Rocks, Rails and Ranches

First firefighters had fun, too

By: Gary Day, Special to the Placer Herald
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Editor’s note: In last week’s column, Gary Day explained how Rocklin Hose Company No. 1 employed a fire bell located near City Hall to alert the department to fire. A person spotting a fire would walk, run or travel on horseback  to pull the fire bell rope to summon the fire company. 

On hearing the bell, fire fighters rushed to City Hall, rolled the hose cart from its garage and moved it quickly to the fire. Sometimes they ran with it on foot. Sometimes they paid as much as $1 to the owner of any nearby team of horses that they could recruit to pull it.
The firefighters elected each other to pre-assigned duties. At the fire site, the hydro man connected the hose to the closest hydrant. The cart men pulled the cart ahead to unreel the hose. The nozzle man connected the nozzle to the hose and signaled the hydro man to open the hydrant. The nozzle man was especially important in the process. He sometimes ran to the fire alongside the hose cart, cradling the nozzle to ensure its safe transit. His special skill was in attaching that nozzle quickly and squarely to the hose end. Wealthy 19th-century quarry owner and land broker John Mantyla was a nozzle man. The fire company practiced twice each month to minimize time needed to “show water” at the nozzle.
In 1910, quarry owner Adolf Pernu offered his quarry whistle as an alarm bell substitute for east side residents, and later the hose company installed a fire siren east of the tracks and across the street from today’s Rocklin rail station. But the late Rocklin historian Ruben Ruhkala didn’t remember that Rocklin ever used a neighborhood alarm box system. He noted that, because of Rocklin’s cumbersome alarm system, houses northeast of downtown would sometimes burn to the ground before the hose company could respond. 
Rocklin’s early 20th-century fire fighters addressed each other as “comrade.” They met for business meetings at least once a month, mainly in City Hall’s hose company facilities. Meeting minutes show that discussions of fire suppression experiences and other fire-related topics occurred only twice in the 21-year period from 1894-1914. The men were probably heroes in the community. Newspaper accounts show that they fought many fires in those early years. But their main concern, discussed at length at most  business meetings, was the maintenance of a dance platform and the conduct of July 4 Firemen’s Balls and other dances. Sometimes they scheduled dances as often as weekly, on Saturday nights.
The meeting minutes show that the hose company paid to have the dance platform stored away in the winter months and that they probably located it at different downtown sites each year. In 1910, the hose company formed a separate corporation to profit from renting out the platform for dances and other uses, including roller-skating. Ruhkala remembers a 1920s-era platform for both dancing and roller-skating on the Railroad Avenue hill across Rocklin Road from today’s Rocklin rail station.
By the early 1930s, Rocklin’s volunteer fire fighters had acquired a four-wheeled fire cart that they sometimes pulled with an automobile. They acquired their first motorized fire unit, a Dodge VanPelt, in 1936.