By Pat Nelson
October 3, 2008
Reprinted with permission, The Daily News, Longview, WA
Visitors to Horseshoe Lake Park saw red recently when the Pacific Northwest Chapter of SPAAMFAA (Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America) held its first annual “end of summer muster” in September.
Ralph Decker of Tacoma, secretary-treasurer of SPAAMFAA’s Northwest Chapter, admired Woodland Fire Department’s 1928 Pirsh fire engine.
“Pirsh went out of business, but they built great apparatus,” he said. “It’s a shame they couldn’t’ compete anymore.” The Pirsh was Woodland’s first actual fire engine, after using a converted Model T. Woodland also displayed a more modern rig, its 2006 American LaFrance pumper.
Two of Doug Blackburn’s and Cathie Bigelow’s rigs drew a lot of attention. One was an 1855 Button hand pumper pulled to fires and pumped by man power.
“OK,” shouted Blackburn, who lives near LaCenter, “we need some firemen over here.” Five firemen lined up on each side of the pumper. “One hand up and one down, like this,” said Blackburn, as he demonstrated the proper grip on the long pumping arms. First the pumping arm on one side, and then the other, was pulled down by the firemen, over and over.
“Everybody got your pace?” yelled Blackburn.
“One-two, one-two” shouted Bigelow, SPAAMFAA’s Northwest Chapter president.
“Now pick it up,” Blackburn directed. “When you guys tire out, let me know.”
When the pumper was in use, lines of firemen waited to pick up the slack as those manning the pump tired, he explained.
“Those guys were short and tough,” he said. “This one was before the horse-drawn rigs. It had to be pulled to the fire.”
Since there wasn’t a nearby horse trough to pump from for the Woodland event, water was pumped from a portable Fold-A-Tank pond. As a yellow fire hose filled with water, a bell rang, lights swayed and water spewed into the air.
Kids attending the event sported Junior Fire Marshall badges. James Summers, 4 ½, inspected an 1899 American steam fire engine with his dad, Woodland fireman Bill Summers.
The star of the show was another of Blackburn’s rigs, an 1899 American designed to be horse draw. Originally built for San Francisco, it was later owned by 20th Century Fox and was in the films “Old Chicago” and “Hello Dolly.” It received a new boiler in 2000 from Everett Engineering, and is inspected yearly.
Before Blackburn demonstrated the steam-powered pumper, someone shouted, “Wet down the area. We’ll need a wet down around the steam pumper.”
Excelsior and kerosene-soaked kindling were often used to start a fire in the boiler, Blackburn explained. A pile of wood sat behind the engine and Blackburn’s assistant started the fire with newspaper and kindling.
Soon, light grey smoke and soot chased observers from their vantage points.
“Get ready for it to blow,” shouted a little curly-haired boy. Bigelow rang the bell. Blackburn told the onlookers the pumper would have to get up to temperature, but not too fast. He entertained onlookers with stories while they waited.
People often think of these pumpers as spouting black smoke, he said.
“That is because cities were too cheap to buy anthracite coal, so they burned hard rubber from tires,” he explained.
“Ramp it up,” Blackburn hollered around noon after checking the gauges. Steam burst from the top of the engine and seeped out at ground level. Eventually, the equipment did its job, pumping a strong stream of water from the hose.
Many buildings burned to the ground because it took so long to heat the steam engine.
Blackburn, who worked for Fire District 6 in Hazel Dell for over 20 years, started out with a collection of helmets that grew and grew. He enjoys using his collection to show the way firefighting used to be.
For more information, visit http://www.pnwspaamfaa.com/
Visit http://www.fentonfire.com/ if shopping for an antique fire truck.
To learn more about SPAAMFAA, visit www.spaamfaa.org.