Five cool facts about our new Philadelphia-style fire engine

When a new object goes on display, we get excited. Intern Hannah Ostroff gives a behind the scenes look at the installation of our 19th-century fire engine.

There were no sirens to alert us to the presence of our new object, but by the time the museum opened this morning to the public, I had already spent a couple of hours fact-checking, photographing for Instagram, and tweeting up a storm. After all, it's not every day that you get to see a fire engine move in.

 

Hand-pumped fire engine, built by Betts, Harlan & Hollingsworth (Wilmington, Delaware), c.1842
Hand-pumped fire engine, built by Betts, Harlan & Hollingsworth (Wilmington, Delaware), c.1842

The museum acquired this hand-pumped fire engine in 2005, but it's never been on display during its time here. This morning, I watched in awe as the vehicle was carefully moved from the Object Lab (part of Preservation Services) to its new home on display on the first floor.

The engine style, developed in the late 18th and early 19th century in Philadelphia, was designed to be pulled by hand, but we've gone slightly more high-tech here at the museum. Staff used self-loading dollies to maneuver the labyrinth of hallways behind the scenes at the museum. I don't envy the 19th-century firefighters who had the job of pulling this engine through crowded streets—our curator, Tim Winkle, said it was at least as heavy as a car, and that "two people couldn't carry even one of the wheels."

 

Moving the engine into the freight elevator
Moving the engine into the freight elevator

This Philadelphia-style fire engine (made in my home state of Delaware) had to leave the Object Lab, travel down our basement hallway, take a journey on the freight elevator, and round a corner before arriving in its new spot. I'll admit: I held my breath as the imposing vehicle was expertly navigated around tight corners and under low ceilings. The engine arrived, safely and incident-free, and rolled on its own wheels for the last few inches into place.

 

Rolling the engine onto its spot on the floor
Rolling the engine onto its spot on the floor

I spoke with the museum's Director, John Gray, about the exciting addition on view. "It's the first thing you see when you enter," he said. "It's a real statement about America and about our collection—about America’s collection." I certainly agree.

 

Director John Gray admires the 19th century fire engine
Director John Gray admires the 19th century fire engine

Here are a few more facts I learned while covering the installation of our fire engine:

  1. This machine would have been operated by twenty or more firefighters. With that much manpower, an engine this size could throw over 100 gallons a minute onto a blaze from a distance of 150 feet!

  2. You'll notice that our engine is well-decorated. That's because engines were a source of pride and identity for fire companies of the era. Firefighters adorned them with brass fixtures, elaborate carvings, and painted panels, which could be fitted for parades or ceremonious occasions. We don't know who created these particular paintings, but I'm impressed by such beautiful artwork on a vehicle built for utility.

  3. Our engine was so elegant that, later in its life, it was used solely as a parade piece. It eventually made its way to Philadelphia, where it was refurbished to represent the city's Hand-in-Hand Fire Company. Because of space, it's displayed folded up at the museum, as it would have been in a parade.

  4. Betts, Harlan & Hollingsworth, the maker of this engine, was better known for building steel ships or railway machines—they dabbled in fire engines, but there aren't many by them in existence.

  5. Firefighters at the time would have used copper-riveted leather hoses to help put out fires. Engines before this one were filled by buckets, but pumpers of this period could draw directly from municipal hydrants and cisterns.

 

The fire engine on display to the public
The fire engine on display to the public

The engine is now on temporary display adjacent to the Conestoga Wagon on the first floor center area. Installing such a large object requires intense planning and collaboration (check out this video of the Conestoga Wagon being put together), but it's worth it to have such an iconic representation of American bravery and public service on view.

 

Two vehicles demonstrating American bravery and innovation
Two vehicles demonstrating American spirit and innovation

Hannah Ostroff is a New Media intern and member of the William & Mary Class of 2013. She has also blogged about interning at the museum.

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