Early Fire Apparatus: The Horse-Drawn Era


The steam pumper and the horse changed the face of firefighting. Not only did the steam pumper make it possible to supply continuous water to the scene of the fire, but horses starting pulling equipment and apparatus. Both lessened the need for manpower. What’s interesting is that although the horses transported the apparatus to the fire, the firefighters still arrived by foot. It wasn’t until the 1860s that running boards were installed on the sides of the ladder trucks, making it possible for the firefighters to ride to the scene of the fire. The name “running boards” came from the fact that they took the place of firefighters running to the fire. Imagine how this improved a firefighter’s ability to fight the fire once he arrived, no longer exhausted from the run.

Following are some additional highlights of the horse-drawn era:

  1. Horse-drawn ladder trucks grew in length to accommodate longer ladders. Wood aerial ladders were developed, which in the early days were as high as 85 feet. The first of this kind, patented in 1868, was set up so that the tillerman could sit underneath it. During this time, firefighters had to raise, rotate and extend the aerial ladders using gears and pulleys they cranked by hand.
  2. The horse-drawn chemical wagon was developed to quickly fight the fire while the steam pumper was being prepared. The wagons carried tanks that were filled with bicarbonate of soda and activated by mixing with sulfuric acid. The resulting chemical reaction shot into the air through a small hose.
  3. Horse-drawn water towers were popular as well, making it possible to apply a stream of water to upper floors.
  4. Steam apparatus had to be lubricated regularly, and brass oil cans were used to accomplish this task.
  5. Fire bells that appeared on the early steamers were made from brightly-polished brass and usually showcased ornaments.
  6. These early apparatus were decorated with striping, paintings and logos that later evolved into ornate gold leafing and stripes designed to characterize various departments. Lavish paint themes and polished brass added to the glitz, and colors ranged from dark green and brown to maroon, white and red.

Pictured above is a 1885 Ahrens Steam Pumper No.433 restored by the members of the Seymour FD. Built in 1885, this Ahrens (before Ahrens-Fox)steam pump was built in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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