The Switch from Horsepower to Motorized Fire Apparatus

When motorized vehicles first appeared at the turn of the last century, it didn’t take long to adapt the technology to fire apparatus. In fact, the earliest motorized vehicles in fire departments were actually runabouts, or standard production model automobiles, assigned to chief officers. It soon became clear that there many advantages to using motorized vehicles, including durability (horses tired when forced to run long distances) and economical (motorized vehicles were less expensive to operate). Nevertheless, some firefighters were reluctant to adopt the new vehicles, remaining loyal to their horse-drawn apparatus. It took many years for the switch to occur nationwide. Here are a few highlights of that time period.

  • In 1906, Waterous delivered a motorized pumper, equipped with two gasoline-powered motors, one for propulsion and the other for pumping, to the Radnor Fire Company of Wayne, Pennsylvania.
  • In 1906, the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, purchased a Combination Ladder Company squad body constructed on a Knox chassis.
  • By the end of 1906, Knox and Combination Ladder Company, originally a manufacturer of horse-drawn apparatus, advertised an assortment of motorized apparatus for fire departments.
  • In 1909, the Tea Tray Company manufactured the first triple combination pumper on an American Mors chassis. It included a pump, hose bed and chemical tanks. Prior to this, most had operated as two-piece companies, using both a steamer and a separate hose wagon.
  • In 1909, the International Motor Company (now Mack Trucks) delivered a motorized tractor to Allentown, Pennsylvania that may have been the country’s first ladder truck. It was used to power a ladder truck that up until then had been horse-drawn.
  • In 1910, American LaFrance manufactured a combination chemical hose wagon for Lenox, Massachusetts.
  • In 1911, Ahrens-Fox introduced a motorized pumper with the piston pump located at the front of the vehicle. This was in stark contrast to similar vehicles that stored the pump either under or behind the driver’s seat.
  • In 1912, Christie Front Drive Auto Company started to manufacture two-wheel tractors that were used to motorize fleets of horse-drawn steamers, ladder trucks and water towers. This market, which lasted about 10 years, made it possible for fire departments to continue to use their horse-drawn apparatus during the interim time period.
  • During the 1920s, the quad came into being. It was a stretched triple combination pumper chassis that also carried ground ladders. This provided an option for fire departments that didn’t need to service high buildings, allowing them to save on the purchase of a ladder truck.
  • In 1928, Pirsch introduced the first custom-built enclosed cab fire apparatus for the city of Monroe, Wisconsin. Considered to be ahead of its time, these did not replace open-cab pumpers until the 1950s.

Pictured above is a horse-drawn steam fire engine made in Seneca Falls, New York in 1896 from the American Museum of Natural History website.

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One comment on “The Switch from Horsepower to Motorized Fire Apparatus

  1. The Thompsonville Fire Department of Enfield, CT received theirs BEFORE Radnor Fire. Even though Radnor ordered theirs first, Thompsonville received theirs first. With that being said, neither of these departments were first in the motorized “race”. Larue, OH in face had the first in 1905. It was a Howe. I have a photo if you would like it.

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