For about a half century in America, horses were utilized to haul fire fighting equipment.
Clanging fire bells sounded the call, alerting the horses to their duty, and once in their harnesses, they galloped down dusty roads never to be distracted.
Those years when specimens of equine beauty resided in fire stations could be called the romantic period of firefighting.
According to Dennis Smith’s “History of Firefighting in America: 300 Years of Courage,” “Not every horse could serve as a fire horse. The animals needed to be strong, swift, agile, obedient and fearless. At the scene, they needed to stand patiently while embers and flames surrounded them. They needed to remain calm while the firefighters fought the blaze.”
After the incorporation of the Fire Department of the City of Kenosha in 1851 — an all-volunteer affair for more than 50 years — hose carts and pumps were pulled by men. When the fire alarm rang, every available man ran to the nearest fire station to pull the apparatus out of the station and down to the fire.
As the town grew, so did the number of fires each year. Most buildings were made of wood, and fires jumped from building to building and from street to street. More than once the downtown area was threatened with total destruction. There were 26 buildings lost in the City Hotel fire on March 31, 1860.
The rigs, which were getting heavier with the newer equipment, needed to get to fire scenes faster.
After the Civil War, the City Council approved the use of rental horses from livery stables for fire runs.
The Allen & Sons Tannery fire in February 1890 proved that getting horses from the livery took too much time. In that fire, the tannery, the Pennoyer Water Cure, the German Methodist Church and the McDermott Tannery were destroyed.
Three white stallions
James S. Barr became Kenosha’s fire chief just a month before the tannery fire, and he pushed for the department to have its own horses. Getting the City Council to agree was another matter.
Finally, in February 1894, bids went out for a team of horses for the Central Engine House located on the south side of Market Street (56th Street) between Church and Chicago Streets (Seventh and Eighth Avenues).
Nineteen months later, three white stallions with harnesses were purchased and a man hired to care for them.
The team was good-naturedly named: Jim, after Chief Barr; Barney, after Barney McGivern, chairman of the City Council Fire Department Committee; and Lee, after Lee Fellows, who had been chief in the early 1880s.
(Some sources say not Lee, but Ott, named for former firefighter and mayor O. M. Pettit, was the third horse.)
The team was the pride of the department, demonstrating its prowess of strength and stamina.
Other teams were eventually purchased to pull the city’s five hose apparatus wagons.
At the sound of the fire alarm, volunteers were to run to the fire scene while the horses were getting hooked up to the wagons. It was said that even with their good head start, the firemen could never outrun the horses to the scene.
A fire call at 9:30 p.m. on September 12, 1898, sent companies racing to the Chicago-Rockford Hosiery on the north side of Prairie Avenue (60th Street) around 24th Avenue at the edge of the city. Included in the call was the much loved team from the Independent Hose Company No. 4 from the station at Milwaukee Avenue (Seventh Avenue) in today’s 4800 block where it still stands.
The company’s pair of brown beauties were well trained and renowned in Kenosha.
The fire was small and had been extinguished by the time the Independent team arrived, and everyone was sent back to their stations. About six firefighters from the Independent Company jumped on the rig driven by John Dosemagen, 34, for the ride home.
As they started east on Prairie Avenue, they came alongside another fire hose wagon driven by KFD driver Kupfer.
The horses were excited and began pacing each other and broke out into a full run. The drivers saw that the teams were getting unmanageable and pulled them in.
But like school boys street racing cars 40 years later, the temptation to race combined with the willingness of the horses was overwhelming. Soon the race renewed as they dashed down the blocks towards the Northwestern railroad tracks ... and an unseen approaching train.
Too little, too late
According to a front page article in the next day’s newspaper: “When within a short distance of the railroad track, Kupfer saw the gates descend and began to pull in his horses. But Dosemagen failed to see the barrier fall and the horses thrilled with the victory they had won from their rivals took on ever greater speed, and with heads erect, nostrils dilated, they simply flew down the road.”
The terrifically bright carbide lamps on weaving bicycles blinded Dosemagen. The train whistle awakened him and the men held on tight.
Every brake was reversed and Dosemagen pulled the lines with all his strength. There was no stopping the horses who had been excited into a frenzy.
As they neared the track, some of the crowd who had stood by to see the racing horses threw up their hands in a vain attempt to stop the inevitable, but it was no use.
The manic horses hit the gates, breaking them into kindling and leaped into the train engine. In the great crash that followed, horses, driver and firemen were thrown into an indiscernible mass at the roadside.
The remains of the horses were strewn along the track. Miraculously, no humans were killed.
Dosemagen, who jumped as the wagon collided, suffered a seriously wrenched knee and deep bruises.
All of the firemen had hairbreadth escapes. It took some time before they found Peter Olk, 34, under a mass of hose and debris. His injuries were more severe, and he was taken to the office of Dr. George Kimball.