Unlike the majority of pioneer California cities, Visalia has never had a truly disastrous fire – it has never "burned down." On the other hand, Visalia has had to dig out of the mud from its floods on several occasions. But it has never had to rise, Phoenix-like, from its ashes.This is most likely due to luck. However, in the opinion of Fire Chief Walter Wood, who has studied the history of the fire department since its inception in 1869, Visalia has always ran a well-operated fire department drawing its personnel from the best members of the community.
For many years it was an exclusive fraternal-social organization in which membership brought prestige. It included community leaders and wielded political power, which was useful in influencing the city council to provide good equipment. Prior to the 1860’s, there was no considerable concentration of businesses or houses and the occasional fires, which destroyed the isolated, flimsy wooden buildings, brought no great loss. Such fires as occurred were fought by volunteer bucket brigades, formed at the spur of the moment, with Mill Creek as the source of water.
A meeting held at the courthouse in October, 1860 was the first attempt to collectively organize a fire department. The meeting failed with its objective due to the North-South tension which beset the community, making the organization of any public enterprise difficult. A fire resulted from these tensions in 1863. Mrs. Wells sat and rocked calmly in her front yard as flames destroyed her home on Locust Street. Her husband, James Wells had killed a Union soldier on the street that day and was hiding out in the swamp with his rebel friends. Partisans of the soldier had deliberately set fire to the Wells home.Visalia’s first serious fire occurred in November, 1867, when the Exchange Hotel on Main, where the Palace was later located, burned to the ground. It was a two-story building, the lower story made of brick and the upper of wood, with wooden partitions and cloth ceilings. In addition to the hotel, which was the terminus for the various stage lines, it [the building] contained the post office and a saloon.
One man was burned rescuing his baggage from his room, and J.E. Edwards broke his arm getting out the hotel safely. The bucket brigade made a valiant stand on the roof of Billy Clark’s billiard saloon on the east and, with the aid of a double brick partition, succeeded in halting the flames. Visalia's citizens thought the whole block would go, so all the stock and equipment of the Visalia Weekly Delta, E. Jacob’s store, and Samstag’s saddlery were moved out. The Delta, having felt the breath of flames, editorially deplored the lack of a fire engine. Early in June, 1869, the town council called a public meeting to form a fire engine company and to raise money to purchase an engine. C. C. Strong was elected chairman of Eclipse Engine Co. No. 1, with C.L. Thomas as foreman. The meeting was held at Bashwell’s Hall, which was located on Center street, east of the Masonic – Odd Fellows building.
Arrangements were made for a benefit performance of the Myers Minstrel Troupe, a local talent group, to help raise money. J. W. Blake and J. F. Meyers, appointed to solicit donations to the engine fund, obtained $1300 in half a day. C. C. Strong, James Baker, A. W. Thomas, I. H. Thomas and W. H. Clark, appointed to make the arrangements for a benefit ball, scheduled one at Bashwell's hall. The admission charge was $5, including supper. It was the first of many such affairs, which were to establish the occasion as one of the community's highlight events raise additional money, the engine company members were assessed dues, 50 cents monthly, $5 a year or $25 for a life membership. The company was organized under the name Eureka No. 1 instead of Eclipse.The foreman, C. L.Thomas, went to Marysville and bought a used Button & Blake engine and hose carriage, with 650 feet of hose, which proved to be hardly worth hauling to Visalia, for $1002. The engine arrived in August, and in January 1870, the Delta reported:"The Eureka Engine Co. No. 1 were out in full dress uniform on Monday last and made a very good display indeed. It is now a fixed fact that all that is needed in our town to subdue the most stubborn fires is cisterns filled with water located conveniently throughout the streets. There being no water in the cistern at Church Street, the company moved to the upper end of Main Street near the mill, where there was sufficient water to test the engine to its utmost capacity. The foreman put on 100 feet of hose with one stream, then two and three streams, and finally the entire 600 feet of hose to one pipe, and engine threw all with sufficient force to reach over the highest buildings in town."
The fire company of the day developed to be more than a fire fighting organization. It was composed of a compatible group young enough to stand and withstand the physical effort required by the pumper, which was operated by several standing on each side of the machine to raise and lower the polished hand rails attached to the pump cylinder. It was exhausting work. Commonly bystanders were literally pressed into service to aid the firemen. Remaining firemen were needed to man the hose nozzles and fight the fire. All hands ran to the fire station at the sound of the alarm to tow the fire engine to the scene of the fire. Besides fighting fire, the company engaged in fraternal and social activities. The festivities such as the fundraiser balls organized by Eureka No. 1 were well attended. The company also sponsored athletic teams and for years was the "team to beat" in the hose cart races and water fights held at the various celebrations. Its members were smartly uniformed and well equipped. Some of the old helmets and fire trumpets, which no doubt a quantity of beer was drank from in the early days, are on exhibit in the Visalia Fire Administration Office.
It was almost a year after the company was organized that it had it’s first opportunity to fight fire. The town council had neglected to install the promised number of cisterns and the firemen threatened to resign en masse. Then in June 1870, Mrs. Bell's house on Acequia Street caught fire. The kitchen burned, but the firemen saved the rest and rejoiced in the praise of the community. They soon received their cisterns, and more fires, as well, at which the company performed valiantly. In 1872 the council was authorized to spend $1400 for a firehouse.
In March 1872, the Overland Livery Stable burned. The fire broke out at 2:00 a.m. Nineteen horses perished, many of them running back into the flames after being driven out. Thomas & Stoneman, who operated the stable, lost two Rackaways, three buggies and a hearse. H.M. White, who was in Visalia overnight from his ranch near Porterville, lost a fine team and buggy worth $1500. S.C. Brown's law office was burned. There was danger of the flames spreading across to the Exchange Hotel and then to all Main Street.
In June came another bad fire, believed to be incendiary, involving the Fulton Market on Main, two doors east of Church. One of the firemen, Ed Van Valer, was overcome while fighting fire on the roof. His companions washed him down with a stream of water; he was revived and went back to fighting fire. J.F. Myers, foreman of the Eureka, was hurt when an awning collapsed on him. Stores operated by John Rinedollar and F. Bernard were destroyed but the rest of the block was saved.
On the eve of the Overland stable fire, the Eureka gave a benefit concert, which raised $142 toward the purchase of a lot. The equipment had been housed in a rented building and the company wanted a building of its own. After the valiant work of the firemen in the Overland fire, the businessmen felt more like donating. David R. Douglass, pioneer merchant and civic leader, gave the Eureka's a lot on the corner of Church and Acequia.
In 1872 an engine house was built on the lot. In 1876, the lot was deeded to the city and a second floor was added to the brick building. The hall was used for council sessions and other civic meetings, including the first meetings of the Visalia Women's Club.
The membership rolls of the old Eureka company read like a who's who of Visalia's vigorous manhood, and through the years there was need for vigor.
In July 1874, Kraft's Bakery on South Church Street, near the Delta office, burned. In December 1875, the Goldstein & Co. store burned with a loss of $15,000. In April 1879, there was a small fire at Dr. Martin Baker's place, in back of the Masonic Odd Fellows structure, but prompt action by the Eurekas saved the block.
The year 1879 proved to be a bad one. In June, the Eagle Hotel on the southeast corner of Court and Main was destroyed. The Fourth of July celebration had an added yet unexpected attraction when the Drais & Morrow store, Sam Dineley's barber shop, Luce's store and part of the Visalia House went up in flames. On this occasion the Eurekas were favored by the presence of the Porterville hose cart team which had come over to engage in competition in a hose cart race. Naturally, the Visalia and Porterville teams participated in a friendly competition with each other in fighting fire. As a result, however, several firemen suffered minor burns. Their allied efforts saved the Visalia business district and the Eurekas were grateful for the help.
In September 1879, the Exchange Hotel burned again, and the next week the planing mill was destroyed. At the latter fire, the Eurekas held the flames down sufficiently to give volunteers time to load the machinery on Charley Togni's dray and haul it to safety.
In June 1880, flames took the Presbyterian Church, the Watrous Photo Shop and an old building opposite the Palace Hotel owned by Wiley Coughran. The Eurekas responded to the call of a new fire bell, which had been purchased in April. No more major fires occurred for several years. The old Eureka pumper, second hand when purchased, was condemned, but was rebuilt and put back into use. Agitation for a new steam pumper had begun. In 1885, a rash of fires broke out. One at the Canty Livery Stable on Main Street spread north to the Presbyterian Church, razing it for the second time in six years. The Delta complained that "more than a hand rig is needed." A month later the Henderson Lumberyard on Locust and Acequia Street, with 160,000 board feet of lumber and several wagons, burned. In November two "inmates" of a house in the red light district "threw lamps at each other," and two houses owned by a prominent madam, burned down.
In January 1886, the firemen acquired a new piece of equipment, a hook and ladder wagon, which Chris Bergstrom built at the Visalia Iron Works; it was called "The Rescue."In October 1887, the old brick house on Bridge Street known as the Bequette house burned when a goat got inside and knocked over a lamp. It was Visalia's first brick residence and was said to have been built in 1854 by D.B. James.
"Eureka is old and dilapidated," said the Delta. "It is a shame there is not enough money in bonds for a new steam engine."On Nov. 11, 1888, the flour mill at Main and East street burned to the ground with heavy loss.
The next month, the city bought a Silsby Steam Fire Engine for $4,000. J. B. O'Connor was hired as engineer at $60 a month, becoming the first paid fireman. It was a fine rig and passed all of its tests. The first fire in which it was utilized was in the north part of Visalia. However, the steamer arrived without fuel. A few days later a barn on Church Street caught fire and the steamer, called "Old Betsy," was ready. It built up steam in six minutes and saved the block.In1890, the Stevens & Co. warehouse on Garden Street burned with a loss of $25,000. The Delta thought it was strange that the Eurekas saw fit to save 65 barrels of whiskey in the warehouse, but not a single mower or other piece of arm equipment. At the height of the fire someone "saved" the liquor supply of the Visalia House by carrying it off. One of the firemen was scalded on the leg by steam from the fire engine.
In September of 1891, one of Visalia's worst fires occurred. Scott Hayes' Kaweah Livery Stable caught fire during the Admission Day celebration and burned to the ground, taking the lives of 23 horses. Blinco's Lodging House was also destroyed. Once again the Eurekas had help. Porterville's fire company had brought its engine over for the water fight and Company C of the National Guard from Fresno was also on hand.
In 1893, the four-story mill built to replace the one burned in 1888, burned again. The owner, J.M Fox, estimated his loss at $44,000. The Eurekas were criticized by the insurance adjuster for the manner in which they fought the fire. Later that year Chris Bergstrom's Iron Works as well as the Holt Building caught fire and sustained considerable damage.In 1894 the old wooden building north of the Bradley law office on Church caught fire, taking a saloon and shoe shop and damaging the Jacob Building.
Later that year a fire started in a Chinese restaurant on Bridge between Locust and Center, and most of the flimsy wooden buildings in Chinatown were wiped out. The industrious Chinese businesses saved most of their merchandise from the flames by moving it out into the street, but unprincipled onlookers carted a lot of it away. "Their conduct was outrageous," said the Times.In July 1903, fire broke out in Shiffert's Cigar Store and before it was controlled, half a block on Main between Gardena and Church was in ruins, including the Martin Saloon, Wholesale Liquor Supply House, Curley Hughes' restaurant, F.R. Kellenberg's shoe store and the cigar store. Fred Uhl's harness shop in the old Douglass Building on the corner stooped the flames, but Uhl's stock sustained some heat and smoke damage.The Livery stables made the most terrifying of all fires. They were large, drafty structures containing hay and other combustible material. Horses are most difficult to rescue from fire for they become badly panicked and unmanageable. It is usually necessary to blindfold them to lead them from the building, however, if they break loose they will return to it.
On Aug. 2, 1905, Visalia had its worst livery stable fire. The fire started in the used furniture store in the old Si Lovren Saloon building on the present site of the Visalia Theater building. It was a flimsy building, which burned with great heat, and the volunteers could not prevent the spread to the Moffitt Stables, where the auditorium now stands. They did, however, rescue the horses and saved most of the stable equipment. The R. E. Hyde residence across the street, in what is now Hyde Park, caught fire, but the firemen managed to save the structure. Gus Bequette, driver of the hose cart, was severely burned.The weary firemen had this fire under control when word came that the English Stable at Center and Court Street was ablaze. They rushed over in time to save the horses and some of the equipment, but the building was destroyed. Visalia became jittery, and guest of the Palace Hotel began moving their belongings into the street. The town lights went out, adding to the confusion, and then a fire was discovered in the First National Bank. It succumbed to a well-aimed bucket of water.
Fear of a firebug on the loose prompted the calling out of Company E of the National Guard, and with its members patrolling the streets, Visalia’s citizens finally went to sleep. In September 1905, the Huffaker stable at Court and Acequia caught fire and 11 horses perished. A man was arrested for setting the blaze.Visalia lost its fairly new high school building to fire in February of 1912.
In 1913, the firemen acquired their first fire truck, a Gorham pumper which would throw 830 gallons of water per minute at 100 pounds of pressure. It had smooth rubber tires, a hazard on a rainy night. In 1915, the department acquired two White trucks, and horses were no longer necessary. The old firemen hated to see the horses go.The first horses, Johnnie and Ed, acquired when the steamer, Old Betsy, was bought, served 13 years before being retired. Best known of the drivers were Tom Hall, Gus Bequette and Al Pennebaker, all paid firemen. The horses were spirited, but well trained. They were kept in a stable behind the firehouse and could distinguish the ring of the fire phone. They were ready to go when the firemen dropped the harness on them. They were not so ready to do more routine tasks, however. The Times reported a team of greys being driven by Pennebaker to haul some dirt ran away and were not caught until they got to Farmersville.
The firemen, naturally, objected strenuously to having their fire horses subjected to menial work such as pulling the water wagon. One day a fire call came from a fire that broke out while Pennebaker was using a team on the water wagon. It took eight minutes for him to get to the fire station and transfer his team. This convinced the city council, for the time at least, that the horses should be ready to go when an alarm came in.
Driving was dangerous job, even for such skilled drivers as Pennebaker and Bequette. On day in 1906, Pennebaker was taking "Old Betsy" to a fire at the H. A. Keener home and was making a fast turn when the back wheels, which were expected to skid around the sharp corner, hit a hummock of grass. Betsy flipped over on her side and Pennebaker, strapped in the seat, was dragged for several feet. He was skinned up and two ribs broken.Bequette was burned in the 1905 livery stable fire while driving down an alley between two burning buildings.
One of the worst months for costly fires in Visalia was June 1922. On the night of June 2, the Visalia Planing Mill burned down with a loss of $45,000. Two weeks later, while workmen were getting the old Visalia Cannery on East Oak street ready for the apricot run, it caught fire. Only a warehouse, still standing, was saved. The loss was $250,000 and included a vast quantity of sugar and empty cans, which had been brought in for the summer operation.The Planing Mill was located near the water works, so when it burned, the water supply was threatened. Three shade trees near the wooden water tower were credited with protecting it from the flames. It was finally destroyed by fire in 1933.
The mill burned for the third time on Christmas Day, 1936, after Visalia gave up its volunteer fire department in 1935. Under its present chief, Walter Wood, it has 18 men and eight "sleepers," the latter being young men students at the College of the Sequoias who are subject to call for fires, as are all department members--even when off duty. The department had eight pieces of modern fire fighting equipment which the members maintained with the same pride that the lads of 1870 applied to "old Eureka" [The Button & Blake]. This engine incidentally was sold for scrap during World War I. Had it been preserved, it would be worth many times its original cost as a relic piece of the past. The City of Visalia has learned the benefits of keeping an efficient fire department. While present day building standards and fire prevention regulations reduce fire hazards far below what they were a century ago, the city still has an occasional bad fire. In the most recent decades, the Odd Fellows Hall, Cooper's Furniture and the Sears store fires all suffered heavy losses.
Modern times have brought another improvement. The Eurekas were lucky to have the help of the Porterville firemen on a couple of bad fires, which occurred on celebration days. Usually they stood alone. Today's city fire department can fall back on the county rural firefighting system established in the 1930's. Tulare County (manned by CAL Fire) maintains its headquarters in Farmersville, and has units in almost every town and city in the county. In addition, all city and county fire fighting units are tied together under a mutual aid agreement, which permits them to go to the aid of one another in the event of the threat of a major disaster.
One element of the fire protection system of the 1870's still remains; that is the water storage in the downtown cisterns. These are located at the Main street intersections of Garden, Church and Court, each holding about 50,000 gallons of water. They are safely cemented and covered, but their supply is available in an emergency.