Did our last blog post about the restoration of our 1899 steam fire engine peak your curiosity about such infernal machines? Well, you aren’t alone. As we've been getting ready for the museum's annual Steam Show, I have done some research on early steam fire engines.
Arguably, steam power was used to pump water before it was used for transportation. In 1698, Thomas Savery invented a pump that used a vacuum created by steam pressure to draw water up a channel. Although intended to pump water out of mines, since it was an engine that used fire, it was referred to as a “fire engine.” Thomas Newcomen and James Watt were the eighteenth century inventors who really advanced steam power. Newcomen invented and Watt improved the use of steam to drive a piston capable of mechanical work.
To John Braithwaite goes the credit for the first steam engine intended for the purpose of putting out fires. Braithwaite, a London steam train pioneer, had built the "Novelty," first locomotive to travel a mile in under a minute. In 1829 he constructed the first practical steam fire engine (pictured right), which moved less than a gallon of water per minute and took twenty minutes to get up steam. London’s fire brigades did not care for the new engine and it was eventually destroyed by an angry mob.
The first steam fire engine built in America (pictured left) was made by Paul Rapsey Hodge in New York City in 1841. Remarkably, it was self-propelled and harness steam both for moving water and moving itself. As in London, New York firefighters were resistant to the new technology and abandoned use of Hodge’s engine after only a few months.
Alexander “Moses” Latta has the distinction of making the first practical steam fire engine regularly used by a city fire department. In 1852, Latta’s experimental engine was tested before Cincinnati’s City Council and proved itself capable of raising steam in just over four minutes (quite an improvement over Braithwaite’s twenty minute time 23 years earlier) and spraying water 130 feet. The City Council commissioned Latta to build such an engine for Cincinnati and the “Uncle Joe Ross” (pictured right), named for the councilman who promoted the engine, was delivered in 1853. It was manned by Cincinnati’s newly organized paid department, which replaced the city's volunteers. “Uncle Joe Ross” was cumbersome at 22,000 pounds and, despite being "self-propelled,” still required four horses to pull it. It exploded at a trial in 1855.
The first trial of a steam fire engine in Baltimore was of the “Miles Greenwood” in 1855. This engine was of the Latta design and had been built in Cincinnati. The trial convinced the First Baltimore Hose Company to purchase the steam fire engine “Alpha” in 1858. Coincidentally, as in Cincinnati, this purchase came at a time of change for firefighters in Baltimore. In 1859, Baltimore transitioned from a firefighting force of 22 volunteer companies to a paid department of 9 companies. In addition to the First Baltimore Hose Company, the Washington Hose Company, Vigilant Company, and the Mechanical Fire Engine Company each bought steam fire engines in 1858, not realizing the coming change. These steamers were purchased by the new Baltimore City Fire Department in 1859.
The transition to paid departments was a trend that spread across the country beginning with Cincinnati. Volunteers had a raucous and rowdy reputation, especially in Baltimore. The Fire Museum’s collection shows how Baltimore's new fire department used new technologies to work more efficiently. Although the “Alpha” would explode at an 1871 fire, steam power more than proved its worth and was used in first line service in Baltimore until 1926 and in reserve service another 10 years. In fact, you can see the last Baltimore steam fire engine in first line service (the 1905 LaFrance pulled by the 1916 Christie tractor pictured below) right here, at the Fire Museum of Maryland.