Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hidden Landmarks: The 1909 fire bell

ABOVE: A photo from the City of Huntington Beach archives, with the description "City's first fire engine, a 1923 Seagrave in November of 1922. Held 750 gallons of water with hard rubber tires. Painted bright fire engine red, #1 saw many years of service to the community all the way into the 1950s."  The first "fire engine," in reality, was a chemical engine tank purchased soon after the City's incorporation in 1909, however it was horse-driven. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach)

   In front of the Lake Street Fire Station is a piece of pioneer history: the 1909 fire bell. Covered with layers of paint, the bell is commemorated by a bronze plaque re-dedicating it to Huntington Beach fire fighters in 1981. 

ABOVE: The original 1909 fire bell at the Lake Street Fire Station. The bronze plaque reads, "Rededication of original Huntington Beach fire bell, purchased 1909, to honor Huntington Beach Fire Fighters, 1909-1981." (Photo, M. Urashima, March 2014) © All rights reserved.

   One of the first actions taken by the new City's board of trustees upon incorporation in 1909 was the creation of a fire service and the enlisting of fire fighting volunteers.  The majority of buildings were wood construction, and common household items included wood-burning stoves and kerosene lanterns.  The need for organized fire fighting was a no-brainer.

   The Huntington Beach Fire Department remembers their beginnings, "John Philip was selected as the first Fire Chief and on April 15, 1909 the City Council officially recognized the department."   Shortly thereafter the City's first "Fireman's Ball" was held to raise money for the new department. 

   After the fundraising was complete, Chief Philip appeared before the City Council to obtain approval for the purchase of a large fire bell, hose cart with 600 feet of two-inch hose, nozzle and hydrant wrench. Not long after the purchase of this equipment, the department also obtained helmets, coats, boots and leather buckets.
A chemical engine presented to the City for consideration upon their going out to bid for fire equipment. (City of Huntington Beach, Board of Trustees minutes, July 12, 1909)
Details for a bid on fire equipment, including hoses and various sizes of chemical engines ranging from $525.00 to $725.00. (City of Huntington Beach, Board of Trustees minutes, July 12, 1909)

By 1917, the community was asking the bell be installed in a tower or stand.  At the next meeting, it was noted the bell had been installed on the roof of the city hall.  (City of Huntington Beach, Board of Trustees minutes, April 2, 1917)

By 1919, the City was reorganizing the volunteer fire department to provide some compensation and an incentive for responding promptly to calls. (City of Huntington Beach, Board of Trustees minutes, February 17, 1919)

ABOVE: The fire department in 1927, had two fire engines--the one on the left equipped with a brass bell--and uniformed fire fighters. (City of Huntington Beach archives)

   The first fire volunteers met at a livery at 3rd and Orange streets, renting a small space from the owner.  Ironically, this location burned down--a wooden structure!--and the fire department regrouped at Walnut and Main streets.  The fire bell was "mounted on a 20-foot tower and the hose cart was pulled by a horse and buggy provided by the first volunteer to report to the station."  

   After the first oil discovery in 1920, the fire department was challenged with oil and gasoline-related fires.  The wildcatters were in town and the issue of gasoline plants, oil derrick permits, wooden and dangerous derricks, and unregulated oil production practices were on city council agendas.  

   Fire chief Jack Sergeant warned the city council in 1933 that "conditions in the oil field were fast becoming a fire menace and recommended that some protective measures be taken immediately."  Discussions about oil field fire protection and actions against dangerous practices continued to be a regular part of city government discussions for decades.
ABOVE: A smoky, muddy oil field at Clay and Alabama street in Huntington Beach, circa 1920s.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   The "great Pacific Coast Highway fire" in June, 1949--which blasted barrels of oil, mud and water into the air, along with flames 100-feet high--was at a Standard Oil Co. production site near present-day Goldenwest Street and Pacific Coast Highway.  Local historian Jerry Person describes the fire as something that could be seen from Santa Catalina Island, emitting a hissing and grumbling that could be heard in all directions.  Fire fighters and oil workers fought oil oozing across Pacific Coast Highway, across the Pacific Electric Railway tracks, and off to the ocean.  It took three and a half days to put out the fire and the heat had warped the train tracks.

   In March 15, 1954, Fire Chief Bud Higgins was dealing with another growing oil field practice and asking the city council for an ordinance "regulating the control and use of explosives, especially in the oil fields."  The City had already enacted an ordinance in August 1934, prohibiting the discharge of fireworks, including "firecrackers, Roman candles, torpedoes, torpedo canes, blank cartridges, sky rockets, salutes, and all other explosive substances of every description."  They meant business.

   More recent challenges for the fire department have been the much debated issue of fireworks (currently illegal), clean up from almost a century of oil production, reduced but continuing oil production, and large events at the beach.

   The early 1900s fire department also had to adapt to the rapidly growing beach culture at Huntington Beach, with more people venturing into the surf and the Saltwater Plunge.  On April 7, 1924, the city council discussed the need for the department to purchase another "pull-motor" and train firefighters regarding its use "for the protection of swimmers at the beach."

ABOVE: A beauty contest at Huntington Beach, circa 1925 (click on image to enlarge).  We become more daring at the beach and in the water, even though some of us don't know how to swim. (Photo, Library of Congress)

   By the time the 1939 civic center was built near the area of today's Main Street Library and Triangle Park, the 1909 bell--then thirty years old--was installed at the Central Fire Station located at Main and 5th streets.  

ABOVE: The 1939 plaque associated with the Central Fire Station and the 1909 bell. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives) 

ABOVE: The Central Fire Station at Main Street, circa 1940s, received Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding and featured an art deco style.  The bell can be seen on the lawn. (City of Huntington Beach archives)

   The City moved the then seven-decades-old bell again in 1981, upon completion of the Lake Street Fire Station.  It remains there today, with a monument similar to the one at the Central Fire Station, the 1939 plaque replaced with a new plaque.  

ABOVE: The 1909 bell where it resides today (left) and, at right, in its location at the Central Fire Station, circa 1940s, before it moved one last time to its location off Lake Street.

LOCATIONThe Lake Street Fire Station is located at the corner of Lake Street and Frankfort Avenue, at 530 Lake Street in historic downtown Huntington Beach.  It is an operating fire station, please do not block the driveway if you go to look at the bell.  

   On the opposite corner of Lake Street, you'll find another piece of Huntington Beach history, Brewster's Ice,** which moved to that location in 1945  after World War II.   And, if you look across Frankfort Avenue, the long green space is a vacated railroad right-of-way of the Pacific Electric Railway*** (Lake Street was once named Railroad Avenue), which arrived in 1904, brought by our namesake, Henry Huntington

ABOVE: A speeding fire engine with ladder and equipment unimaginable in 1909. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives, undated)

*Learn more about the Huntington Beach Fire Department's history at

**Read about Brewster's Ice at

***Take a ride on the Pacific Electric Railway at

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Historic Huntington Beach highlights local history. We appreciate the inquiries, anecdotes and memories of our readers. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links will not be published.