top of page

The Boston Experiment

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Boston firefighters pose with the Type 3 shortly after its delivery to Boston for evaluation in September 1906.

In the fall of 1906, the Boston Fire Department became the first fire department in New England to experiment with motor fire apparatus. This short-lived chapter in the history of New England firefighting often is overlooked. However, it is an important piece of New England’s history and a significant milestone for the American fire service.

In 1906, Boston was the fifth largest city in America and had the fourth largest fire department. The Boston Fire Department consisted of 958 members and operated 44 steam fire engine companies, 12 chemical engine companies, 27 ladder companies and three water tower companies. There also were 39 fuel wagons and 15 chiefs’ buggies in service. The Department had 387 fire horses. Fifteen fire horses had died or were killed during the previous year.

In 1906, Boston operated 12 horse-drawn chemical engine companies.

On September 22, 1906, the Boston Fire Department started an experiment with a motor chemical engine that was built by the American-LaFrance Fire Engine Company of Elmira, New York. This pioneering machine was loaned to the city for evaluation. This was two days before Springfield, Massachusetts, put into service its pioneering motorized Auxiliary Squad with its Knox motor wagon. Up to that time, the only motor vehicles to be operated by the Boston Fire Department were three automobiles used by chief officers.

American-LaFrance designated the motor chemical engine the “Type 3.” The first self-propelled fire apparatus built by American-LaFrance was its steam-powered Type 1, which was a design that it inherited from the International Fire Engine Company in 1903. The Type 2 appears to have been an experimental design for a battery powered combination chemical engine hose wagon that was developed in 1904 and 1905. However, it is unknown if one ever was built.

American-LaFrance used a 1905 Packard Model N touring car, like this one, to build a Type 3.

In 1906 American-LaFrance turned to the internal combustion engine for the Type 3. Because American-LaFrance had not yet developed its own internal combustion engine, a heavily modified 1905 Packard four-cylinder touring car was used as the basis of the Type 3. The Packard Motor Car Company of Detroit, Michigan, was one of the leading builders of luxury automobiles during this period.

The sole American-LaFrance Type 3 is seen in primer coat in this 1906 factory photo.

The Packard automobile was torn apart and rebuilt extensively in Elmira. The original Packard brakes and motor were retained as were the solid rubber tires and wooden wheels. However, not much else of the original machine remained unaltered. The shaft drive was replaced with a chain drive. The radiator was replaced. The hood and the cowling were changed significantly. To this modified chassis, two Holloway 35-gallon chemical tanks were mounted along with a hose basket with 300 feet of rubber hose. A pair of hand fire extinguishers, two axes and some hand tools also were mounted.

This is the business end of the one-of-a-kind American-LaFrance Type 3 chemical engine. It was equipped with a Holloway dual tank soda-acid chemical system.

The Type 3 was designed for speed. According to the October 25, 1906, issue of The Automobile, “the handrails on the front seat are very suggestive of the ability of the machine to take corners at high speed.” Its artillery-type wheels and solid tires also were better suited for high speeds than early pneumatic tires. Pneumatic tires were notoriously unreliable on the poor roads and streets of the period, which were not designed for high-speed motor traffic.

Speed was an important part of the operational model of chemical fire engines. They were designed to be able to quickly get to a fire and start firefighting operations while the more powerful and slower steam fire engines were preparing to go into operation.

The finished product bore little resemblance to the Packard touring car from which it was built.

The Type 3 arrived in Boston on September 21. The experiment began on September 22. The Type 3 was quartered with Engine 22 and Ladder 13 at their station, which was located at 70 Warren Avenue in the South End. Engine 22 operated a 1900 Amoskeag steam fire engine with a hose wagon. Ladder 13 operated an 1890 Hayes aerial ladder. No chemical engine normally was assigned to this house. The firehouse was relatively new. It had opened in 1901 and was among the most modern in the city.

The quarters of Engine 22 and Ladder were among the most modern in Boston.

In its first eight days in service, the Type 3 made 15 runs. The experiment with the Type 3 was national news. Articles about it appeared in several national publications, including The Automobile, The Motor Way, The Horseless Age and Fire and Water Engineering. Boston Fire Chief John A. Mullen was impressed with its performance.

Boston’s experiment with the American-LaFrance type 3 was national news and

articles appeared in national publications like this one in The Motor Way.

The Boston experiment was going very when it ended abruptly on November 17, its 56th day. The Type 3 was answering an alarm, when it collided with a support column for an elevated railway line and was wrecked. The Type 3 then was sent back to the American-LaFrance factory.

According to Boston’s Annual Report of the Fire Department for the Year 1906-1907, an “automobile chemical engine, built by the American La France Fire Engine Company was very kindly loaned to this department for demonstration. It was in service for some months with the most excellent results, but the condition of the appropriation prevented its purchase.” In other words, Boston had lacked the money to purchase it.

The Type 3’s time in Boston ended with a wreck on November 17, 1906.

It then was returned to Elmira and repaired. In 1909, it was

sold to the fire department in Summit, New Jersey.

The Type 3 was later repaired by American-LaFrance and equipped with pneumatic tires. In 1909 it was sold to Summit, New Jersey. It was the only Type 3 built.

Boston would not purchase its first motor fire apparatus until 1909. However, the 1906 experiment with the Type 3 showed the leadership of the Boston Fire Department the great potential of motor fire apparatus. With Boston being the largest city in New England, the Boston experiment had a significant influence on fire departments throughout New England. It probably was one of the reasons why New England would lead the American fire service in the adoption of motor fire apparatus.


bottom of page