Early Years

San Jose has a rich and colorful history spanning more than 225 years, from its founding as the Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe in 1777 to the present day high tech metro city it has become. On March 27, 1850 San Jose received its Charter and became the first city in the newly established State of California , as well as becoming the states first capital.

On July 11, 1850 the Common Council passed Ordinance 80 which established “Fire Limits” within the city, restricting the use of vegetation and canvas for building purposes and provided for the appointment of four men to inspect fireplaces and stovepipes. Violations of Ordinance 80 would cost an individual from $25 to $200 for each offense.

On October 24, 1850 a conflagration took place in San Jose burning for more than two days, destroying numerous structures, causing great monetary loss to businesses and injuring two fire fighting volunteers. The Common Council paid for the medical care and boarding of the two fire fighters – costing the city $1,703., and paid for lost goods, which amounted to $3,500.

November 18, 1850 the Common Council passed Ordinance 91, creating Eureka Fire Company No. 1, and directed that a study be undertaken to “erect a fire house, purchasing fire apparatus for the use of the ‘energetic company’ who has so promptly offered to labor for the Public in cases of fire”.

In March of 1853 an Act of the Legislature concerning “Exempt Firemen” stated “Members of any organized fire company in the State are declared exempt from jury duty and military service….”. There were limitations on the number of Exempt Firemen a city could have and a limit on the number per company. Towns listed in the Act were limited to a specific number of companies, those not listed were limited to one company per thousand population. Exempt Fire Fighter Certificates were issued to individuals that were approved members of duly organized companies.

It took more than three years from the enactment of Ordinance 91, establishing Fire Limits, for the Common Council to raise enough money to acquire fire apparatus and equipment. On January 27, 1854 the Common Council passed Ordinance 239 admitting San Jose Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 as a duly organized Fire Company and establishing the San Jose Fire Department. Joseph McGill was elected Foreman. This same Ordinance directed the Foreman or Assistant Foremen to “wear a certain badge upon his or their hats as distinguishing his office”.

You may recognize several of the Charter Members of the Company. They include Gurley, Allen, Martin, Hale, Balbach, Goodrich, Lewis, Reed, Lightston, Stout, Pearl , Flickenger, McKee, Spencer, Clayton, Williams and Brown. As you can see, many of these Charter Members have had streets named in their honor.

Initially, Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was limited to tearing a burning building down with hooks and ladders and using bucket brigades to throw water from the city ditch on the fire. One other method of fire control was tearing down the buildings surrounding the one on fire to prevent further spread of the fire.

Reputable members of the community in good standing could apply to become members of the Company. Existing members of the Company voted on nominees using a secret voting method where each member would place a black or white ball in a wooden voting box. Typically, five or more black balls meant you were out (hence the phrase – black balled). As an example, on January 24, 1854 , Josiah Belden ( San Jose ‘s first Mayor) was rejected from admission to the Company. During the secret vote he received five black balls in the voting box. On his second attempt, February 4, 1854 , with only three black balls this time, he was elected to San Jose Hook and Ladder Company No. 1.

February 1, 1854 Mr. Frank Lightston signed an Indenture with the City allowing use of his 36′ X 60′ property at First and Santa Clara to be utilized as the site of the first fire house for a period of ten years. The annual rent on this property was $3., payable in advance. The firehouse built on this property would eventually house all three fire companies, which only added to the competitive rivalry existing between them.

On February 4, 1854 the Common Council authorized a Steward to be paid to perform maintenance and repairs on fire apparatus and equipment as well as housekeeping duties at the firehouse. The Steward earned $25. a month for his work.

February 11, 1854 a committee was formed to put on a Fireman’s Ball. The afternoon of the Ball was set for a parade and formal presentation of the ‘Truck’. A meeting at the Mayor’s office solidified the days activities, including the naming of the Truck – Young America, and establishing the Company Motto – Semper Perates (Always Ready). The committee reported back that a large room in the Mansion at First and Santa Clara was available for the night – cost $50. A supper would be prepared costing $4. per person. The six piece band for the evening charged $100.

July 24, 1854 Ordinance 259 was passed admitting Empire Engine Company No. 1. to the department. Empire Engine Co. No. 1 operated a New York side lever engine formerly used by the San Francisco Fire Department. It was purchased for $1,800., along with 400 feet of riveted leather hose and other equipment totaling $2,546. The first Foreman of Empire Engine Company No. 1 was Charles E. Allen.