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A fireman's life in 1912

My favorite resource (among many) is Jerry Michals at the Denver Firefighters Museum. He knows everything about Denver Fire!

I asked him what Mr. Tait (my fire fighter character's day would have looked like and about promotions etc.). This is what Jerry said:

"Eugene would first have to have been promoted to Lieutenant after passing a test, usually at least five years after being a 1st Grade Fireman, at least eight years on the job. Then he would be at that rank for at least 3-5 years or longer depending on retirements, then taking the test and scoring high enough to be Promoted to Captain. There would have to be an opening for the Captain, average of two Lieutenants for every Captain vacancy. To have testing open for Lieutenants with time in grade to test for the position. If he was not tight with Chief Healy he would have to have been #1 on the exam to be promoted. If Chief Healy did not like him for some reason he would never be promoted. If promoted he would transfer to the Fire Company that Chief Healy had chosen for him. If he somehow was a favorite of Department Chief Healy, not having enough time as a Lt. would not be a problem because the Chief did have the power to promote a Fireman without a test and actually did this in real life at least once. If Eugene was not tight with Chief Healy there would be no chance of promotion. Impressing Chief Healy was a very high bar, a young Fireman would have to be exceptional to be under his wing, Healy did not miss much and he was very invested in keeping his Department to his standards and his favorite station was #8. Your Fireman arsonist would have to be a very good actor as Chief Healy was at Station 8 several hours each day. It was his favorite station and actually had an apartment added to the north side for his home after his wife died in 1931. Only one Fireman promoted out of the system in real life was when Chief Healy promoted his Driver to Lt. and Capt. without testing was the only recorded favoritism in his 32 years as Chief of the D. F. D.

Station #3 was a segregated Negro Firehouse from the 1890’s until 1974 that had only one bay for the apparatus. Originally it had a horse drawn hose wagon and when motor driven apparatus arrived they had a hose wagon. A Hose Wagon did not have pumps. The crew would connect to a hydrant and fight a fire with hydrant pressure or connect the hose to a ladder truck with a nozzle at the top to fight and exterior building fire. Later they had a motor driven pumper. The original Station and it’s 1930 replacement (in service) are still standing on opposite corners at E. 25th St. and Washington St. Station 3 was created as a all Negro fire company and had a tragic beginning. The original company with a white Captain, 3’s entire working crew of 4 were killed in a floor collapse at the St. James Hotel Fire on March 23, 1895.

Station #8, at 1618 Marion St., had a horse drawn “Silsby” Steam Engine and Hose Wagon for the period at the beginning of your novel. The Steam Engine crew consisted of the Driver with three horses and an Engineer on the rear step to operate the pumps. There was the Officer, the Driver and two Firemen on the Hose Wagon. The Steamer had a Driver riding high in front and Engineer that rode standing up on the rear step of the Steam Engine. The average time to hitch the steam engine for a fire call was 17 seconds, timing done by Fire Insurance employees. Fire Insurance classified Fire Departments, with Class 1 being the high mark for the lowest fire insurance ratings. This was very important to promote business in Denver. The Engineer was responsible to deliver water to the Firemen. The Hose Wagon carried 400-500 feet of 3” hose that would connect the fire hydrant to the steam engine or to use hand held with a nozzle. The Wagon had a Driver and the Officer on the front seat and left the Station first. Two Firemen on the rear step were the "Sampson Man" and a “Plug Catcher” that pulled the hose from the wagon and connected it to the fire hydrant. On July 10, 1915, The D.F.D.’s first motor driven Pumper Truck, a Seagrave 1,000 Gallons Per Minute (GPM) engine replaced the Steam Engine, Hose Wagon and Chemical Wagon. The crew number stayed the same and the Driver and Engineer were the same person. The crew was still 5 to cover days off. On August 25, 1917, the horse drawn Ladder Truck from Station #8 was replaced by the first motor driven ladder truck built by the D. F. D. Shops. In 1930 Department Chief Healy’s wife died and he had an apartment added to the side of Station 8 that included quarters for his Driver and Chief’s Car. Station #8 was obviously the Chief’s favorite.

If he is a Ladderman, his job would in the station would be to check that all the tools were accounted for every morning and after every fire. He would help the Driver clean the stable area and care for the horses. He would then help the junior Pumper Fireman clean the dormitory and lavatory. At a fire he would always carry an axe or pry bar depending on the assignment given to their crew. After the fire he would help go through the building to make sure the fire was out. Back at the station all tools used would be cleaned and put away then inventory check to make sure all returned after the fire. Any ladders used were to be cleaned and ropes checked. He would also share the job of watchman at the desk. He would write every every alarm given in the city and note when any visitors were in the station. He would write the times each fireman left for his meal break and when he returned.

Your Fireman’s duties would relate to his seniority. On the Truck he would inventory tools daily and after a fire, help the Driver with the team and any maintenance, along with the Engine Fireman he would sure the house cleaning chores. He would cheerfully run errands. At fires he would help raise ladders, cut through roofs with an axe, pull down ceiling and wall plaster with a pike pole, put any smoldering refuse in metal bucks and dump it outside. Other furniture and mattresses would be carried out. Back at the Station he would clean and inventory the tools then help with the horses. On the Engine the least seniority would catch the hydrant (usually called a plug, hence the term plug catcher). The higher seniority Fireman was called the Sampson man as he used the Sampson Clamp to prevent water from the hydrant from being released until the hose was either attached to the Pumper or had a nozzle attached. He would then advance into the fire backing up the Officer. If he is the Driver (Drivers had to be experienced teamsters to be hired), he would set the brake, unhitch the horses and move them from the scene and tie the reins and then cover the backs with a blanket. At large fires, one Driver would handle up to three teams while the other Drivers fought the fire. If he was the Plugman, least seniority, when reached the Officer and Sampson man, he would help advance advance the hose to the fire. After the fire was out, the wet and dirty hose lines were disconnected and rolled up and stacked on the hose wagon. At the station the hose was stretched on the station driveway ramp to have the soot and debris washed off. Then the hose was dragged into the station’s hose tower using a rope and pulley hoist attached to the center of the hose and pulled up to the top, the water then draining into the sewer. Depending on the weather the hose would dry in 24 hours in summer and two or more days in humid conditions. There was enough hose at the station for three complete hose loads.

The long stretches between fires forced firemen to be creative with projects like woodworking, toy building, painting, sculpting and later working on their personal cars. The work shifts for all Firemen in 1910 was five consecutive 24-hour shifts with one 24-hour shift off. Two weeks vacation per year by seniority. Firemen were allowed three one-hour meal breaks per shift that the Fireman could leave the station or have family bring food in. If in the station they would not required to respond but a Fireman would not pass up any call that could be a working fire. Not much time off to get into trouble. Drinking on duty was a major problem resulting in some Firemen losing their jobs. Firemen with the least seniority were the first to be transferred if the manpower needs of the department required moving men from slower stations for full staffing at the busiest stations.

Other Details:

1910 The first airplane to land in Denver was at Overland Park.

1911-1912 Typhoid Epidemic hits Denver. Many Firemen were stricken.

1912 First grade fireman salary is $95 per month plus $5 per month for every year of service.

September 1911 Thomas Edison films apparatus on simulated “runs” and the DFD Training Tower in action.

October 1911, 74 watt incandescent electric street lighting replaced gas lamps in downtown Denver.

September 1,1912, City Park Station #18 is built. It was the first Bungalow Style Fire Station built in the USA.

September 20, 1912, new uniform breast badges with seniority numbers replace hat badges with Station numbers.

1912 pay scales: 1st Grade Firefighter $95 per month plus $5 per month for every year of service.

1913 Federal income tax becomes law.

1921 Work shift is 24-hours on duty and 24 hours off duty.

March 1, 1914, payday is now twice per month instead on once per month. The work shift is 5 consecutive 24 hour shifts with one 24 hour shift off. Shifts are 8 AM to 8 AM.

The summer uniform is indigo blue dress summer shirt, white bow tie (black in winter), and black shoes. Officers have a white dress shirt with stand up collars, white bow tie, double breasted indigo blue dress coat with velvet collar. Caps are gilt for officers and black for Firemen. Regulation suspenders are red, black shoes and lightweight straw cap in summer. The uniform badge after 1912 was a chest badge and had a seniority number. At the end of every year all badges were sent to the office and sent back to the firemen with their new seniority number. The Badge was used into the 1980’s; the seniority updates had ceased in the 1960’s.

Alarm response: The house 15” Gamewell Gong would ring a code that corresponded to the number on the fire alarm box that was pulled. The Fireman on watch would write down the code and loudly call out the number, i.e., 248. He would look and the board on the wall that had the box number with the corner address and then call out the cross streets. Average responses out of the stations timed by fire insurance inspectors ranged from under a minute to 90 seconds after the first of the three box number series was sounded. Remarkable speed assisted by horses leaving the stalls on the first ring to stand in place as the first firemen slide the poles and apply the “Quick Hitch” and then don their bunking coats as they move to their place on the apparatus. For the engine company that would be three horses for the steam engine and two horses for the hose wagon. Ladder Trucks had three horses.

The stations did not have automatic closers for the barn style doors which stayed open until the companies returned. Some stations had neighbors that would close the doors in winter. The museum station doors are an example."

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