Long Beach's first fire chief, Joseph E. Shrewsbury. Photo courtesy Long Beach Public Library.

Local History is a weekly feature that looks at the people, places and events of Long Beach’s past. Have a question or a piece of history you want us to explore? Email [email protected].

From a Long Beach Post office window looking out over Ocean Boulevard, you can see and hear fire crews roar by with sirens screaming every few minutes. A check of apps and scanners mostly turns up nothing, and often the various department trucks and engines quietly motor back to their stations.

But even false alarms are not without danger. The first firefighter in Long Beach history to die on duty was responding to an alarm that turned out to be a false one, and the news of his death was huge and devastating for the young city in 1916 because not only was Joseph E. Shrewsbury the first Long Beach firefighter to die in the line of duty—he was also the department’s first chief and was almost universally beloved in the city he served.

The news that shocked Long Beach in the May 2, 1916 Press-Telegram informed readers that “Joseph Eugene Shrewsbury, pioneer of Long Beach, for many years to the time of his death chief of the fire department, was fatally injured this morning at 10:39 o’clock at the corner of American Avenue and Broadway, living less than two hours after his automobile, driven by himself, collided with a fire department chemical engine automobile driven by George Clarence Craw, assistant fire chief.”

Shrewsbury had been at a city office on Third Street a half block from American Avenue (now Long Beach Boulevard) that morning having a conversation with water department engineer Clark Shaw. Receiving the alarm, the chief ran to his Oldsmobile parked at the curb. Shaw hopped in, just to go for the ride.

Traveling at the then-high speed of 35 mph on American, Shrewsbury’s car collided with the chemical wagon that was speeding eastward along Broadway in response to the same alarm at the intersection. The collision threw the chief some 30 feet into the air before he crashed to the ground, suffering severe head injury.

Long Beach Police Department patrolman James Selwyn Yancy was tailing the vehicle and the patrolman (who, in 1922, would become chief of police) drove Shrewsbury to the closest hospital, the Long Beach Sanitarium (now St. Mary Medical Center), where he was given immediate attention by Dr. W. Harriman Jones and other physicians.

The chief died at noon, having never regained consciousness.

The funeral, held the following Saturday, May 6, at Downtown’s First Congregational Church, was attended by 2,000 people, including several hundred fire department representatives from two dozen cities—279 firefighters from Los Angeles alone.


Firemen stand at attention along the hearse’s route at Chief Joseph Shrewsbury’s funeral. Photo courtesy Long Beach Fire Department’s History Museum photo collection at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

At the time, it was the largest funeral cortege in the city’s history. Most businesses were closed during the hours of the funeral at the request of Mayor W.T. Lisenby, and the streets were lined with citizens as the Municipal Band played a funeral dirge while the black hearse carrying the chief’s body slowly motored down Pine Avenue on to Cedar Avenue at 2 p.m., reaching the church at 2:30.

The Press-Telegram reported that “the city’s loss in the taking of Chief Shrewsbury is all but irreparable. Not another municipal servant has served LB longer, more loyally, more efficiently, none other is more dearly beloved by his friends or more heartily respected by his opponents.”

Chief Shrewsbury is interred at Sunnyside Cemetery. When he was buried, the Daily Telegram reported that the last to leave the grave were members of the Long Beach Fire Department that Shrewsbury helped to form, many of whom, according to the paper, broke down and cried at the final parting.

Local history: Long Beach’s Municipal Market opened in 1913

Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.