Epic period in the American Fire Service, which set the stage for the mechanically powered pumping engine

Belching a plume of smoke ond sparks Hartford’s Jumbo answers an alarm. Witty tradition maintains steamers started as many fires as they put out

Photo from Roi B. Woolley’s collection

THE “LONDON ENGINEER” of December 31, 1875, contained an article by Captain John Ericcson, of the ironclad “Monitor” fame, and then a citizen of the United States, in which he described the performance of a steam fire engine built in London in 1829 by George Braithwaite according to his designs. Captain Ericcson said, “Having originated and perfected the new system, I claim to be the father of steam fire engines.”

Ericcson’s claim seems to have been a valid one, but the records of the period show that only five engines were built by Braithwaite and Ericcson—the last one in 1832—and that these were not considered successful replacements of the manual engines. No more steamers were produced in England until the 1850’s after interest had been revived by activities in America.

The first steam fire engine constructed in the United States was a locomotivetype self-propeller built in 1840 by Paul R. Hodge of New York City. The machine was tried out in the volunteer department but was found to be too cumbersome and slow, and after a few months’ service was sold to a factory for use as a stationary power plant.

It was in 1840 that the Mechanics Institute in New York, offered a gold medal for the best design for a steam fire engine. Only two or three designs were submitted and the committee awarded the prize to Captain John Ericcson for a prototype from which no engines were ever built. While the Hodge machine was soon relegated to the ignominious career of a factory engine, several interested manufacturers of manual pumpers began experimenting with the application of steam power and by the middle 1850’s, the steam fire engine business was somewhat shakily established as a going industry. No less than 18 fire engine builders had constructed steamers by 1859. Some were self-propellers, a few were drawn by as many as six horses, but the majority were light machines which replaced manual pumpers as hand-drawn engines.

Latta—and the “Joe Ross”

Moses Latta, of A. B. & E. Latta Company, Cincinnati, Ohio, built what is generally credited with being the first successful steam fire engine—the “Joe Ross”—constructed in 1852 and put in service in the Cincinnati Fire Department with a paid crew, which incidentally, was the first permanent fire force employed in the United States.

The “new system” of steam fire engines and professional firemen stirred up the volunteers of New York and other large cities to feverish and bitter opposition through fear that the adoption of poweroperated pumpers would result in the displacement of the volunteer organizations—a fear which was soon confirmed as a real threat to the political supremacy of the volunteer hierarchy. In his annual report for 1859, Chief Engineer Harry Howard of New York, devoted several pages to the subject of steam fire engines and said, in part, “During the past year the Department has been much agitated on the subject of steam fire engines. It cannot be denied that steam engines possess power not possessed by hand apparatus, but the necessity of their use in this city is a question which time alone can determine. The steam fire engines now owned by the city, if permitted to discharge water at every fire, would entail more damage by that element than the one it is sought to subdue. The City of New York is protected by a volunteer fire department unequalled in the world. The introduction of steam fire engines would embarrass seriously the volunteer svstem.”

Hodge’s steam fire engine—first steamer built in America won gold medal of the New York Mechanics InstituteLatta's Joe Ross credited as first successful steamer was operated by the first paid fire crew in the United StatesSilsby rotary gear engine used the Holly pump and set a pattern for its later use on motor fire apparatusDouble Button engine—the horizontal pump was featured by Button even after competitors changed to vertical pumpsClapp and Jones double engine—the company was absorbed into the American Fire Engine Co. which continued the modelDouble-pump Amoskeg—outstanding name in the steam engine field, its engines were in service from coast to coastDouble Ahrens engine—noted for their quick steaming characteristics possible with their flash boilersLaFrance rotary engine—a comparatively late starter, the company expanded and also built piston pumpersHeavy artillery of Boston was Engine 38—an extra-first size Amoskeag self-propeller; it won wide publicityHartford’s famous Jumbo self-propeller—later converted to gasoline engine driven, remaining in service until 1929Columbian combination steamer and hose carrier—first single piece engine company in America, had a crew of sixNott extra-first size with couple-gear tractor—was accepted by the New York Fire Department

The attitude of the volunteers of the period was further expressed by Harry Howard’s successor, Chief Engineer John Decker, who wrote in his report for 1860: “There is no doubt but that these engines, at large fires, are of service as an auxiliary to the hand engines; but, in my judgment, they can never take the place of the hand apparatus.”

In spite of this opposition, when the paid Metropolitan Fire Department took over in 1865, 32 hand-drawn and one self-propelled steam fire engines were in service in the volunteer engine companies of New York, paid engineers being employed by the companies which used the steamers.

History recounts that the proposed change to a full-paid system was bitterly opposed and strenuously fought in the Legislature and courts, but the objections to the move to “professionalize” the department could not be stopped any more than the inroads of the mechanically operated engines!

The steam fire engines, drawn by horses, and manned by professional firemen, were firmly established and were here to stay throughout the coming 50 years, which might well be termed the colorful, romantic era of the steamers.

The era of the steamers

In 1867, two of the New York Commissioners made an inspection trip as far west as Chicago and reported on the systems and apparatus used in a number of cities. They found Amoskeag steamers in service in Boston; Cleveland had six rotary-type Silsby steam fire engines; the five Detroit engines were Amoskeags; Cincinnati had eleven steamers, ten of them of the Latta type, built in Cincinnati. Three of these were self-propellers and eight were drawn by horses— four to the machine.

Chicago had fourteen steamers, both Amoskeag and Silsby make. It was noted that the Amoskeags in the “outer districts” of that city were drawn by four horses. In Baltimore, there were seven steam engines, two built in Philadelphia by Reanie & Neafie, and the others manufactured locally by Poole & Hunt. The report of the Commissioners stated that in Baltimore “the engineer alone rides the engine, the driver the nigh horse.”

Had the committee traveled farther west, they would have found a paid department in the thriving city of St. Louis, whose steamers were bought in Cincinnati from Latta, and from Lane & Bodley, successors to Latta.

Of the eighteen builders who started in the steam fire engine busines in the 1850’s only Silsby and Amoskeag made a success of their venture. Some of the others gave up after constructing only one engine.

In their Annual Report for 1865, New York’s Metropolitan Commissioners stated they had “adopted the steam fire engine manufactured by Amoskeag Manufacturing Company of Manchester, N. H., as meeting the requirements of this department in simplicity of construction, uniformity in manufacture and durability in service. A contract has been made with that corporation for 15 engines, of which five have been delivered and thoroughly tested to the satisfaction of the department.”

By this report, the Metropolitan Board wrote the death warrant for most of the concerns that were then struggling for a foothold in the new industry. Of the manufacturers then in existence only two, besides Silsby and Amoskeag, which have already been mentioned, finally found a place in the sun. These were Clapp & Jones, of Hudson, N. Y., and Button Fire Engine Works, of Waterford, N. Y., each established in 1862.

The first builder to make a commercial and financial success as producer of steam fire engines was the A. B. and E. Latta Company. Through a direct line of successors the Latta Company is still represented in the fire apparatus field by American-LaFrance Corporation. Started in 1852, the Latta Company sold out to Lane & Bodley in 1863. The firm’s superintendent was Chris Ahrens, who took over the busines in 1868 and established the Ahrens Manufacturing Company. In 1891 Ahrens combined with Silsby, Clapp and Jones, and Button Fire Engine Works to form the American Fire Engine Company, of Seneca Falls, N. Y., and Cincinnati, Ohio.

At the time of this merger, Mr. Charles H. Fox, a son-in-law of Chris Ahrens and former assistant chief of the Cincinnati Fire Department, was superintendent of the Ahrens plant on Webster Street, opposite Engine Company 7, where he had been stationed when engineer of steamer in the Cincinnati Fire Department. Mr. Fox was selected as superintendent of the new American Fire Engine Company and went to Seneca Falls to combine the operations of the Silsby, Clapp & Jones and Button plants.

The steamers first built by Latta were of a combination self-propelled and horsedrawn type. Four horses were used, with the driver riding one of the lead horses. After sufficient steam was generated, the engineer would open the throttle and give the teams an “assist” on the steep grades of downtown Cincinnati. A feature of the Latta machine was the three-wheel design which facilitated the steering of the ponderous 22,000-pound units. As an interesting comparison, many railroad locomotives of tile period were no heavier than the Latta fire engines.

Lane and Bodley continued the Latta design but lightened the machine and eliminated the self-propelling feature. While supervising the building of steamers for Lane and Bodley, Chris Ahrens worked out a design which he adopted after taking over the business in 186S. His product resembled in general appearance the engines then being built by Amoskeag. These, it may be said, set the pattern for all future steam fire engines.

Ahrens had a feature

A distinctive feature of the Ahrens engine was the circulating water tube boiler. A small auxiliary pump at the right of the boiler could be hand-operated by the engineer until a head of steam had been raised, when the valve would be opened to admit steam into the cylinder of the circulating pump. An engine company near tire author’s home when he was a very young lad had an Ahrens steamer and his first impression of this fascinating machine was of the engineer manhandling the pump rod back and forth when the steamer left the station and passed his house. For a long time the author thought that the engineer was helping the horses propel the engine.

Ahrens boilers were exceptionally quick steamers but practically all makes could develop enough pressure in five or six minutes from cold water to start the pumps. Most fire departments kept the steamers connected to circulating water heaters when standing in the stations. These heaters were automatically disconnected when the engines moved. This writer remembers the Sunday morning drills when time would be taken from the first tap of the gong which released the horses, and with the men in the bunk room. Hitching, reaching the nearest hydrant, connecting, stretching six lengths of hose and showing water at the nozzle were a matter of as few as 80 seconds. In 1899, nine Chicago engine companies had official records of under two minutes. The flash boilers, starting with boiling water, had enough steam to begin pumping as quickly as hose connections were made at the hydrant.

The Ahrens Company continued as a leading contender in the fierce competition of the fire engine field until the merger of several manufacturers in what became the new American Fire Engine Company, in 1891. Mr. Chris Ahrens was one of the promoters of this consolidation. During the 23 years the Ahrens Company had been in separate existence following the taking over of Lane & Bodley, the firm had built more than 700 steamers.

Amoskeag dates from 1859

Amoskeag Manufacturing Company began the building of steam fire engines at their Manchester plant in 1859, Their first engines were of the “mongrel” type, with two steam pistons driving a rotary pump. After building II of the “mongrels” the company switched to the single pump piston type; immediately thereafter it developed the double-piston double-pump model. However it continued to furnish both the single and double engine models, depending upon the preference of the purchasers.

The Amoskeag steamers were handsome machines; their steam boilers and pumps were of fine workmanship and great efficiency. By the end of the steam fire engine era, more than 1,000 Amoskeags had been sold to cities from coast to coast.

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Among the achievements of Amoskeag were the building of the largest steam fire engines ever constructed, and the development of the famous Amoskeag selfpropeller double-extra first size steamers which had a rated capacity of 1,300 gpm.

One of the Amoskeag engines was accredited with recording in an official test over 1,800 gpm at draft. Extra first steamers were rated by the Underwriters at 1,100 gpm; first size, 900 gpm; second size, 700 gpm; third size, 600 gpm, and fourth size, 500 gpm.

New York purchased its first Amoskeag self-propeller in 1872, ordering four more in 1874. These engines were in active service as self-propellers for about ten years in Engine Companies 8, 11, 24, 31 and 32. In 1884, two of these units were converted to horse-drawn and the others were listed as “spares.”

Some of the cities which had Amoskeag self-propelled steamers were Portland, Me.; Boston; Hartford; Brooklyn; Milwaukee; Newark; Pittsburgh; Detroit; Chicago, and Vancouver. It is not generally known, although it is a fact, that a few of these engines were in sendee until replaced with motor pumpers. Hartford’s famous “Jumbo” was traetorized and continued in use as a gasoline propelled steamer for several years after the start of motorization. The self-propellers were powerful pumpers of the largest capacity and were effectively used as the “heavy artillery” of the departments in which they were in service.

Rotary vs. piston

Silsby Manufacturing Company of Seneca Falls, N. Y., began the manufacture of the Silsby rotary steamer in 1856, using the gear-type pump patented by Birdsall Holly, and continued to build rotary pump steamers exclusively until their merger with other manufacturers in 1891.

The controversy over the relative merits of rotary and piston pumps was fiercely waged and it continued even into the motorized apparatus era. While the centrifugal pump eventually gained supremacy, there are to this day the irreconcilables and “unreconstructed rebels” who are piston or rotary partisans.

Piston-type steamers were in the great majority at the sunset of the steam fire engine era but Silsby produced more than 1,000 of the steam rotor-gear-pump type and conducted what was said to be a successful and profitable business. It is worthy of more than passing note that the rotary pumps so widely used on later motor fire apparatus were all modifications of the original Holly design as improved and perfected by Silsby.

One of the first employees of Silsby at its Seneca Falls plant was M. R. Clapp, who began building of steam fire engines on his own account in 1862 at Hudson. New York. The Clapp & Jones Company, as it was styled, became one of the few successful builders, selling about 600 steamers before becoming part of the American Fire Engine Company in the previously mentioned merger of 1891.

The other company which joined Ahrens, Silsby and Clapp & Jones in the merger, was Button Fire Engine Works, of Waterford, N. Y. Mr. L. Button was another of the pioneers in the fire engine industry he began building steamers in 1862, after 28 years as a manufacturer of manual fire engines. The Button Works turned out about 100 steamers before being absorbed. All of these engines, except one, were of the horizontal piston pump type. Horizontally-placed pumps were favored by the early manufacturers but, with the exception of Button, all of the successful builders of piston-type steamers adopted or changed over to the vertical pump design, in both the single and double pump models.

Enter La France

One of the best known names in the industry entered the fire engine picture in 1875—the La France Manufacturing Company of Elmira. This concern began as builders of rotary steamers, adding the piston-type to its line in 1885. Although a comparatively late starter in the field, the La France Company grew rapidly and before consolidation with other companies produced about 400 steamers, most of them of the piston model. It might be mentioned that La France also built the Hayes aerial ladder truck.

The American Fire Engine Company had renamed the Ahrens steamer the “American,” and continued the production of the Silsby and Clapp and Jones as long as there was a demand for them, but incorporated the famous Fox watertube boilers in all models. After the merger of American and International, the La France steamer was continued in the line to meet the demands of departments which had standardized on, or preferred, the La France. However, the Metropolitan “—the renamed and improved “American”—gradually took over the market.

Metropolitan and Columbian

In the 1890’s American Fire Engine Company built for the Chicago Fire Department 14 steamers of a type which they called the “Columbian,” the name of the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893. This was a combination steam pumper and hose carrier in the British manner. These steamers were in service at Engine Companies 38, 69, 70, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 79, 81, 82, 83 and 86 and were operated by crews of six men. They were the first single piece engine companies in American departments. The Columbian engine was successfully used in suburban areas of Chicago and was found to be a practical piece of equipment, although we have no record of its adoption by any other American city.

The Metropolitan steamer had the market almost to itself when the W. S. Nott Company, of Minneapolis, energetically set up competition in 1904 with a new engine employing a fast steaming boiler and highly efficient pump. The Nott quickly became widely known and during the few years that remained before the eclipse of the steam engine, the company made phenomenal progress in the industry. When it was realized that gasoline motive power would replace the horse, the Nott Company produced a gasoline motor-driven steamer and sold several of them to Xew York; Birmingham, Ala.; Paterson, N. J., and possibly other cities.

New York’s Engine 58 quickly became the most publicized piece of fire apparatus in the country but its service life was brief. It soon became evident that it would be more practical to use attached tractors instead of units of the Nott-type where the gasoline engine was an integral part of the appaartus, with chain drive to the high rear wheels of the steamer.

In 1904, Chris Ahrens, his sons John P. and Fred, and sons-in-law Charles H. Fox and George Krapp, re-entered the fire engine business, organizing the Ahrens Fire Engine Company and occupying a fine new plant at Colerain Avenue and Cook Street, in Cincinnati. The company manufactured a new steamer designed by Mr. Fox and named the “Continental.” Because of the excellence of the product and the great prestige of the Ahrens and Fox names, this company soon became well established, and successfully competed with the only other two builders then in the field.

In 1908, Mr. Fox became president of the company and the corporate name was changed to Ahrens-Fox. The last Continental steamer, an electric tractor drawn model, was built in 1912.

Waterous begins in ’88

A name also universally known in the fire service over the years is that of Waterous, of St. Paul, Minn., which company has an enviable record of fire pump construction over a period of almost 70 years. The Waterous Engine Works began the building of steamers in 1888 and produced both horizontal and vertical double piston pump models. Waterous steamers were particularly well known in the Middle West but they found their way into departments on both coasts. The author well remembers two very fine Waterous steamers in Seatde, Wash. Grand Rapids, Mich., had a big extra-first size at its No. 5 Station —later at No. 9—which we especially admired. It should be recorded that Waterous built the first automobile pumping engine and that throughout the firm’s long career it has pioneered in many improvements and advances in the art and science of fire pump design.

Other builders who were well known in the period but whose production was limited, were William Jeffers, Pawtucket, R. I.; Ives and Son, Baltimore, Md.; Hunneman and Company, Boston; Mansfield Machine Works, Mansfield, Ohio; and Thomas Manning and Company, Cleveland. Detroit at one time had seven Manning steamers and ten were in service in Cleveland; this company’s total production probably reached 100 machines. A more lengthy list would be needed to enumerate the other builders, who were on the scene too short a time, or whose production was too limited, to be considered as successful producers.

Chronologically, the end of the steam fire engine era may be set down for posterity as the year 1912, at which time New York purchased 27 second-size “Metropolitans,” constructed with Christie tractor-drive. Fire Chief John Kenlon recommended the purchase of the tractorized steamers instead of the gasoline pumpers which were already replacing steam engines in most cities. These were the last steamers constructed in the United States and the only ones originally built as front-drive tractor-drawn units. During the following 19 years, before his retirement in 1931, Chief Kenlon put more than 300 gasoline pumpers in service in the New York Fire Department.

During the years from 1840 to 1912, approximately 5,000 steam fire engines were constructed by the more than 50 builders who competed for a foot-hold in the industry. At the close of the era, only four manufacturers were bidding on the requirements of American Fire Departments.

The author wishes to acknowledge the research assistance received from the New York Fire Department Library and WNYF.

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