Early Fire Chief – Most Inventive

Gerrie Schipske
Accident that killed the fire chief.

As the Santa Ana winds whip through Southern California, we are all on edge about the potential for fire.

Early Long Beach had its share of fires and became one of the most sophisticated fire departments “west of the Mississippi” thanks to its fire chief, Joseph Shrewsbury.

For a time, Long Beach refused to form a fire department. In 1904, the city trustees were warned by the president of the fire insurance underwriters that insurance rates will increase unless the city provided fire protection is afforded.

For months there had been no fire department, because of a disagreement between the volunteers and the trustees. The trustees ordered a pressure test of water from both water companies and stated they were satisfied that with a few more hydrants in the residence portion of the town that no fire engines were needed.

In 1905, voters, in a special election approved the issuance of $30,000 bonds for the purchase of apparatus for protection from fire.

Then in 1906, Joseph Shrewsbury became fire chief. Born in Minnesota in 1867, he came to Long Beach in 1902 and served as the city’s first plumbing inspector and then became involved in the fire department due to his prior experience as a captain of a fire truck company in the state of Washington.

In 1906, the first fire station in Long Beach was built.  Engine Company No. 1, was located at 210 West 3rd and housed horses and equipment. The new building cost $30,000 and included an engine, combination hose and engine wagon and a fire alarm system. The firemen were part paid and part volunteer. They were paid for each fire they responded to.

Shrewsbury urged the city trustees to add fire alarm boxes throughout the city and to require the water company to provide more water lines and higher pressure. He also advocated for additional fire houses and fire hydrants. Coincidently, Shrewsbury invented a high-pressure fire hydrant which was smaller and cost half as much as the present types. The machine shop in the Fire Department manufactured the fire hydrants.

In 1907, Shrewsbury ordered two motor chemical engines, making Long Beach the first city on the west coast to own such vehicles. The forty horsepower engines were made by the Rambler Company and the bodies were made in Long Beach. The engines, which replaced horse-drawn wagons, carried 80 feet of 2 inch jacketed hose, a 35-gallon copper chemical tank weighing 300 pounds, and 200 feet of 2-inch chemical hose. Each carried four men and buckets, hooks and axes.

They enabled firemen to respond to fires “with great speed.” A special incline was developed that allowed the fire engine to be placed at a tilt and when the driver pulled a chain, the incline sent the engine forward without having to crank it to start.

Tragically, in 1916, Chief Shrewsbury was meeting at the Water Department when he heard an alarm, which turned out to be false. He responded and his vehicle was struck by one of the fire department chemical trucks also responding at the intersection of Broadway and American. He was thrown head-first to the pavement and late died of his injuries.

His funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, including early aviator Earl Daugherty, who flew overhead as a tribute. His widow was awarded $4,900 by the city. Shrewsbury is buried in Sunnyside Cemetery.



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