Sam Haskins (1846-1895): He Answered His Last Alarm, Part Two

The first part of this post by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez introduced us to Samuel (Sam) Haskins, a native of Virginia who came to Los Angeles in the early 1880s and became involved in the political world of the city’s small but active black community.  In June 1892, Haskins became a call man (meaning he was on-call on an as-needed basis) with the Los Angeles Fire Department and was the first black firefighter in the department’s history.  Now, we pick up the story of Haskins and thank Rudy for his excellent contribution.

On Tuesday, November 19, 1895, at approximately 6:00 p.m., the alarm sounded at Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Engine Company No. 2, located at 412 North Main Street [editor’s note: this is now a parking lot at the historic Plaza area next to the Pico House, Merced Theater and Masonic Lodge and just north of U.S, 101], where Sam Haskins was assigned as a call-man, meaning he was on-duty as needed.

The account of Haskins’ death in the Los Angeles Herald, 20 November 1895.  The accident occurred in front of the Baker Block, formerly the site of Abel Stearns’ adobe house, El Palacio, on the east side of Main Street and which is now where U.S. 101 passes through downtown.  This means the engine had only proceeded a short distance south on Main before the incident took place.

Many recent accounts mistakenly have Haskins responding from the Boyle Heights station at First and Chicago Streets, which was where Engine Company #2 relocated from the Plaza. This did not happen, however, until January 1896, shortly after the new Boyle Heights station house was completed at 2127 East First, where the Hollenbeck Station of the Los Angeles Police Department is today.

Responding to the alarm, the station crew immediately took their positions on the horse-drawn carriage and rode south down Main Street.  Haskins took a standing position on a running board at the rear, next to a shovel and a box of coal, which was behind a large and heavy steam pumper that was fixed at the center of the carriage.

Coverage of the tragedy in the Los Angeles Times, 20 November 1895.  The following day, the paper issued a correction, stating that Haskins was not burned by the boiler because it was insulated.

A small coal-fed fire was always kept burning inside the burn box of the steamer’s boiler so that it could achieve enough pressure to operate the pump and draw water from a hydrant to feed the hose line.

LAFD historians surmise that Haskins’ position was that of a “stoker,” a task that required strength and coordination. Hanging on to the carriage with one hand while racing down the rough-hewn streets, a stoker’s responsibility was to maintain the fire in the burn box by using his foot to close and reopen the burn box and using his free hand to add shovels of coal.

The Times’ account from 21 November of Chief Moore’s report to the Los Angeles Fire Department Board of Commissioners about Haskins’ passing.  Note the reference to Haskins’ five years of association with the department, commission comments, and that funeral expenses, which amounted to $70, were paid out of a LAFD relief fund.

Traveling no further than two blocks from the station, however, the rig might have hit a particular deep rut in the road. At this point, Haskins lost his balance and fell between the boiler and the rear wheel, which led to his body being badly mangled.

According to the Los Angeles Times edition of the next day, the 20th, after the rig came to a quick stop, the wheel had to be removed first.  This took about ten minutes and only then could Haskins be freed, with his terrible injuries clearly visible to the growing crowd of onlookers. He was taken back to the station, where, after a few agonizing minutes, he died.

Reporting on the coroner’s inquest from the Times, 22 November 1895.  See the end where it was stated that blacks and whites in large numbers went to pay tribute to Haskins.

Most of the city’s newspapers reported the story about this tragic event that next day. While highlighting the details of the agonizing manner of his death, these accounts described Haskins as the “colored politician” and the “the Herculean colored fireman,” noting that he “had many friends among the white as well as the colored population.”

One newspaper even recalled the time Haskins saved the life of police officer Valencia [see the first part of this post from last week.] Poignantly, LAFD Chief Walter S. Moore simply said, “The deceased was more than five years past connected with the department and was a faithful and industrious fireman.” [note the reference here to Haskins’ association with the LAFD going back to at least 1890, though his assignment as a call man was two years after that.]

The brief account of Haskins’ funeral in the Herald, 23 November 1895.

Haskins was buried in the segregated area of Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights on November 22. Marching to the cemetery from downtown, the funeral cortege, led by a band, was attended by both the chief and assistant chief of the LAFD, and a detail of thirty full-time firemen.

The Times reported that there were “profuse floral offerings, including a wreath from the Fire Commissioners and a star from the police department, with the services conducted by Rev. John A. B. Wilson, pastor of the First Methodist Church.” With no mention of family members, Haskins was simply described as a “bachelor” or “unmarried.”  His grave site, though, was left unmarked.

Coverage from the Times‘ edition of 23 November of the funeral ceremony, including a list of pallbearers.  Note the reference to pallbearer George Warner as “formerly a slave in company with the deceased in Virginia.”

The third part of this very interesting post on a pioneering figure in the early Los Angeles black community and the Los Angeles Fire Department will conclude next week, so be sure to check back then.