Louis Almgren: Fire Chief
A Taped Interview of Reminiscences...
My father and mother were born in Sweden and came to the United States about the year 1871 -- to Peoria, Illinois where I was born. We left Peoria in 1884, and went to Russell, Kansas in 1887. Some time later we came to San Diego. I went to school here, and worked with my father who had a contract building the Ballast Point and the Point Loma Lighthouse. I worked there for 50 cents a day and board, obtaining water for the workmen, and later worked at different occupations in the building trade in San Diego until 1900.
The contractors out at the Point were Scott and Roeback and my father was a sub-contractor -- I carried water from the Point Loma light, on top of the hill down to the Point Loma light twice a day, two buckets a load. The lighthouse on top of the hill had a cistern that would supply the water that came mostly from the rainfall -- good water and the only we had for the workmen down at the new lighthouse.
Just about the time we completed the light a ship came into the harbor with the Brennan family aboard. There were ten in the family: eight children and the parents, and his father took charge of the light at Ballast Point until the light was completed on the end of Point Loma.
I was acquainted with George R. Harrison who at the time owned the Union Ice Company and I knew him very well. One day I was out of a job and looking for work. I asked him what the chances were in getting on the fire department. Harrison said he would see the chief and see if he wanted any men-he was the fire commissioner. He and Al Edwoods and John P. Burt were the Commissioners. I saw him a few days later and he said they wanted some call men. He asked me my age, height, weight, where I lived, how long I lived here, and I told him.
He took it up to the meeting of the Fire Commission and I think I was appointed at the same time that Ellis Frishey was appointed, and we were assigned to Truck Company on the Plaza at the time. Harry Cook was driving the truck at that time and riding the horses. The firehouse was located on the west side of 3rd Street between Broadway and "E".
I had joined the Naval Reserve when I was sixteen years old in 1892, and they had boats, a sailing launch, and a gig. (Admiral Farragut's gig in the Battle of Mobile Bay). Later I joined the Navy for two years in the Spanish-American War. Coming out of the Navy, I worked for awhile, and then landed the job with the Fire Department in 1901. They had eight stations when I joined the Department. One station was on 3rd Street (that was No. I Station), No. 2 Station was on 5th Street between "A" and "B". The Station on 3rd Street was between "B" and "E" (which is now Broadway). One was on 6th Street between "I" and "J" and later they established three stations: one on University Avenue, one on 4th and Laurel, the other on the east end by the East End School. A. B. Carnes was fire chief when I went on; later Eugene Donley. I succeeded Donley -- I was Chief in 1909.
When I first went to work for the Fire Department they had all horse-drawn equipment and the first year that I was there I installed the first motor fire-fighter; a converted rambler touring car into a hose and chemical combination wagon. I was steam engineer. I first worked up to the position as steam engineer on the old horse-drawn vehicles.
I remember many spectacular fires. in those early days with the old horse-drawn vehicles. The Simon Levi fire on the northwest comer of 7th and "J" was a very spectacular fire a six alarm; the Standard Oil fire -- they were about the most prominent. Then we had the steamship fire. The steamship Alaskan was on fire here [in 1910] and we fought the fire for ten days and finally saved the ship and most of the cargo. They had a million dollar cargo and the ship was worth a million. The insurance companies, Liverpool Headquarters of the Lloyds of London, presented the fire department and the late Phil Chasen with a $10,000 present and gave me a gold watch and chain and a funny charm for saving the ship.
We had a number of earthquakes while I was on the fire department, but never one that recorded a loss. To my knowledge, we kept track of fire losses and the earthquake losses, and to my knowledge, we never had to pay the loss or the City of San Diego from an earthquake. I can't understand why they give it such publicity-they put it on the front pages of the Los Angeles Times every time they have a quake here and sometimes 50% of the people don't know there has ever been a quake, but they play it up. When I was in Miami, Florida last winter they showed me an article, that there was twenty-eight earthquakes in San Diego, and I never felt a one of them.
It was in 1909 that we got our first motorized equipment - a converted rambler touring car, and we used it for a hose and chemical engine. Later in 1911, we got the first aerial truck-hook and ladder, and then from time to time until the year 1916, the department was fully motorized but we still had horses that belonged to the City that were later given to the street department. They stored some of the old equipment around the various stations. They had a hand-drawn apparatus at La Jolla. It was sold by Chief Shute when he was chief out in the outlying districts. The horses remained until the last replacement. [The last fire horses were retired in 1917].
Later in 1914 we established our fire department shop and we built the fireboat with the fireman at Station No. 6 at Columbia and Cedar. The firemen built that in their spare time. We put all the mechanics in the shop and they did all the repair work in the shop and built the fireboat there in a period of about six years. The fireboat was named Bill Kettner to honor our famous congressman. The fireboat was 65 x 18: the size of the hull. The pumps were designed and built right in the fire department. Walter Forward was the designer of pumps and the pumps were made and manufactured right in the shop -- the pumps are still in service. That was the first gasoline powered fireboat by fire departments in service at that time in the United States. I don't know of any other that was fully powered by gasoline. [It was commissioned June 30, 1919].
We had ten streams and two deck nozzles. Later we used the fog nozzles about the year 1920. We had a demonstration given in Los Angeles by Chief Scott. He was fire chief of Signal Hill, Long Beach -- got the idea of the fog nozzle, and we had a demonstration for all the chiefs of Southern California, and this was the beginning of the fog nozzle in 1920 -- the chief of the oil fields there thought of and invented the fog nozzle. They got an old oil tank with plenty of oil in the bottom and made a demonstration there for about fifty-five chiefs. They set the tank on fire and then put the fire out in the demonstration. That has become quite the thing for oil fires and has become very effective for every kind of fire that has been developed since that date.
The men we had on the fire department to fight fires were old and past the very active part in life that were getting jobs on the fire department: broken down bartenders, longshoremen; they had past usefulness in life, but they could do the hard work of a fireman and I proceeded to encourage athletics in the fire department. We organized a baseball team to encourage younger men to come in the department. We encouraged handball and we had a basketball team, and we encouraged young men that always kept themselves in good physical condition where they had to take or stand punishment to fight fire and they sure told the fire department that you could tell the difference.
We had good standards and requirements of good physical examinations. The height was 5' 8" and 155 and 160 pounds depending on what job you are qualified for. Some of the names on the firemen's teams that made good in baseball and went to the big league were: Frank Davis, short stop, Chicago White Sox; Benny Hoven, St. Louis; Nationals, Tom Downey: in the Coast League, Latheat Hanyon, pitcher, went to Brooklyn ...
In about the year 1914, we received a radio call a ship was in distress. It was off the harbor about 20 miles heading in and the crew had been fighting the fire but they hadn't made any headaway on it, the fire kept getting worse, so I went on the pilot boat with Pilot Johnson. He boarded the ship about five miles off Point Loma and the captain was hesitant about bringing the ship on fire alongside the dock. After examining the fire down below, I located the fire through the blessing of the bulkheadsthe bulkhead faced on the engine room and I told the captain if he would put her alongside the dock, I think we would be able to put this fire out. We had our acetylene torches and we cut the plates in there and put the water right on the fire where the fire was in the bulkhead and we saved the ship and brought her in and Johnson docked her at the foot of Broadway. The new dock was just completed then and we had the apparatus there waiting to go to work and we had the acetylene torches and everything waiting and we cut the hole through the bulkhead and put the fire out. The company rewarded the fire department, paid all the expenses for the city. I don't recall the name of the ship, but the steamship company paid all the expenses.
The first fire-alarm system was put in by the Gamewell Company under Chief Carnes, the Gamewell Company installed twenty-five boxes and was built by the same company. There was a box on 3rd and Broadway, 6th and Broadway, 10th and 'Y', 5th and "H", 12th and Broadway, and 12th and "H". They used to use telephones in the outlying districts. In regard to the old fire bell they had here years ago, it was located just where Jessop's Jewelry Store is. The bell was located on an elevated tower. That lot was supposed to belong to the fire department but it was sold at public auction to buy a location for the Carnegie Library, and the bell was taken down and they bought the present location where the Carnegie Library is located now; public library. The bell, the last I heard, was at the Serra Museum ... The bell is there now, I believe. Later on they improved the fire alarm system. The fire alarm office had to be located in the park, and it is now located there and the Central Fire Alarm Office fire system has been extended all over the city, as far north as La Jolla.
In recent years, by support of the County of San Diego, the San Diego History Center has tape-recorded reminiscences of many San Diegans. The staff of the Serra Museum has carefully transcribed these remembrances and indexed them for use by interested researchers.
This continuing program will in time reach many more oldtimers; who have important and interesting stories to tell.
The interview printed here was made by Mr. Edgar Hastings on April 17, 1957 -- taken from Mr. Louis Almgren, a distinguished San Diegan. Born in Peoria, Illinois, Almgren came to San Diego when he was but ten years old. Many of the details of his life and of his experiences are told in the interview which follows.
On May 15, 1961, Mr. Almgren passed away. Several months later, on July 7, 1961, the San Diego Fire Department and the Port of San Diego dedicated the Patrol Boat Chief Almgren in tribute to the famed and beloved fire chief.