Sounds of Thunder

The sounds of thunder used to accompany the fire brigade on every call, back when horses did all of the pulling work.

You probably have never given much thought to one of the most romantic eras taking place in the early history of the fire service. To me, that would have been in the mid-1800s through the 1920s. The era I speak of is the era of the “fire horse.”

Can you imagine standing alongside a brick-paved road as the thundering sounds of hooves hammered the bricks? The sound of an approaching team of horses racing toward a fire while pulling an early steam engine with a firefighter at the reins must have been a sight to behold.

Originally, fire wagons were pulled by the firefighters themselves, but a more efficient way of moving those wagons was needed. Think of it. Firefighters have just pulled a wagon an untold distance to a fire as fast as they can, and now they need to perform their firefighting duties. Hence, horses were brought into the fire service to pull the hose wagons and engines as the weight of these early pieces of fire apparatus became heavier with additional equipment and more modern pumps. The first recorded use of a fire horse was in 1832, just prior to the Civil War, by the New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1.

Fire horses would eventually be placed in stalls within the firehouse itself. They were trained to leave their stalls and move to their position in front of the fire wagon at the sound of the alarm. Firefighters would then hitch them to the wagon, and off they would go. As time passed, speed harnesses would be developed, allowing the team and wagon to be out the door in less than 30 seconds from the time of the bell

The horses picked for this noble duty were carefully selected for their temperament and size. They were often a matched team weighing in at 1,100 pounds for hose wagons, 1,400 pounds for steam engines, and a heavyweight class for pulling the hook and ladder. The training of a fire horse could last up to two years before they were placed in to service. The Percheron was one of the most used breeds, being known for strength and athletic abilities. The horses would serve between four and eight years before their retirement.

Pictured here is “Chubby” a white Percheron, who was one of the last fire horses to be retired from Engine Company No. 6 in Rochester, New York, in 1926. Although horses are no longer utilized in today’s modern fire service, they served a vital role in their day, and they have not been forgotten. If you ever get to tour one of the country’s older fire houses and notice a set of doors above the bay floor, chances are those doors lead to the old hayloft. Even though you won’t find horses in the bay, their presence can still be felt.

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Mark C. Dalton

Mark C. Dalton has been a career firefighter for the past 12 years with Deltona Fire Rescue in central Florida, where he resides. He entered the fire service in 1984, when he was a reserve firefighter with Broward County Fire Rescue in south Florida as well as working on an ambulance as an EMT for five years. He remembers visiting Fort Lauderdale Fire Dept.’s Station 35 as a child and knew at that moment he would ride the big red truck, making the fire service a passion and career. Dalton is also a contributor to our sister magazine Antique Power, so look for his unique photos and stories.