A look back in time: Volunteer firemen protected Auburn for 100 years

By: Al Albertazzi
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At the very top of Lincoln Way still stands the old bell tower, erected in 1902, that used to summon the men of the Auburn Volunteer Fire Department when disaster struck. At its sound, firemen from all over town would drop whatever they were doing.
Those in the vicinity of a firehouse would run to get the equipment — originally hose carts and later, fire trucks — and head for the fire. Others would go directly to the vicinity of the fire as indicated by the number and sequence of the bell’s ringing.
Those responders would be businessmen, bankers, barbers, plumbers, shopkeepers, whatever and whoever, but they would all be firemen first when the need arose.
Like most gold rush towns, Auburn had always been fire prone. Despite the fact the first fire department had been formed in 1852, there had been several disastrous fires.
In 1855 one fire destroyed 80 buildings, including some of the town’s leading businesses, and in 1859, 58 buildings had gone up in smoke in little more than an hour. But firefighters of those times were working with only a two-wheeled hand cart and water buckets.
As time went by, water lines were established, equipment improved and firehouses built. Firehouse No. 1 at the top of Lincoln Way was built in 1888 for the East Auburn or Uptown fire department, and the Old Town firehouse was built four years later in 1892. Early in 1900 the two departments joined to form what has often been credited as the oldest all-volunteer fire department west of the Mississippi.
During its 100-plus years existence, the company had only three fire chiefs. S. Guy Lukens was the first chief and served for 46 years. His place was taken by Henry Gietzen, who served from 1946 until 1988. The last volunteer chief was Sam McLain who served until 1992.
During their years of service the volunteers fought many fires. A few of the more memorable ones are mentioned here.
In 1905 the Auburn Journal’s headline read, “Disastrous Fire Visits This City.” Auburn City Hall, which sat approximately where Bootleggers restaurant sits today, burned down along with Crosby’s stable, the American Hotel (now the Auburn Ale House) and several buildings in between.
In 1921, Auburn’s so called “Red Light District” burned down, consuming almost all of the buildings along Brewery Lane. The heat was so intense that a picket fence 20 yards away burst into flames. Many people believe the fire was deliberately set.
One of the largest fires in more modern times occurred in Old Town in 1951. In her pamphlet about the firefighters, May Perry of the Placer County Historical Society called it “The last real fire in Downtown (Old Town) started in the rear part of the Gold Nugget Café and swept upward through the block to the southward. The firehouse was slightly damaged, but it was the only building left on the block.”
Not all major fires occurred in Old Town. In 1957, the 67-year-old opera house erupted in flames. It was a large two-story building that took up much of one side of Central Square in Downtown Auburn. Firefighter Keith Lukens recalls that in responding to the blaze, he parked his rescue truck at what he thought was a safe distance, but the heat was so intense that it scorched the paint from the side of the vehicle.
In 1936 the upper story of the Auburn grocery and meat market on the corner of Lincoln Way and Cherry Street caught fire. The volunteers were able to put it out and save the lower floor, which continued as a grocery store into the 1970s before coming a restaurant called the General Store. Today we know it as the Monkey Cat.
Although fires were the most dramatic events, they accounted for only 20 percent of the calls answered by the volunteers. The other 80 percent were rescues, accidents or medical emergencies.
During its long years of service, the volunteers served the city well. But times change. The day of the volunteer fireman had ended and the city moved to a paid, professional fire department.
Al Albertazzi has lived in Auburn since 1964. He writes an occasional column on local history.