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How Steam Blew The Rowdies Out Of The Fire Departments

June 2024
8min read

The old volunteer system was colorful, but it could do more harm than good—and the efficiency of machinery finally replaced it

The first steam fire engine was built in England by Braithwaite & Ericsson in 1829. By 1832 six steamers were in use in London, but it was to be twenty years before another was acquired. Meanwhile, Captain Ericsson came to the United States, where his inventive genius subsequently was to produce the ironclad Monitor. In 1840 he won a gold medal that had been offered by the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of New York, after a disastrous conflagration, for the best plan of a steam fire engine. But his machine remained on paper.

In that same year Paul Rapsey Hodge began the construction of the first steam fire engine to be built in the United States. The pump projected a stream of water to a height of 166 feet through a 21/8-inch nozzle. The apparatus could move under its own steam power, or it could be pulled by horses or men. Little interest was shown in this machine.

The first completely successful steamer was designed in 1852 by Alexander R. Latta of Cincinnati. His first steamer ran under its own power and produced as many as six streams of water. It could throw a stream five minutes after the boiler was fired, but four sturdy horses were needed to get the engine out of its house.

Now that a practical steam fire engine was available, the replacement of the inefficient old hand-pumping equipment seemed logical. But there was an almost insurmountable barrier in the way. The firemen would have nothing to do with the “sham squirt,” as they derisively called the steam pumper. And the volunteer firemen were too numerous, too politically potent, to antagonize. In vain did the insurance companies and well-informed businessmen quote statistics as to the infinitely greater efficiency of steam power over human muscle.

But it was more than a matter of statistics. The volunteers were not a segment of the population that could be ignored. It was a day when the strength, the courage and the persistence of American manhood were deemed to be a combination that could conquer any force.


Merchant princes and clerks, professional men and loafers, artists and artisans, students and retired soldiers threw aside whatever they were doing as soon as the alarm bells sounded. They would leave their employment or their beds to dash to the firehouses, to seize the towropes of their dearly loved apparatus. Until exhausted, they would man the pumps of their flimsy “masheens,” or they would plunge into smoke-filled buildings to perform feats of prodigious bravery. Such heroic public benefactors could not be lightly shunted aside for a grotesquely puffing iron monster.

European visitors to the United States frequently wrote of their admiration for American volunteer firemen. Art of the day took full cognizance of the smoke-eaters. Nathaniel Currier was a volunteer fireman, and the numerous Currier & Ives lithographs of firemen are characterized by a great feeling of the importance of the system.

The men worked without compensation and almost without supervision. The community that did not pay its firemen was scarcely in position to discipline them. Besides, how could one scold a hero who belonged to the same hose company as the mayor, the president of the bank, the leading lawyer in town?

The consequences of lack of discipline were compounded by other elements that were attracted to the firehouses. It was a sign of professional prestige to get to the fire ahead of rival companies, and adversaries were prevented from getting to the scene too rapidly by “accidents.” To maintain its right of way in a day of sheer force, a company might recruit plug-uglies to disable its opponents or their apparatus. Men who loved to brawl found that the fire department offered unbounded possibilities: opportunities to fight with policemen, shopkeepers who were too stingy about sharing their stocks, or, best of all, other firemen.

Every alarm of fire became a grand, noisy adventure. The shouts of the firemen, the exuberant ringing of bells, and the sounds of human conflict worried respectable citizens. Equipment often was pulled along the sidewalks to the peril of pedestrians and merchandise. It was not unusual for a building to burn to the ground while two or more companies of firemen battled to see who should use the nearest hydrant or cistern.

The need for a professional, well-disciplined fire department of trained experts was realized at the same time that the need for powerful, efficient steamers was seen. Cincinnati was the city that was courageous and farsighted enough to recognize that both problems could be met with the same solution.

After a particularly bad street brawl, during the course of which a building burned unnoticed to the ground, the Cincinnati city council voted to have a paid fire department of selected men, the selection to be on the basis of virtues other than bellicosity. When delegations of irate smoke-eaters invaded the council chambers, it was timidly explained that the city was about to purchase an expensive, fragile steamer, and this equipment could be entrusted only to trained technicians.

On April 1, 1853, the United States’ first paid fire department went into service. As chief, the city wisely chose one of the mightiest brawlers of the volunteer system. The first alarm that was answered by the professionals found the discarded volunteers ready. Two hundred and fifty men attacked the new civil servants. But the wily chief had his own musclemen and friends on the alert, too, and in twenty minutes the dissidents were routed. Then the steamer, “Uncle Joe Ross,” went to work on what was left of the fire. By this time the engine had a good head of steam up.

The original Latta steamer had many defects, but Cincinnati was impressed with the new system. The steamer had made unnecessary the presence at a fire of uncounted men who supposedly were merely waiting their turns to man the handles of their hand-pumpers; this greatly reduced rowdyism, theft, and general disorder. Public subscription quickly raised funds for an improved engine, which was named “Citizens’ Gift.” Like its predecessor, this engine was too big to fit in a firehouse and too heavy to be pulled through the streets by horses. Huge barn-like quarters had to be built for the monstrosity. When the alarm sounded, four horses dragged it out into the street where its boiler was fired and the engine proceeded under its own power.

The success of the Latta steamers sounded the knell for volunteer firemen in the cities. The skilled technicians necessary to service the steamers could not be provided under the old system of “first men there handle the pumps.” This colorful, self-sacrificing phase of American life fell before progress. What indignant citizens and public officials could not do to abolish an institution, the steamer quickly effected.

But there were compensations for this loss of the spectacular volunteer organization. The chief engineer of the fire department of Cincinnati reported in 1851: “Under the present control the Engine Houses are no longer nurseries where the youth of the city are trained in vice, vulgarity and debauchery, and where licentiousness holds his nightly revels. The Sabbath clay is no longer desecrated by the yells and fierce conflicts of rival Fire Companies, who sought the occasion offered by false alarms, often gotten up for the purpose of making brutal assaults upon each other; our citizens, male and female, pass our Engine Houses without being insulted by the coarse vulgarities of the persons collected around them.”

By 1858, the bulk of that city’s apparatus was sufficiently reduced so that the engines could be drawn through the streets by horses. Steel and brass took the place of iron; fuel was carried in separate vehicles.

In other communities, progress was slower. In 1855 Lee and Larned, manufacturers, placed two steamers at the disposal of New York City, but the firemen petitioned the city council to reject the engines. That year a hand-pumper of the largest size, called “The Mankiller,” had a contest with a Latta steamer in City Hall Park. The steamer pumped water 182 feet, horizontally, through four lengths of hose; but the hand-pumped stream reached 189 feet. To most of the wildly cheering firemen it looked as though human muscle had defeated steam. But two of the officers were more observant. They saw that when the exhausted firemen collapsed in the street, the steamer’s stream remained unwaveringly constant. “John, that stream stays there.” “Yes, it does.” “Well, that settles it.”

More time was required before New York’s firemen accepted the new machine. The city’s first steamer, “J. C. Cary,” was a tremendous engine that could be pulled on a flat roadway by two powerful horses, but on a hill, horse-power was not enough. The engine was converted into a sell-propelling steamer, and it was demonstrated before the street commissioner; apparently this juggernaut was more dangerous to streets than it was to fires. In 1858, Harper’s Weekly observed that the engine “seems destined to play an important part in bringing about the inevitable substitution of steam power for that of human muscle in working fire engines.”

In Philadelphia the volunteer firemen were unusually well entrenched; hadn’t Benjamin Franklin organized America’s first fire company there? But even before the volunteers were mustered out of service, several companies purchased steamers. In 1858 Hibernia Steam Engine Company Number 1 made a number of exhibition appearances with its new “teakettle” in other communities.

Firemen discovered in time that the new steamers were not so impersonal as it had been feared. The first steamers, in fact, were given individual names, just like the hand-pumpers, and even the old-time volunteer firemen began to see the new engines as handsome. By 1860, steamers were sufficiently small and light to be pulled by hand; that was something of a comfort to the “vamps,” for they were not being supplanted (just then) by horses. The men could still “run with the engines.” Two of the celebrated Currier & Ives series, “The Life of a Fireman,” show steamers, despite the fact that Fireman Currier had grown up with the hand-pumpers.


Even after the volunteers were replaced by professional firemen, the old urge to decorate one’s own fire engine remained. The commissioners in one large city were obliged to order that “If any of the fire companies shall embellish their apparatus by painting, silver or other plating, polishing or any other embellishment, the chief engineer … shall not have replaced at the expense of the said city any such embellishment … and the said embellishment shall belong to the Corporation of the City …”

The day of the hand-drawn steamer, however, was brief. As communities spread out there was greater distance to be covered. Before the 1870’s most of the cities were using horses to draw fire equipment. New York’s fire commissioners were jubilant at the elimination of man-drawn machines. “Noise and confusion in our streets on the occasions of alarms of fire have ceased,” they reported: “the sick and dying are no longer disturbed by the yelling of ‘runners,’ … the inhabitants are left to enjoy their needed rest, and vehicles may pass on unmolested.”

For the next fifty years, horse-drawn fire apparatus dominated the scene. The earliest equipment had been made by locomotive builders and the pumpers resembled their cousins. By the 1870’s, however, fire engines had their own graceful but substantial style. Despite mass-production methods each steamer seemed to have its own individual personality. To those who understood such things each steam whistle was unique. A quarter of a mile or more away in city streets, someone would exclaim with certainty, “That’s 74 Engine!”

Improvements were made, of course. It was possible to have steam maintained in the boiler at all times by having a pipe connection between the fire engine and another boiler beneath the floor of the firehouse. Other inventions provided for the automatic opening of horses’ stalls when an alarm was received.

Some fire departments tried to dress up the appearance of their equipment by matching the steeds in color and size. It was not unusual to see two-horse or three-horse hitches of coal black, dapple gray, gleaming white or, very occasionally, striking pinto. Oldsters today still feel young again when something reminds them of those two or three well-matched chestnut steeds dashing down Main Street with a glistening nickel steamer that belched forth smoke and fire.

The horses seemed human at times. They sensed when an alarm bell was for them; they knew precisely what was expected of them when the fireman on watch duty hollered, “Get out!” They would trot right smartly to their assigned places under harness that was suspended from the ceiling: to fasten their special collars took but a second. The most touching and spectacular phases of the volunteer firemen seemed to live on in those magnificent horses.

The invention of the internal combustion engine did not spell the end of the picturesque steamers; even after the apparatus reached a fire, those pumps still had to be operated. But when it was realized that the same engine could propel the apparatus and also operate the pumps, the steamer was doomed. Motor tractors, such as the Christie Front Drive or the Von Blerck, were attached to the steamers in place of the gallant horses, but this was only a transitional phase of the change from steam to gasoline. New York’s last steam fire engine was withdrawn from service on May 26, 1933.


In the rest of the United States, the same transformation took place. Many veteran chiefs still felt that steam was more “reliable” than gasoline; but as the engines (or the chiefs) wore out, they were replaced with the latest models.

Yet millions of Americans can still remember the sound of that bloodcurdling steam whistle, or the sight of a nonchalant engineer on his narrow rear platform as he shoveled coal while the engine roared through traffic. The engines of today have far more efficiency, of course, but the steamer cannot be surpassed for glamour and excitement.

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