Updated: Oct 6
For a period of around 50 years, fire horses helped protect American cities. Although the last fire horses were retired almost a century ago, they remain one of the most interesting and popular topic in the history of firefighting.
It is not clear when the first horses were used to move fire apparatus. There is anecdotal evidence about occasional uses before the Civil War. With the widespread adoption of steam fire engines after the Civil War, fire horses started to be used. Many early steam fire engines had been light enough that volunteer firefighters could pull them by hand. As steam fire engines became larger and more powerful in the 1870s, the strength of a team of horses would be required to move them. By the 1880s, fire horses became an integral part of the fire service in American cities and, to a lesser extent, in larger towns.
Many small communities never used fire horses because of the costs associated with maintaining them. Horses required daily exercise if there were no alarms to answer. Horses needed to be cooled-off or warmed-up, as well as brushed and pampered. They ate regardless of if there was a fire. They needed regular veterinary care and a farrier to maintain their shoes and hooves.
Fire horses, although beloved by firefighters, made the firehouse a rather unpleasant place to live. These majestic creatures brought with them vermin, pests and odors. In reality, a firehouse was a barn, a nickname still used by some firefighters in referring to their firehouses. Firefighters had to feed and care for the horses and clean up their mess. Taking care of the horses was not always easy or uneventful. Fire horses ate about three gallons of oats and drank five to ten gallons of water per day. Plus, everything the horses ate or drank had to go somewhere. This made for one of the most unpleasant parts of firehouse life.
A typical 1000-pound fire horse produced about 50 pounds of manure each day. For a typical two-piece engine company, with three horses for the steam fire engine and two for the hose wagon, this added up to about 250 pounds of manure every day. That is almost a ton of manure each and every week.
The manure was not the end of it. The stalls for the horses had to be cleaned frequently. The wet and soiled bedding material for the horses, usually hay or straw, had to be removed and replaced. The volume of this waste could be almost twice the volume of the manure. This could be another 15 pounds of material per horse each day to be removed by the firefighters.
There also were some real dangers associated with the horses. For example, in April 1904, Boston Ladderman James Killian, of Ladder 14 fell from the hayloft to the stable floor in Fort Hill Square firehouse. He died three days later from his injuries. In Detroit, in January 1897, Ladderman Moses Fortune of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 had the great misfortune of being kicked fatally by a horse.
There also were dangers to the horses themselves. There are many accounts of fire horses being injured in collisions with other horse-drawn vehicles and trolley cars. Many horses were injured from slipping or falling on wet, icy or snowy streets. Prolonged exposure to the elements also was a problem.
Most horse-drawn fire engines carried horse blankets to offer some protection against the cold. Often when firefighters would be operating for a prolonged period, the fire horses would be unhitched and taken away to a safe place. They would be kept there until they were needed to bring the apparatus back to quarters.
Fire horses were not fast by today’s standards. They could cover a mile in about four minutes. They could cover two miles in about seven minutes. This was about the extent of their effective range. Fire horses had careers of vary durations. In big cities like New York, seven years was considered average. Many fire horses served far longer, which is not unexpected since the lifespan of a well-cared for horse is more than 20 years, and few horses were better cared for than fire horses.
Starting with the introduction of motor fire apparatus in the first decade of the 20th Century it was very apparent very quickly that motor fire apparatus would replace the fire horses. It was just a matter of time. That time was about 10 to 20 years in most large cities. It is not clear when the last fire horses were retired. It appears that by the mid-1920s all the fire horses in New England were retired.