Yesterday & Today

Gilroy gets a new firehouse
Gilroy’s citizens were startled one afternoon in February 1916
when the new LaFrance chemical fire engine came roaring full speed
through town.
Gilroy gets a new firehouse

Gilroy’s citizens were startled one afternoon in February 1916 when the new LaFrance chemical fire engine came roaring full speed through town.

After no smoke was observed rising above rooftops, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The loud clanging of bells came from the boys from the firehouse, causing a little commotion to show off the city’s newfangled motor machine. A pile of boards had been lighted in a lot at the south end of town and a fire staged, enabling the Vigilant Company to race the engine to the scene and put it out.

Fire drills and even competitive firefighting demonstrations were not new in Gilroy. During the latter part of the 19th Century, in the days before horse-drawn fire wagons and motor-driven fire trucks, annual Fourth of July contests brought out regional fire companies. Groups of a dozen men lined up at the start line. On signal, the crew would run a 400-yard stretch, each team dragging a hose cart. When 300 feet of hose had been unreeled and the nozzle hooked up to a pumper, the men would begin to shoot water. The team with the fastest time won. Gilroy held the distinction of maintaining an unbroken record of 1 minute and 11 seconds, set on July 4, 1893, when seven teams from surrounding counties all vied for the title. The competitions ended several years later, when the old hose carts and pumpers were replaced by more modern equipment.

By 1916 the $5,000 American-made Type 20 LaFrance model was a marvel of innovative efficiency. The 55 horsepower, 6-cylinder engine boasted an electric starter, a complete double ignition and hose wagon with two 35-gallon tanks.

The new purchase required an up-to-date firehouse. Within two weeks of the La France’s arrival, the City Council met with San Jose architect William Binder to go over the plans. He submitted initial drawings for a two-story reinforced concrete brick-faced building to sit on the city lot on Fifth Street between Monterey and Eigleberry, on the site where wooden buildings for Vigilant Engine Company’s old firehouse and the old City Hall and jail had been before the new 1905 structure was built at Sixth and Monterey.

Enthused by the prospect of a handsome new building for Gilroy’s bustling downtown, plans were quickly approved for the firehouse, estimated to cost around $6,000. Local contractor William Radtke, whose lowest bid came in at $5,853, got the job. By May 1916 there was an initial foundation, brick laying and electric wiring begun. Plans called for the ground floor to house the new LaFrance and other firefighting apparatus plus a switchboard for the fire alarm system. Upstairs space for a club and meeting room with pool and card tables were planned, along with sleeping quarters for the engineer, chief and on-duty firemen. For washroom fixtures, the new structure replaced the old single-patent toilet lavatory with modern bathrooms equipped with showers.

Gilroy at one time had three fire departments, the oldest one being the Vigilant Engine Company, formed in August 1869. The Eureka Hook and Ladder Company came next, followed by the Neptune Hose Company. After a merger of two groups, the town was left with the Vigilant and Eureka Companies. In the early years the Vigilant Company occupied the wooden firehouse building on Fifth Street while the Eureka firehouse sat on the east side of Monterey between Sixth and Martin. After 1905 the corner City Hall housed the fire department for a time.

Rivalry between the Vigilant and Eureka companies sometimes caused delays in firefighting when members of one company laid claim to certain city cisterns over the other. Weekly both companies attracted favorable public attention with showy drills down Monterey.

The first meeting of Vigilant Fire Co. in the new Radtke-built firehouse was on Dec. 6, 1916 with a reception for Fire Department members and city officials. After opening remarks and exercises, there was some discussion about the possibility of consolidating both of Gilroy’s fire companies. Other business that night included the initiation of five new members into the fire department: Shirley Johnson, Joe Eustice, Sprig Fredriksen, Dr. Harry Brownell, and Bill


Old lists of fire department members show prominent city names not normally connected with actual firefighting, such as mayors, city council members, the school superintendent and businessmen. In that era most townspeople became members because it was considered fashionable to join. That way they could dine and make speeches at the annual Firemen’s Banquet and Firemen’s Ball. The popular events were duly reported in the local newspaper, along with a complete list of all attendees. A political force in town, the Vigilant Company for a time even presented its own slate of candidates for city council elections.

Former competitiveness and old rivalries eventually faded away as both of Gilroy’s fire companies finally consolidated in the early 1920s, becoming the Gilroy Volunteer Fire Department. The Fifth Street firehouse, hailed for its modern innovations 86 years ago, became outdated and the building since turned into a popular downtown restaurant.

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