Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series about the history of firefighting in the Santa Maria Valley. The second part will run Feb. 12.
It’s been reported that many famous Americans served as volunteer firemen, some of whom were Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Samuel Adams. After a large fire in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin formed the Union Fire Co. Buildings that his company insured were identified by a steel fire mark showing the outline of a wooden fire hydrant.
George Washington, a volunteer fireman in Virginia, bought the first fire engine for Alexandria in 1774. These “engines” were wooden hand pumpers.
We’ve come a long way, but it hasn’t been easy.
Locally, the fire of 1884, for many years called the “Big Fire,” burned every building in the blocks northeast of Main Street and Broadway, sparing only the Odd Fellows Hall. With no fire equipment, except for a bucket brigade, and no organized firemen, it wasn’t unusual for buildings to be burned to the ground. The bucket brigade consisted of a line of citizens passing buckets of water to each other, from a local source of water, to throw on the fire.
Those merchants who could afford it built brick buildings in hopes of protecting their property.
From 1886 to 1889, three separate prairie fires, swept by wind, threatened the residents of this valley. This caused concerns for residents, who formed the usual citizen bucket brigades. The alarm of fire was given by church bells.
In 1890, the first automatic electric fire alarm in the United States was invented.
In 1897, construction began on the Union Sugar Co. factory and town at Betteravia. Union Sugar had the first organized volunteer fire department in the valley. They had a hand-drawn hose cart, used by volunteers when the factory steam whistle signaled a fire. During World War II, it was replaced with a pump engine that was pulled by a pickup truck.
George Benford later became one of the company’s fire volunteers who lived and worked there. He, his wife, Dee Dee, and their children lived in the company town from 1953 to 1957.
In 1897, Reuben Hart moved his water plant to the 600 block of South Broadway (located just south of the Santa Maria Valley Historical Museum).
In 1900, church bells awakened residents signaling a fire at the Santa Maria Hotel, located in the southwestern block of Main Street and Broadway. A fire in the kitchen quickly spread in the wooden building, causing residents to escape with the clothes they were wearing. As was usually the case, bucket brigades could do little to stop the flames.
The Haslam building was considered to be fireproof because of its brick walls, but as a precaution, they had citizen volunteers remove their merchandise and pile it in the streets. Two other stores were emptied, as well. After this inferno, people were thankful to those who fought the fires but realized the need for better preparation for fires like this in the future.
The merchants appointed Arthur McLaughlin as fire chief and paid him $10 a month. Serving with him were volunteers Henry Yelkin, Isaac Miller Jr., Lindsay McMillan, Al Bunce, Bill Miller, Frank Jesse and George Brown, all of whom received no pay. The firefighters had a hose cart, pulled by the volunteers with ropes, 200 to 300 feet of hose, nozzles and two axes. The fire hose was rolled to the fire, connected to a fire plug, and the water pressure pushed through the hose to the nozzle.
Santa Maria never had wooden hand-pumpers, nor a horse-drawn steam fire engine, as they were considered to be too expensive for our little town.
In 1905, Santa Maria was incorporated. The board of trustees (now the City Council) bought the bell from the Presbyterian Church “to sound curfew and give fire alarms.” Prior to this bell, a fire alarm was given by a steam whistle at the water plant on South Broadway.
In 1906, the year that the San Francisco fire and earthquake destroyed much of the city, the Santa Maria Fire Department purchased a hose cart, 500 feet of hose and six fireplugs.
In 1911, Art McLaughlin retired and Deane Laughlin became acting chief. He was paid $20 per month. Frank Crakes joined the department as 2nd assistant chief. Volunteers were paid $2 per fire in the city.
The first fire station in Santa Maria was a small wooden building leased from the Santa Maria Gas Co. in the 100 block of North Lincoln Street.
In 1912, a 1904 Columbia Touring car was bought from Union Sugar in Betteravia and was modified in the shop of Bill Crakes, assisted by his brothers Frank and Clarence Crakes.
The engine was red. It had a 40-gallon “chemical tank,” with soda in the water. The mixing of acid with soda caused pressure to force the 40 gallons through the hose to the nozzle. It was a “quick attack” unit for small fires.
It also had 1,000 feet of fire hose, two ladders, axes, pike poles, lanterns, etc. Sometimes, when it wouldn’t start, it had to be pushed to the fires.
This first fire truck didn’t have a fire pump nor a large water tank but was a great improvement over the hose cart!
A bond election was held to buy a new fire engine, but when it failed to pass, a booster pump was installed on the old relic at the waterworks plant to boost pressure when there was a fire.
In 1916, the city bought the water plant from Hart for $74,000.
In 1917, the city bought a new American la France fire engine for $6,500. It was shipped by train to Guadalupe, then driven to Santa Maria. The first time it was utilized was in response to a major fire in Guadalupe that was burning buildings on Guadalupe Street, south of the Palace Hotel.
In both 1915 and 1917, the Fire Department sponsored carnivals to raise money for the siren as well as coats and helmets.
In 1917, the Santa Maria Inn was built and was the first building in Santa Maria to have fire sprinklers installed.
In 1920, Dean Laughlin retired, and Frank Crakes was appointed fire chief.
In 1921, the city built a new steel elevated water tank with a capacity of 200,000 gallons on South Broadway, between McClelland Street and Broadway. This, plus the three wells that were drilled on South McClelland Street, were sufficient to supply the town with water until 1929.
In 1923, the fire station moved again to the 200 block of South Lincoln Street. The building was owned by A. A. Dudley.
In 1928, the Orcutt Fire Protection District was formed.
The same year, Congress introduced a bill to require “self-extinguishing fire-safe cigarettes.” The bill was introduced and defeated five times over the next 60 years. New York was the first state to finally adopt it in 1993. When a cigarette is laid down or dropped, it’ll burn to the end only 10% of the time, versus 99% of the time for the old “regular” cigarettes.
In 1930, the Guadalupe Fire Department was created.
In the 1930s, Santa Barbara County operated its first fire station in the Newlove Hill area near Solomon Peak. The station was moved to Waller Park in the early 1950s. About 10 years later, the engine and crew were moved, this time to Sabre Street, across Skyway Drive from the airport.
In 1937-38, a new fire station was built at the east end of City Hall, adjacent to the Police Department, at a cost of $17,000.
The siren for the old fire station was moved to the water tower at the water plant on South Broadway.
During the 1940s, with the new and larger fire station, the department expanded some, adding a streamlined trailer which rolled behind the fire chief’s pickup truck. This bullet-shaped trailer housed an engine driving a high-pressure pump and a small water tank. Water came through two hose reels inside at the rear. High pressure was 800 pounds, compared to a regular fire hose pressure of 150 pounds.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and World War II began. A siren atop the Mill Street School alerted residents whenever there was a blackout in effect. All lights were to be out in case of an air attack.
In 1942, a map of the city’s streets ended at Donovan Road (the road became Whitney Road from Broadway east to the river). At that time, there were only 70 named streets within the city compared to today, when there are more than 800.
In 1943, controls for the fire siren were moved to the Police Department and the blackout siren was added to the fire alarm circuit.
In 1944, a fire destroyed the Santa Maria Valley Railroad depot.
In 1951, with a population of 11,000, Santa Maria needed a more modern fire engine. The fire station had one full-time fireman on duty each 24-hour shift, and 15 call firefighters, who were called for a fire by a radio at home and the sirens at the water plant and in the northwest area of town.
An FMC red fire engine, New No. 6, was purchased from Roemer and Rubel. This new fire engine enabled an initial attack as soon as it arrived at a fire, using tank water. If the fire required more water, a second fire engine laid hose to the nearest fire hydrant.
An early morning fire at Rick’s Restaurant, at Broadway and Donovan Road spread to two dining rooms and cocktail lounge. The high-pressure fog nozzles kept the fire from spreading to the kitchen and coffee shop, where patrons continued to eat their breakfast during the fire.
In 1954, another fire truck joined the fleet of four vehicles — a Dodge Power Wagon, which was an all-purpose truck, used for vehicle, trash fires and grass fires (our first four-wheel drive fire vehicle).
In 1955, C. Wright Crakes joined the department as a fireman for $325 per month. He was one of 12 applicants and worked alone on a 24-hour shift at Station No. 1.
On May 25, 1956, a fire broke out at 10:30 a.m. at Fire Station No. 1 at Cook and McClelland streets.
Only one fireman was on duty during each 24-hour shift, and Ray Smith was alone, checking the fire engines in the morning. As he mopped up what he thought was a puddle of water under engine No. 6, the puddle of gas ignited, burning his hands and one leg. The fire quickly grew, making him unable to drive the other fire engines outside.
Aided by the Santa Barbara County, Orcutt and Guadalupe fire departments, and the California Division of Forestry engines, the fire took an hour to contain and was kept from spreading to the adjacent City Hall.
One engine was saved, as it had previously been parked outside for washing. Three engines were lost in the fire, as well as a personal automobile and a motorcycle. The total loss was estimated at $200,000.
Plans were made to replace the engines, equipment and hose, and to build a new station across McClelland Street. However, much of the Fire Department’s records and historical data were lost in this fire.
State Office of Emergency Services fire engines were loaned to the city, until two new engines could be purchased which was done that same year when the department took delivery of two red 1956 model fire engines at a cost of $19,000 each. The first engine was a first response unit with two full-time personnel — a shift commander and a fireman (who was also the engineer).
The second engine responded to structure fires by call firefighters. It also carried heavy wooden ladders ranging from 12 to 50 feet. The 40-foot extension ladder, weighing 300 pounds, required six firemen to lift, carry and raise it safely. All ladders are now aluminum.
Note: Since the 1950s, the state has had 100 Office of Emergency Services engines assigned to fire departments all over the state, to be used in responding to major wildfires, earthquakes and any time there is an emergency exceeding the local fire department’s resources.
After the major wildfire season of 2003, the state added 29 more engines, including one in Santa Maria.
All fire stations now have fire sprinklers installed. The newest fire stations have a device that automatically shuts off the stove and oven when that station is alerted to respond to a call.
In August 1956, Frank Crakes retired with 44 years of service and more than 36 years as fire chief. The city had adopted a retirement plan a year earlier, requiring all city employees to retire at the age of 65.
On Sept. 1, 1956, Harry Bell was appointed fire chief. Bell started as a volunteer fireman in 1941 and was promoted to assistant chief in 1945.
That same year, one of the most spectacular fires since the 1920s destroyed the Sanitary Cleaners plant at McClelland and Mill streets, the cause of which was unknown. Loss to the building was $215,000, plus $100,000 worth of customers’ clothing.
In 1957, a new fire station was built at the Santa Maria Public Airport. The county staffed the station with an engine and crew of three who also manned the crash truck which was owned by the Airport District.
Historic Photos: Pull up a stool! Saloons, bars and Santa Maria’s Whiskey Row
Ace Hi and Palomino Saloon.jpg
Los Alamos Jail.jpg
Bradley Lounge (Bar).jpg
East Main Street Bar.jpg
Half Way Saloon.jpg
Inside view of Rex Cafe.jpg
unknown bar Hats on.jpg
Welcome Morris Family.jpg