John Kelly's Washington

John Kelly: On a Burning Quest to Find the Monument to D.C.'s Last Fire Horse

Barney, Gene and Tom, who were the last fire horses with the D.C. Fire Department, make a run shortly before they were retired in 1925.
Barney, Gene and Tom, who were the last fire horses with the D.C. Fire Department, make a run shortly before they were retired in 1925. (The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Sunday, July 19, 2009

On June 25, 1937, an interesting assortment of people gathered on a gentle rise near the southernmost tip of the District of Columbia. The group comprised firemen, animal lovers and children. Firemen because the occasion was to honor one of their own. Animal lovers because the honoree happened to be a horse. And children because, well, what other group possesses a greater love for firemen and horses?

The occasion was to mourn the death of Tom, the last fire horse of Washington.

A large monument of Indiana limestone had been hoisted into place over Tom's grave, its surface engraved with "In Memory of Tom, Last Horse in the D.C.F.D." Tom had died a few weeks earlier, 12 years after retiring to pasture at Blue Plains, then a rural enclave that included an old folks' home, a paupers' burial ground and fields that ran down to the Potomac and Oxon Cove.

Miss Virginia W. Sargent, president of the city's Animal Protective Association, was the principal speaker. Her group had spearheaded the effort to remember Tom. She lauded the horse's gentleness, courage and loyalty. Capt. Raymond E. Oden of No. 25 Firehouse praised Tom's long service. Private E. M. King sounded a final tribute: 27 notes on a fire engine gong, one for each year of Tom's life.

We know this happened because it was covered by all the local papers. Photographs show children pressed up against a metal railing, firefighters saluting. What we don't know is exactly where that monument was. And that makes this week's column a little more "Question Man" than "Answer Man." The question: Do you know where the monument to Washington's last fire horse is?

Lt. T. "Cosgrove" Jones is obsessed with finding it.

He's an instructor at the D.C. fire academy, where he teaches recruits how to drive firetrucks. "I heard the story [about Tom] years ago from a retired fireman," Lt. Jones said.

To understand his fascination with Tom, it is useful to understand firefighters. They are perhaps the most nostalgic of our public servants, gripped by a brass-buttoned sense of tradition. They honor their history and their fellow "smoke-eaters" -- both two-legged and four-legged ones.

More than 200 horses were once scattered through D.C.'s firehouses. What made a good fire horse? "Long-windedness" was the most desirable quality. Wrote one contemporary newspaper reporter: "The manner in which this is determined is to hitch the horse to a light hose cart and run him up and down the block several times."

Except when it was eating, a fire horse lived with a bit in its mouth. It had to be ready to go at all times. In those days, every fire alarm rang in every station simultaneously. A specific pattern of bells indicated which station was to respond. A good fire horse could discern when its services were needed, and many would start kicking the stalls the moment they heard their unique call. Once harnessed, the three-horse team would burst from the station, ears back, nostrils gaping, muscles pumping. There can be fewer sights as stirring as a team of dappled gray fire horses rounding a curve at full clip.

The D.C. fire department got its first motorcar in 1910. A year later, Engine Co. 24 opened on Georgia Avenue. It was the first station built without a stable or manure pit. It had a motorized pumper. The horse era was ending.

The last horse team -- Barney, Gene and Tom -- made its final ceremonial run in 1925. An earlier run was captured by a film crew from the Department of Agriculture. With the help of Dan Lech of the National Agricultural Library, Answer Man was able to track down this rare film and watch it at the University of Maryland with Lt. Jones. To see it, go to (Gene and Barney are misnamed Dick and Harry in the film.)

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