Photos from the Vault

Time for an overhaul? SLO fire department once battled a blaze at its own station

Here are the top five signs a fire department needs an overhaul.

1. The fire department catches fire.

2. There’s no hydrant wrench on the fire truck.

3. Water only reaches the floor below the fire.

4. The second fire engine won’t start and has to be pushed out of the station.

5. Hoses burst — not once, not twice but three times.

All of these mishaps occurred in 1938 when the San Luis Obispo Fire Department and City Hall caught fire. The Higuera Street building was almost 50 years old and had been designed in the era of horse-drawn fire equipment, when electric power was considered high tech.

The fire department keeps the cracked bell damaged in the 1938 blaze outside Station 1, as a reminder to stay vigilant.

Three recent news stories reminded me of that incident — including the closure of Charles Shoes, a store that occupied the former location of San Luis Obispo’s city hall and fire station for more than five decades.

The San Luis Obispo Fire Department is getting new electric-assist bikes thanks to a donation by the parents of Matthew Frank, known to his thousands of local fans as SLOStringer.

San Luis Obispo firehouse interior.jpg
FIRE HOUSE INTERIOR - This was one side of the interior of the old Higuera Street San Luis Obispo city hall when it housed the fire department. Note the racks which held harness above the horses, ready for a quick hitch up. Centurama edition of the Telegram-Tribune.

Meanwhile, Templeton is seeking increased funding for its fire department via a special election.

Today’s fire departments invest in training, are better equipped and schedule inspections of buildings in an effort to prevent short circuit fires. Mutual aid agreements and better communication between departments help deliver resources when and where the need is greatest.

Public buildings have sprinklers and smoke detectors are common. The good old days had had less regulation but that wasn’t always good.

In 1905, a fire spread and destroyed a whole city block. Back then, officials considered using dynamite to blow up buildings to create fire breaks.

Although the 1938 incident was an embarrassment, the fire was contained to one building.

The Daily Telegram reported about the blaze on Aug. 29, 1938:

Belfry of 61 Year Old Fire Station Destroyed in Midnight Blaze

Defect in Wiring Reported as Cause

City employees of San Luis Obispo Monday had cleaned up most of the debris resulting Saturday near midnight when a fire apparently started by a short circuit in power line gutted the belfry of the 61-year-old city hall and fire station at 867 Higuera Street.

Citizens lined the sidewalks Sunday and again Monday to examine the charred corner posts of the ancient tower built with the hall in 1877, and the question on the lips of most of them was: Will city councilmen build a new city hall or will they attempt to patch up the old one?

Nearly a thousand persons gathered Saturday shortly after the fire started at 11:35 p.m. and watched members of the fire department and volunteers fight the blaze which threatened to burn the entire building and spread to business structures on both sides. At the height of the fire it appeared that the flames would spread to the Sears-Roebuck company adjoining on one side, and Kippers and Valley Electric company on the other, but the fire fighters brought it under control before any major damage was done.

Fire struck San Luis Obispo’s historic fire house and city hall on Higuera Street on Aug. 28, 1938. The police department was down the alley, and a jail was built behind this now-destroyed building that still stands today. A Highway 101 sign can be seen at right. The Tribune

Discovers Blaze

Edward Madsen of Townsend’s Coffee Shop and Cocktail Lounge discovered the fire as he walked out of the lounge and looked up.

“Fire,” Madsen yelled across the almost deserted street to the fire station.

A night patrolman on the opposite side ran to the center of the street and looked at the flame which was licking through the tower opening, then dashed inside to arouse the firemen, three of whom are posted on night duty, two upstairs in a bedroom and one on duty downstairs where equipment is housed.

Firemen started one of the trucks and drove it about 200 feet distant to the intersection of Higuera and Chorro streets, unrolling a hose and coupling it to the corner fire hydrant. But there was no wrench on the truck and one man raced back to the station to get this implement before the perspiring crew could get the water turned on. But the engine on this machine failed to pump sufficient water pressure and the stream reached only a short way past the second story.

Gives Assistance

Assisted by S.N. McLaughlin of Hollister, who had been in the Marshall Hotel across the street, and other volunteers, the firemen placed a ladder against Kipper’s store and mounted the building but the pressure was still insufficient and the stream did little to curb the fire which by this time was blazing high.

Meantime, the crew had attempted to take out the larger engine but were unable to start the motor, so firemen and volunteers pushed the machine to the corner and attached a second hose. Onlookers estimated that it was nearly 15 minutes before the first stream was started and nearly a half-hour before the second one was sprayed on the blaze.

The firemen denied that the truck pushed out of the station by spectators had a dead battery or that the equipment was defective. They said the driver was too excited to start the motor and this was responsible for the “pushing exit.”

The same excited fireman also was blamed for the breaking hose, his associates saying he failed to observe signals to turn off the water at hydrants.

The fire ate off the base of the flagpole which surmounted the tower and the pole crashed down to a horizontal position above the street while the crowd scattered. But the base of the pole remained fast to the building.

Five men held the end of the large hose through which 300 pounds pressure is exerted, and played the heavy stream on the fire from the front.

San Luis Obispo’s City Hall opened May 18, 1879. The top of the building burned Aug. 27, 1938. The Tribune

Part of the fire-fighting crew mounted a ladder which was placed against the Sears-Roebuck building and played the water on the flames from that angle, while from the opposite side, the smaller stream was used. Occasionally the men manning the fire hose shot the water into the street and drenched onlookers who ventured too close.

Hoses Burst

Three times during the night the hose burst, apparently from too much pressure, and sightseers were sprayed.

By midnight the fire was practically extinguished and the water from one hose only was used to spurt onto smoldering lumber which burst into small flames now and then.

A rope was thrown over the flagpole and this was pulled down.

Councilman Helps

Joe Berkemeyer, city councilman, appeared on the scene shortly after the fire started, wearing striped pajama tops in lieu of a shirt and did yeoman work along with the firemen in putting out the blaze.

Mayor L.F. Sinsheimer arrived when the fire was partly under control. He said the building was constructed in 1877 but offered no opinion when a representative of the Daily Telegram asked him if he thought a new building should be constructed or the old one repaired.

Acting Fire Chief William Payton was on a week-end vacation in Watsonville, Saturday, firemen said. He had returned Sunday.

Mayor Sinsheimer said the building was fully covered by insurance.

Flames from the blazing tower burned through the heavy beam supporting the fire bell, and it dropped four feet to the tower floor, cracking when it hit, so employees of the fire department said Monday.

Monday the city clerk, and city police departments were operating as usual in their offices and the city council will meet in its room again Monday night when the city tax rate will be set.

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a Photos from the Vault column previously published on April 27, 2011.
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David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes an FAA-certified drone pilot license. He also writes the history column “Photos from the Vault.”