History Pages: 42 - Go, Team, Go: The First Team Sport in Santa Cruz, ca. 1880

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Every year, Major League Baseball holds spring training to prepare for the new season, while college basketball is in the grip of March Madness. In the fall, our own Santa Cruz Warriors play basketball games in the "temporary" Kaiser Permanente arena on Front Street - maybe in front of fans again in 2021? 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.

1880 - Alert hose co Sccfu-35.jpg

In 1880, the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper announced the first race between hose teams. Wait - what the heck is a hose team? There was, as yet, no city fire department, so volunteer firefighting companies formed in the 1870s to answer the call, with names like “Alert” (pictured at right) and “Pilot”. The companies were sponsored by business owners, and many volunteers were company employees. As often happens, the young volunteers invented a sport out of their serious work.

SJB Alert hose cart 600px.jpg

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. The downtown water system begun by F. A. Hihn and Elihu Anthony in the late 1850s included fire hydrants, which made hose use possible.

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 - human teams could get geared up and moving faster than horse-drawn fire wagons. The hose cart in the photo at left may be the one in the 1880 photo at right. You can see "Alert" painted on the chassis. This cart is on display in the Plaza Stables museum at San Juan Bautista State Historic Park.

1882 - Alert state champs Sccfu-36.jpg

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 (shown after their win in the photo at right). Countywide competitions continued into the 1890s. Even the kids got involved, forming teams like the “Junior Pilots”.

Hook and ladder.jpg

In 1877, the volunteer firefighters obtained a “hook and ladder” wagon (pictured at left), to be drawn by a human team (team members signed this copy of the "team photo"). 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.

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).

1895 - Church St FS Sccfu-37.jpg

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 (right), where the one fire wagon was kept.

Improved equipment and response times gradually reduced the need for human hose teams. As a result, the sport gradually lost popularity during the 1890s, and a colorful part of our local history was mostly forgotten.


Next: History Pages: 43 - Petroleum in Santa Cruz, Then and Now