occurs, how, if a second alarm is struck on the heels of the first one? How if, after a hard-fought battle with the devouring element - our men all back cosily tucked in bed again - another tap inexorably commands them! Says Tennyson, in one of his poems: "Ring out, wild bells! Ring out! Ring out!" which was very well for him. But, to the jaded fireman, just closing his eyes again, Macbeth's "Silence that dreadful bell!" is something more to the purpose. Still must he unmurmuringly respond, no matter what he thinks, or how he feels, when and wherever duty calls him.
Transcriber Sally Kaleta.
Proofreader Betty Vickroy.
© 2002-2007 Nancy Pratt Melton.
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