Chapter II The
Box on Wheels
Pages 6 -17 from
Anecdotes of a Village "BUFF" by Charles W. Raymond II (c 1965)
For Pictures in relationship to this story, click HERE
Probably not many people of today know the thrill of watching an old-
time hand fire engine in action, its crew of forty or fifty brawny villagers rocking
the brakes, as the pump handles were called, up and down in a coordinated frenzy.
For many a year past this has been a rare sight indeed, though it is still to be seen
occasionally at the periodic firemen’s musters, or water-throwing contests, with
which Fourth of Julys and Labor Days are occasionally enlivened in New England
and the other North-eastern states. As an instrument for the serious business of
fire fighting, the hand engine stood aside in honored retirement upon the advent of
the steamer, which the older grownups of today can remember for its glistening
boiler and pumps, its tall stack erupting a cloud of smoke, and its triple hitch of
beautiful dappled greys stretching out with flying manes and tails as they swept
around a corner and on past craning spectators. I turn back the page, however, not
to those spirited animals and their shiny machine, but to their no less picturesque
antecedents, the hand pump and the stout hearted citizens who manned its brakes.
"Running with the old machine", if I may borrow a line from the ditty
about "The Fire of ‘58", was apt to be a ticklish business.
An old fashioned engine with a first or second class rating might weigh well over
a ton. Its crew ran ahead of it, hauling on the drag ropes; a misstep by one of the
company could well prostrate the luckless fellow in front of the oncoming wheels.
Since wheel brakes were not always provided, the steers men at the pole might not
be able to stop the vehicle or to swerve it in time to avoid running over him.
Death himself was hauling on the drag ropes that day many years back when the
Cambridge engine, the "J.J. Gray No. 1", while on its way top speed to a fire,
overshot a turn and brought up against a tree. One of the company was pinned
against the trunk by an end of one of the brakes and suffered a crushed chest.
Deaths were not unheard of, too, from over-exertion in working at the pumps, but,
in general, a session on the brakes was simply a strenuous though non-fatal form
An impending firemen’s muster always brought an outbreak of a fever of
interest among the townfolk, of anticipation among the firemen, and of
excitement among the small boys. In the evenings preceding a muster, after the
day’s work was done the volunteers would gather at the engine house to polish up
the machine in which their pride and hope were centered, to tighten, repack and
lubricate its mechanism, and to run through a bit of a drill at the brakes. I
remember when the old J.J. Gray engine was brought out of retirement and tuned
up for the 1921 Labor Day muster in Bennington. Old Tom Ryan, one of the
local plumbers, took her all to pieces (hand engines were always of the female gender,
like ships), and overhauled her from the bottom up. When at last she was reassembled,
everything tightened, and all leaks eliminated, she was rolled out and around the rear of
the engine house to the bank of Blair’s Brook. I think there must have been several
hundred people there that calm summer evening, for the news had been out for a day or
so that this was to be the time for the test. Speculation and comment were rife among the
spectators. "She’ll do two hundred and sixty feet – I’ve seen her do that much more than
once." "She’s pretty old, though." "What if she is, she’s in as good shape now as she
ever was. Tested her up to over two hundred pounds the other day and she don’t leak a
drop. Got new valve leathers in her. The old ones were dried out hard. Two strokes and
they’d have snapped off, and then she’d be done." "When she was in regular use, we
always kept her standing full of water. Kept the valves from drying out. Had to keep a
stove going in the winter, though. I remember it went out one time and she froze up solid
and busted the gooseneck. Good thing we didn’t have no alarm until we got her thawed
out and fixed up." "She’ll have to be good to beat the ‘Roughs’ from Greenwich. I hear
they got a completely brand new pump in their engine, made special for musters.
Now men were stretching a line of hose away from the discharge connection at
the front of the engine, two hundred feet of it, with the tapering four-foot brass nozzle at
the end; down the alley between McGhee’s lumber storehouses and into the turn-around
space beside the looming black coal trestle at the end of the railroad spur. If this were a
rainy day, the length of the stream would be measured by the distance to which it could
wash back a layer of sawdust, exposing the ground or pavement underneath. But on a
fair day like this, without a breath of wind, the measurement would be taken to the
farthest drop along a strip of heavy paper stretched on the ground away from the nozzle.
Down from its rack above the deck of the engine body came the grey rubber
suction pipe, for all the world like a twenty-foot piece of elephant’s trunk, with a brass
strainer at its tip. Able hands fed the suction line down over the bank to Tom Duddy,
who, attired in hip boots, was at the important post of suction attendant in the water of the
brook. Someone threw him an orange crate, which he sunk against the creek bottom.
Into the crib thus formed he thrust the suction strainer, and then crouched, satisfied and
ready, on the end of the pipe, so that there could be no chance of the intake rising above
the surface after the engine started to pump. An onlooker jokingly cautioned him not to
let himself get sucked up into the engine. "If you hear a wild yell," called Tom
nonchalantly, "just look for me over beyond the coal trestle." Luckily for him, he was
not as skinny as Slender Alice, who pulled the stopper from her tub and went down the
drain with the bath water.
The men began to take their places along the brakes. Jim Loren, our capable fire
chief, with his droopy moustache, aquiline nose, battered old felt hat and ever-present
pipe, ascended to the prominent station of engine captain on the deck of the apparatus.
Looking down from that vantage point upon the crew, he stretched forth his hand in a
calm and authoritative, almost imperial gesture, and signaled for the right-hand brake to
be shoved down. "Ready! One! Two! One! Two!" Down came the left brake, up came
the right, then down again, in unhurried, measured strokes, as Jim’s arm rose and fell
while he chanted out the beat like a coxswain. As the rising and falling brakes thumped
out their hollow "chock! Chock!", the flattened hose line swelled, the outward visible
sign of the advancing water column within progressed meanderingly away from the
engine, and the first bucketfuls of water broke from the nozzle in a languid, splashing
stream, which crackled and spluttered like soda water. Gradually Jim’s beat picked up.
The lazy stream purled out more and more smoothly from the playpipe. Beside the men
at the nozzle stood Bill Wells, as hose foreman, holding aloft a white handkerchief in his
upraised hand read to signal to the engine captain when the stream should commence to
issue quietly, free from its popping air bubbles. This process consumed a minute or two,
during which a quiet tension pervaded the crowding onlookers and grew with each
"chock" of the brakes.
I stood there, gripped with anticipation, beside a young companion, who was visiting in town, a kid by the name of Jimmy. He was a city bred boy, pleasant and sociable, but his air of mild skepticism, not to say scorn, of this countrified display was ill concealed. He was there out of deference to my urging, mildly interested but no much impressed. His spirit breathed no part of the tightening atmosphere.
Now the nozzle had at last stopped spitting air. The foreman’s eyes perceived a clear-cut jet of placid crystal. The handkerchief flashed downward. Instantly "Now!" shouted Jim Loren, as he began to wave both arms in rapid up-and-down gestures. The nozzlemen braced themselves and tightened their grip on the handles of the playpipel the men at the brakes clenched their teeth, unleashed the full power of their muscles, and "laid it on" in a wild but rhythmic abandon as they jammed the handles down and up in furious cadence. The crowd babbled excitedly. One of the men at the handles suddenly stepped backward. The brake had wrenched itself from the over-and-under grasp of his two hands, and he fell back without attempting to seize the handle again. To try to lay hold of a fast moving brake, once one’s grip was lost, was like trying to grab the hind leg of a kicking mule in mid-swing, decidedly bad practice and a solicitation of a cracked skull. The leisurely jet was gone. In its place, a snowy arch of swirling water stood out against the sky, towering, leaping, hissing through its misty shroud of drifting spray
a living, quivering thing of beauty. Here were the waters of a peaceful, somewhat polluted little rural brook, sucked up into a queer looking box on wheels, and emerging again transformed into a splendid picture of rushing, battering power with all the sound effects necessary to make it a spectacle well worth watching. Suddenly, through the noise of the pumps and the swishing of the water-stream, the shouting of the crowd and the bobbing of the men at the brakes, I became aware of Jimmy beside me, dancing up and down, chattering incoherently, as much carried away by the excitement as any footfall fan when his team has just scored. He was sold on water throwing as a sport. After that demonstration, he once even rode twenty-four miles with me when we pedaled our bicycles to Hoosick Falls and back to see a Fourth of July firemen’s muster. But to get back to the tryout; while the winded, red-faced crew rested on the pump handles regaining its collective breath, men measured the distance the stream had sailed through the air before splashing to earth. It taped out, not two hundred and sixty, but three hundred and eight feet! Everyone was delighted. The J.J. Gray’s stock soared.
From that evening until the muster took place, a member of the fire department stood guard constantly at the engine house to assure that no one from a rival company should slip in surreptitiously some dark night and tamper with the apparatus. One well-placed puncture from a knife in the suction pipe, and "she’s a gone goose", as Jim Loren
conclusively expressed it. Whatever skullduggery may have been planned, nothing ever came of it, for the J.J. Gray took first money at the meet, nosing out the nearest competitors, the Rough and Ready Company from Greenwich, by a scant but momentous quarter of an inch. Some of the "Roughs" had over-confidently brought new brooms with them to burn in token of the clean sweep of victory which they expected to make. They yielded them up none too willingly as members of the J.J. Gray crew snatched them away for a ceremonial pyre, at the expense of the vanquished. That night in Cambridge there was a noisy, jubilant parade, in which torches, the town band, the engine with brooms and Jim Loren adorning its superstructure, and a huge bonfire each played a part. The engine house bell clanged a brassy, happy peal of victory, quite different from the lonely, doleful manner in which it struck forth its summonses to the townsmen to rouse up and fight fire. It was a great day.
Back into its accustomed corner of the engine house went the veteran hand engine after the hilarity of her conquest had died away. She was drained out and left standing with dry pumps, for no one seriously considered that she would ever again be needed in a hurry. The effortless ease with which the village’s gravity water system supplied the firemen with their essential weapon seemed to obviate any future use of the J.J. Gray for anything but sport. As frosty weather drifted on into freezing winter, no one bothered to keep the little old wood stove smouldering beside the engine, and as May approached no
one cared if, perhaps, the valve leathers were dry and the valves leaky. Then one morning in early May the village started up from its sleep at the first streaks of dawn to hear the jangle of the fire bells. Soon hastily clad men were dragging reel carts about, stretching line after line of hose, forming a battle array around a large wooden structure known as the old steam mill, behind Skiff’s Market, in the very heart of the clustering places of business on West Main Street. From the roof and upper floors of the building flames were merrily billowing with a crackling roar, while smoke rolled out in huge clouds which hung lazily in the early morning air and filled the whole neighbourhood with a pungent haze. Almost as soon as the first water was brought to bear, it was clear that the fight would center on checking the fire from eating its way into the 3-storeyed market building which abutted the old mill on the side nearest the street. The flames were too advanced, hose lines were of necessity too numerous and too long, the pressure in the mains was too low, to permit the firemen to win without a hard struggle. The mill was obviously a goner; fingers of flames were already feeling their way through the wall into the market building, licking rapidly into the spaces between ceilings and floors. If the fire gained that edifice, it would be established in the very center of a block of wooden stores. It could then spread quickly in several directions at once, and Cambridge would be visited by such a conflagration as it had not seen in many decades. The men set themselves to the job with a will, and concentrated all available water streams at the
junction of the two buildings. Some attacked from the ground, others in the cellar, on the roof, and at the windows of the upper floors. The fire’s progress slowed down but did not stop. More water, that was the crying need; but the mains were already taxed to their limit. Then someone thought of the old hand engine standing in its house collecting dust. Why, of course, she had been overhauled only last fall and could deliver fully as much water as when she had been withdrawn from active service almost forty years before. In fifteen minutes she was on the spot, was being rolled to the edge of Lowry’s Brook, which flowed under Main Street a few feet beyond the market. In a few minutes more, two rows of townsmen, facing each other across the body of the old veteran were laying hold of the brakes as in olden days, the chant of "One! Two! One! Two!" was ringing out, and the water of the brook was swishing out in a strong jet, not along a strip of paper, but against lapping tongues of flame and steaming, sizzling embers. At the first stoke of the pump a wave of applause swept the crowd, many of whom as youngsters had seen the old machine perform in bygone days. An old soldier was getting one more whiff of gunpowder in a last successful engagement.
A near tragedy, just as the old engine was being prepared for action, furnished what proved to be the comic relief to the dramatic events of the morning.
Bob McWhorter, owner of a local grocery and a zealous, withal headlong, member of the fire department, happening at that moment to be on the side of the brook farthest from the hand engine, made the mistake of trying to leap across the deep stream to lend a hand at the brakes. Unfortunately, he had not taken time to notice that one end of the left brake jutted out over the water. Luckily, the tip of the brake lacked the brass cap which had once adorned and closed the end of the tubular handle. The brook was about ten feet wide. Bob took a running start, and then leaped. He "flew through the air with the greatest of ---" SOCK!! Violently arrested in mid-air, luckless Bob dropped like a brick into the water, out cold as a salt mackerel. The open end of the brake had planted a beautiful ring, two inches across, around his right eye. As they fished him out, he was ghastly pale, dead for all I could tell. A lump as big as a pullet’s egg stood out just over his eyebrow, and a nasty cut oozed blood down his ashen face. They bore him gravely and tenderly across the street and stretched him out for "Doc" Leonard to do what he could. Down at the brook, those who had witnessed the accident looked serious, and wondered if poor Bob would regain consciousness long enough to say farewell to his kin, or if he would survive, to go through life with a glass eye. Half an hour later, there was Bob sitting groggily on the steps in front of his store, with a large dressing over his eye, and that perfect circle of a "shiner" making him look like the bulldog of the old "Our Gang" comedies. Had the brass knob been present on the tip of the brake, Bob’s eye
might not have escaped serious damage. May we surmise that a fractured skull was spared him for being a hard-headed Scot?
"Well", said Bob ruefully, as he sat there watching his less precipitous comrades draw their battle to a victorious close, "I guess if I went to a dog fight, I’d get bit."