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New Bedford’s Electric Aerial Ladder Trucks

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

New Bedford, Massachusetts, operated four of these straight-frame aerial ladder trucks that were built by the Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Company using battery-powered 

front-drive tractors from the Couple-Gear Freight-Wheel Company.  

Ahrens-Fox was a leading builder of motor pumping engines during the early part of the motorized era.  In the late 1920s Ahrens-Fox became a leading builder of hook and ladder trucks too.  Before this is the late teens, Ahrens-Fox built several unique electric powered ladder trucks, four of which served in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  

These ladder trucks were powered by Couple-Gear electric drive systems.  These were built by the Couple-Gear Freight-Wheel Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Couple-Gear was founded in 1906.  The company manufactured trucks and tractors that used individual electric-powered motors in the hubs of the wheels.  These were powered by a bank of batteries.  These batteries held enough charge for about 40 miles of operation.  These were controlled by a streetcar type controller, which had three forward and two reverse speeds.

Because the Couple-Gear system had individual electric-powered motors in each of the wheels, there were some significant advantages as compared to a gasoline-powered truck, which would have a chain or shaft drive.  With the Couple-Gear system there were no chains, no clutch and no transmission.  The wheels were self-contained and interchangeable.

Couple-Gear trucks and tractors were designed for commercial applications, such as urban delivery, where their limited range and speed was sufficient.  Their buckboard design and their tight turning radius made them more maneuverable many conventional gasoline-powered trucks.  Couple-Gear trucks also were used in some construction and utility work as well as municipal application.  Some were fortunate to be used for fire apparatus.  Some, like the one above, were used for garbage trucks.

Initially, Couple-Gear only offered battery-powered models.  These had top speeds of about 12 miles per hour.  Later, hybrid models were offered.  These used a gasoline-powered engine to power an onboard generator, which in turn provided electricity to the motors in the wheels.  These were offered with capacities from one to ten tons.  Couple-Gear also offered some specialized models.  These included a three-wheeled “Little Wonder” tractor that was specifically designed for the lumber industry.  There also were two models of low-profile mine locomotives.  These were designed to run on rails and were offered a two-wheel and four-wheel drive.  Couple-Gear later offered a hybrid, engine-ahead two-wheel tractor.

Couple-Gear marketed its products to the fire service with limited success.  According to Couple-Gear advertising, 17 cities used fire apparatus with Couple-Gear systems.  These included New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Decatur, Illinois, Medicine Hat, Alberta, Trenton, New Jersey, Wilmington, Delaware, Akron, Ohio, Springfield and New Bedford, Massachusetts, Vancouver, British Columbia, and, of course, Grand Rapids. This included battery-powered as well as hybrid gas-electric and models.  Springfield was the biggest user of Couple-Gear apparatus in New England with at least five new units built using Couple-Gear systems as well as the motorization of an older Seagrave aerial ladder truck with a four-wheel Couple-Gear tractor, which is seen above.  

New Bedford’s four Ahrens-Fox aerial ladder trucks were built using battery-powered Couple-Gear front-drive tractors.  Only their front-wheels were powered.  All four wheels could be steered.  Several other apparatus firms built aerial ladder trucks using Couple-Gear systems.  These included the Webb Fire Engine Company, James Boyd & Brother and the Seagrave Company.  Most of these ladder trucks had all-wheel steering and all-wheel drive.

New Bedford's 1916 Ahrens-Fox Couple-Gear aerial ladder 

truck served as Ladder 1 until after World War Two.

The first of New Bedford’s Ahrens-Fox Couple-Gear ladder trucks was delivered in 1916.  It had a two-section 75-foot wooden aerial ladder.  The aerial ladder was built by the Peter Pirsch Company or Kenosha, Wisconsin.  It carried 11 other ladders, the longest of which was a 50-foot extension ladder.  It had Ahrens-Fox Registration Number 429.  

Although Ahrens-Fox was not in the ladder truck business in 1916, it did have an existing relationship with the New Bedford Fire Department.  New Bedford previously had purchased a motor pumping engine from Ahrens-Fox in August 1913.  In the summer of 1917, New Bedford purchased four Model K-2 motor pumping engines from Ahrens-Fox.  Two more Ahrens-Fox pumpers were purchased in 1920.

Between 1917 and 1919 Ahrens-Fox built three more aerial ladder trucks for New Bedford.  These were reported in some secondary sources to have had 65 or 75-foot two-section Pirsch wooden aerial ladders.  However, close analysis of images of Ladders 3 and 4 establishes that these units were not completely new trucks.  These were older horse-drawn Hayes aerial ladders, which were motorized and modernized by Ahrens-Fox using Couple-Gear front-drive tractors.  The aerial ladders of Ladders 3 and 4, with the tillerman sitting below the aerial ladder and over the rear-axle, clearly were Hayes patent aerial ladders.  Also, according to a 1911 article in Fire and Water Engineering, as of the summer of that year, New Bedford had three “Dahill aerial trucks.”  These were horse-drawn ladder trucks that had been retrofitted with the Dahill Pneumatic Aerial Hoist System sometime between 1905 and 1910. 

New Bedford Ladder 4 started as a horse-drawn Hayes aerial ladder 

before being motorized with a Couple-Gear tractor by Ahrens-Fox.

New Bedford’s Ahrens-Fox Couple-Gear aerial ladder trucks were especially unique for their time.  They used the Dahill Pneumatic Aerial Hoist System to raise their aerial ladder.  The Dahill Pneumatic Aerial Hoist System was designed by Edward Dahill, the Chief of the New Bedford Fire Department.  

The electric throttle control of New Bedford's Ladder 1 is visible

between the steering wheel and the siren.  The air tank for the

Dahill pneumatic system is under the driver's seat.


The Dahill system used compressed air to operate pistons that raised the aerial ladder.  The air was carried in in one or two tanks.  The first pneumatic system for raising aerial ladders was developed in Europe at the end of the 1890s.  Chief Dahill improved upon this system.  Ahrens-Fox was among the biggest users of the Dahill system.  The air tank for the Dahill system on the New Bedford ladder trucks was either horizontal under the driver’s seat, as with Ladders 1 and 2, or vertical on the aerial turntable, as on Ladders 3 and 4. 

In 1919 the Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Company delivered Couple-Gear ladder truck to Taunton, Massachusetts.  This apparently was very much like New Bedford’s ladder trucks.  However, Taunton’s truck was a gas-electric hybrid that was built on a three-and-a-half-ton chassis.  Apparently, it also had chemical equipment.  The make of its aerial ladder is unclear.  

It was the end of the line for New Bedford Ladders 2, 3, and 4 as they sit waiting to be auctioned for scrap.  This photo shows the subtle differences between these three siblings.  The two in the foreground had the Dahill air tank under the aerial ladder.  

The one in the background had it under the driver's seat as did Ladder 1.

The last of New Bedford’s Ahrens-Fox-Couple-Gear aerial ladder trucks served through at least 1948.  After that, the quartet were sold for scrap.  They may have been the last Couple-Gear powered ladder trucks in service.  The last ladder trucks in service that used the Dahill Pneumatic Aerial Hoist System were in Baltimore.  An example of one of these is in the collection of the Fire Museum of Maryland.


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