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Firefighting Museum: Through the Ages


When I visited the New York Firefighting Museum in Hudson, I was overwhelmed by the amount of equipment and technology in displays reflecting the past hundred years or so.

Horse-drawn equipment stayed in service well after motor vehicles hit the road; the early ones weren't powerful enough to replace the horses.

But the museum doesn't stop (or should I say start?) there. It picks up the story of organized firefighting back to ancient times, with ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and carries it up to nearly recent times.

In some areas, specialized equipment developed; a local blacksmith built this sled to carry fire equipment in Oriskany, NY, an area of heavy winter snows.

While Alexandria, Egypt had long had a fire brigade who turned out to save what they could, Rome lagged behind until the time of Emperor Augustus, with a force of 600 state-owned slaves with little more than buckets. After a series of disastrous fires, Augustus created a corps of 7,000 Vigiles, recruited from among freed slaves who could earn full Roman citizenship by six years' service.

Early hose carts. Surprisingly, fire hoses are a relatively recent invention, although ancient Greeks tried to use ox intestines as a substitute!

They acted as both firefighters and police, and had hand-held giant syringes to squirt water, ladders, axes, buckets and wet mats to throw onto flames. The Greeks before them had used hoses made of ox intestines, but the Roman force didn't use them: they tended to burst unexpectedly under pressure.

P1090822A 1790 pump wagon. Not only did it have to be pumped by hand, it had to be filled by buckets of water; suction-filling hadn't been invented

After the fall of Rome, it was a long time before organized firefighting got back on its feet; the main improvement in a thousand years was William the Conqueror's order that towns be equipped with bells to warn of fire; bells have been associated with firefighting ever since. The next big advance came in 16th century Germany with a mobile syringe-type pump.

In America, New Amsterdam was an early leader in firefighting, with each householder taxed to provide leather fire buckets and ladders. Every house had to put a bucket of water at its front step each night, ready to go.

There's a sense of humor at the museum, too...

In 1657, Gov. Peter Stuyvesant took the next step, forming what is arguably (though Boston claims otherwise) the first American fire department: Eight volunteers, later fifty, who prowled the streets at night with wooden rattles to sound the alarm. Their duties also included gathering up the equipment, and directing others in forming a bucket brigade. Primitive it may seem, but New York didn't have another major fire until 1741.

Another 18th-century hand-filled pump (above) and a far more modern one, from 1890, designed to be pulled by horses and filled by suction.

But firefighting technology didn't advance that much in the American colonies; mobile pumps were being added in Europe, and practical hoses, made of sewn sailcloth, but they didn't reach these shores until well into the 18th century.


The first formal volunteer fire department in New York was chartered in 1737. Soon more companies joined them, each with its own equipment, and sometimes elaborate decorations. After the Revolution, the companies were reformed, and many of them decorated their equipment and their hats and uniforms with patriotic symbols, and took on names like Independence, Union, Eagle, Washington and the like.

Side and rear views of an 1821 pumper used in New York City. As with others, firefighters pulled it to the scene and operated the pump handles.

The 1700s were also when fire insurance developed in the U.S., along with it a popular misconception (which I heard and taught in classes, sadly): the decorative 'fire marks' that insurance companies put on buildings they insured were largely advertising; they did not mean that fire brigades would only save buildings that were insured. It appears that may have been the case in England, where insurance existed before fire brigades, and the companies hired their own firefighters.


Interesting note: The two main fire insurance companies in Philadelphia were both started by very prominent citizens: Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush. A key difference: Franklin's company, whose clasped-hands mark is in the picture, wouldn't insure houses that were near trees, while Rush's would!

Three steam-powered pumpers. Horses pulled the engine, but a steam engine powered the pumps, leaving firefighters to direct the water.

The 1800s brought several major innovations, but none changed things more than the development of steam-operated pumps and adding horses to pull the equipment to the scene of a fire. Before steam, all the pumps were hand-operated. A secondary addition was running boards or even seats so that firefighters didn't have to recover from running before they could start work.

Over the years, protective gear and equipment for firefighters developed, too.

Our look last week at the equipment of the 20th century showed clearly the switch from horses to gasoline and diesel inventions; the century also saw foam joining water in firefighting, powered ladders, adjustable nozzles, and more. Not to mention communications changes, including two-way radios and advances in breathing equipment and fireproof clothing.


And the changes are far from over yet, the museum points out. The museum is the work of New York State's volunteer fire departments, and that's one thing they confidently predict will continue into the future.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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