The Rise and Fall of Steam-Powered Fire Engines

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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.

Amoskeag Mfg. Co. was established in 1831 to produce cotton products. Expansion was rapid, but a machine shop was needed to repair its machinery. As the factories grew larger, more and more repair work required a foundry to be built, and the machine shop was expanded in about 1848. The facility was then large enough to do outside work.

In 1849, three railroad locomotives were built, the first (named Etna) for the Northern Railroad in neighboring New Hampshire. In 1859, after building some 230 engines, the locomotive business was sold to Manchester Locomotive Works. A man named Aretas Blood had been superintendent of the Amoskeag machine shop and was made a principal in Manchester Locomotive Works.

A horse-drawn, steampowered fire engine speeding to a fire.

Inventor blended work and volunteerism

Born in 1818 in New Hampshire, Nehemiah S. Bean learned the wheelwright trade, worked as a carpenter, and then, for several years, worked in a machine shop. As a result of his wide experience, Bean possessed varied skills and was hired by Amoskeag Mfg. Co. in 1847 to oversee the machine shop’s pattern room. In 1850, he was put in charge of the locomotive department. Bean was also a volunteer firefighter and a member of a hand engine company, which spurred his interest in finding better ways to put out fires.

An 1857 financial panic caused locomotive production to stop, so in their now spare time, Bean and a mechanic named Thomas Scott built a steam-powered fire pumping engine, even though neither had ever seen such a machine. They tested the engine in June 1858, and it shot water vertically to an astonishing height of 198 feet. Meanwhile, the city of Boston was looking for a steam fire engine and set up a competition later that year, which Bean and Scott entered. Although their engine came in second, its performance was impressive enough that the city of Boston bought it.

Shortly after, Amoskeag Mfg. Co. began building steampowered fire engines of Bean’s design. Their first order came from their hometown of Manchester after a firemen’s muster where Amoskeag No. 1 shot two streams of water to a height of 203 feet. Although the 52 volunteer fire brigades attending the muster from all over New England tried mightily with their “hand tubs,” or man-powered pumpers, none could compete with the steamer.

Before long, steam fire engines became the main products of the Amoskeag machine shop. It was claimed that the firm could deliver a completely guaranteed engine in two months from the date the order was placed.

A circa-1885 engraving showing a fireman polishing an Amoskeag self-propelled steam fire engine. Notice the chain drive to the rear wheel and the large steering wheel.

So loud, it terrified horses

In 1867, Amoskeag introduced a self-propelled steamer that used two engines. A flywheel on one engine drove a pulley on the rear axle through a chain drive. When the engine was in place at a fire, the engine flywheel could be disconnected from its engine and then one or both engines could be used to drive the pumps.

The engines were reversible and there were differential gears on the rear axle. A huge steering wheel in front of the driver’s seat was connected by a gear at the bottom end of a vertical shaft to a rack on the front axle. The engines could reach speeds of 10 or 12mph on a flat road, but were said to have been nearly helpless on snow or ice, and “they were so loud they terrified any horses in the vicinity.”

In spite of these problems, the Amoskeag “self-propellers” were powerful pumpers and were used by many large cities, including Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Boston and Milwaukee, all places where slippery winter conditions would have been common.

An Amoskeag railroad engine from 1853.

By 1876, about 550 engines had been built, but Amoskeag management decided that, although the fire engines were great for advertising the firm, the line wasn’t profitable enough. The decision was made to sell Nehemiah Bean’s fire engine patents to Manchester Locomotive Works. The Locomotive Works manufactured Amoskeag steamers until about 1908, even after being bought out by American Locomotive Co. in 1901.

Several Amoskeag fire engines (as well as those from other manufacturers) can be found in museums, and with their bright red paint, gold trim and polished brass, they are mighty pretty machines. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at

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