How Steam Blew The Rowdies Out Of The Fire Departments

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe first steam fire engine was built in England by Braithwaite & Ericsson in 1829. By 1832 six steamers were in use in London, but it was to be twenty years before another was acquired. Meanwhile, Captain Ericsson came to the United States, where his inventive genius subsequently was to produce the ironclad Monitor. In 1840 he won a gold medal that had been offered by the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of New York, after a disastrous conflagration, for the best plan of a steam fire engine. But his machine remained on paper.

In that same year Paul Rapsey Hodge began the construction of the first steam fire engine to be built in the United States. The pump projected a stream of water to a height of 166 feet through a 21/8-inch nozzle. The apparatus could move under its own steam power, or it could be pulled by horses or men. Little interest was shown in this machine.

The first completely successful steamer was designed in 1852 by Alexander R. Latta of Cincinnati. His first steamer ran under its own power and produced as many as six streams of water. It could throw a stream five minutes after the boiler was fired, but four sturdy horses were needed to get the engine out of its house.

Now that a practical steam fire engine was available, the replacement of the inefficient old hand-pumping equipment seemed logical. But there was an almost insurmountable barrier in the way. The firemen would have nothing to do with the “sham squirt,” as they derisively called the steam pumper. And the volunteer firemen were too numerous, too politically potent, to antagonize. In vain did the insurance companies and well-informed businessmen quote statistics as to the infinitely greater efficiency of steam power over human muscle.

But it was more than a matter of statistics. The volunteers were not a segment of the population that could be ignored. It was a day when the strength, the courage and the persistence of American manhood were deemed to be a combination that could conquer any force.


Merchant princes and clerks, professional men and loafers, artists and artisans, students and retired soldiers threw aside whatever they were doing as soon as the alarm bells sounded. They would leave their employment or their beds to dash to the firehouses, to seize the towropes of their dearly loved apparatus. Until exhausted, they would man the pumps of their flimsy “masheens,” or they would plunge into smoke-filled buildings to perform feats of prodigious bravery. Such heroic public benefactors could not be lightly shunted aside for a grotesquely puffing iron monster.

European visitors to the United States frequently wrote of their admiration for American volunteer firemen. Art of the day took full cognizance of the smoke-eaters. Nathaniel Currier was a volunteer fireman, and the numerous Currier & Ives lithographs of firemen are characterized by a great feeling of the importance of the system.

The men worked without compensation and almost without supervision. The community that did not pay its firemen was scarcely in position to discipline them. Besides, how could one scold a hero who belonged to the same hose company as the mayor, the president of the bank, the leading lawyer in town?

The consequences of lack of discipline were compounded by other elements that were attracted to the firehouses. It was a sign of professional prestige to get to the fire ahead of rival companies, and adversaries were prevented from getting to the scene too rapidly by “accidents.” To maintain its right of way in a day of sheer force, a company might recruit plug-uglies to disable its opponents or their apparatus. Men who loved to brawl found that the fire department offered unbounded possibilities: opportunities to fight with policemen, shopkeepers who were too stingy about sharing their stocks, or, best of all, other firemen.

Every alarm of fire became a grand, noisy adventure. The shouts of the firemen, the exuberant ringing of bells, and the sounds of human conflict worried respectable citizens. Equipment often was pulled along the sidewalks to the peril of pedestrians and merchandise. It was not unusual for a building to burn to the ground while two or more companies of firemen battled to see who should use the nearest hydrant or cistern.

The need for a professional, well-disciplined fire department of trained experts was realized at the same time that the need for powerful, efficient steamers was seen. Cincinnati was the city that was courageous and farsighted enough to recognize that both problems could be met with the same solution.

After a particularly bad street brawl, during the course of which a building burned unnoticed to the ground, the Cincinnati city council voted to have a paid fire department of selected men, the selection to be on the basis of virtues other than bellicosity. When delegations of irate smoke-eaters invaded the council chambers, it was timidly explained that the city was about to purchase an expensive, fragile steamer, and this equipment could be entrusted only to trained technicians.