Preserving a Waterous Fire Engine and Local Heritage

Volunteers restore a 1908 horse-drawn Waterous fire engine that was thought to have been retired in the 1920s.

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by Nikki Rajala
The restored 1908 Waterous fire engine, in all its glory.

When Kraig Tracy was a kid growing up in Fairmount, North Dakota, he and his buddies found entertainment in a relic of the past: an old horse-drawn pumping fire engine. “It and an old truck were stored in an old building behind the bank that was kind of a city shop,” Kraig says. “We used to go in there and mess around with that old stuff. We’d sit on the seat, turn the steering wheel and beat on the bell.”

The engine was built in 1908 by Waterous Engine Works Co., St. Paul, Minnesota. The company traces its roots to Brantford, Ontario, Canada, where it was launched in 1844. Charles H. Waterous joined the firm five years later. By 1860, the company was renamed C.H. Waterous & Co.; in 1874, the company was incorporated as Waterous Engine Works Co., Ltd. A branch of the company focusing on manufacture of fire hydrants and related equipment relocated to St. Paul in 1884. That company remains in operation today.

In addition to the time he spent rebuilding the wheels, Paul Jacobson polished the engine’s bell, hubcaps and other brass parts. He also added a pair of lanterns. “They were missing,” he says, “and I surmised where they were supposed to hang”.

A 1908 article in Fire and Water Engineering heralded the Waterous gasoline fire engine as an affordable alternative to steam-powered engines. “The price at which these valuable and efficient little gasoline fire engines may be procured makes it possible for smaller towns to procure them,” the article noted, “whereas the original cost and expense of maintaining the old-fashioned steam rig makes it impossible for many towns to procure and maintain one of the more expensive rigs.”

A century ago, Fairmount’s horse-drawn Waterous engine was the heart of a department that protected the community of some 1,000 residents. No one today knows when the engine was retired, but most guess it happened in the 1920s. As the engine became obsolete, it somehow escaped scrap drives and junkyards. “People always talked about building a little garage on Main Street where they would display it,” Kraig says, “but I guess they never got around to it.”

Spruced up for parade duty

In 1976, as the U.S. geared up to celebrate its bicentennial, the old fire engine was pulled out of storage and painted as an entry for Fairmount’s bicentennial parade. A few years later, in 1982, several members of Fairmount’s fire department – including Kraig and then-Chief Gary Meyer – decided to spruce up the engine for Fairmount’s centennial parade.

“It hadn’t been used for 30 years or so,” Kraig says, “and someone had painted over all the brass work, so I removed the paint with a wire wheel and polished it.” The engine’s magneto was bad, so the crew rigged the engine with a battery to make it run.

After it was run in parades celebrating the U.S. bicentennial and Fairmount centennial, the fire engine was returned to storage. In about 2005, Kraig’s father-in-law, Paul Jacobson, decided to store the fire engine on his farm.

Wheels undergo complete reconstruction

Front view of the engine. Some early fire rigs used a mixture of soda and water to generate water pressure. “But this one has a pump on it,” Kraig Tracy It is a big 4-cylinder unit that would create plenty of pressure.”

Paul says when the Waterous fire engine moved into his workshop, the 1908 machine was in about the condition you would expect for something that was nearly a century old and had seen hard work.

“My idea was that it was being stored in a bad area,” he says. “I thought we had to get it out of there, because some of the wheels were going bad. The back ones were the worst. Some of the spokes were rotted. Maybe they had been sunk in the dirt or something like that.”

Paul put in hours on the wheels. “I worked a lot on those wooden wheels, trying to restore them, because they were rotten,” he says. “One of them needed a little more repair than the others.”

He used duct tape on the felloe (the outer rim of the wooden wheel where the spokes enter) and poured polyester resin in and let it harden overnight. He did that several times, until the material hardened enough that spokes could be reinserted into the felloe. “Four of the spokes needed work,” Paul says. “Once I finished with that, the spokes were tight in the rim.”

Finding traces of original paint

Next, Paul straightened the engine’s hood, fixed the seat and worked on the carburetor. Then he took the entire vehicle apart and sanded it. “I’ve sprayed a few cars and tractors, so it was just kind of routine to me,” he says. “The paint was peeling, but the metal wasn’t rusted and I didn’t have to do any welding on the sheet metal.”

In the process of working on the engine, Paul found traces of the original lettering. He used that as a guide in hand-painting the lettering, matching the original style. “I can’t imagine how many times it had been painted since 1908,” he says. “But when I got it, it surely needed a paint job. You could barely see the lettering.”

The 4-cylinder pump engine produced 100 pounds of pressure. “It was a big stream,” Paul says. Suction hoses fed from a big tank of water to the engine. Because the engine doesn’t have a starter, it must be hand-cranked.

“I weigh maybe 150 pounds, and the engine didn’t have a magneto, so I never attempted to turn that big crank to try to get it started,” Paul says. “That would have been a heck of a difficult attempt. I would have had a heart attack before I got that thing started. And the engine couldn’t be started by pulling it, either, like some can, because it wasn’t connected to the wheels.”

With no radiator, the engine is cooled by the water being pumped. “There was a small outlet on the pump so water could cool that engine,” Paul says. “It must have had a regulating valve, because you wouldn’t use the full pressure of the water that you were fighting fires with.”

Some things never change

Paul spent a couple of years working on the engine, which became something like a labor of love. “I spent a lot of time on it, because I lived in Fairmount for a few years many years ago,” Paul says, “and my son (David Jacobson) and son-in-law (Kraig) are on the fire department.”

Paul enjoys working on old machines and preserving antique machinery. “I’ve been restoring cars and tractors all my life,” he says. “That fire engine was one of the things that I thought needed to be restored.”

Longtime Fairmount resident Delmar Steffens remembers seeing the horse-drawn engine in use once or twice. “The water came from the water tower in town,” he says. “It was originally painted red, and it was pulled in parades in Fairmount and Wahpeton. It was used to douse fires. In those days, houses burned coal and wood.”

A member of the board of directors of the Dalton (Minnesota) Lake Region Pioneer Threshermen’s Assn. show, Paul suggested the restored engine be displayed at that show. The response there was enthusiastic. Some things, it seems, never change. Kraig says kids today react to the fire engine the same way he once did. “After the parades,” he says, “the kids all want to climb on it and ring the bell.” FC

New type of gasoline engine

From a 1908 issue of Fire and Water Engineering:

“The Waterous Engine Works Co. of St. Paul, Minnesota, pioneer builders of gasoline fire engines, who now have so many of their well-known New Century gasoline fire engines in service, has designed and placed on the market a new type of gasoline fire engine which is fitted with the powerful 4-cylinder, 4-cycle motor such as is used on the highest grade of automobiles. With this type of motor, not only is the power of the engine and consequently, the capacity of the pump, largely increased, but, also, there is eliminated the vibration unavoidable with a high-speed single-cylinder engine.

“The ignition apparatus consists of storage battery and magneto, each of course, independent of the other and provided double set of dry cells is furnished, in place of the storage battery, if desired. The pumps are of either rotary or piston type as preferred, and constructed to handle a large amount of water with the least possible friction-loss.

“They will maintain both pressure and delivery during the long, continuous run. It is extremely simple in construction; all unnecessary parts have been dispensed with; and it can be operated by anyone of ordinary intelligence. So far as the question of its economy is concerned, there can be no doubt that this engine meets all the requirements of the service at the minimum expense.

“The gasoline fire engine is in a class by itself and much easier to maintain than other makes. The engine cylinders are water-cooled, the supply being pumped from the main pumps. The pump is fitted with an ingenious heating device, whereby the exhaust gases are used to heat it, thus preventing it from freezing, even in the coldest weather.

“These engines have been operated for hours at a time, with the temperature ranging from 10 to 40 below zero, without any trouble or delay. The wheels used are the Archibald patent fire apparatus wheels. The section-hoses are of the best quality of smooth bore, made especially for fire engine service. The springs are made from the best oil-tempered spring steel, and the axles and frames are steel, and the engine is constructed throughout in the best possible manner of the best materials.

“It is sold subject to a liberal warranty. The first cost is very reasonable, while the cost of maintenance is practically nothing. It can be run in any kind of weather, wet or dry, cold or warm, calm or windy, and is in use from Florida to the far Canadian Northwest and from New York to California; besides, many have been exported to foreign countries.” FC

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email:

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