The Vagabond – Fire engine races in downtown Gadsden

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By Danny Crownover

In June of 1897, the Gadsden Fire Department was so busy promoting a steamboat excursion that it declined an invitation to attend the North Alabama and North Georgia Firemen’s Association’s convention. Gadsden did attend the 1898 convention, however, joining the cities of Anniston and Talladega in Alabama and Rome, Dalton, Cartersville and Cedartown in Georgia.

Each year one of the municipalities hosted to a tournament that drew immense crowds. The host city staged a floral parade modeled somewhat on Mardi Gras festivals in New Orleans and Mobile, only the decorated vehicles had no historical or mythical significance. Artistic men and women, and children worked weeks to make artificial flowers to cover the floats.

Each member city entered an official float that carried sponsors and maids of honor. Competition was stiff for prizes, and sometimes the judges had a hard job of naming the winner. The tournament’s entertainment included balls, cotillions, receptions, dinners and parties of all kinds.

Gus Woodliff, who up to that time had served 18 years as chief of the Gadsden Fire Department, could go out in one afternoon and raise enough money to hire a special train to take his men, equipment, horses and 150 supporters to any tournament. The departments traveled by special train and were followed by high officials, for these tournaments were largely social occasions.

The chief’s buggy, a fancy racing reel and everything else used by any department was sent along.

On one occasion, the department took with it every piece of fire-fighting apparatus, including a shiny steam engine, to Anniston, leaving a few links of hose in a one-horse dray to protect the city from fire.

When Gadsden hosted the tournament, circus seats were erected in sections on the south side of Broad Street from Fourth to Fifth streets, but the big crowds were on the sidewalks from Sixth Street to the river. Two-horse hose trucks were raced against a stopwatch, with the idea being to show water connection in the quickest time possible. Hand reel races were also held.

During one tournament in Gadsden, the convention pulled off something never before attempted. According to Woodliff, a pair of two-horse hose trucks raced neck and neck from Sixth to Fourth streets, with one of the trucks showing water connection in 41 seconds.

Contact The Vagabond at dkcrown@bellsouth.net.

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