Fire Museum Tells of Valor, History

Times Staff Writer

With its high ceilings, six old-fashioned brass fire poles and nearly a dozen antique fire engines, the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum looks like a set from a Hollywood back lot.

The only thing missing is actor Kurt Russell sliding down a pole, as he did in the 1991 film “Backdraft.” But Fire Station 27 has a greater purpose: keeping the flame of L.A. Fire Department history.

Located on North Cahuenga Boulevard two blocks south of Sunset Boulevard, the building has had almost as colorful a history as the Fire Department itself.


Its proximity to Hollywood studios made it a choice location for movies that featured such stars as the Three Stooges, Buster Keaton and Tim McCoy.

For early moviegoers, the sight of fire engines peeling out of the station’s three arched doorways was thrilling.

Built in 1930, when Dalmatians still routinely rode shotgun on fire engines, it was the largest firehouse west of the Mississippi.

In 1992, Engine Co. 27 moved out of the old Hollywood firehouse into a newly built station next door. The old station was spruced up to become one of the nation’s largest fire museums to be housed in an actual fire station. The museum opened exactly one month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which put firefighters front and center in the nation’s consciousness.

Retired firefighters Frank Borden and Bill Dahlquist, who help to manage the relics at the 73-year-old fire station, entertain visitors with the tale of Blanche the Wonder Dog, who flunked out of seeing-eye school but became Los Angeles’ first canine arson investigator. They also describe horses’ vital role; the department always published an obituary when one of its horses died.

Blackie, the department’s last fire horse, became more of a celebrity in his retirement than he was during his three decades on duty. After his retirement in 1929, Blackie traveled from school to school, where he delighted students as they learned about fire safety.


Dahlquist noted that Dalmatians and other pooches that were fearless of the fire horses’ hoofs originally were purposeful workers, racing between the horses’ legs to keep them galloping. The dogs’ familiar presence also helped calm frightened horses. Dalmatians evolved into firefighters’ spunky and photogenic sidekicks. Finally, they passed into history, phased out like old fire bells.

Sparky, the Dalmatian at Fire Station 103 in Northridge, was one of the city’s last fire dogs. When the alarm sounded, he was first on the truck. During his nine years of service, from 1976 to 1985, he was also newspaper bearer, security guard, talisman and television celebrity, playing a prominent role in Fire Department public safety ads.

In the 1990s, liability concerns about dog bites pretty much closed the doggie door on mascots all over the Southland.

Lining the walls of the firehouse museum are historic photographs of the men who served in the days of bucket brigades, horse-drawn engines and both the earliest and most modern motor-powered firetrucks.

The city’s first firehouse gang of volunteer firefighters was organized in 1869 at Billy Buffum’s fashionable saloon. They called themselves the Thirty-Eights, which represented the number of men they could muster in case of a blaze.

But it wasn’t until after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 that the Los Angeles department fully organized and put into action the city’s first steam engine. The professional Los Angeles Fire Department went into service in 1886, with 31 paid firefighters and 24 reserve volunteers.


Borden paused to survey the polished, 116-year-old steam-pumper named Kuhrts, whose firefighting days are long over. The 1887 horse-drawn engine -- named for Jacob “Uncle Jake” Kuhrt, a 19th century grocer, fire chief, councilman and the city’s first fire commissioner -- can still pump 700 gallons of water a minute.


Colonial-Era Artifacts

Housed in this treasure trove of antique equipment dating to colonial times are examples of wooden rattles used to sound a fire alarm; leather buckets used in bucket brigades; an international collection of nearly 200 firefighters’ helmets, badges and uniforms; a collection of miniature antique firehouses; and a large collection of fire insurance marks. The marks were a sign that the building’s owner was entitled to firefighters’ protection.

“Eastern fire insurance companies distributed the marks as a way of identifying property they insured, tacking them up on a building,” Dahlquist explained. “If the building didn’t have a mark, firefighters didn’t put out the fire.”

Some of the city’s fragile, handwritten daily logbooks, dating to the turn of the 20th century, are encased in glass. “Chief Casey alowed [sic] Winkler to go and see the doctor for burns caused at fire 110 N. Ave. 22,” someone jotted in an unsigned entry dated June 7, 1912, when firefighters’ salaries ranged from $80 to $125 per month.

Sitting in the huge firehouse kitchen with its down-home charm and 1930s decor, Borden described the days of Prohibition, when the hose tower -- where hoses were hung to dry -- was known as the “Blue Room.” That was also where fire chiefs and others met for a lawless nip or two.

During the corrupt administration of Mayor Frank Shaw in the 1930s, some aspiring firefighters wore red carnations in their lapels on exam days, signaling that they had paid for answer keys to the test for the department’s hard-to-get jobs.


Dahlquist can reel off the harrowing history of a city fireboat -- the Ralph J. Scott -- a National Historic Landmark that worked the harbor for 77 years; a 1944 flash fire that engulfed two Navy ships and killed 16 men; and the explosion of the tanker Markay in 1947, which killed 11 people and forced the fireboat to plow through a sea of burning gasoline and butane.

Dahlquist himself piloted the Scott in response to a massive December 1976 explosion aboard the Sansinena, an 810-foot oil supertanker, which left nine people dead and 22 injured.

The Fire Department’s long history of battling tragedy is documented in rare photographs, archival material and a well-researched 240-page book, “A Century of Service: The Fascinating Story of the Los Angeles Fire Department (1886-1986),” written by firefighter and historian Paul Ditzel.

Ditzel, sometimes called the dean of American fire historians, writes incendiary prose about old fire chiefs; blacksmiths called “corn doctors,” who made station calls to shoe the horses and shave corns off hoofs; turbulent race relations; and the racial integration of the stations, which began in 1955.

He also recalls the city’s legendary blazes: the 1887 Belmont Hotel fire atop Bunker Hill; the 1961 Bel-Air fire, which consumed 484 homes and charred 25 square miles; the city’s first towering inferno at the 32-story Occidental Tower (Transamerica Building) on South Hill Street in 1976; and the Pan Pacific Auditorium fire in 1989.

But it’s the heroism of firefighters and paramedics that is commemorated here. The department’s highest honor, the Medal of Valor, has been awarded to nearly 200 firefighters and paramedics since 1911 for daring rescues and acts of bravery.


In 1969, firefighter William Rolland won that award after mudslides swamped Mandeville Canyon. He risked his life in an unsuccessful effort to rescue Michael Riordan, 41, brother of Richard Riordan, who would later become Los Angeles’ mayor.

Rolland, now a retired firefighter, real estate magnate and philanthropist, recently contributed $250,000 for an educational component to the museum. The William Rolland Educational Institute, opening this year, will offer a place for community groups and individuals to learn about fire safety and prevention.


Firefighters Memorial

Groundbreaking will begin in a few months on a memorial to honor the city’s fallen firefighters. It will include five life-size bronze statues of firefighters, designed by local artist Yoshikawa, and the chiseled names of the nearly 80 firefighters who have died in the line of duty since the city’s first volunteer fire department was formed 134 years ago.

The shelves of the museum gift shop are stocked with LAFD coffee cups, baseball caps, videos, T-shirts, toys, puzzles and books, all emblazoned with firetrucks and the Fire Department’s logo. The museum and gift shop are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.

“The museum is not just a place but an experience,” Borden said. It’s “where people can go to learn and appreciate what the firefighters and their equipment have done for over a century to protect life and property.”