Monday, September 4, 2023

Fire Truck

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 1923, the clang of a brass bell and the wail of a hand-pumped siren alerted people that a fire truck was on the way. Our current exhibit, “It’s About Time: 100 years of Chemung County Historical Society” features a 1923 American LaFrance Brockway Torpedo Fire Truck which could have been seen on the streets in the early 20th century. After being beautifully restored, it was donated to the historical society in 2011. It has become a popular artifact. For this exhibit, the fire truck is displayed in the gallery against a large picture of East Water Street from the 1920s. You can almost imagine it racing through the city streets to the scene of a fire.

Back in the 19
th century, the city had speed restrictions. When responding to a fire, engines were limited to no more than 6 miles per hour in order to prevent accidents. The city also ordered fire companies not to compete with each other, which was harder to enforce.

Competition seems to have been part of firefighting culture. Fires were always a constant danger when many buildings were still being constructed out of wood. In the mid-19th century, a fire on Water Street burned down 18 wooden buildings. It destroyed property, homes, businesses and livelihoods. Another fire in 1866, called the Lake Street fire, burned most of the buildings between Water and Carroll Streets. The fire companies did their best to contain them.

During much of the 19th century, firefighting was the responsibility of individual volunteer fire companies. They sprang up all around the city and had spirited names like Ours 4, Neptune, Goodell, and Young American. Not far from today’s museum was the Red Rover fire company, situated just across the street..

It was prestigious to be appointed a firefighter and the volunteer work attracted young men looking for adventure. The men were also drawn to the pageantry, parades, social affairs, and dances associated with the culture of firefighting. When a fire broke out, companies competed to be first to respond.

In the spring of 1878, the city council voted to establish a professional fire department, calling it the Elmira Fire Department (EFD.) The various volunteer companies would not be recognized. Reluctantly, the volunteer fire companies participated in one final parade to celebrate their hard work before they handed over their engines, hoses, hooks, ladders and other equipment to city authorities. Some fire company members ended up taking jobs with EFD and were now paid $100 a year. The department’s new headquarters were located on Market Street in a brick building which no longer exists.

The American LaFrance Company, manufacturer of our Fire Truck on display, began in the mid-19th century. The young fire equipment company attracted local investors like Alexander Diven, his sons, Judge Brooks, Charles J. Langdon, John T. Rathbun, and Colonel William Falck who saw potential in the young company. American LaFrance soon became known as one of the largest manufacturers and suppliers of fire engines and apparatus in the country.

Apparently not just the country, but the world. Early American LaFrance fire trucks were built using chassis from the Brockway Truck Company, located in Cortland, New York. There’s a great story about a 1925 American LaFrance fire truck from Argentina. In 1960, Buenos Aires Fire Department volunteers decided it was time to trade in their fire truck and drove it from South America to North American ending up in New York City. The volunteer firefighters, who were a butcher, locksmith, building engineer, and chauffeur, didn’t realize that Cortland was still miles away. Volunteer fire companies along their way provided them with shelter, food, and gasoline. When the news got to the Brockway Truck Company, they drove down to the City and escorted the firefighters to Cortland before shipping them back to Argentina along with a new fire truck.

Headline, The Morning Call, May 15, 1960

This year CCHS installed exhibits on fire fighters in four of the local public schools. Along with borrowed items (not in use) kindly lent to us by the Elmira Fire Department, these displays highlight some firefighting equipment and clothing.

Drop by to see our red shiny 1923 fire truck on display. You can hear its siren and bell by accessing a QR code in the exhibit and imagine yourself scurrying out of the way as it makes its way to a fire.

Other blogs on fire fighters include a profile of Elmira’s first Black Firefighter.

And a blog on the earlier bucket brigades.


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