Fire Museums Recall Era of Bucket Brigade

Steam fire engine

First pulled by hand, this steam fire engine was later converted for horse-drawn operation. Vintage apparatus is displayed at American Museum of Fire Fighting in Hudson, New York

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Courtesy of American Museum of Fire Fighting at the Firemen's Home of the State of New York, Harry Howard Avenue, Hudson, New York 12534.

With characteristic pride, New York's firemen have rescued the past.

An appreciation of their profession's colorful history has led them to establish two unusual museums one maintained by the State Firemen's Association in Hudson, New York, the other operated by the City Fire Department in Manhattan.

The physical catalog at Hudson's American Museum of Fire Fighting can be recited in a breath: 39 pieces of antique apparatus engines, pumpers, etc. several thousand other assorted items including hats, badges and banners, speaking trumpets; and a fine collection of oil paintings, prints and lithographs.

But there is more to the museum and the profession than just items, and the museum succeeds in telling the story of an endeavor close to America's heartbeat from the very beginning. Pastimes and politics, patriotism and philosophy; each has found a home in the firehouse.

For instance, during the Civil War, it became the custom for whole fire companies to enlist as units in the army. The practice is touchingly documented by one of the museum's paintings, entitled, 'The Unfortunate Soldier Boy.'

The work depicts a young volunteer dressed in the 'fire zouave' uniform of the Union Army. On his belt buckle is the emblem of New York City's Empire Hook and Ladder Company No. 8.

The inscription at the base of a tree in the foreground reads: 'J. A. Eisley. Born 20th April, 1837. Enlisted 20th April, 1861, Died 20th April, 1862. Wounded in the Battle of Camden. . .'

Probably the most valuable possession is the Newsham fire engine of 1731, the country's oldest. The museum's collection of early engines includes the Yankee built in 1783, the Jefferson, predating 1851, and the ornate Kingston Parade Carriage-considered one of the most beautiful.

The museum, situated on the grounds of the Firemen's Home, is open to the public throughout the year, daily from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. Admission is free.

In contrast to the rambling, one-story structure at Hudson, the New York City Fire Department museum occupies three floors of red-brick building adjoining the firehouse at 104 Duane Street. The Manhattan museum traces the evolution of fire fighting from hand-drawn pumpers and ladders to horse-drawn apparatus of the early 20th century.

The 'Washington No. 1' engine built in 1820 is the City museum's oldest piece of equipment. The small, handdrawn and operated pumper was patterned after types originating in London, England, in the 1700's.

Early firemen pulled the machine by grasping its long ropes wound on wheels, and used a short shaft called a tongue on the front wheels steering. Poles on either side of the engines were pumped up and down to develop water pressure. The water had to be obtained from a nearby well, cistern or lake and was passed in leather pails from man to man, to fill the engine's tub.

The Hugenotan example of the hand-drawn horse reels once used by firemen.

Hook and Ladder No. 2 Built in 1882, this truck carried a 50-foot extension ladder. It was one of the first to employ tiller wheels rear wheels that enable longer trucks to turn down narrow streets.

The museum is open from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. Mondays through Fridays; 9 A.M. to 1 P.M. Saturdays; closed Sundays and holidays. Admission is free.