The Rise and Fall of Steam-Powered Fire Engines

Learn about old-time hose and hook-and-ladder companies, which operated almost exclusively in towns.

| September 2019

In 1900, this Amoskeag self-propelled steam fire engine is roaring down Canal Street on its way to a fire in New Orleans.

I guess one doesn’t think of a piece of fire apparatus as a farm collectible. The old-time hose and hook-and-ladder companies operated almost exclusively in towns, and were unable to respond to fires several miles out in the country.

Most barn and farmhouse fires were fought, with more or less success, by “bucket brigades” made up of the victim’s neighbors. Even during the 1940s on our western Pennsylvania farm, there was no nearby fire department to call, and I recall my dad and my uncle going to help when several neighborhood homes burned.

The old fire engines, however, especially the ones powered by steam, do have a fascination for modern day rusty iron enthusiasts. The first steam pumper was used in this country in about 1841. The newfangled machine was bitterly opposed by volunteer fire companies, who prided themselves on their ability to pump water to great heights by muscle power alone. Probably to the volunteers’ relief, this engine didn’t work, but it showed the way, and other successful machines soon appeared.

An 1885 Amoskeag horse-drawn, steam-powered fire engine on display at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada.

Early leader in steam fire equipment

One of the more famous firms to produce steam fire equipment was Amoskeag Mfg. Co., Manchester, Vermont, which built more than 500 steam-powered fire engines from 1859 until 1876.


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