I was just a kid on Chicago’s north side when my grammar school class toured the Chicago fire Department Engine 71’s firehouse at 6239 N California. Watching the fireman slide down the fire pole, we learned that the fire pole was actually invented in Chicago some 71 years earlier. A few other cities claim that they had a fire pole first, but I shall stubbornly stick to this Chicago story unless proved otherwise.
Flash back to 1878 and a three story wooden frame firehouse at 313 Third Avenue (later renamed and renumbered to 909 South Plymouth Court) in Chicago. Although long gone, it was then the busy quarters of Engine Company 21 organized in 1872 as the first black fire company in the Chicago fire Department. The ground floor containing the firefighting equipment and the horses, the floor above was for sleeping, and the top floor the hayloft used to store the winter supply of hay to feed the horses.
Until 1878, firefighters would come down from their sleeping quarters to their fire apparatus either by a spiral staircase or through a slide chute. A spiral staircase was better than a regular wide staircase because it took up less space in the firehouse. Worse yet, the fire horses could at times try to climb the regular stairs to visit the firemen or get a treat! Just picture a firemen who would awake to either a hungry or playful horse that missed their human companions. It really happened!
If you were a kid, you may well have enjoyed a miniature train ride somewhere in the Chicago area. They were in amusement parks, zoos, and kiddieland. You might have ridden the “Hiawatha” at Hollywood Kiddieland at Devon and McCormick in Chicago’s far north side, or the Kiddieland in Melrose Park at North Avenue and River Road. There was a train at Brookfield zoo, one in Adventureland in Addison.
If you are really old like me, you may remember the train in Lincoln Park zoo or the two really iconic trains, the Chief and the Scout at Riverview amusement park at Belmont and Western.
Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn was opposed to switching from Cadillac ambulances to the newer boxy, modular EMT design apparently on the theory that “a Chicagoan would rather die in style than be saved in the back of a panel truck.” He thought people wanted to go out in style!
Actually, Cadillac never made an ambulance, but rather suppling three major coach builders S&S, Miller Meteor and Superior . The first Cadillac purchased by the Chicago fire Department was a modified 1940 limousine model which went into the service on January 25, 1943, assigned as an upgrade to Ambulance 1. Then between 1953 and 1973 most Cadillac ambulances were conversions from Miller Meteor of Ohio on incomplete Cadillac chassis from 1961.
Since 1928 Chicago fire Department has purchased over 178 ambulance vehicles, some 70 of those were Cadillacs. There were also three 1942 Packard’s converted by Henney in Freeport Illinois, ten 1946 Mercury’s and nine Pontiacs purchased 1970. There was just one 1941 Dodge purchased for Civil Defense between 1943 in 1947.. In 1973 the EMS systems act was written establishing federal guidelines for the newer design modular ambulances, the department purchased over 70 of these on Ford and Chevrolet chassis still in use today.
But the story of Chicago ambulances begins in 1889 with its first city ambulance, a horse driven police ambulance #1 quartered at the Armory police station. In the basement station where stalls for nine horses two teams assigned to the ambulance and two teams for the “blue wagon” a ninth horse was called a fast trotter for the commanding officer of the precinct captain Koch.
One ambulance team was always kept constantly in harness ready for “instant service”. The crew two police officers and a driver would wait for the electric gong. One horse team worked the day shift 7 AM to 6 PM the other team worked the night shift 6 PM to 7 AM.