Harmon’s Histories: Remembering Missoula’s brave, beloved fire horses
By Jim HarmonOctober 20, 2018
They had names like Mack, Prince, Tyler, Baby, Joe and Snap. They were elite athletes, immortalized in death.
In Missoula, the most famous of the city’s fire horses were Snap and his brother Prince.
Snap began his career in 1889, described as “an intelligent animal, standing seventeen hands high, and well trained for his work.” Paired with his brother, Prince, they were a perfectly matched team hauling the fire company’s steamer to numerous conflagrations for over a decade.
Prince and Snap “ate smoke at the Hoag house fire in 1890, when the big hotel that stood between the Rankin house and the corner on east Front Street was destroyed.”
When the Northern Pacific hospital burned in 1891, the local press reported the pair “made the famous run, fairly galloping into the hearts of the firemen, and assuring (themselves) of a home in the Missoula fire station” for the rest of their lives.
At times, Prince was said to have “pawed the earth and snorted out his impatience at the inability of the firemen to conquer the flames as quickly as he wont to see them conquered by the hose he brought for that purpose.”
Occasionally there were shortages of trained fire horses. In Butte, the Anaconda Standard loaned its horse, Charley, to the local department in 1895, noting that, while the animal had no training for the job, “he is well known as the most intelligent horse in the city and can learn anything with ease.”
Watching the fire horses practice was one of the great entertainments in Missoula for years.
Snap. (Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library – University of Montana–Missoula)
“The fire department will make a test run to the depot at 7:30 this evening,” declared a local newspaper. “The playful little blacks are expected to paralyze all previous records.”
In 1893, “the fire horses were out within ten seconds after the tap of the bell, and within seven minutes hose and hydrant were playing water ten blocks away.”
A year later, in another drill, “the two running connections were made with the fire plug at the corner of Higgins avenue and Front street (with) water being thrown through one hose in 20 seconds … and in 23 seconds the next.”
Officials at the St. Louis World’s Fair, recognizing the importance of well-trained fire horses, sent out invitations to “every fire department in the entire country” to send teams to participate in competitions to determine “the best type of fire horses.” Chief May of the Missoula Fire Department received an invitation, but the city wasn’t able to accept.
Just like Prince and Snap, by the early 20th century many fire-horse teams across the country had made their mark on local history.
Missoula’s fire horses, circa 1897. (Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library – University of Montana–Missoula)
“Baby,” according to the Kansas City Journal, was “one of the best horses the (New York) fire department ever had.” As the story goes, when Baby was beyond her useful life she was told she’d be sent to the auction block, whereupon she drooped her head and died.
In Kansas City, when Joe died of injuries suffered in an 1894 fire call, Professor E. D. Eames of Kansas State University, a skilled taxidermist, was called upon to make a mount of the veteran fire horse for display in the K. C. fire headquarters.
Of Missoula’s famous team, Snap was the first to die, at age 22, in 1901.
“He was game up to the last, bounding out of his stall only to fall prone.” It was only then that firefighters discovered he was ill. Within a few hours, he died with a “heavy groan.”
That marked the beginning of the end for Prince, too. As A. K. Fox of the fire department told reporters, “It would be useless to attempt to break in a single horse to match Prince.”
Prince died 18 months later, in 1903, at age 24. Fire Department Captain MacAuley “spoke kindly” of his friend at the horse’s burial.
Prince. (Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library – University of Montana-Missoula)
A local scribe noted “the lonesome feeling prevalent at the fire station (where) occasionally a fireman will turn and look sorrowfully at the vacant stall, while he mutters, ‘Poor old Prince.’”
The fire-horse era quickly ended around 1910, when Missoula city officials began to look at “horseless” equipment. The new fire machines promised lower costs up front, and lower maintenance costs, long term.
On June 16, 1911, “the new white speed-wagon” arrived in Missoula.
Ironically, it was transported to the fire station … by a team of horses.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.