Until 1900, Tucson firemen pulled all the fire department’s equipment by hand. Then in August of that year, the department purchased four horses and a Hale Patent harness. Money for the purchase was raised through donations and special performances at the Opera House. Funds were also collected from people whose property had been saved by the “fire ladies,” as the firemen of the time were called. However, payment was made only if the ladies did their job. If the property burned to the ground, the owner paid nothing.
Alex McNeil was born in Tombstone on Feb. 16, 1883, and grew up on a ranch in the Chiricahuas. He did not start school until he was 12 and his family moved to Tucson. He was enrolled in the old Safford school and graduated four years later. Soon after, he began hanging around the firehouse, always ready to trip the chains that dropped the harness on the horses when an alarm sounded or a drill was called for. After a year, he was honored by election to the volunteers.
He soon became Tucson’s second salaried fireman. He drew a monthly stipend of $75, which was considerably more than was paid to the first salaried fireman, Frank C. Norton, who had been hired a year earlier at $10 a month.
Full time work in those days meant full time. McNeil was expected to work a 21-hour day 365 days a year. He slept in the hay room under a corrugated iron roof and was given an hour each for breakfast, lunch and supper. If he got sick or wanted to go to a party, he had to pay a substitute from his own pocket.
By 1910, the fire department had grown to seven men and had begun to give employees some time off – 12 hours every seventh day. That same year, Buck and Ted were retired, worn out after 10 years of pulling the 5,600-pound chemical engine. McNeil was afraid the horses might be abused by someone, so he bought them at a public auction and took care of them at the corral he built on Sixth Street.
McNeil was promoted to captain in 1917, assistant chief in 1920 and chief in 1938. He had many close calls during a 40-year career, but one from his earliest years as a fireman stood out in particular.
On a rainy and flooded night in August 1908, McNeil and his horses took the chemical wagon out “hell-for-leather” to a house on Tucson’s north side, where lightning had struck and killed a woman occupant. Flood waters had obliterated a railroad track repair job, and the horses plunging through the water failed to see the tracks. The engine lurched and McNeil was thrown forward between the horses. He might have been trampled or drowned, but fortunately he was able to hang on to the wagon tongue and climb back into the driver’s seat. He and his team completed the assignment with no permanent damage.
— Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society, Tucson.