Three Things About the Last Three Fire Horses: Tom, Gene and Barney

In my call for suggestions last week, GoDCer Rych emailed a request to look into the last fire horses for the District fire department. John Kelly did a piece a few years back in the Post which is an excellent read.

To put a true Ghosts of DC spin on Rych’s story idea, we’re going to do a “Three Things…” post on the final trio of fire horses, Barney, Gene and Tom.

1925 fire run with Barney, Gene and Tom
1925 fire run with Barney, Gene and Tom

1. Last run thrills three old fire horses

Below is an article on the final run, albeit for show, of the last three fire horses. The article was published on June 10th, 1925 in the Washington Post.

The last run! There’s something pathetic about it. More so because Barney, Gene and Tom, three gray steeds of the fire service don’t seem to realize it.

For the past year they have stamped impatiently in their stalls waiting for the familiar clang that didn’t come. Men spoke cryptically in their presence of their fire running days being over; of their being sold at auction or transferred to some lowly pursuit. The equestrienne veterans couldn’t believe it.

It was a long time between calls and the three horses found life hardly worth living. For ten of their fourteen years of life they had given their best to the first service. They couldn’t understand their idleness.

Yesterday the movies appeared to give them a new lease on life. The Department of Agriculture wanted some pictures of “The Last Run” for a film it is making. Barney, Gene and Tom were the only ones that could give it to them.

Early in the morning they were taken from No. 19 engine house to No. 8 and placed in the all-familiar stalls. This must be a return to service, they though, and they pawed the sawdust floor and whinnied nervously. It was good to be back under the overhanging harness.

And then came the gong. The years and worries fell from their shoulders as the harness dropped into place. Although they had made only three runs in the past year, they responded as if they had been in retirement only a day.

Firemen slid down the poles, throwing on their clothes as they did so. The kids came running, yelping, from everywhere. Driver D. Dwyer mounted an old engine, the chain across the front of the engine house dropped and they were off, bellowing kids and barking dogs in their wake. This was the life. Movie men were cranking away, but the veterans paid them no heed.

Out to Lincoln park, the job done, and then the triumphal trot back. A brisk rub down while the kids stood around admiringly. Then back to their stables. The last run!

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

2. Fire horses given retirement floral tribute

By the 1920s, fire horses were becoming outdated, a little dangerous and obsolete (read the perils of a Columbia Heights fire run circa 1900). Below is an article I came across in the Washington Post from June 16th, 1925 … the retirement of the District’s final three fire horses.

With tributes such as are rarely if ever, given pensioners, Barney, Gene and Tom, the last of Washington’s fire horses went into retirement yesterday. Before going to Blue Plains to pass the rest of their days in pasture, however, the horses gave the large crowd at Engine house No. 8 a thrill by galloping through the streets as of old, with an old pumper rumbling at their heels.

The horses dashed along North Carolina avenue southeast, stopped instinctively at a fire plug, and returned leisurely to the engine house. There they were met by Commissioner Frederick Fenning, Fire Chief George J. Wagner, retired. Huge bouquets of flowers were bestowed on the trio, who, appreciating their fragrance less than their taste, ate them.

D.C. fire house with horse drawn engines circa 1909 (Library of Congress)
D.C. fire house with horse drawn engines circa 1909 (Library of Congress)

3. After a career answering 700 alarms, two buddies die

Barney, Gene and Tom on a fire run (source: Washington Post)
Barney, Gene and Tom on a fire run (source: Washington Post)

Below is a sad tale of the finals days for two of the last D.C. fire horses, Gene and Barney. This is from an article in the Washington Post on June 13th, 1925.

A gong is sounding in the old building that once housed No. 8 Fire Engine Company. Barney stirs restlessly. Gene glances at Tom. Several times the bell rings, then ceases. Minutes elapse. Again the loud clang, pounding out an alarm of fire, sounds–1, 2, 3, 4–That’s the number!

Barney, Gene and Tom. That number is theirs. Even before the gong has finished ringing they are stamping about their stalls, waiting to be liberated. The gates are opened. In less than a minute the three are tearing madly along the city streets, drawing behind them the bright red apparatus of No. 8 Engine Company.

Every one who remembers “way back” remember Barney, Gene and Tom. They were the last of the District’s veteran fire horses. Never again will they hear the clanging of bells. Never again will they ever be together–in this world.

Tom, youngest of the trio, is the sole survivor. Barney and Gene have passed away–to a land of rewards for their valiant efforts on earth.

Gene was the first to go. It was a quiet moonlight night about a month ago. He had no regrets. His purpose had been fulfilled well, and he had reached the ripe old age of 19. Barney and Tom stood beside him in a pasture of the District Home for the Aged and Inform at Blue Plains.

“Carry on, old pals,” were Gene’s last words to his comrades, “and hold your heads high when you march along Pennsylvania avenue in the Labor Day parade.”

His companions vowed to uphold honors for all three. But a week later Barney was found dead near the same spot. He was 21 years old. Tom had wandered away and stood looking into the distance at a far corner of the pasture.

Yesterday Srgt. A. J. Bargagni, of the Fire Department, and originator of the firemen’s parade on Labor Day, went to Blue Plains to see Tom and find out if he was willing to appear in the line of march without his partners.

“My eyesight isn’t what it use to be,” Tom told the sergeant, “but I promised Gene and Barney to carry on, so whenever you say the word, I’m ready.”

Sergt. Bargagni said that Tom would be teamed with two big bays. Tom is pure white, and will be in the center of the pair, carrying floral tributes to his departed comrades. The trio will pull one of the early types of fire apparatus.

During the career of Barney, Gene and Tom, it was estimated they answered more than 700 alarms. The smell of smoke and screech of sirens was all they lived for. They never moved in their stalls until the number calling their station into action was sounded on the gong over the door.

In 1925 the trio were retired and sent to the farm at Blue Plains. Only on Labor Day were they returned to the scene of former days of action. They were purchased by the department when Tom was 5 years old. He is 17 now.

“I’ll be here some time yet,” Tom avers. I’ve got to carry on.”

That’s such a sad piece, although it’s a little much, giving voices and thoughts to the horses.

Fire Department activities: horse-drawn hook & ladder truck leaving firehouse (Library of Congress)
Fire Department activities: horse-drawn hook & ladder truck leaving firehouse (Library of Congress)

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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  • HJMcK

    Great post! I’m a little confused on the dates though. The third article, the one describing the deaths of Barney and Gene, is dated 25 June 1925, three days before the previous article describing their retirement? Perhaps the date on the third article is incorrect?

    In any event, thanks for all your hard word on this terrific site!

  • Kenny Ray Oxenrider

    My father was born in 1898 and told me tales of his days as a volunteer fire chief in Ohio. He said their horses would race unattended when they heard the alarm and put their heads through the hanging horse collars stomping at the bit ready to go…… They apparently loved the excitement and the exercise.

  • Stacey Parks

    Huge painted portrait of these 3 hang in the headquarters of Greenwood Fire Department in Greenwood, IN. Beautiful story, beautiful history, beautiful horses.

  • Marino

    Thank you for this wonderful story. Horses are loyal and brave, but their stories are so seldom told.
    Thanks, also. Stacey, for telling us about their portrait. But why is it in Indiana? The rest of the story, please.

  • Marino

    Phoned Greenwood, IN fire station & was told portrait of Barney, Gene, & Tom was painted by the wife of a former fire chief. I suggested that the current Fire Chief should get excited about this important piece of history and have an article written about the portrait. Who knows?