The Vagabond – Gadsden used steam fire engine in 1880s


By Danny Crownover

While watching several fire engines and a huge aerial truck race out of Gadsden’s 4th Street Station the other day, The Vagabond recalled reading an article about a time in May of 1927 when the city’s old steam-drawn fire engine was sent to the scrap heap.

The fire engine was a highly polished and silver-like machine that served its purpose until motor vehicles came along to make it well-nigh useless. It was a powerful machine, and there were times when it pumped the city’s watermains dry.

Gadsden Fire Chief Sol Green usually operated the steam engine (pictured at right), which was the only one that the city ever used. Its passing marked a milestone in the history of the Gadsden Fire Department which had its origin with the old town itself.

Several years before the steam engine was sold for junk, the city’s volunteer department was abandoned and a paid department organized. The old volunteer organization was interwoven with the social fabric of Gadsden since it was a straggling village and had been identified with its business interests, so much so that the department was supported by the city’s merchants and property owners. The volunteer department appealed to laboring men, for very often they composed the majority of its membership.

Back in the 1870s and 1880s, the fire department was nothing more than a bucket brigade but was able on many occasions to put out stubborn fires and prevented the spread of flames to nearby property.

In those days the city’s only water supply was from wells sunk in the middle of Broad Street in the several downtown intersections and from cisterns filled by drainage from stone buildings.

After the cisterns were built, the city purchased its first fire engine, a machine that required a good deal of manpower to operate. A score of men would line up on either side and work the long handles up and down until many of them were exhausted. That engine was in use in 1883 when the Great July 4 Fire destroyed half the town, and the machine proved wholly inadequate to the challenge.

At about the same time, the city bought a fancy looking hook and ladder truck that featured a bell suspended on a steel spring that rang when the truck jolted over rough places in the street. The truck carried a number of leather buckets on either side the engine’s most useful purpose occurred when Ed Christopher, took off the chassis and built the machine into Gadsden’s first street sprinkler.

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