Fire Department History

First Bishop Fire Truck 1913On July 11, 1893, the Board of Supervisors of the County of Inyo considered a petition presented by the citizens of Bishop…..praying for the consideration for the appointment of a Fire Commission. On motion by Supervisor Freemen……second by Fitzgerald….and so ordered…. J.L. Bowland, John Black and H.N. Gunter were appointed Fire Commissioners. So reads the Supervisors’ proceedings of that date. From the fact that the citizens of Bishop felt the need of such a Commission to the extent that a petition was submitted to the Supervisors, would indicate that no time would be lost in securing fire fighting equipment…… however……. there does not appear to be any record of such action for several years…..in fact…..not until after Bishop was incorporated…….in 1903. The Women’s improvement Club made the first census and there must have been a great deal of interest in the count for 500 were required to incorporate as a sixth class city and the census listed 540. Immediately following incorporation, in April 1903…. .preparations were made to present a bond issue to the vote of the citizens of Bishop. In. 1904 the bond issue in the amount of $44,000.00 carried and the money was used to install a water system and drainage system. The City Fathers of those early days were: G.L Albright…..W.W. Watterson…George A. Clarke…..F.K. Andrews….and J.C. Underwood. The Marshal was D. W. Pitman…M.Q. Watterson was Treasurer and W.W. Yandell was Clerk.

If you have visited the Fire Station you have probably seen the two-wheel hose cart which was one of the first pieces of fire fighting, equipment. There were four of those carts….they were made by the Blacksmith Shop and placed around town in strategic spots. The wheels of two of those old carts serve as decorations at the homes of a couple of former members of the Fire Department of yesteryear. The fourth seems to have disappeared completely. The fire bell was ordered in 1906. It was cast in San Francisco and cost $125.00. Ernest Halliday, Ed Bulbitt, George Wells and Bert Wells served as Fire Chief during various years. The Department has always been a volunteer group….men who have served the community because the safety of “their town” was paramount to all other civic duties.

Bishop grew fast and the census taken in 1910 recorded 1,190 persons within the boundaries of the City. In 1912 the Bishop Volunteer Fire Department was organized with Les Horton as Fire Chief. It was a great day for rejoicing when the manually operated two-wheel carts were replaced with a 1912 Pope-Hartford Fire Truck for it was a big step forward to have a motorized piece of equipment. This first early truck was used
until the transmission fell out of it right in the middle of Main Street. To replace it, the volunteers bought a Model “T” Ford and transferred the usable accessories from the Pope-Hartford to the new truck.

Have you ever had a volunteer fireman in your family? If you haven’t you have missed quite a show, for when the siren sounds in the middle of the night, the activity it sets off is equal to a small earthquake. The “turn out” clothes of the volunteer, in the 1940’s, consisted of a jacket, a pair of trousers with suspenders attached and a pair of calf length heavy rubber boots. The trousers fit down over the tops of the boots and when the alarm sounds the man appears to JUMP out of bed and into the trousers and boots in one operation. In three seconds he is out the door and on the way to the fire station, and carries out any duty assigned to him. Perhaps he is home in an hour or so but usually it is several hours before he can crawl back into that nice warm bed. No matter how small the fire, there is still the equipment to take care of, the hose to drain and innumerable odd jobs of clean up.

The Model “T” was used until one sad day when Jim Martin was driving it and as he turned off Line onto Main Street, all four tires blew out. That was the last of the Model “T”, it had served well but its usefulness was over. Answering hundreds of fire alarms had taken their toll of the light car.

Engine No. 1, the Reo, was bought by the City of Bishop in 1932 and so has been in use over a quarter of a century. It appears shiny and new because the volunteers have kept it in good shape but it will travel only 27 miles an hour out West Line Street and in fact, according to the State Vehicle Code, it is unlawful to operate it on the highway, It doesn’t even have a windshield.

In 1946 the Volunteer Fire Department conducted a fund raising campaign and with money raised at that time from individual donations purchased the No. 2 engine from Manzanar. They also bought quite a little surplus hose and a 40 foot aluminum extension ladder. In 1947 the fund raising campaign continued and by the spring of ‘48, enough money was available to buy a chassis and necessary parts for engine No. 3. The chassis, a 4-wheel drive Dodge power wagon was bought from Sammy Griffith and built into a fire engine by the volunteers. This equipment has been replaced. Along about the latter part of 1948 the Rotary Club backed a movement to create a rural fire district and this was successful. The Bishop County Rural Fire District includes Rocking K on the west, Riverside Drive on the north; it runs on a ribbon to Laws and includes the town site of Laws. To the Wilkerson Ranch on the south, on the southwest and southeast it jigs and jogs on a meandering line.

There are four pieces of fire equipment in the rural district valued at $140,000.00 including the building. Bishop is in the #4 classification and is valued at $200,000.00

Engine No. 4 was assembled by the volunteers also, on a chassis bought from Clyde Greenwood. The Board of Trustees of the Bishop Union High School loaned the generator that is used for the flood lights installed on the 800 gallon tanker. Engines 2, 3, 4 and the rescue car are radio equipped. The first rescue car was the old hoarse bought from Ed Blake. The volunteers replaced it with a new one equipped with two stretchers, forcible entry tools, salvage equipment and resuscitator, this resuscitator aspirates, inhalants and resuscitates. The rescue car also carries Scott air packs; these are used when working in dense smoke or gases or under water rescue. The facilities of this rescue car have been used on fourteen persons. The Scott air packs were used during the fire at Jack’s Waffle Shop.

The underwriters require that an engine pump 750 gallons per minute at 150 pounds pressure with 20% reserve in the engine. They test the flow of water and the pumping capacity of all trucks that are pumpers. When many are using water in the summertime and the pressure is low, the Fire Department to secure the necessary pressure would attach herd suction hoses to the hydrants nearest the tire and draw all water from other areas. The Mutual Aid Program permits the use of the rural fire trucks within the city limits of Bishop and by the same token the city equipment is used in the rural area with the exception of Engine No. 1, which never leaves the city limits. So you see, when the volunteers ask for donations, the reason behind the request is the need for better equipment to protect the many homes and places of business. Naturally the volunteers themselves do not have title to the equipment. Title is vested in the City of Bishop with the understanding that the equipment may he used outside the bounds of the city limits and the rural fire district.

One of the most serious fires in the history of the City of Bishop was the burning of the three story opera house owned by Harry Holland. This happened in the early 1920’s. The opera house stood where the Masonic Temple now stands. It was a three story building. The upper floor was used by Lodges and Fraternities for their meetings. There were offices and rooms on the second floor and first floor served as a theatre, a ballroom, basketball court, and banquet hall. On the day it burned, a basketball team had been using it and also a women’s organization had been practicing on the upper floor. There was never any proof established as to the cause of the tire. The Opera House was equipped with beautiful scenery, for many travelling groups came this way in those days. In addition to the seating space on the main floor…there were three boxes on each side and a gallery across the back. There was a piano in the orchestra pit and one on the stage. Also on the stage…back of the wings was a large coal and wood stove. The theatre was entirely frame and had been built in 1901 of lumber from Old Mammoth. The current picture tunning at the time of the fire was “My American Wife” featuring Gloria Swanson. Although the origin of the fire was never determined, it was believed to have started from the large stove. When the alarm was sounded a great column of smoke and flame was already issuing from the root. The volunteers worked valiantly, but the fire was so hot it was impossible to get close enough to work to advantage. It was a calm night….otherwise the damage would have been much greater…..to adjacent buildings. The Harry Holland home….located southeast of the Opera House was stripped of window frames and other woodwork. It is the building which now stands directly east of the Masonic Temple, and was moved to the present location after the fire. Juel Thompson, who roomed on the second floor of the building, saved some clothing, but one newsreel was all that Harry Holland salvaged. The expensive scenery, four pianos, and all the movie equipment was destroyed were all the records the paraphernalia and equipment of all the Lodges and Fraternities using the top floor. The Masons and the Old Fellows lost historical records of the previous thirty six years. As the building burned the volunteers were doing all in their power to save the adjacent buildings, but several sheds….the Gavin and Forbes Auto Repair, the Army Store, the offices of the Bishop Creek Mine Company and Alfalfa Association and the cottage of Mrs. Linscott went with the theatre. The late Bob Symons, stated that his family was living on the ranch where the airport is now, and the sky was as bright as day although it was evening from the glow of the fire….so bright that the cock pheasants in the marshes near the ranch were crowing….thinking it was breaking day no doubt. The ruins smothered for several days, a grim reminder of that night of terror and gloom. Belle Holland still has the piano which was in their home at
that time and the case is scorched at one end….. Mrs. Holland recalls watching the blaze from across the street for a time, and remembers well how hard the firemen worked to check the fire. Jack Foley was one of the operators of the movie projectors and lived opposite the theatre…the same Jack Foley who wrote a column for the Inyo Register and who painted and presented the portrait of Les Horton to the Fire Department at the time of dedication of the present fire station.

Many dedicated men have served as volunteers on the Bishop Volunteer Fire Department. One of the most colorful members was Les Horton who served as chief from 1912 until his death in 1954.

Les Horton was born April 18, 1875. In the early years his father was engaged in ranching and raising stock. The Horton ranch was located where the Bishop Colt Course is located now. The family lived there for many years and when they sold the ranch they moved to a smaller place where this radio station is located. The huge barn on the old ranch served as apple packing plant for it was centrally located near many large apple orchards. Some of you old timers will remember that Mamie Clark was teaching at the Warm Springs School on the north side of the Warm Springs Road opposite the old Brierly home. Les Horton was one of her pupils. Les Horton was appointed constable in May of 1912 and became fire chief that same year. Except for a short period Mr. Horton served the City of Bishop as constable until his death. He was unopposed in all but two elections. He was always active in civic affairs and served as parade marshal of the Bishop Homecoming and Labor Day Parade for almost 20 years. As parade marshal he rode a black horse named Ranger….wore a black suit and a big black Stetson hat. Ranger loved a parade and led the ceremonial parade that celebrated the opening of the Oakland Bay Bridge. Ranger was brought to Bishop by John Henderson. Each year thereafter he led the Bishop Homecoming and Labor Day parade proudly acknowledging the applause and cheers a he nodded his head and cantered sideways to bow to the audience. One of the most heartwarming and friendly sights was Los Horton holding his broad black Stetson above his head as a salute to the crowds as he rode the beautiful black horse in the grand entry at the rodeo grounds. A happy, pleasant sight that will never be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have lived in this area during those quiet years. For many years Les Horton was a member of the Inyo Mono Alpine Peace Officers Association and was named an Honorary member of the Bishop Chamber of Commerce. He did not live to see the present Bishop Fire Hall dedicated but those who gathered for that event thought of Lee Horton and the 42 years he spent endeavoring to improve the service of the volunteer fire department.
The bishop Fire Department has come a long way since the little two wheel carts with no housing to the splendid well equipped department serving the entire community. The building….the fire trucks….the rescue equipment are the substantial result of the dreams of many dedicated men. The shining rod trucks move swiftly….on a moment’s notice to serve the community whatever the hour of the day or night.

Mr. Walter Primmer served as assistant Chief to Les Horton and has served as Fire Chief since 1954. Bob Richards is assistant Chief. Battalion Chiefs are Jack Schley, John Myers, and Jack O’Neil.

The value of the Bishop fire fighting equipment today is approximately $200,000.00. That is not the replaceable value of course. The value of the rural equipment is about $140,000.00.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to the men who are dedicated to serving the area as members of the Bishop Volunteer Fire Department. Through the years many have devoted hundreds of hours to service. In 1974, Chief Primmer observed 20 years of service as fire Chief and we wonder if he has any idea how many hours of service he has contributed to the safety of his fellowmen.

This write up was created by Lilliam Meacham during one of her Sunday morning Milestones Programs she gave live on a local radio station in Bishop, California.