Volunteers exclusively answered fire alarms in Manteca up until 52 years ago.
The city was served by a volunteer department that was headed from 1935 to 1958 by Sam Hanna as the chief.
The first “fire department” consisted almost of everyone in town. There were as many as 60 men and women who would come running with buckets, ladders and axes to form a bucket brigade any time a fire broke out. The organized department came on the scene on Nov. 1, 1915 when 30 Manteca residents gathered at the Palace of Amusement – a theatre that was once located directly across from where Kelley Brothers Brewing Co. is today – and formed a fire department while electing D. O’Leary as the first volunteer fire chief.
Manteca had a private water system in 1915 that served only a small segment of the homes. Everyone else had their own water wells. The first equipment the department bought was a gas-powered pump they could connect to private wells around Manteca. Anyone connected to the water works was asked to stop all water consumption whenever the fire alarm sounded.
By 1917, the department had collected $759.50 from citizens and was able to buy two fire hydrants, 400 feet of hose and two hose carts.
Fighting fires was precarious at best. One such fire happened on Oct. 11, 1918. One of Ed Powers’ warehouses on Moffat Boulevard caught fire. It had been built in 1917 for $10,000.
There was no fire hydrant or other source of water within reach. Firefighters were forced to lay a hose line from the just completed Spreckels Sugar plant from over 3,000 feet away. A chemical engine that arrived to help from Ripon had a malfunction. By the time the hose reached the building and the water was turned on 700 tons of alfalfa valued at $15,000 was destroyed as was the building. Firefighters had to use wet gunnysacks to beat back flames and keep them from spreading to a nearby Standard Oil bulk plant.
Even with such a fire fresh in everyone’s mind, the City Council in 1918 – the year Manteca was incorporated - refused to provide financial support to the fire department. That prompted the volunteers to start an annual firemen’s ball to raise funds.
The annual dances allowed the volunteers in 1920 to buy their first fire engine – a Ford combination pump and chemical engine equipped with 1,000 feet of hoses and ladders - for $4,000. The department put down $1,000 and paid $1,000 a year thereafter.
The first major fire in Manteca history occurred on July 24, 1920. It threatened to wipe out the entire northern section of the business district along Yosemite Avenue. It started in an oil stove on the northeast corner of Yosemite and Main in the back of Moore’s Grill. The entire building was engulfed before the alarm was sounded. The fire quickly spread to an adjoining second-hand store and a millinery store. The fire also destroyed two smaller shops, a plumbing establishment and the Friend Cleaners. The Toggery also was burned.
The walls of the next building – the Odd Fellows Hall – was soon hot. Firemen rushed upstairs and kept a constant stream of water on the wall to cool it and provide moisture to counter the flames by using an old-fashioned bucket brigade.
The fire was out in an hour. Losses were pegged at more than $30,000.
Manteca buys LaFrance fire engine in 1927
Manteca’s population had grown to over 1,500 by 1927. That prompted volunteers to purchase another engine – a 1927 American La France that had a 600-gallon-per-minute pump capacity. It cost $10,750 fully equipped. Compare that to $500,000 for a typical, full-equipped fire engine that is in front line service today for Manteca Fire.
The fire engine - which the department still owns but is on loan to the Manteca Historical Society for display at the museum – was bought on installment. In June 1934, the department faced a financial crisis. It was unable to make the final $275.72 payment and was facing the possibility of losing the fire engine.
The department was able to get a short extension from the mortgage holder in San Jose. They then returned to Manteca and conducted bake sales, dances, and an open house at the department allowing them to pay the engine off in August.
A fire that started at Diamond Lumber – where Don’s Mobile Glass is now located at Main and Moffat – on June 1, 1939 spread to nearby Southern Pacific packing sheds with all of the structures for a loss of $30,000.
World War II created a manpower shortage prompting the city to raise the volunteer salary to $5 a call. The 20-30 Club volunteered to police fires to free up firefighters so they could direct their attention to fighting blazes.
The department’s third engine was bought in 1946.
The first major test of the new equipment came on Aug. 6, 1948 when fire destroyed the two-story Yosemite Grammar School on West Yosemite Avenue where the Sequoia Annex is now located. The $80,000 building was so badly damaged it had to be razed.
The next big fire was on Dec. 11, 1952 when Courtesy Market, a furniture store, Sadie’s Beauty Shop and a barber shop located on the southwest corner of Main and Center streets were destroyed by fire.
The losses surpassed $200,000.
Manteca’s deadliest fire – and another fire that was the most famous – occurred after the city took over full control of the fire department.
In the early 1980s, an early morning fire raced through a two-story hotel at Sycamore and Yosemite avenues killing three people.
The most famous fire of all time without a doubt is the one that destroyed the El Rey where Kelley Brothers Brewing Co. is located on Aug. 6, 1975 following a screening of “The Towering Inferno.”
That date is forever locked in trivia history thanks to an edition of Trivial Pursuit that includes the question, “What was playing at the El Rey Theatre in Manteca, Calif., when it burned on Aug. 6, 1975?”