August: The Case of the Missing Firehorse

I strongly believe that the best history stories are like a good work of fiction-interesting, suspenseful, and engaging to both your intellect and your emotions. And if it involves a person, place or subject that you know and care about--even better. Here's a little nugget I came across that fits most, if not all, of those criteria.

On 25 June 25, 1937, a small contingent of firemen, animal lovers, involved citizens and ordinary town folks gathered on a gentle rise near the southernmost tip of the District of Columbia. They were there to pay their last respects to a fallen firefighter, although this one had four legs. A large monument of Indiana limestone was hoisted into place over a grave, its surface engraved with "In Memory of Tom, Last Horse in the D.C.F.D.". Who was Tom? What happened to him? Why was he buried out there? More importantly, where is that grave now?

Once upon a time, before the invention of fire trucks and modern equipment, fire crews and wagons were pulled by firehorses. They had to be strong, and fast, and not easily spooked by the chaos and confusion of a fire scene. Much time and expense was incurred selecting a fire ser­vice horse. It was said that the animal that could fill the role of a fire service horse was a one-in-a-hundred selection. A firehorse represented a considerable investment in training time and money. The training of a firehorse took between, on average, one and two years, and some cities even had "horse colleges" where firehorses were trained.

Except when it was eating, a firehorse lived with a bit in its mouth. It had to be ready to go at all times. In those days, a fire alarm rang in every station simultaneously, but the specific pattern of bells indicated which station was to respond. A good firehorse could discern when its services were needed, and many would start kicking the stalls the moment they heard their unique call. Once harnessed, the three-horse team would burst from the station, ears back, nostrils gaping, muscles pumping. I'm sure there were few sights more stirring, or comforting (if it was your house burning), as a team of strong firehorses rounding a curve at full clip.

Fire Company 205 answers an alarm in Brooklyn (NY) on 20 Dec 1922 (all other photos in DC)

These horses were meticulously cared for and teams were matched in size, color and general appearance when possible. These animals became local celebrities with residents, especially children, who often brought their favorite firehorse treats, such as sugar cubes or apples, during the horse's daily exercise jaunt.

In the late 1800's, as many as 200 firehorses worked for the DC Fire Department, and every fire station included a stable and manure pit.

But progress waits for neither man nor beast. The D.C. fire department got its first motorcar in 1910. A year later, Engine Co. 24 opened on Georgia Avenue with a motorized pumper. It was also the first station built without a stable or manure pit. The horse era was ending.

In 1925, the last horse team -- Barney, Gene and Tom -- made a final ceremonial run. (It was captured on film and several pictures can be seen below.)

Barney, Gene and Tom on the final run

Out of the way chickens!

Some firehorses, when no longer needed, were transferred to the street cleaning department or sold to merchants who used them to haul goods, but firehorses were ill-suited for other kinds of work. They were trained to run, and react, and didn't like to stand on the sidelines. Many times, instinct would take over when they heard an alarm and they would tear off down the street. The lucky ones were put out to pasture at Blue Plains. (At the time, Blue Plains was a rural enclave that included an old folks' home, a paupers' burial ground and fields that ran down to the Potomac and Oxen Cove. It's on the east side of DC just across the Anacostia River.) Barney and Gene died at Blue Plains in 1932, but Tom lived for a few more years, appearing in Labor Day parades and, if the old stories are to be believed, cocking his head at the smell of smoke, wanting to get in on the action.

How Tom died is somewhat of a mystery. Firehouse legend has it that in June of 1937, Engine #25 was responding to a fire and travelling down Overlook Parkway (what would later become I-295). That section of road ran parallel the fence and pasture where Old Tom was enjoying his retirement. Tom, hearing the bells and seeing the hoses and fireman (his people!) and not quite knowing (or liking) the concept of retirement, went into action. In a heartbeat. Tom was running next to the road, stride for stride with the motorized truck as it sped down the road. Later that day, workers found Tom dead, his heart no longer up to the task of responding to his last alarm. It should be noted that this has not be verified, but it makes a good story.

Regardless of how he died, he was buried on that warm summer day in 1937. The 26 Jun edition of the Washington Post provides the details: Miss Virginia W. Sargent, president of the city's Animal Protective Association, was the principal speaker. Her group had spearheaded the effort to remember Tom. She lauded the horse's gentleness, courage and loyalty. Capt. Raymond E. Oden of Firehouse #25 praised Tom's long service. Private E. M. King sounded a final tribute: 27 notes on a fire engine gong, one for each year of Tom's life. Pictures of the event show schoolkids lined up around the new memorial stone.

Tragically, his monument was lost over the years. Somehow, no one knows, or remembers, where the monument was placed. Maybe it was moved in a bit of construction. (Ironically enough, much of the old Blue Plains retirement home was turned into the DC Fire Academy). Maybe someone found the monument and took it home. Maybe it is still there, grown over by brush and weeds, waiting to be discovered. . .


Family Jules said...

Please don't stop the history.
That was awesome!!!!!!!!!!
I just spent way tooo long reading all that, but very, very Interesting.

Harald said...

That was a good post, mate.

Anonymous said... was in the very same area and got lost twice.

Unknown said...

Where can i find more fire horse pics