Updated: Jul 22, 2022
Among the most interesting and unusual pieces of fire apparatus ever to serve in New England was the 1903 steam-powered combination chemical engine and hose wagon that served in New London, Connecticut. It was one of just four such machines built and was the only one known to see service in the United States.
Steam power was an essential part of the industrialization of New England. Steam powered the mills and factories, railroad locomotives, all manner of boats and watercraft, as well as electric power plants. Steam also was important to the fire service. Horse-drawn steam fire engines allowed for the formation of paid fire departments and helped provide improved fire protection to New England communities. In 1900, steam fire engines were the state-of-the-art firefighting technology. A few dozen self-propelled steam fire engines also had been built. Examples were in service in Boston, Portland as well as Detroit and Vancouver, British Columbia. Hartford operated two Amoskeag steam fire engines. These included the 1901 engine, seen above, which served at Engine Company 4.
Steam was a logical choice for propulsion of a fire department hose wagon. Steam-powered passenger cars and commercial cars, as early trucks were called then, had proven to be reliable. Several New England firms manufactured steam cars. These included the Locomobile Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as well as the Grout Brothers in Orange and the Stanley Motor Carriage Company in Watertown, Massachusetts. Steam cars generally were faster than horses, although they were not fast by modern standards. They were limited by the roads and streets of the time, which were not designed for fast vehicular traffic. Steam cars could be built for speed. In 1906 a Stanley steam car achieved 127 mph. This record would stand for 103 years.
Besides steam powered passenger wagons, the Grout Brothers built steam-powered light delivery wagons. Other New England companies manufactured heavy duty steam wagons, which were the forerunners of modern trucks. These companies included the Massachusetts Steam Wagon Company of Pittsfield, the Morgan Motor Company of Worcester and the Cunningham Engineering Company of Boston.
Steam wagons cost less to operate than horse-drawn wagons. They also were quiet and relatively clean. Heavy duty steam wagons had greater range and endurance than horse-drawn wagons, although they generally were not much faster.
It was in this environment that the La France Fire Engine Company of Elmira, New York, built the first steam powered combination chemical engine and hose wagon. The prototype was completed in late 1902. This steam-powered wagon was called an “automobile” fire engine by some sources. In this case, “automobile” means self-propelled. It was an awkward synthesis of the technology that had evolved to that point. It was exhibited in January 1903 at a trade show. It then was demonstrated in New York City in March, in Louisville, Kentucky, during the summer, and then in Chicago, during the early fall.
The general form of this steam-powered apparatus was very much like a standard horse-drawn combination chemical engine and hose wagon. However, it was designed to be different. The body was slightly larger than a typical hose wagon. It was built of steel with a channeled steel frame. It had four elliptical springs and traveled on Firestone four-inch solid rubber tires mounted on 36-inch wheels. It had a wheelbase of about 10 feet and was 16 feet long and six feet wide. It had a capacity of 1000 feet of fire hose.
The two 35-gallon copper chemical tanks were of a typical capacity. However, they were mounted lengthwise on the sides of the hose box. This unusual mounting was necessary to make room for the steam engine behind the driver’s seat. This placement of the tanks was an innovative solution, but it precluded storage of ladders or tools on the side of the apparatus. The smokestack venting right behind the driver's seat must also have posed some issues with operation.
The steam boiler was a fire tube design. It used gasoline for fuel for its steel burner. The water and gasoline were stored in copper tanks. The wagon was powered by two independent two-cylinder steam engines, one for each rear wheel. Together these produced a total of 20-hp. Each rear wheel had its own chain drive. The wagon was designed to be capable of around 15 mph, but reportedly it could make 35.
This novel and new piece of firefighting equipment caught the attention of the volunteer firefighters of the Niagara Hose Company in New London, Connecticut. Niagara Hose purchased the second steam powered combination wagon to be built. New London’s wagon had a different suspension system than the prototype and it sat much lower to the ground.
The New London machine was delivered on September 26, 1903, by railroad. Around noon it was driven from the freight yard by George Thomas, a La France factory representative. About 15 members of the fire company were riding along on the wagon for the short trip to the fire station. As they were driving by the post office, the new machine spooked a passing horse that was pulling a carriage. The horse panicked and bucked. Mr. Thomas tried to stop the steam wagon. Unfortunately, he grabbed the wrong lever.
The running board of the steam wagon struck one of the rear wheels of the carriage and crushed it against a light post. The force of the collision threw one of the firefighters to the stone street. He was knocked unconscious. The spooked horse broke loose. All of this played out before a large crowd that had gathered to see the arrival of the new fire engine.
Once in service, the wagon proved to be under-powered for New London’s hills. Its brakes also were inadequate. In December, the machine was sent back to the La France factory for upgrades. On its return, it was found to have better hill-climbing ability, but its brakes still left something to be desired. Nevertheless, it was purchased for $5500. It would serve until 1911 when its boiler exploded while responding to an alarm after one of the operators failed to add water to the boiler.
Two other steam powered combination wagons would be built. The design would be marketed as the “Type 1” by the newly formed American-LaFrance Fire Engine Company, which built the last two examples. No other models of steam-propelled fire apparatus would be built because of the inherent limitations of steam power. Steam-powered fire apparatus simply required too much precious time to work up enough pressure to be able to move. Battery and gasoline powered fire apparatus could respond instantaneously. Steam's enduring mark on the fire service was, and remains, as a source of pumping power.