Perils of a Columbia Heights Fire Run (1900)

Washington, D.C., circa 1914. "Three-horse team pulling water tower." A fire truck racing past the Tea Cup Inn on F Street. Harris & Ewing
Washington, D.C., circa 1914. “Three-horse team pulling water tower.” A fire truck racing past the Tea Cup Inn on F Street. Harris & Ewing

Evidently, horses racing through the streets of Columbia Heights was a dangerous thing at the turn of the century. This article I came across from July 9th, 1900 talks about a recent accident leading to new regulations.

A skillful hand is required to guide a team of spirited horses, rushing madly through crowded streets in response to an alarm of fire. The advent of the swiftly moving electric car and the vast extension of trackage in this city has made these wild runs of the engines doubly hazardous. The man who holds the reins has his own life and the lives of his brother firemen in his hands as he urges his tearing steeds across car tracks around corners and among vehicles of every description.

Doesn’t this sound slightly like the current chaos of the fire trucks screaming — at the highest possible decibel level — down 14th St. NW, weaving through traffic as they pass Target and Best Buy.

The accident of last week, which resulted in the death of one fireman, will undoubtedly bring about changes in the street car regulations … The members of the fire department are of one accord, too, in condemning the street railway companies for sanctioning the excessive speed rate which exists on some of the city lines.

Excessive speed rate? That reminds me of some of our current Metrobus drivers (what red light? I didn’t see one).

“As to the statement that the car that hit our truck last week was going but seven miles an hour,” said a member of the No. 7 company yesterday, “it is preposterous. The truck weighs considerably over 5,000 pounds, and when the car struck it, the heavy piece of apparatus was carried fifty yards or more, and after freeing itself from the truck, the car still ran further before it could be stopped. No car running at seven miles an hour could have done this.

The fire engine driver’s life is an exciting one in any event. Like others accustomed to facing dangers daily, the drivers become hardened to the excitement, and their composure and self-control in tight places are often amazing. A few years ago when an alarm of fire struck in the engine house and the driver jumped to his seat, the first thing he did was to strap himself to the engine. This practice has been entirely discarded in this city, although each engine driver’s seat is provided with the broad leather strap. A number of years ago a driver on a fire engine was making a run on C street near New Jersey avenue. The wheel came off the apparatus and the huge engine toppled and fell. The driver being strapped to the seat could not jump and therefore fell with the engine and was killed. The excellence of the city streets renders the strap useless.

I would certainly not classify our city streets as excellent. In fact, I would probably classify them at the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Thankfully, I drive so infrequently that I’m rarely exposed to the pleasure of running over axle-cracking potholes.

Three firemen on fire engine drawn by three horses in D.C. (1912)
Three firemen on fire engine drawn by three horses in D.C. (1912)

This next part is pretty much on the mark with what a lot of drivers complain about today.

Bicyclists are a continual source of worry to the engine drivers. These men a wheel ride furiously along, just in front of the engine, and a slip would mean that they would be precipitated beneath hoofs or wheels. Horses attached to vehicles and left unhitched along the streets are another source of worry to the engine drivers, they knowing that should the horse become frightened and dash in front of the engine, nothing short of a miracle could avert a catastrophe.

Drivers still hate bikers, and some of the bicycle couriers in the city weave through traffic like crazy people. The latter part of the paragraph is a little crazy to think about. Imagine if parked cars randomly jumped in the war of fire trucks today. Clearly these guys had a much tougher time navigating the chaotic streets of the city than even the traffic mess of today in Columbia Heights.

By the way, this is the same fire company that exists today — the company at 14th and Newton St (albeit, they had a different fire house location at the time). Did you know they have a website? … and it’s called “House of Flame.” That’s pretty intense.

DCFD Engine Company 11 keeps Columbia Heights safe
DCFD Engine Company 11 keeps Columbia Heights safe

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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