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Corte Madera Fire Department

Getting Organized

Summer cottages were eventually joined by new homes built for year-around use. Permanent residents were eager to have the same amenities they had enjoyed when they
lived in San Francisco.

Before long, some of Corte Madera's rustic, rural qualities gave way to the impetus for street lights, sanitary sewers, graded roads, and water mains for household and fire protection use.

Utility services, opposed by those who were against taxation and/or urbanization, had enough support to win approval at special elections held to set tax rates and elect residents to run the various service districts.

Rustic Life Becomes More Suburban

Up to this point, household water came either from wells, springs, or was purchased when the water wagon came around. In fact, the notorious James McCue's first entrepreneurial endeavor in Marin County involved selling water from his wagon in 1863.

Water Companies

By 1910 there were enough year-around residents to make it profitable for someone who owned a source of water to lay pipes and sell it through a local distribution system. Several major landowners had established private water companies, channeling springs on their properties into large reservoirs. Springs filled these reservoirs with a sufficient supply to serve all those residents not fortunate enough to have their own wells.

The Chapman Water Works produced a flow of 10,000 gallons a day from a tunnel. Edgar Chapman had dug in the hills behind his home on Corte Madera Ridge. William Bradbury also built a large reservoir that was fed by a spring coming off the hill.

The purity and quality of Marin's water was so cherished by San Franciscans that they transported it across the bay in waterboats.

Eventually the Marin Municipal Water District took over all the smaller companies, extending pipelines throughout the region.

Formation of the Fire Department

A vigorous volunteer fire department was formed in 1908 and provided fire protection with a chemical engine and 2 hose-carts. One of the hosecarts was stationed adjacent to Mahood's Store, in a station erected for $214, and the other one was kept at Roberts' Garage on Redwood Avenue at Morningside. Corte Madera's first fire truck was a small Chevrolet Pope Hartford acquired in 1916.

Fire Department Pumper

Twelve years later, voters approved a bond issue to purchase an American LaFrance pumper.
At 500 gallons per minute, it was the pride and glory of the volunteer fire department in 1928.
The volunteers incorporated in 1930 and raised funds to build a new fire station to house the truck on the corner of Willow and First Streets (now Tamalpais Drive). For the next 40 years, they provided virtually all of the fire protection to the town.

Larkspur Fire Department

Larkspur is a city of 12,000 residents, 10 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, California. Long before the Golden Gate Bridge was built an enterprising group of volunteer firemen started an outdoor dance called the Rose Bowl. The Saturday night summer dances started in 1913, and soon became a Bay Area institution that ran for 50 years. 

By the 1920s, due to profits from the Rose Bowl dances, the Larkspur Volunteer Fire Department had a solid financial base. The department, without any government funding, created one of the finest equipped small-town fire departments in the United States. 

About the Diaphone

Over the next decade the department purchased state-of-the-art fire engines, built a new fire station, and installed a Gamewell Fire Alarm System and a Gamewell Type B Diaphone. The west coast was a new frontier for the Gamewell Diaphone. This diaphone was one of the first installed in California. 70-plus years later this diaphone may still be operated manually; though it is no longer used to alert off duty paid personell nor volunteers for emergencies. 

What makes this diaphone unique is simple - it has never been touched. It had operated with much of the original equipment from the auxiliary tank to the tip of the cone. The low-voltage system has continuously energized the control valve and not a single bolt or nut has ever been adjusted to the diaphone assembly itself. In all that time it has just worked. The diaphone was mounted on a custom-built tower 70 feet above the old firehouse that was located, at that time, in the basement of Larkspur City Hall. 

Gamewell Box Alarm System

In the 1940s, the Larkspur Fire Department was featured on the cover of Colliers magazine and the Larkspur Fire Station and diaphone were featured in the motion picture "Impact." In the film one can get a quick look at the diaphone, the 1939 Fire Station, and the American LaFrance engine driven by Fire Chief John Raggio. The Gamewell Box Alarm System was monitored at the fire station. When a box alarm was pulled the diaphone was activated and sounded the number corresponding to the box number. In the film it happened to be Box 13. The Gamewell Diaphone and Box Alarm System continued to operate for the next 40 years. 

9-1-1 Emergency Telephone System

By 1980, the 9-1-1 Emergency Telephone System had eliminated the need for the fire alarm-box type system. But, Larkspur’s Greenwell Diaphone had continued in its role as a backup system till the early 2000's. The "blast" of the diaphone could be heard seven miles away and was famous for startling people who were in the area during its daily 12:00 noon and 5:00 pm activation. 

Diaphone Operation

The diaphone operates off a six-volt system and is tied into a Simplex clock. The two supply tanks and industrial compressor provide an overabundance of compressed air through a 1.5-inch copper supply line. The pressure is reduced at the auxiliary tank high in the tower and fed to the diaphone through a 0.75-inch copper pipe. A honeybee hive occasionally inhabits the top of the tower right next to the diaphone itself. Next door is the Larkspur Fire Station and one can find the Larkspur Fire Department’s History Room there, featuring the original Gamewell catalogs, equipment, and box alarms. 

In this era of high-tech digital data, thermal imagers, and laser surgery, it is fascinating that the Larkspur Fire Department’s Gamewell Diaphone remains a classic example of mechanical reliability and simplicity that still works. View more photos of the Diaphone.

Larkspur Association of Volunteer Firemen

The Larkspur Association of Volunteer Firemen has had a long and proud history since its formation in 1906. In the beginning, the only equipment the volunteers had consisted of a hose cart and a bucket brigade, but no firehouse. 

By 1910, the volunteers had grown to 24 strong and had acquired 500 feet of hose for the original cart but were still without a firehouse.

Booster Days

Larkspur's early booster days were designed to promote Larkspur and raise money for fighting fires. They had carnivals and contests for fundraisers. In 1910, a dance was staged across from the Blue Rock Hotel, with a band perched on a platform in a tree. This platform had wild roses climbing up walls of chicken wire.

That dance, and subsequent dances, were so financially and socially successful that in 1913, firefighters not only had the money to build their first firehouse behind City Hall, but also had enough money to purchase a half-acre redwood grove on Cane Street for a permanent dance site to be named the Rose Bowl.

These dances brought in about $75,000 a year and eventually would pay for hydrants, a fire alarm system, and their first motorized apparatus, a 1916 Ford Model T two-tank chemical car, purchased in 1916.

Department Growth

The Larkspur Volunteer Fire Department came into its own during the 1920s and 1930s when it was the most prestigious organization in town and the social and political arbitrator of civic affairs. Membership as one of the 22 regulars was a tightly guarded privilege.

By 1947, they completely financed the $500,000 Fire Department. In 1957, the volunteers turned over the one-half million dollars in equipment to the city.

The Rose Bowl continued to fund the volunteer association until 1963 when the dances were discontinued and the property was eventually sold off.

The Department Today

The volunteers still flourish today and offer support to a paid professional staff of 17 members and are an integral part of the Larkspur Fire Department. 

Historical Room

About the Historical Room

The Larkspur Fire Department Historical Room, situated on the second floor of the main firehouse on Magnolia Avenue, is a tiny room filled with historical artifacts that document the history of the department from the early 1900s to the present. 

People wishing to visit may do so free of charge by coming to the Larkspur Fire Department, located at 420 Magnolia Avenue, on any day from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. On-duty firefighters will open the room for your visit, provided they have not been summoned to fight a fire.  

What Will You See? 

Exhibits include pictures of the 1929 Mount Tamalpais fire that devastated Marin and of our first turn-of-the-century fire truck and fire station when it was located in an old garage at the corner of Doherty and Magnolia. The original 1916 fire truck is being restored, and while it will never fit in the tiny museum, it may be seen in local parades and open houses. 

The Larkspur Historical Room contains original items used by the Larkspur Fire Department from its volunteer days to the present. One can see an original fire helmet from 1916 under a black and white photo of the fire truck of the same era. The 1916 fire truck is still in the possession of the Fire Department and is being restored, but not on display. 

Rose Bowl Dance

The Rose Bowl Dance, started in 1913, was considered an important social event, drawing people from as far away as San Francisco. The funds generated by this event built the main firehouse and purchased fire equipment.  Many visitors to the exhibits reminisce about the annual Rose Bowl Dance, a fundraiser for the volunteer department, when they gaze at black and white photos of the crowds. Amidst the old fire hoses, helmets, alarms, pictures, and pails is the lighted moon, complete with a wink and a smile, which used to shine above the dance floor at the Rose Bowl dances. 

These dances were sponsored by the Volunteer Fire Department to raise money, and the Rose Bowl pictures have proved to be one of the museum's most popular exhibits. Come and see if you can spot yourself or your friends dancing the night away. 

The Rose Bowl moon was suspended above the dance floor and romantically lit the couples as they danced on the open-air dance floor. 

Emergency Call Light

The emergency call light used to light up the south tower of City Hall to let the police know a call was pending. This was the city's way to alert police cars there was trouble before the days of two-way radios. 

Fire Department Posters 

Original posters of the Larkspur Volunteer Fire Department's Rose Bowl Dance are on display with many pictures of the happy couples dancing the night away.