Your house burning down? Don’t even consider calling the Santa Rosa Fire Department, said Chief Frank Muther in 1908; instead, dash over to the nearest fire box and pull the alarm.

Since most houses and businesses had telephones, his advice seemed backwards, even cruel; it may be rough for some homeowners to sprint up to 3-4 blocks to the closest box (and everyone knew exactly where they were, right?), or someone caring for small children or the infirm might be a wee reluctant to leave helpless family members in a building that could become engulfed in flames. Bur strange as it may seem today, Fire Chief Muther was right; if a fire was indeed serious, the only hope of controlling it was via someone first pulling the lever of that little red box.

Like most towns of its size, 1908 Santa Rosa did not have a full-time fire department. The on-call firefighters – including Frank Muther – had to rush directly to the blaze from wherever they were at the time, hopefully arriving at the scene at about the same time as the pump truck. But in an age before cell phones, pagers, or even radios existed, there was only one sure way to direct the firemen to the vicinity of the fire: Ringing a loud bell or otherwise making a noise using a code that corresponded with a particular fire alarm box.

The technology for these “fire alarm telegraphs” went back to before the Civil War, and Santa Rosa probably had a Gamewell system, as almost all communities used by the turn of the century. (UPDATE: This was verified by a Jan. 20, 1909 PD item.) Here’s how it worked:

Santa Rosa had only 23 alarm boxes, and the town was small enough that they were probably all connected together in a single electrical series, like a string of christmas tree lights. The low-voltage circuit was (battery?) powered from the fire alarm office.

The alarm boxes used a clock-like mechanism (which had to be routinely rewound by the fire department) and when someone pulled the lever, the spring motor came to life, turning a wheel that had a unique pattern of teeth that corresponded with the number of the box. As the wheel slowly turned, each tooth briefly interrupted the circuit (see this YouTube video for the mechanism in action).

This sent a sort of slow-motion telegraph message to the fire alarm office, which activated another device that punched holes in a paper tape matching the pattern of clicks sent from the box. That paper strip could in turn be fed automatically into a tape reader that rang a bell, flashed a light, sounded a klaxon, or anything else. Another YouTube video clearly demonstrates the entire system. On that video an alarm box with a wheel configured to transmit “27” sends out two clicks, pauses, then sends out another seven. After a longer pause, the pattern repeats. Next in line, the paper tape enters the reader where the holes gong a bell twice, pause a bit, then ring seven times more. Listening and counting, the firefighters knew they should head for the location of alarm #27.

And it wasn’t just the firemen who knew where to find a fire; the Press Democrat frequently published the alarm codes, using them as column fillers when there wasn’t enough advertising, as shown here. (Note that the linotype operator wasn’t bothering to reset the often-used text, and the reused letters were gumming up with ink; is that “Hazel” street or “Haxol”?) The public memorized these codes as well. Chasing fire engines was popular sport.

Here’s the final obl. believe-it-or-not twist: between the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake and completion of the new firehouse in 1909, where was the fire alarm office and its clever machinery located? Apparently everything was controlled from the Grace Brothers Brewery. A July 8 item in the Santa Rosa Republican (see following post) shows that their steam whistle was being used for fire alarms. While it’s possible that an automated relay system could have forwarded the alarm code from the temporary firehouse, the story below shows that no alert sounded at all for the fire that was telephoned, which meant that there was no way a fireman could intervene and directly toot the beer baron’s whistle.

Chief Muther Makes Order For Fire Department

The fire department was summoned by telephone early Wednesday morning to the residence of Mr. and Mrs. P. F. Johnson on College avenue, where a chimney fire was causing some uneasiness. The fire burned briskly and the galvanized iron cap on the chimney was red hot. There was no fire between the ceiling and the roof, and the services of the firemen were hardly required.

The property belongs to the Misses Hahman, and no particular damage resulted from the chimney fire.

The department ran straight down B street to Ross and then turned east to the scene of the fire. Many who saw the department go along B street attempted to follow, and soon became lost and went down into the lower portion of town. Fire Chief Muther got a belated start owing to the fact that no alarm was given and was unable, like others, to follow the department. He arrived at the scene of the fire somewhat tardy.

Chief Muther will insist in future on all persons summoning the fire department by means of the alarm system, that the public and the firemen may know where the blaze is supposed to be. This is a step in the proper direction, for with the still alarm the trained firemen are not notified of the blaze, and if there is a fire they should be present to do the work directed by the chief in extinguishing the blaze. Persons desiring the department should bear in mind that they should got to the nearest box and turn in the alarm in the regular manner. In the case of the fire Wednesday morning an alarm box was within one block of the scene of the fire, and if the house had been blazing there would have been no trained members of the department present to fight the blaze.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 11, 1908

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