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How Steam Blew The Rowdies Out Of The Fire Departments
The old volunteer system was colorful, but it could do more harm than good—and the efficiency of machinery finally replaced it
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
Even after the volunteers were replaced by professional firemen, the old urge to decorate one’s own fire engine remained. The commissioners in one large city were obliged to order that “If any of the fire companies shall embellish their apparatus by painting, silver or other plating, polishing or any other embellishment, the chief engineer … shall not have replaced at the expense of the said city any such embellishment … and the said embellishment shall belong to the Corporation of the City …”
The day of the hand-drawn steamer, however, was brief. As communities spread out there was greater distance to be covered. Before the 1870’s most of the cities were using horses to draw fire equipment. New York’s fire commissioners were jubilant at the elimination of man-drawn machines. “Noise and confusion in our streets on the occasions of alarms of fire have ceased,” they reported: “the sick and dying are no longer disturbed by the yelling of ‘runners,’ … the inhabitants are left to enjoy their needed rest, and vehicles may pass on unmolested.”
For the next fifty years, horse-drawn fire apparatus dominated the scene. The earliest equipment had been made by locomotive builders and the pumpers resembled their cousins. By the 1870’s, however, fire engines had their own graceful but substantial style. Despite mass-production methods each steamer seemed to have its own individual personality. To those who understood such things each steam whistle was unique. A quarter of a mile or more away in city streets, someone would exclaim with certainty, “That’s 74 Engine!”
Improvements were made, of course. It was possible to have steam maintained in the boiler at all times by having a pipe connection between the fire engine and another boiler beneath the floor of the firehouse. Other inventions provided for the automatic opening of horses’ stalls when an alarm was received.
Some fire departments tried to dress up the appearance of their equipment by matching the steeds in color and size. It was not unusual to see two-horse or three-horse hitches of coal black, dapple gray, gleaming white or, very occasionally, striking pinto. Oldsters today still feel young again when something reminds them of those two or three well-matched chestnut steeds dashing down Main Street with a glistening nickel steamer that belched forth smoke and fire.
The horses seemed human at times. They sensed when an alarm bell was for them; they knew precisely what was expected of them when the fireman on watch duty hollered, “Get out!” They would trot right smartly to their assigned places under harness that was suspended from the ceiling: to fasten their special collars took but a second. The most touching and spectacular phases of the volunteer firemen seemed to live on in those magnificent horses.
The invention of the internal combustion engine did not spell the end of the picturesque steamers; even after the apparatus reached a fire, those pumps still had to be operated. But when it was realized that the same engine could propel the apparatus and also operate the pumps, the steamer was doomed. Motor tractors, such as the Christie Front Drive or the Von Blerck, were attached to the steamers in place of the gallant horses, but this was only a transitional phase of the change from steam to gasoline. New York’s last steam fire engine was withdrawn from service on May 26, 1933.
In the rest of the United States, the same transformation took place. Many veteran chiefs still felt that steam was more “reliable” than gasoline; but as the engines (or the chiefs) wore out, they were replaced with the latest models.
Yet millions of Americans can still remember the sound of that bloodcurdling steam whistle, or the sight of a nonchalant engineer on his narrow rear platform as he shoveled coal while the engine roared through traffic. The engines of today have far more efficiency, of course, but the steamer cannot be surpassed for glamour and excitement.