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December 3, 2009

Philadelphia-style Fire Pumper

Filed under: Our Favorite Things — Matt Anderson @ 9:28 am

Philadelphia Pumper

Visitors to the exhibit Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World may be surprised to see an early 19th Century Pennsylvania fire pumper from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection. Franklin helped to establish the first Philadelphia volunteer fire company in 1735, which became a model for other cities, so the pumper certainly has a rightful place in the exhibit. But how did the pumper get here in the first place?

The answer lies with the Waterous Company of Minnesota. In 1886, Fred and Frank Waterous moved their father’s fire engine manufacturing company from Winnipeg to South St. Paul. The company introduced the first fire pump powered by a gasoline engine in 1898. Waterous continues to produce pumps and other firefighting equipment to this day.

Even with its reputation for innovation, Waterous honored the industry’s past. The company assembled a collection of historic vehicles and equipment, consisting both of significant Waterous products and more general apparatus. The Philadelphia-style pumper was a part of that assembly, and in 1966 the company transferred ownership of the lot to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Philadelphia-style pumpers, named for the city in which they were introduced, are characterized by “double-decker” configurations. The design allows four rows of firefighters – two on each end – to work the hand-powered pumping mechanism. Our example is a product of the Merrick & Agnew Company of Philadelphia, built around 1835. The pumper served the Friendship Fire Company of Danville, Pennsylvania.

The Benjamin Franklin exhibit gave us the perfect opportunity to put the pumper on display. Our conservators cleaned the wood, polished the brass, replicated missing components, and generally restored some of the luster to this intriguing artifact. We’re pleased to be able to share it with the public once again.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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4 Responses to “Philadelphia-style Fire Pumper”

  1. James Johnson Says:

    A pumper implies a large amount of water is available. Was this from hydrants or a vehicle with a large storage tank? When were city-water fire hydrants in general use in the Twin Cities?

    When pumpers weren’t around or available, water was carried in small leather buckets to the fire. How did a large supply of buckets get to the fire site and where was the water that filled these buckets?

    Damon Campagna reply on October 14th, 2010:

    These pumpers don’t have the capacity to store water. They would be delivered “dry” to the scene, otherwise they would be far to heavy to move (remember, these were drawn by men, not horses). In areas where water wasn’t immediately available, a chain of engines would be hosed together, the first drawing from the water source (river, pond, well, pipe, hydrant, etc.) and each company would pump the water into the next company’s engine, until the water was eventually delivered to the final engine in the sequence. If one of the companies couldn’t keep up with the flow, they would be “washed” and their engine would overflow, a most shameful and embarrassing situation.

    In the old-time bucket brigade situations, every able-bodied person, men and women, would arrive at the fire with their buckets. In New Amsterdam (New York) every household was mandated to have two. Two lines would form from the water source to the fire and the buckets passed from person to person. Men carried full buckets to the fire and women passed empty buckets back to the water. It is calculated that this system could deliver about 100 gallons of water per minute. In some communities with dedicated brigades, the companies would carry their bucket supply on long poles run through the handles, with men at each end. The Union Fire Company in Philadelphia had 250 on hand.

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