The San Jose Fire Department, initially an intensely dedicated volunteer organization until the hiring of professionals in 1876, was established by a City ordinance in 1854. In that same year, a firehouse was erected on Lightson Street. It functioned as the only firehouse in the community until the increased requirement for equipment storage space called for the construction of another building in 1869. Known as the Empire Firehouse, the new headquarters at 375 Second Street housed Empire #1 Engine Company and San Jose’s first steam fire engine.
Initially, the Empire Company hauled the two-ton steam engine to fire scenes by hand until 1871 when the City Council authorized the purchase of a driver and a team of horses which were kept in stalls at the rear of the firehouse. At the sound of an alarm, automatic springs released the stall doors and almost instantly the horses were under their harnesses suspended from the ceiling. When the driver seized the reins, the harnesses dropped down on the horses, collars were fastened, and the horses, engines, and firemen were ready to go within a matter of seconds.
For 23 years, the Empire Firehouse served the City of San Jose, until the building was destroyed in July 1892 by a fire that consumed several blocks of the downtown area.
History San José is grateful for a generous grant from the Farrington Historical Foundation to support updates to the Empire Firehouse exhibit space. Thanks to their generosity, we will transform the first floor into an interactive space for visitors of all ages to enjoy.