Pasadena’s First “First Responders”

They may not have called themselves Pasadena’s Bucket Brigade, but we should consider the citizens of Pasadena as this young city’s first “first responders.” There were no fire engines, fire stations, or fire hydrants. Neighbors rushed to save neighbors’ homes and businesses- armed with buckets of water- the original piece of firefighting equipment. Like the firefighters of Emperor Caesar Augustus, they brought their own water to the fires using buckets. Some American cities required residents to keep buckets at the entrances of their homes. If they didn’t fight the fire themselves, they loaned their buckets to those fighting the fire.  Buckets were adorned with designs and addresses were painted on the buckets to aid their return to owners.

How to Start a Fire - Department

Dayton Street Firehouse, 1890s (Main Photo Collection, D5-F1-12)

As Pasadena’s population and businesses grew, fire danger increased as well as insurance rates. Business owners spurred by high insurance rates became more interested in establishing a city fire department. “The first effort ever made toward organizing a Fire Company in Pasadena occurred in January, 1885.”[i]  A meeting was held at the Webster Hotel, a list of twenty firefighting volunteers was read, and the Pasadena Fire Brigade became a reality on paper.  On February 13, 1885, another meeting was held with discussions about acquiring firefighting equipment. Subscriptions were solicited from businesses to cover the cost but the subscription payments were not forthcoming and efforts to move forward stalled.  Dr. H. A. Reid, chairman of the first committee to establish a fire department, quoted a local newspaper- “… our late fire showed pretty plainly how useful they [ladders and hooks] would have been.”[ii]  That “late fire” resulted in the destruction of a Chinese laundry and adjacent properties on November 5, 1885.

[i] Hiram A. Reid, History of Pasadena (Pasadena: Pasadena History Company, 1895). 290.

[ii] Reid, 292.

Pasadena Hook, Ladder, & Hose

It was not until August 25, 1887, that bonds were issued for fire protection.  On October 8, 1887, Resolution No. 52 was adopted establishing the City Fire Department comprised of hook, ladder, and hose companies.  The city’s blacksmith shops crafted hooks and ladders.  Soon, pole-hooks, grappling hooks, scaling ladders, ropes, and leather buckets could be seen on wagons made by the city’s wagon shop.  We cannot forget this short list of firefighting equipment included strong and nimble horses to pull the wagons.  In these early days, there were no uniformed firefighters.  Hats (for head protection) and belts (to hold axes) for the firefighters were not provided until later when volunteers were unwilling to work without them.

The M.M. Parker Silsby Steam Fire Engine

Portrait of Millard M. Parker, n.d. (Charles and Millard Parker Collection, CMP 1.24)

Municipal improvement bonds paid for the first steam fire engine purchased by Pasadena.  It was an exciting day when a No. 2 Silsby steam fire engine was unloaded at the Santa Fe Railroad station in 1889.  “The engine is the very best that could be provided and cost about $4600.  It is a beauty and is well calculated in its appearance and action to inspire our firemen with that patriotism or heroism that every old fireman knows and feels.” Dubbed the “M. M. Parker” after the President of the City Council at the time, Millard M. Parker, the engine was “a fitting compliment to a hard-working and conscientious public officer.” [i]

The Los Angeles Times of July 10, 1889 reported “The new fire engine, the “M. M. Parker” was tested this afternoon and found perfect in every respect.”  A long list of engineers witnessed the tests including P.H. Judge, an engineer on the Santa Fe Railroad and Thomas Strohm, Chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department. “The first test was at the corner of Colorado Street and Marengo Avenue, and with 40 pounds of steam a stream of water from a 1 ½ inch nozzle was thrown 140 feet high. The next test was made near the Raymond [Raymond Hotel], and the engine satisfactorily met all of the requirements.”

A writer for the Pasadena newspaper Independent Star-News of May 14, 1961, commented about the horses pulling the engine, “It must have been a grand sight to see them go galloping along Green Street with 7,725 pound “M. M.” in tow, emitting a long stream of smoke. Old “M. M.” could throw a stream of water to the top of the Green Hotel, the record states.” Note: Colonel George G. Green, owner of the Green Hotel, built the hotel to be fireproof and advertised it as such.

Pasadena's First Fire Engine, 1890s (Courtesy of Pasadena Public Library,  ppl_14550)
Pasadena's First Fire Engine, 1890s (Courtesy of Pasadena Public Library, ppl_14550)

A fire that could have destroyed the new engine occurred during the testing that day. “At the trial near the Raymond, the engine, which was placed on a vacant lot covered with dry weeds, set fire to the weeds, and the paint on the engine was badly scorched before the fire could be extinguished.” Whether the engine was used to put out the fire was not mentioned.

This unplanned “inauguration” certainly wasn’t intentional but is reminiscent of the traditional ceremony to prepare a new fire engine for service. That ceremony known as a “wetdown” and “push-in” evolved from the routine of separating the horses from the pumper cart with both the horses and pumper being washed by the firefighters. The engine would then be pushed into its place in the barn or fire house. Transferring water from an old fire engine to a new one is part of today’s tradition. The October 18, 2018, San Marino Tribune reported upon their fire department’s “push-in” event that “the act of transferring water into the new fire engine represent life, as well as always being ready to protect.” Firefighters and local citizens assisted pushing the engine backward into the station - a tradition from the days when men did this because horses were unable to push the wagon backwards.

[i] Los Angeles Times, 27 October 1889, p. 7; digital image,

New Fire Alarm Bell Improves Response Time

A city investigation of the Beaton family house fire that claimed the lives of three children on September 18, 1889, “led to vigorous measures toward improving and perfecting the fire department.”[i] The city council issued new procedural instructions and a new fire alarm bell was ordered.  Until an electric fire alarm system was installed throughout the city in 1891, bells in schools and churches and an occasional gun fired into the air alerted men to their firefighting duties.

[i] Reid, 294.

Going Forward

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Pasadena, Los Angeles County, California. Sanborn Map Company, Jun, 1890. Map.

The 1889, 1890 and 1894 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps offer a comparison of the Pasadena Fire Department’s staff and equipment.  It is apparent the city of Pasadena was moving forward to build a fire department that would meet the needs of the growing city it served.

- Susan Beeler Anderson

The Pasadena firehouse dog, Buster, 1909-1910 (Courtesy of Pasadena Public Library, ppl_14464)