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DCFD: From Horse-Drawn To Horsepower

Engine 24's 100th anniversary remembers four-legged firefighters

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DCFD Lieutenant Jim Embrey (retired) serves as the department's historian, and is documenting its transition from horse-drawn to motorized firefighting vehicles.
Patrick Madden
DCFD Lieutenant Jim Embrey (retired) serves as the department's historian, and is documenting its transition from horse-drawn to motorized firefighting vehicles.


Fire Engine Company 24, located in the Petworth neighborhood of D.C., was the first engine company in the District to feature motorized fire engines instead of horse-drawn vehicles. 

This weekend, as the company celebrated its 100th anniversary, historians and other members of the department reflected on how the move away from the horses changed the fire department forever. 

The main reason D.C. switched from horse-drawn fire engines to motorized ones would resonate with many drivers today: the rising cost of fuel. The only difference from today's transportation pressures is that back in the 1920’s, when the move was made, it was the cost of fueling the horses -- namely, the price of hay -- that was climbing.

By comparison, gasoline at the time cost next-to-nothing, says D.C. fire department historian Jim Embrey.

"Unlike today, where gasoline prices are sky-rocketing, gasoline was relatively cheap," says Embrey, who retired as a lieutenant after serving nearly three decades in the department. "So it was a great economic move for the fire department."

Embrey says the move to motorized engines had a dramatic impact on fire houses, which until then were effectively large, urban stables. Each station had a hay-loft on the second floor and a lot of the day-to-day duties revolved around caring and cleaning for the horses. Passersby will often see firefighters hosing down their ladder trucks on a Saturday, and that tradition dates back to the horse-drawn days when firefighters would clean-out the stable. 

The horses themselves, which were named after the firefighters, also became a source of pride at each station, says Embrey.

"They would have demonstrations and the fire chief would come by and do a test alarm and watch the horses in action, how fast they got out," says Embrey. "And I have to say it's amazing, they probably would put us to shame, to some extent, how fast they got out."

The shift from horses to machines was tough for the firefighters, who had their suspicions about "this 'new-fangled' motor stuff. In addition, "there was a great attachment to the horses, even though we had to clean up after them all the time,” says Embrey.

It wasn’t easy for the horses to give up their fire-fighting duties either.

"The last three fire horses were retired; they were put out in Blue Plains," says Embrey. "The last one, Tom, every time Engine Company 25 would [drive by] he would run along the fence line with them, it was just that instinct in them."

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