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Built in New England: ALCO Fire Trucks

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

The American Locomotive Company is better known by the acronym of "ALCO" or simply "Alco." As the name suggests, the company built steam locomotives and later diesel-electric locomotives. The company was formed in 1901 by the merger of the Schenectady Locomotive Engine Manufactory of Schenectady, New York, with seven other smaller locomotive manufacturers. These included the Manchester Locomotive Works in Manchester, New Hampshire, and the Rhode Island Locomotive Works in Providence, Rhode Island.

The Schenectady Locomotive Engine Manufactory traced its colorful roots back to 1848. Several notable locomotives were built in Schenectady. Among these was one of two steam locomotives that took part in the historic "Golden Spike Ceremony" celebrating the completion of the transcontinental railway. This was the Central Pacific Railroad's "Jupiter" that was built in 1869. By 1900 ALCO had an annual production capacity of about 3000 locomotives. Of these, one-quarter were built in Schenectady, like the 1910 example seen above. In 1910, ALCO built its 50,000th locomotive.

Overall, ALCO was the second-largest locomotive builder in America and built more than 75,000 locomotives between 1848 and 1969. These included such superlatives as the world's largest steam locomotive, built in 1941, the first diesel-electric passenger locomotive, built in 1929, and the first stream-lined steam locomotive, built in 1935 and seen above, which was capable of 120 miles per hour.

ALCO did not limit itself to locomotives. A subsidiary of ALCO, the American Locomotive Automobile Company, designed and manufactured automobiles and trucks under the ALCO name from 1905 until around 1913. Automobile and truck manufacturing was done at ALCO's Rhode Island Locomotive Works in Providence. ALCO built more than one thousand trucks between 1909 and 1913.

ALCO trucks were built in four different capacities that ranged from two to six tons. All four models were chain-driven buckboard models with the driver sitting above the motor. This design gave these trucks a shorter wheelbase then conventional, or engine-ahead, trucks.

ALCO trucks were offered with four-cylinder motors ranging from 32 to 40-hp. With these a two-ton capacity ALCO truck was capable of about 20 mph while a heavy-duty six-and-a-half ton capacity truck was capable of about half that. Prices ranged from $2950 for the two-ton model to $5200 for the heavy-duty model. Bodies and cabs were an additional cost. ALCO developed a loyal customer base with about two-thirds of all sales being repeat buyers. ALCO’s biggest order was 80 trucks for the United States Postal Service in 1913.

In the brief period during which they were built, ALCO motor vehicles made some interesting history. An ALCO race car nick named "The Black Beast" won the Vanderbilt Cup race in 1909 and 1910, and competed in the first Indianapolis 500 race in 1911. An ALCO truck made history in June 1912 by making the first transcontinental delivery by motor truck. With a crew of five men, the three-and-a-half ton truck drove 4,145 miles over five grueling weeks between New York City and Petaluma, California, via Albany, Buffalo Chicago Omaha, Salt Lake City, Reno, Sacramento and San Francisco.

Given the very significant locomotive production by ALCO in Schenectady, it was no surprise that when the Schenectady Fire Department decided to purchase its first motorized apparatus in 1912 it purchased one built by ALCO. On May 24, 1912, the Schenectady Fire Department took delivery of an ALCO three-and-a-half-ton tractor equipped with a "fifth wheel." This replaced the front axle and wheels of a horse-drawn aerial ladder truck. It was used to replace a three-horse hitch and to motorize the department's formerly horse-drawn 1887 Hayes 70-foot aerial ladder truck. This truck was featured on the cover of the August 1913 issue of The Power Wagon.

Then on June 26 the Schenectady Fire Department took delivery of an ALCO combination chemical and hose truck, which is seen above. It had two chemical tanks and a very large hose bed. It was built on an ALCO two-ton chassis. This replaced a two-horse Rumsey hose wagon. Apparently, these two ALCO units proved to be very satisfactory. The ALCO tractor and the first combination wagon replaced five horses. According to Chief Engineer Henry Yates, the tractor saved the city $378 in its first seven months in service and the combination wagon saved the city $240 in its first six months in service. The Schenectady Fire Department purchased four more ALCO combination wagons over the next couple of years.

The next year the nearby City of Albany, New York State’s capital, purchased two ALCO units. The first was a combination chemical engine and hose wagon that was built on an ALCO chassis by James Boyd and Brother. The second was a four-wheel ALCO tractor that was used to motorize its 1907 American-LaFrance 75-foot aerial ladder truck, which is seen above in front of the colonnade of the State Education Department Building on Washington Avenue. Philadelphia also had a combination chemical engine and hose wagon built by ALCO in 1913. Ironically, it appears that no ALCO fire apparatus served in New England.

In August 1913, ALCO announced that it would cease building cars and trucks and would concentrate on building locomotives. Apparently the highly competitive car and truck business was not profitable for ALCO. After ALCO left the automobile and truck business, one former ALCO employee, named Walter Chrysler went to work for Buick in 1911. He later founded the automobile manufacturing corporation that still bears his name. In World War Two, ALCO also manufactured munitions. In 1955, the company changed its name to Alco Products, Incorporated. The firm briefly dabbled in the production of nuclear energy from 1954 to 1962. In 1964, the Worthington Corporation acquired Alco Products. The “Alco” named finally was discontinued in 1969 when locomotive production ceased.


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