The Fires They Fought, Enshrined at LAFD Historical Society

The 1887 Kurtz Steamer, the first fire truck purchased by LAFD
The 1887 Kurtz Steamer, the first fire truck purchased by LAFD
Courtesy LAFD Historical Society

From the outside, No. 27 looks like a classic fire station: three sets of massive wooden doors and a memorial statue. Inside, a pressed-tin ceiling tops six poles. Located near Amoeba Records on Sunset Boulevard, the station was built in 1930 and still seems set to burst to siren-screaming life at any second.

But this station closed in 1992. It's now home to the nonprofit LAFD Historical Society and its hidden treasure of a museum. Open to the public only on Saturdays, and struggling to find both volunteers and funds for the preservation work it hopes to accomplish, it's the repository of decades of stories from L.A. history.

Frank Borden, a 36-year veteran who retired as assistant chief, serves as the society's director of operations. He's a fountain of facts as he leads a tour of the two-story building — "the biggest fire station west of the Mississippi."

Like many members of the historical society, Borden has firefighting in his blood. His father was stationed here at No. 27 during his career. There's a black-and-white photo in the kitchen of Stanley Borden and the other 30 or so firefighters who served with him, and upstairs is his bowling ball and shirt — part of a display of sports trophies the men won over the years.

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Frank Borden has a presence here, too. That's him as a firefighter in a photograph mounted with radio equipment on the back of a 1977 Cadillac, just like the one he was driven in when he made it to the "white gloves" stage of his career. That's also his name in gold on the side of a gorgeous, lightweight 1917 Model T Ford, which he and three other volunteers own. "Before places like Hollywood and West L.A. were annexed into the city, volunteer forces used Model Ts to fight fires," he explains.

Downstairs, one display has two model horses pulling a Hayes aerial ladder truck from 1881. "Kids can't believe that horses pulled fire trucks up until around 1913," Borden laughs. "When they were retired and went to pulling milk trucks, they'd still run when they heard the siren." He points to a model Dalmatian: "Stations used Dalmatians as 'coach' dogs to stay with the horses at fires to keep them calm."

Borden's first really big fire was long after that era ended — Bel-Air, Nov. 6, 1961, when 484 homes burned to the ground. "We were one of the first crews up there, and we fought fire all day and into the night," he says. He also recalls a fire at Dearden's downtown in 1978 (one of the firefighters got lost in the smoke and almost died), and commanding crews to save books and documents during the 1986 Central Library fire.

Then came the 1965 Watts riots. "As engineer, I drove a Crown into the riot area. They threw rocks and bottles at us, and we also got shot at. We had a fire right across the street from the junior high school I went to," Borden says. "I was bought up in South L.A., and someone on the steps started to shoot at us. I couldn't believe people were attacking us, but they were just mad at anyone in a uniform." He sighs and looks away for a moment, admitting that he doesn't think much about moments like that. He's proud, he says, that he never lost a man during his time on duty.

Naturally the museum features a display of movie posters and memorabilia from fire-themed films (this is Hollywood, after all). And then there are the helmets. Lots of helmets. Lining the walls of what was the men's dormitory, it's "the biggest helmet display in the country — around 150 from all around the world," Borden says. The museum is about to receive a couple dozen more, including one worn by Steve McQueen, from the estate of Irwin Allen, who produced 1974's The Towering Inferno.

Still, it's the vehicles that dazzle. There's a newly polished 1954 Cadillac ambulance (extremely similar to the Ecto-Mobile in Ghostbusters), and things you won't see anywhere else. Festooned with boilers, cranks, pumps and dials, the 1887 "Kurtz Steamer" looks very much like a mad scientist's go-cart but is in fact the very first fire truck purchased by the L.A. Fire Department.

The crown jewel is "Big Bertha": A one-off Crown Manifold Wagon, it was custom-made in 1963 for the department. Significantly bigger than the trucks of that time, it's complete with an oversize pumping apparatus, designed for large fires downtown. Big Bertha is the name of the sprouting silver pump (the "monitor") on the back that shoots out pressurized water.

Out back, Borden gives a sneak preview of the museum's latest restoration project: an American LaFrance City Service Truck. "It came from Station 68 but had somehow ended up at Travel Town in Griffith Park before the Society bought it."

Many similar trucks are gathering dust behind a station in the Valley (Borden prefers not to reveal the location, although he gives this reporter a tour of that, too). He reluctantly refers to the area as "the bone yard," and it's not hard to see why.

There, hidden behind stacks of corrugated pipe, baking in the sun and covered in thick cobwebs, is a handful of historic trucks. Among them is a 1938 American LaFrance City Service Truck, with rotted and pitted ladders. It fought in the Gray Building fire of 1939, during which two firemen lost their lives. There's a 1952 Mack Fireboat Tender, Crowns from the 1950s and '60s that look a bit like VW camper vans, and a 1923 Moreland, a Foamite truck that has rubber tires and a chassis — but almost nothing else.

Ten years of sun damage, advanced age, vandalism and theft has led to their sorry state. (The society, while well-intentioned, also has contributed, cannibalizing some trucks to save others.) It's quite possible these flat-tired but uncomplaining city servants will stay here until they blow away in the Santa Ana winds.

But even with a missing door handle, cracked seats and patchy paint, the streamline fenders on the society's latest project, now out back at the station, are eye-catching. "It's from 1938, the year I was born," Borden laughs, adjusting his eyeglasses. "But what happens to it, and when, really depends on volunteers and funds."

For Borden, joining the LAFD Historical Society is a way to give back. "I loved the history of the department."

He says, "My dad used to tell me stories as a little boy, and I thought I was going to get involved. And boy, I got really involved!" He pauses. "But I can't understand why more firefighters past and present aren't more interested and involved. This is their legacy. This is their memory."

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