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The First Electric-Powered Fire Engine

This combination chemical and hose wagon was built by the Pope Manufacturing Company on a Waverley Electric truck chassis in 1905, for the fire department 

in Hopedale, Massachusetts.  This photo is from the January 31, 1906, 

issue of The Horseless Age magazine.

While an electric powered fire engine may seem like something radically new, it is not.  More than a century ago, electric powered fire apparatus were among the earliest motor fire apparatus to be built.  Among the first electric fire apparatus in America was a unique combination chemical engine and hose wagon that served in Hopedale, Massachusetts.  It was the first electric powered fire apparatus in America. 

This 1899 Columbia battery-powered electric carriage was cost about $3500 when it was built.  It could carry four passengers, plus the driver, who sat in the high rear seat. 

At the dawn of the age of motor vehicles, electricity was a logical choice for propulsion of automobiles.  Many cities operated electric trolleys and the technology was familiar from this mass transit application.  The first electric-powered automobiles had been developed in the 1880s and 1890s.  By 1899, the first electric-powered trucks were built.  These cars and trucks all were battery powered.

The earliest Pope-Waverly electric trucks were light-weight delivery trucks.

Many of the earliest designs of trucks were electric powered because electric power worked very well with the popular buckboard design.  With electric power there was no engine to put ahead of the driver.  The space under the body of the vehicle was a perfect spot for the batteries.  This allowed easy access to the batteries.  It also gave maximum carrying capacity and space atop the platform over the chassis.  This placement if the batteries also kept the center of gravity low.  This was important since the batteries of the period were very heavy.  

A 1907 Waverly Electric 3.5-ton truck. 

The significant weight of batteries was a real problem for electric cars and trucks.  A 1912 study by the editors of the magazine The Commercial Vehicle found that all sizes of electric-powered trucks weighed about 1000 pounds more than comparable gasoline-powered trucks.  This meant that electric-powered trucks lost between 10 to 66 percent of their carrying capacity because of the weight of their batteries.  

The great weight and the limited capacity of batteries meant that electric vehicles were very limited in their range and speed.  Electric motors, however, were reliable and relatively efficient.  Hence, electric vehicles were well-suited to commercial usage in urban environments, where they only traveled short distances on congested city streets at slow speeds.  Electric vehicles also were quiet and did not contribute to the urban noise problem.  Electric trucks were particularly well-suited to local delivery service.  Among the biggest users of electric delivery trucks were Tiffany's, Gimbel's and Macy's in New York City.  Sales of electric vehicles peaked at about 3800 units in 1909.  This was only about three percent of the total motor vehicle production in the United States that year.  This market share had diminished from seven percent just five years earlier.

Besides commercial trucks, there were Pope-Waverly electric automobiles.

The Waverley Electric automobile was produced from 1896 to 1914 and was one of the best electric cars in the American automobile market.  Thomas Edison drove a Waverley.  In 1903 Waverly became part of the Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut.  Pope-Waverley offered several models of electric trucks, which were used in many industries.  

The large battery box under the chassis is shown clearly in this photo of Hopedale's chemical and hose combination wagon.  The weight of such large batteries 

was a significant problem for electric powered vehicles.

The first electric fire truck in New England was a combination chemical and hose wagon built by the Pope Manufacturing Company on a Waverley Electric buckboard truck chassis in 1905, for the fire department in Hopedale, Massachusetts.  Hopedale's Pope combination wagon was among the earliest motor fire apparatus in America.  It was the earliest electric-propelled fire engine in America.  Unfortunately, often it is ignored in histories of early motor fire apparatus.  

Hopedale's combination wagon had a 48 cell Exide battery, which was manufactured by the Electric Storage Battery Company.  It had two electric motors, which developed about 15-hp.  The wagon was found to be capable of ten miles per hour, which was considerably faster than horses over any significant distance.  It also could climb a 13 percent grade, albeit at a significantly slower speed.

Hopedale's combination wagon had chemical equipment built by the Howe Engine Company of Indianapolis.  Howe had built the first true motor pumping engine that same year.  Coincidentally, both Howe's pioneering motor pumping engine and Hopedale's combination wagon appeared on the very same page in the January 31, 1906, issue of The Horseless Age.

More electric-powered fire apparatus would be built over the next decade.  New England probably had the most electric fire apparatus of any region of the country.  Electric powered fire apparatus was used in Springfield and Taunton, Massachusetts.  Some electric-powered fire apparatus also was used in New York City, Philadelphia, Camden, New Jersey, and Grand Rapids, Michigan.  

An article in the November 1908 issue of the Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal noted that electric vehicles were well-suited to the limited distances and infrequent runs that were required of fire apparatus.  However, electricity never would prove to be a good power source for pumping.  By the early teens, gasoline powered automobiles had proven their superiority to their electric-powered counterparts.  By the end of the teens, electric powered fire apparatus no longer would be built.  Those fire departments that previously had used electric power apparatus, like Hopedale, would go on to buy gasoline-powered apparatus.  Hopedale’s second motor fire apparatus was the gasoline powered city service ladder truck, which is seen above.


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