At this time of year, Major League Baseball holds spring training to prepare for the new season, while college basketball is in the grip of March Madness. In Santa Cruz, our own basketball Warriors are in their first season, playing games in the new arena on Front Street. But what was the first organized team sport in our town?
It wasn’t basketball or football, those games were still in their formative years in the 1880s. How about baseball? – close, but still a few years in the future. Lumberjack competitions? Sailing? Surfing? – all creations of the 20th century.
In 1880, the Sentinel announced the first race between hose teams. Wait - what the heck is a hose team? In the days when even the largest buildings were built of wood, before fire sprinklers and copious water supplies, fire was the biggest danger to life and property. There was, as yet, no city fire department, so volunteer firefighting companies formed in the 1870s to answer the call, with names like “Alert” and “Pilot”. The companies were sponsored by business owners, and many volunteers were company employees.
In 1877, the volunteer firefighters obtained a “hook and ladder” wagon, to be drawn by a human team. Before expansion of the city’s water system made fire hydrants widely available, The best firefighting strategy was, after saving as much as possible from the burning building (with the help of the ladder), to pull down the burning frame with the hook to reduce the chances of fire spreading to neighboring structures.
Availability of fire hydrants made possible the use of fire hoses. Early fire hoses were wound on two-wheeled carts, which were pulled to a fire’s location by teams of volunteers. The hose teams became the “first responders” of the fire companies.
Speed of response is always important in firefighting, and fire companies took pride in having the fastest hose team. Naturally enough, that pride evolved into competition, leading to the first races in 1880. Soon the sport went statewide, and the Alert Hose Company team from Santa Cruz took first place in 1882. Even the kids got involved, forming teams like the “Junior Pilots”. Countywide competitions continued into the 1890s.
Some notable local citizens were members of hose teams. For instance, Samuel H. Cowell, son and heir of Henry Cowell, was a member of the Alert Hose Team in his younger days. Photos of Cowell from that time are rare, so it’s possible he’s in one of the photos reproduced here. Frank Ely, a member of the Pilot Hose Company, later became the first paid Santa Cruz Fire Dept. Chief (1894-1897).
Major downtown fires kept the hose companies busy throughout the 1880s and into the 1890s. After the “Great Fire of 1894” destroyed a large portion of downtown (including the headquarters of the Pilot Hose Company on Pacific Avenue), the city teamed up with business owners to build a firehouse on Church Street, where the one fire wagon was kept. Improved equipment and response times reduced the need for human hose teams. As a result, the sport gradually lost popularity during the 1890s.