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Antique Fire Engines Still Answering the Bell : Department Seeking Donations for Further Restoration

January 03, 1986|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

In the back of a storage garage behind Fire Station 3 downtown, carefully preserved since 1905, there is a noble experiment in firefighting engineering that failed. Only two examples are thought to have been manufactured.

At the same time, spread out in a corner of the Fire Department's repair shops in Lincoln Heights are the eviscerated remains of a steam boiler that represent the heart and lungs of the city's oldest piece of fire apparatus.

Not to worry, though, Capt. Robert DeFeo said, Fire Department mechanics and volunteers will, somehow, figure out how the 1887 coal-burning Amoskeag steam pumper works in time to have the apparatus returned to service by August.

A Link to the Present

These vignettes may seem unrelated. But to the firefighter historian, these vestigial remains of the early days of smoke-eating are an important link to the present. They are a reminder, too, of both how much and how little firefighting has changed in the century since the City of Los Angeles bought its first four Amoskeag steam pumpers and brought its primitive volunteer Fire Department into the 19th Century.

This point is emphasized now because this year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city's full-time fire service.

At the headquarters of the Los Angeles County Fire Department in City Terrace, Capt. John Price fires up a 1925 Stutz (by the same company that gave the world the Stutz Bearcat--the Ferrari Testa Rosa of its time) pumper and shakes his head. It, too, is a rare fire engine, one of only three known.

Ignominious Presence

Price backs the Stutz out of a maintenance garage and the first thing a visitor notices is the ignominious presence on its rearboard--the platform on which firemen stand at the back of the apparatus--of a rack full of discarded garments left over from a Christmas clothing drive.

The Stutz is running all right now, Price says, but it has what is called a cone clutch--a variety essentially unknown in motor vehicle technology today. The clutch is worn and replacement parts are essentially impossible to obtain.

Having new ones made specially by a machinist is beyond the means of the donation-funded program that provides for such things so the Stutz faces imminent and final retirement to parade duty next year sometime. Right now, it still appears periodically in fire service competitions where it is fully capable of proving it can squirt water with the best of them.

Aerial ladders may reach 100 feet into the air today and firefighters may use pumpers that pour out 2,000 gallons of water a minute, but the ladders are still ladders and the water still shoots out of hoses, just as it has since the first steam-driven fire pumps came into use more than 150 years ago.

And even in Southern California, with its reputation for denigrating such links to the past, this has not been lost. In Los Angeles County alone, there are at least a dozen antique fire engines and ladder vehicles maintained by modern day fire departments--enough to assemble a credible response to even a large, contemporary fire.

Most of the fire departments involved take pride in the fact that the antiques are kept in fully operational condition. In terms of sheer numbers, the county fire department has the largest complement of ancient and honorable apparatus, with, in addition to the Stutz, two Model-T Ford pumpers, from 1913 and 1920; a 1927 Model-T fire chief's car currently being restored; a 1930s era Reo pumper (also currently being rebuilt), and a hand-drawn pumper dating to 1853 and a hand-drawn ladder vehicle from about 1900.

This firefighting force would not respond as quickly as its contemporary equivalent and there would be the problem of what to do with a few horses once they got there, but, even now, this tie to the past could acquit itself honorably at its trade.

Permanent Home

Three of the best examples of this are assigned to the city's Fire Station 3, a new complex of cement block buildings on Temple Street near the Harbor Freeway. The station is the permanent home of the 1887 Amoskeag pumper currently undergoing renovation and repair. It is also the quarters for a 1931 Seagrave hose wagon--a fire truck that looks like a pumper but was built without pumps to transport hose, ladders and firemen.

But the most ungainly and eccentric item of all is the bizarre-looking rig parked along the back wall of the storage garage where the antiques are kept. It is called a Gorter Water Tower and it originally went into service here in 1905 as a horse-drawn apparatus.

In 1910 or 1914 (records are not clear which), as motorized fire engines started to dominate fire services nationwide, the city fitted a chain-operated, front-wheel-drive front end on the Gorter from the American La France fire engine company in Elmira, N.Y., and converted the behemoth into a truck. The power unit had originally been used on a converted steam-driven pumper.

If that sounds odd, here is how the Gorter works:

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